Picture book of the day: the inspirational beauty of Cynthia Rylant and Brendan Wenzel’s Life

Life, illustrated by Brendan Wenzel, written by Cynthia Rylant, published by Beach Lane Books, ISBN:  978-1481451628.

On Sunday, June 25, 2017, I had the good fortune of hearing Brendan Wenzel (creator of the fantastic 2017 Caldecott Honor winner They All Saw a Cat) talk about he came up with the art for the picture book Life written by the legendary Newbery winner Cynthia Rylant.  This talk was part of a Simon & Schuster Art Lunch that included talks from other notables such as Marla Frazee, Jeannette Winter, and Peter Brown.  I will not be able to do justice to Wenzel’s explanation about his process.  Let me just say I sat there fascinated, and I could have listened to him (and the others) talk all day.  Here is a guy who loves to experiment, radiating joy as he discusses the materials and techniques he uses.  He’s not afraid to stick his hands in the dirt, play with the grass, surround himself with nature to feel inspired.  He has said that feels at peace when he watches elephants and birds, and this admiration for the world’s creatures shows in his work.  In short, Wenzel proves that he is the very best person to illustrate Life which celebrates the natural world and all its wonder.

Rylant’s spare, poetic and meaningful text has an inspirational bent to it, kind of a National Geographic meets Oh, the Places You Will Go! kind of vibe, confidently asking young readers to find a connection between the animals on the page and their own lives.  As a lifelong animal lover myself, I find this enormously moving and effective.  To say Wenzel takes the text and runs with it is an understatement.  From the captivating cover to the stars on the endpapers to the glorious title page which gives us a panoramic view of simple life forms swimming in water, Life hooks you at the start.  Page after page, spread after spread, Wenzel offers up memorable images.  I especially love the illustrations that mirror or comment on one another (elephants waking under the sun on the verso, under the moon on the recto; a dog facing a possibly startled cat; and most hauntingly, a gorilla facing a polar bear as the words “And something to protect” appear on the page, reminding us that these beautiful animals are endangered).  Meanwhile, his double page spreads are like cinema, taking us up, over, and about, under the water, into the sky, and the effect mesmerizes.

Before I end, I must mention the eyes.  I adore the way Wenzel renders the eyes of his cast of animal stars. That was the very first thing that grabbed me when I saw Some Bugs! (written by Angela DiTerlizzi) a while back.  I love the way his animals look at me, drawing me into their fascinating world and state of being.  He has his own distinct style, and you can see him stretching this style with each new book.  And Cynthia Rylant, she of Missing May, Henry & Mudge, The Relatives Came, The Great Gracie Chase (among many others) fame has added yet another gem to her long list of notable titles.  A beautiful book.

 

 

Four Greats on the Horizon: Accident!, After the Fall, The Antlered Ship, and The Little Red Cat…

Accident!, illustrated and written by Andrea Tsurumi, published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, ISBN:  978-0544944800.  Release Date:  October 3, 2017.

After the Fall:  How Humpty Dumpty Got Back Up Again, illustrated and written by Dan Santat, published by Roaring Brook, ISBN:  978-1250149770.  Release Date:  October 3, 2017.

The Antlered Ship, illustrated by The Fan Brothers, written by Dashka Slater, published by Beach Lane Books, ISBN:  978-1481451604.  Release Date:  September 12, 2017.

The Little Red Cat Who Ran Away and Learned His ABCs (the Hard Way), illustrated and written by Patrick McDonnell, published by Little, Brown and Company, ISBN:  978-0316502467.  Release Date:  September 5, 2017.

 

One of advantages of working in libraries is you can see advanced copies of upcoming books.  Publishers call them ARCs or F & Gs.  Due to the fact that they are not in their final form and that the art or the text might change, I often resist writing an official review of them for this blog.  I view them as a sneak peek as something amazing on the horizon.  However, sometimes these advanced copies will give me such a thrill I cannot help but start singing their praises right away.  And that is the case with the dazzling quartet of picture book wonders talked about here.  I cannot wait to get my hands on the final copies of these titles because for various reasons, the F & Gs more than hint at something very very special.

The Antlered Ship introduces a fox named Marco who has a LOT of questions that his vulpine peers refuse to answer.  After three hungry deer with no sense of direction or navigational skills arrive on a ship with epic antlers, Marco decides to hop on board (with a bunch of ragtag pigeons) to help them find an island offering nourishing eats.  Marco hopes that this journey will lead him to someone who will help answer his many queries.  Slater’s compelling story serves both as an adventure and as a philosophical allegory.  Throughout, the Fan Brothers keep topping themselves with captivating imagery, especially on the epic double page spreads.  The animals’ expressions are priceless; there is a playfulness in the art that will appeal to younger readers.  The faraway shots of the impressive ship traveling on turbulent waters and through a maze of deadly rocks amaze.  If the final product looks halfway as breathtaking as this advanced copy then this will be one beautiful book.

