Picture book of the day: the thrilling and sweeping My First Day (no spoilers)

My First Day, created by Phùng Nguyên Quang and Huynh Kim Lien, published by Make Me a World Books, ISBN: 978-0593306260.

Looking at the cover image of the sweeping My First Day you can tell this book will offer a visually thrilling picture book experience. Those waves propelling a small boy in a boat into the sky. There is an excitement, danger and beauty in the art that intrigues. I am happy to report that the illustrators serve up brilliant, sometimes expressionist imagery (digitally created with Adobe Photoshop) throughout this dynamic work, panoramic and cinematic double page spreads that grab the reader’s eye. And their first person language describing the child’s eventful journey is just as rich and vibrant, hinting at the mystery of the boy’s ultimate destination as he travels down the Mekong River in Vietnam.

Ah, that mystery. In my reviews I try my best to avoid spoilers. But a book like My First Day makes that more difficult than usual. The ending of this book sheds a new light on everything that has come before it, adds a new layer of meaning to the book’s prose and sights. And yet I won’t write the words that will give away the surprise of the ending. And even if you feel like you can guess it (and maybe you successfully will), this book still packs a wallop because it really looks and feels like no other picture book released in the States this year.

It’s about a child’s milestone. A journey that has some scares but celebrates the boy’s resilience and bravery. Quang and Lien effectively take the reader inside the boy’s mind. Many of the more surreal moments reflect his fear and trepidation as he rows past unfamiliar surroundings. Just look at the way Quang and Lien use light and shadow. When darkness turns to light and the boy triumphs, the creators fill the pages with colors that pop and sing.

My First Day was first released in Vietnam in 2017, but now journeys to the States thanks to Christopher Myers’ fabulous new imprint Make Me a World (an imprint of Random House).

Quick takes: more striking new picture books

In terms of picture books, 2021 is off to a great start. These following titles excel thanks to striking art and vivid language.

I Love You, Baby Burrito

I Love You, Baby Burrito, illustrated and written by Angela Dominguez, published by Roaring Brook, ISBN: 978-1250231093.

An absolute charmer that shows a loving mom and dad having a blast with their little bitty one. This bilingual (Spanish/English) title reaches an extreme level of welcome cuteness when the parents wrap up their blissed-out child for sleepy time. Like a burrito. A sweet bedtime book that delights.

Me + Tree, illustrated by Anna and Elena Balbusso, written by Alexandria Giardino, published by Creative Editions, ISBN: 978-1568463469.

A heartfelt story about a lonely girl who shares her story with a tree stump on the edge of a playground. Thanks to unique idiosyncratic art, we learn about her family’s history and also see glimpses of what the tree has experienced. This quietly emerges as a very moving look at the immigrant experience.

My Red Hat, illustrated and written by Rachel Stubbs, published by Candlewick, ISBN: 978-1536212716.

This fun, whimsical intergenerational tale captures the bond between grandparent and grandchild. The child proudly wears a red hat that, we find out, truly possesses many special uses. Stubbs surprises readers from page to page with her warmly amusing, eye-pleasing illustrations. This would make a great double feature with Ella Sarah Gets Dressed (“and her red hat”).

Osnat and Her Dove: The True Story of the World's First Female Rabbi

Osnat and Her Dove: The True Story of the World’s First Female Rabbi, illustrated by Vali Mintzi, written by Sigal Samuel, published by Levine Querido, ISBN: 978-1646140374.

Writer Samuel’s look at how Osnat became the first female rabbi nearly 500 years ago is an inventive mix of fact and folklore. In an afterword, the author mentions how she brought in images from legends and tales to tell this woman’s story. And the result is one of the most intriguing non-fiction picture books of the year so far. The evocative art perfectly complements the telling.

The Passover Guest, illustrated by Sean Rubin, written by Susan Kusel, published by Neal Porter Books (an imprint of Holiday House), ISBN: 978-0823445622.

Kusel serves up a deft and clever retelling of an I.L. Peretz story, effectively moving the action to Depression-era Washington, DC. The story about a mysterious magical figure who saves the day for a financially strapped family at Passover sings and enchants. Rubin’s fantastic art helps create a remarkable sense of place and atmosphere.

Runaway: The Daring Escape of Ona Judge, illustrated by Keith Mallett, written by Ray Anthony Shepard, published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux, ISBN: 978-0374307042.

