Picture book of the day: the gut-wrenching Wishes tells a powerful personal story and a sneak preview of two fab upcoming books

Wishes, illustrated by Victo Ngai, written by Mượn Thị Văn, published by Orchard Books (an imprint of Scholastic), ISBN: 978-1338305890, ARC reviewed, to be released May 4, 2021.

In the back matter for this intense and powerful new picture book, the author writes about how she and members of her family rode in a crowded boat to escape Vietnam in 1980, eventually arriving (after much peril) in Hong Kong. She employs an effective approach when telling this personal story. Inanimate objects observe the turbulent trek, making the wishes mentioned in the book’s title. Van’s text is spare, but gives the book a gripping visceral power that adds an immediacy to the account: “The path wished it was shorter.” “The boat wished it was bigger.” “The sea wished it was calmer.”

Ngai builds on the power of Van’s words and gives each double spread image a truly cinematic feel. Scenes of the family gathering their belongings and embracing loved ones as they say goodbye take the breath away. And then those tense moments at sea, with swirling waves, stormy skies, bodies huddled together. Intricately designed and unforgettable, each illustration packs an emotional punch. This book possesses a vivid sense of place; the reader can hear the roaring waves. Wishes ends on a hopeful note with the boat arriving at Hong Kong. Yet Van’s back matter reminds the reader that stories like this one are still going on around the world.

Wishes is easily one of the very best picture books of 2021.

Thanks to my co-worker Betsy Bird I was able to enjoy a sneak peak at two excellent picture books coming out much much later this year. I will write longer reviews later, but I wanted to give an early shout out to these two fab books.

Magic Candies, illustrated and written by Heena Baek, translated by Sophie Bowman, published by Amazon Crossing, ISBN: 978-1542029599, ARC consulted, to be published: August 1, 2021.

I love love love this quirky (in the best possible sense) import from South Korea. Baek creates a world where anything is possible, thanks to magic candies. Cool figurines, a story that mixes humor with humane heartbreak. You don’t know what’s going to happen next.

The Me I Choose to Be, art by Regis and Kahran Bethencourt, written by Natasha Anastasia Tarpley, published by Little, Brown and Company, ISBN: 978-0316461542, ARC consulted, to be published: October 12, 2021.

A truly cosmic inspirational book that soars thanks to Tarpley’s empowering words. The art in this book is absolutely terrific. The stylized photographs dazzle thanks to their visual inventiveness.

Picture books of the day: celebrating hard work, the water cycle, nature walks…and glorious capybaras

Someone Builds the Dream, illustrated by Loren Long, written by Lisa Wheeler, published by Dial Books for Young Readers, ISBN: 978-1984814333.

As a person who buys children’s books for their public library job, I have to keep on top of what’s new and upcoming. During this past pandemic year I have attended many webinars and virtual publisher pitches about this very topic. Authors and illustrators sit in their kitchens or living rooms or studios (one was in a hospital room…his wife had just given birth to a baby!) or outside talking about their latest labors of love. And many have been absolutely fantastic, getting you excited about their latest labor of love. Recently I caught Loren Long on a virtual illustrator panel talking about Someone Builds the Dream, a tribute not only to the people who come up with the plans and the blueprints, but the laborers who work hard to bring the dreams and visions to life. Wow did Long ever sell this book! He praised Lisa Wheeler’s vivid, action-packed text and talked about how he wanted to truly celebrate the contributions of the working people who drill, mine, pour, sweat and dig. His eye-catching illustrations (acrylics, colored pencils, and “whatever dust and dog hair happened to be floating around the studio”–from his illustrator’s note), inspired by the WPA artists of the New Deal period, show men and women laboring hard to build a house or a bridge or windmills. The result is striking and inspirational. The book even has a meta moment with its painting of Wheeler and Long working on the very book we are reading and then showing workers setting the type and running the presses. This is outstanding stuff.

Blue Floats Away, illustrated by Grant Snider, written by Travis Jonker, published by Abrams Books for Young Readers, ISBN: 978-1419744235.