Caldecott honor winner Patrick McDonnell, he of Mutts fame, has taken the alphabet book genre and turned it on its head with the witty and laugh out loud funny The Little Red Cat Who Ran Away and Learned His ABCs (the Hard Way).  I have seen many an alphabet book in my time and there have been some great ones (Chicka Chicka Boom Boom and ABCs on Wings quickly come to mind), but wow, McDonnell has a blast coming up a with near-wordless story that teaches kids their ABCs while making them chuckle.  Expertly placed on a spare background, the zippy pen and ink, pencil, and watercolor (with spot digital colors) illustrations zing and pop off the page.  This tale shows a cat trying to outrun an alligator, bear, chicken, and dragon.  On each page the upper and lower case versions of a letter appear.  I love humor of the unexpected and on that front McDonnell does not disappoint.  I do not want to spoil any of the book’s many surprises but let me say that I love what he comes up with for “Q” and then “R”.

Talk about a book packed with surprising visual humor, Andrea Tsurumi’s chaotic, surreal, and joke-a-second Accident!  has page after page after page of comical mayhem with visual puns galore.  An animal named Lola stumbles quite literally over the title of the book, causing a mess that makes her race to the library to hide.  As she races down the street she encounters other disasters that grow wilder and wilder.  Tsurumi’s graphite (on Bristol vellum with digital color) drawings and her deranged hand lettering make the reader want to flip through the pages with great celerity.  However, as the accidents magnify, the pages brim with gags that beg you to stop and explore each spread.  The more readers investigate, the more rewarding the journey is.  Also, the book’s action-packed vocabulary adds to the excitement.  Currently the unbound advanced copy keeps falling apart as I hold it, which seems only fitting for a book called Accident!.  However, I cannot wait for the final bound copy to arrive because this miraculous tour de force of comic timing will only benefit from perfect page turns.

Meanwhile the beautiful advanced copy of Dan Santat’s lovely After the Fall holds together quite nicely, ironic since its subtitle (How Humpty Dumpty Got Back Up Again) reminds you that its about a character who fell apart and needed to be put back together again.  2015 Caldecott Winner Santat gives us a Humpty Dumpty physically healed, but still psychologically scarred from the big fall off his favorite wall.  Although Santat serves us some laughs here (I love the spread of the cereals surrounding Humpty as he refuses to climb a ladder to nab his favorite brand), mostly this is a bittersweet tale of learning to rebuild self-confidence.  I found the humbled eggman’s journey surprisingly moving.  Will Humpty rediscover his courage to climb to great heights?  I would not dream of spoiling any of the story’s twists.  All I can say is Santat, working at the top of his game as a writer and as an illustrator, kept surprising the reader with this fractured yet tender Mother Goose riff.

Three for Father’s Day: Daddy Honk Honk!, If My Love Were a Fire Truck, and I’m Awake!

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Daddy Honk Honk!, illustrated and written by Rosalinde Bonnet, published by Dial Books for Young Readers, ISBN:  978-0399186769.

If My Love Were a Fire Truck:  A Daddy’s Love Song, illustrated by Jeff Mack, written by Luke Reynolds, published by Doubleday Books for Young Readers, ISBN:  978-1101937402.

I’m Awake!, illustrated and written by Maxwell Eaton III, published by Knopf, ISBN:  978-0375845758.

There recently have been a lot of great books about dads.  This fun trio approaches fatherhood in wildly different ways, showing us the cosmic highs and comic lows of being a pop.  All three work wonders in a preschool storytime, earning laughs and oohs, and giving young ones a feeling of warmth.

Even in Maxwell Eaton III’s chaotic and hilarious I’m Awake! which shows a clueless hamster toddler making his sleepy old man’s morning, uh, eventful, you get the feeling that dad cannot help but love his over-enthusiastic offspring despite the rude awakening.  I’m Awake!, with its bright pen and ink (with digital coloring) illustrations and zesty cartoon bubbles, comes bounding at the reader the way the little hamster comes bounding up the stairs at the story’s start.  Even before we get to the title page, the wee one is in motion–and the enthusiasm is catchy.  You relate to both parent and child:  the need for sleep, the need to play.  Eaton shows masterful comic timing here–just look at the father’s facial expressions when the pup says it tried to make pancakes–he goes from shock to relief but back to wide-eyed shock again when told “we’re out of paper towels.”   And in a great page turn we see the mess the child has left in the kitchen.  And it only gets funnier from there.