The use of the second pronoun adds an emotional immediacy to this remarkable look at Ona Judge, a slave forced to work for George Washington. The narrator speaks directly to Ona who bravely escapes. Mallett’s terrific illustrations are cinematic and highly detailed.

Ten Beautiful Things, illustrated by Maribel Lechuga, written by Molly Beth Griffin, published by Charlesbridge, ISBN: 978-1580899369.

This is one compelling discussion starter of a book. A young child travels with a grandmother and although the reader senses that they care about one another, all does not seem well. The child seems nervous about a big move. So the woman calms the little one by having them count ten beautiful things along the way. They find beauty along the way. Poetic and serenely mesmerizing.

A Thousand White Butterflies, illustrated by Gina Maldonado, written by Jessica Betancourt-Perez and Karen Lynn Williams, published by Charlesbridge, ISBN: 978-1580895774.

The book’s heroine has just moved to the snow belt from Colombia. She cannot wait for her first day of classes, but darn it, a snowstorm closes down the school. I love the book’s poetic title: the thousand white butterflies image refer to the snowflakes. Winter seems to have thwarted her plan of making new friends. Or has it? This sweet little gem can be read in both friendship and weather storytimes.

When Cloud Became a Cloud, illustrated and written by Rob Hodgson, published by Rise/Penguin Workshop, ISBN: 978-0593224915.

Who knew clouds could be so expressive? Snowflakes too? This might be favorite book about clouds since Tom Lichtenheld’s rather adorable Cloudette. Hodgson pulls off a fun, bouncy non-fiction look at clouds, water cycle, rain, snow and storms that also works well as an easy reader. His very quick chapter about a cloudless day is priceless.

Where Is the Dragon?, illustrated and written by Leo Timmers, translated by James Brown, published by Gecko Press, ISBN: 978-1776573110.

Fearing the nightmare dragon in his head, a king sends three “brave” knights into the night to take on the scaly beast. With only one candle in hand, they encounter shapes that LOOK like dragons but turn out to be absolutely goofy. Timmers keeps the surprises coming; he beautifully succeeds at delivering hilarious page turns. Fab ending too.

Picture books of the day: embracing nature in three impeccable offerings

Take a walk (or a boat ride or a bike ride or a rollercoaster ride) on the wild side with these three terrific titles.

Bear Island, illustrated and written by Matthew Cordell, published by Feiwel and Friends, ISBN: 978-1250317162.

Caldecott winner Cordell (Wolf in the Snow) delivers a heartfelt look at grief in this tender, visually striking story of a girl named Louise who misses her recently deceased dog Charlie…big time. The way Cordell introduces this sensitive situation immediately puts a lump in the throat. We first see a ball. A flip of the page shows Louise using the prized object to play fetch with her dog. But then we see her standing alone, staring at the ball. Readers only have one glimpse of Charlie and instantly feel Louise’s loss. She lives in a house on the shores of a lake and most of the story shows Louise rowing out to a small, nearby island. There she encounters all kinds of wildlife, including a bear who startles the dickens out of her and the other creatures. The bear’s sudden appearance elicits a surprising response in Louise: she becomes overcome with anger because Charlie is no longer with her. And she confronts the bear with a tremendous ROOAARR!! In Cordell’s hands, this moving allegorical story feels transcendent. His trademark pen and ink (with watercolor and sometimes gouache) drawings both capture the beauty of Louise’s surroundings (love those butterflies) as well as the jittery anxiety and sadness the girl experiences. It’s yet another fab book from this gifted artist.

I Am a Bird, illustrated by Hyewon Yum, written by Hope Lim, published by Candlewick, ISBN: 978-1536208917.

This quiet gem does a beautiful job depicting the dangers of first impressions. It touches on how people behave when they do not receive the positive reaction from someone they expect and feel they deserve. In this case, a bird-happy little girl, the “I” in the title, has a bit of a snit fit. This child loves riding on the back of her dad’s bike, watching the birds, and waving at the passers-by. When one woman does not wave back, she decides that she indeed does not like the lady. The next time the kid sees her, she gives her the ultimate snub. But then by the end of the book, she discovers something about the woman that gives her an absolute change of heart. They share a love for feathered friends. Yum’s warm illustrations (colored pencil, gouache) chronicle this girl’s emotional journey with finesse. The artist uses white space beautifully. Lim’s succinct text gets right to the heart of the matter with nary a wasted word. A perfect combination of illustrator and writer and subject.