Daddy Honk Honk! gives us another father figure thrown into a stressful parenting situation.  Rosalinde Bonnet’s India Ink and watercolor illustrations (finalized in Photoshop) whisk us away to the tundra at the end of the summer.  A little fox named Aput watches some geese say goodbye, leaving behind an egg.  A wildly effective double page spread shows a blue gosling bursting out an egg, immediately mistaking Aput for its father, its first words–“daddy honk honk!”.  Kids will love shouting these words in unison with the little one.  Aput, who strikes me as a hipster bachelor, cannot get rid of the little guy, trying in vain to pass him off to other animals such as an overcrowded lemmings family and a meditating polar bear.  Although the drawings amuse, there is something beautiful about Bonnet’s art here.  The muted colors of the backgrounds, the gentleness of the animal characters’ expressions.  Of course it all leads to a peaceful and satisfying resolution that brings a tear to the eye.  Aput accepts his role as adoptive father, and all is beautiful under the northern lights.

As I mentioned in a previous post, one that celebrated Jeff Mack’s gloriously subversive Mine!, I’m a Jeff Mack fanboy.  If My Love Were a Fire Truck:  A Daddy’s Love Song finds Mack in a more gentle territory.  I’m not always wild about parental adoration books that have lines like “I love you more than this or that” but I dig the scenarios author Luke Reynolds comes up with in this tender bedtime offering; it’s a child-friendly work, not just something to soothe adults.  Throughout a father compares the love he feels for his son to fire trucks, race cars, marching bands (my favorite spread), and great blue whales, among other things.  The language is vibrant.  And Mack’s artwork delivers on making each scene jump off the page (just look at that roaring dragon’s flame, those awesome fireworks).  Mack captures the pure joy of this parent-child bond; each turn of the page gives the reader delight.

 

Picture book of the day: picture book as cinema in Town Is by the Sea

Town Is by the Sea, illustrated by Sydney Smith, written by Joanne Schwartz, published by Groundwood Books, ISBN:  978-1554988716.  I’m a big movie fan who views picture books as cinema.  When I did some research on picture book creators recently and read interviews with them, I discovered, to very little surprise, that many illustrators either wanted to be filmmakers or love film.  Sydney Smith’s compositions remind me of images you would see on the silver screen–those created by the very finest of cinematographers, rendered with care and a masterful eye.  He clearly studies cinema.  Just look at the way the sun reflects off the sea on the cover of the haunting Town Is by the Sea–the image looks as if it has come from a classic international film from the 1950s (when the story is set).  With his ink and watercolor (with a bit of gouache) illustrations, Smith transports the reader to a Canadian mining town where a boy goes through his day while his father toils in an underground mine.  Throughout Smith gives you evocative double page spreads that give you widescreen views of the interior of the boy’s house, the landscape as the father walks to work, and, most claustrophobically, the view underground as the workers labor (the earth seems to be crushing their hunched bodies).  He also breaks the pages down into smaller frames at times, and this helps convey movement as the lad and his pal play on swings, for example.  Readers cannot help but notice the difference between the boy’s joy and freedom in the open air and the oppressive nature of his dad’s occupation.  Joanne Schwartz’s beautiful, direct (and never cloying) text (the boy narrates) carries you through the little moments of the child’s day, and this brings a kid-friendly quality to the book that a modern child can appreciate.  And she keeps bringing you back to the fact that the father is digging for coal under that beautiful, calm sea.  Town Is by the Sea offers something else I look for in realistic picture books:  a strong sense of place.  Thanks to this perfect pairing of Schwartz’s words and Smith’s unforgettable images, I feel as if I have walked in this family’s shoes.  The book shows that they are living a hard life, but it also shows togetherness and comfort in a gorgeous double page spread of the boy, his pop, mom, and sister cozied up on the porch when the long day has come to an end.  As in the very finest of films, the images and words haunt you long after…

Picture book of the day: The tongue twisted marvel that is Danny McGee Drinks the Sea