The Midnight Fair, illustrated by Mariachiara Di Giorgio, written by Gideon Sterer, published by Candlewick, ISBN: 978-1536211153.

On the more fantastical side, this exquisitely rendered wordless wonder imagines a temporarily human-free world that gives a bunch of woodland creatures a chance to engage in some rollicking fun. Sterer’s clever story provides the narrative blueprint for this absorbing tale of animals stumbling upon a fair with rides and games and lots of treats. After the fair closes for the evening and the humans head home, the critters do what all bears, bunnies, deer, foxes (and others) do: they go wild with fair fever. I love that they pay with acorns. Di Giorgio’s cinematic art (watercolor, gouache, colored pencil) astounds throughout. She serves up many jubilant images, many of them on double page spreads, of the animals having a blast. The moments showing them on the rides (overhead shots, a hazy view from the side) are pure brilliance. This is art that could be framed and put up on the wall.

Picture books of the day: beautiful empathy in three new books

On this blog, I love bringing books that at first glance seem unrelated together thematically. Take the three books here. They all celebrate empathy and do so by reminding readers to thinking about the world in a whole new way.

Milo Imagines the World, illustrated by Christian Robinson, illustrated by Matt de la Peña, published by G. P. Putnam’s Sons, ISBN: 978-0399549083.

Some years back, Robinson and de la Peña took the picture book world by storm with Last Stop on Market Street, a tender look at a boy and his grandmother and a quietly eventful bus ride. It won a surprise Newbery Award (surprising because picture books don’t usually receive Newbery attention). I like that book, but I have to say: I love Milo Imagines the World even more. This book truly enters the head and shares the mindset of its introspective artist hero. To pass time on a long subway ride, Milo looks at the passengers and tries to imagine what their lives are like. And he draws pictures that reflect his assumptions–some comical, some more downbeat. Soon he realizes though that first impressions can be wrong and wonders what people think when they look at him. I reviewed the audio for this title for a magazine (publication pending) and first listened to it without looking at the illustrations. And wow, de la Peña’s writing is great here: vivid, tender, atmospheric. You feel as if you are on the train with Milo. But then I listened to it again while looking at Robinson’s always inventive art (collage, acrylic paint, and “digital manipulation”) and wow do the illustrations ever soar. I love how he uses a different child-like approach with Milo’s drawings. The book also ends with a poignant and powerful final image that packs an emotional punch.

Over the Shop, illustrated by Qin Leng, written by JonArno Lawson, published by Candlewick, ISBN: 978-1536201475.

Sometimes books with a message hammer that message home. Not Over the Shop. In fact, if you skip past the author’s dedication, you may not realize what exactly is happening, why the bigoted elder character behaves the way they do. Over the Shop is a gentle, quiet, wordless slice of life story that feels like one of those great animated shorts that ends up with an Oscar nomination. Artistic, lovingly detailed, possessing a big heart. The story revolves around a child who lives with an older relative who runs a little shop. The family tries renting out a rather run-down apartment above the shop. Many potential residents examine the space, only to quickly reject it. However, when an interested couple arrives, the older character responds in a surprisingly hurtful manner and the child intervenes. Soon the couple becomes an essential part of their lives and the community. Qin Leng’s lovely art adds humanity and soothing tenderness to Lawson’s hopeful story.

Ten Little Dumplings, illustrated by Cindy Wume, written by Larissa Fan, published by Tundra (an imprint of Penguin Random House), ISBN: 978-0735266193.

This story whisks readers to the village of Fengfu, to the top of the hill, to a very large house where there lives a family considered very lucky…because they have not 1, not 2, not 3, but 10 sons. Fan’s rollicking story chronicles the boys’ many achievements and how the townspeople are there to ooh and aah over every milestone, every race won, well, everything. But wait…in the background, do we see another character? A quiet presence who might be just as impressive? I love books that surprise me, and Fan does a fabulous job with the idea that sometimes people in the background deserve to shine just as bright as those deemed legendary. If not more so. Wume’s rambunctious illustrations (rendered in ink, gouache and colored pencil) beg to be explored thanks to the comical details, but also because we start seeing the quiet character in every scene. Yes, the flashy boys command attention. But who is that we are glimpsing? What’s refreshing about the book is Fan does not make out anyone to be a horrible villain (the boys are lively without being brats). It simply reminds readers that everyone is worth noticing and has something to offer.