Danny McGee Drinks the Sea, illustrated by Neal Layton, written by Andy Stanton, published by Schwartz & Wade, ISBN:  978-1524717360.  The little old lady who swallowed a fly has nothing on the ravenous Danny McGee who brags to his sister Frannie that he can drink the entire sea.  First published in Great Britain in 2016, this rollicking import explodes with infectious energy as Stanton rhymes with Seussian glee as Layton, using mixed media, shows Danny McGee chowing down on everything in sight.  Once he swallows the sea, Danny starts chomping down trees, swallowing birds and, oh no!, even cats drinking tea.  What’s fun about the book is you don’t know what the munching hero is capable of eating next.  I like surprises in my comedy and Stanton delivers them, offering bizarre moments like Frannie watching Danny creep up on a smiling unsuspecting TV personality to eat her.  The font adds bounce to the story (the book’s design is crisp, conveying chaos without feeling overly cluttered), with some key words large and bold.  Layton manages to make the possibly morbid material feel breezy and light.  When Danny starts eating the world we dig the silliness of it all, although we probably should be terrified.  Without delivering it with a heavy hand, we get the book’s moral about greed and being a little too darn arrogant.  The book also has a cool meta moment–Danny even eats author Andy Stanton who makes a cameo, seen writing the very book we are reading inside of Danny’s tummy.  I love a good surprise ending, and Danny McGee has a doozy that feels just right.  A three course comical meal that delights from start to finish.

Picture of the Day: The astounding beauty of Isabelle Simler’s The Blue Hour

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The Blue Hour, illustrated and written by Isabelle Simler, published by Eerdmans Books for Young Readers, ISBN:  978-0802854889. 

Full disclosure:  my favorite color is blue, but I can honestly say that until I had the chance to enjoy Simler’s exquisite celebration of this color that I didn’t realize how many shades of blue exist.  The front matter gives us 32 splotches of different kinds of blues, everything from azure blue to cyan blue.  The book that follows is visually spectacular as Simler immerses the reader in the “blue hour,” that special time that happens when the day ends and the night falls.  Each turn of the page introduces an animal with primarily blue features such as blue jay, a blue fox, and a blue poison dart frog.  Simler masterfully uses the book’s large dimensions  (9.3 x 0.4 x 13 inches) to stunning effect; the illustrations leap off the page.  The non-blue colors pop out of the blue-dominated spreads.  There isn’t a story per se, just little moments happening in the natural world during this precious hour.  A bluebird’s egg cracks, a blue racer snake coils itself.  The book was originally published in France in 2015 and has been beautifully translated; the spare poetic text casts a quiet spell.  The Blue Hour works as a color book, a nature book (love the map on the end pages that show you where around the world the animals live), but most of all, this emerges as an effective bedtime offering.  That final silhouette of the creatures standing under a full moon and a multitude of stars soothes and comforts.  Quiet surely follows.

 

Picture book of the day: oh the glory of The Good for Nothing Button!

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The Good for Nothing Button!, illustrated and written by Charise Mericle Harper (with some special Elephant & Piggie content by Mo Willems), published by Hyperion, ISBN:  978-1484726464.  When Mo Willems announced that the 2016 Elephant & Piggie book (the gloriously funny The Thank You Book) would be the last in that famed duo’s series, I, like most children’s books lovers, screamed “NOOOOOOOOOOOOOO” at the top of my lungs.  But then Mo offered comfort:  there would be a new series called Elephant & Piggie Like Reading which would have the characters briefly appear to introduce a brand new story created by a top-notch creative comedy genius.  The books would have the same physical dimensions as the Elephant & Piggie books as well.  So far the series is off to a fabulous start with Laurie Keller winning the 2017 Geisel Award for We Are Growing! and Dan Santat giving us a Cookie Fiasco for the ages.  And in October, the award winning legend Bryan Collier will be jumping in with It’s Shoe Time!–I cannot wait.

A snappy commentary about eyebrow-raising gadgets, Charise Mericle Harper’s The Good for Nothing Button! does an impressive job of capturing the spirit, feel, and pacing of a typical Elephant & Piggie book, and yet Harper brings her own signature wit to the story.  It’s a rollicking book about emotions as three birds interact with the titular object, a button that seemingly does absolutely nothing when you push it.  The tone of wondrous silliness is set when yellow bird calls its feathered pals over to look at its new acquisition–the blue bird bursts with excitement, a huge “wow” and then a quieter “what is it?”.  Red bird automatically feels a connection with the button because it’s, well, red.  The yellow bird brags that this is an amazing button because it does nothing when you press it.  However, the others beg to differ saying that the button makes you feel different things–so the button actually does something.  This contradiction of course causes the yellow bird to have a meltdown reminiscent of a certain pigeon I know.  Harper brings on punchline after punchline with this bouncy story.  And as Travis Jonker pointed out on his essential 100 Scopenotes blog, the book reminds one of a certain craze going on.  Easily one of the funniest books of the year–and timely to boot.