I became very interested in Blue Floats Away as soon as I heard librarian/blogger/very cool person Travis Jonker talking about it. I acted quickly and ordered a special copy of the book that came with a wonderful “behind the scenes” booklet containing a convo between Jonker and the extremely gifted illustrator Grant Snider. Listening to illustrators and authors talk about collaborations is always an eye-opening experience. It was a joy reading the moving account of what inspired Jonker to write the story and how Snider used Jonker’s words as a springboard to create lovely, inventive, sometimes abstract art out of cut paper, colored pencil and white ink. The story stars Blue, a little iceberg who suddenly breaks off and floats away from his iceberg parents. He finds adventures while floating on the waves and sees thrilling new things such as shark fins and boats. Suddenly Blue starts changing, shrinking into seeming nothingness…but, in a comforting touch, comes back in a new form. Jonker’s concise prose packs an emotional wallop and Snider makes Blue a surprisingly expressive character. The sites are indeed wondrous; he knows how to use color and seemingly simple imagery to great effect. In the backmatter, Jonker reminds the reader that although Blue’s ending is a happy one, the polar regions are in definite trouble. Readers, young and old alike, will find Blue’s story captivating.

Wonder Walkers, illustrated and written by Micha Archer, published by Nancy Paulsen Books (an imprint of Penguin Random House), ISBN: 978-0593109649.

Once, after I wrote a rave review for her Daniel’s Good Day, illustrator/writer Micha Archer emailed me a thanks with a photo of her amazing studio. She works with collage so it was beyond cool to see all the scraps of paper used to create one of her amazingly intricate titles. She continues wowing the reader in Wonder Walkers, a heartfelt tribute to taking a nature walk and loving everything the outside world offers. Two expressive children stop and look around them and ask questions such as “Is the sun the world’s light bulb?” and “Do mountains have bones? Are forests the mountain’s fur?”. These queries, mostly fantastical, might prompt fun discussions. Archer delivers one memorable panoramic image after another. It’s the kind of art that invites us to stop and study each detail…from faraway and up close. Recently someone asked me for some good books about nature walks. This title fits the bill perfectly. Kids will be inspired to take a hike outdoors and pose questions about what they see.

The Capybaras, illustrated and written by Alfredo Soderguit, translated from the original Spanish by Elisa Amado, published by Greystone Kids, ISBN: 978-1771647823. Release date: April 13, 2021.

I haven’t seen Soderguit speak about his work. But I became instantly intrigued with this book because, well, I love capybaras. They rock. They wow me with their pure gentle ginormous rodentness. I met a capybara once…they were extremely cool. The Capybaras, translated with bouncy zippiness by Elisa Amado, initially appears to be a funny romp about a flock of chickens not allowing a bunch of capybaras into their farmyard. They not only don’t allow it, they are downright mean and threatening about it, forcing the capybaras back into the water. Masterfully employing spare backgrounds and limited colors (bursts of red, shades of brown), Soderguit does a great job showing the give and take between the furry and the feathered characters. Also, he is not afraid to introduce a palpable tension under the amusing surface. The capybaras need a safe haven from hunters lurking about and hope the chickens will allow them a peaceful sanctuary. At first the capybaras’ eyes seem goofy, in a Jon Klassen/deadpan/Buster Keaton sort of way. But there’s more to their expressions than that. The Capybaras becomes a surprisingly moving story about fairness and friendship, and one with a terrific and reassuring surprise ending.

Quick takes: yay! several more great picture books

The Big House and the Little House, illustrated by Emiko Fujishima, written by Yoshi Ueno, published by Levine Querido, ISBN: 978-16460497.

This delightful unlikely friendship story between a BIG bear and a teeny mouse was first released in Japan in 2012 and has just now popped up in the States. It’s an absolutely wonderful gem starring two lonely characters who seem like exact opposites. Every day they even head opposite ways to their respective destinations. They finally meet and have tea and become pals. But there’s more to the story than just this. Ueno throws in an effective bit of danger and suspense halfway through. Fujishima’s warm illustrations are just right for this ultimately comforting tale.

The Electric Slide and Kai, illustrated by Darnell Johnson, written by Kelly J. Baptist, published by Lee & Low Books, ISBN: 978-1643790527.

Ah, weddings. They can be happy events with lots of laughs, joy and dancing. Wait, did you say DANCING? Aaaaaaahhhh! Many readers will relate to Kai who does not exactly share his family’s love for hitting the dance floor. He is dreading his aunt’s upcoming wedding because of the promise of a dance-packed reception. Will he make a fool of himself while attempting the Electric Slide? Baptist’s bouncy, warmly funny story reaches a satisfying conclusion and Johnson’s bright, colorful illustrations capture Kai’s journey with fluid finesse.

Gifts of the Magpie, created and written by Sam Hundley, published by Capstone Editions, ISBN: 978-1684462148.

I love me some Dad humor and Hundley’s visually clever and inventive book offers goofy, groany (in a good way) puns galore. Using found objects to great advantage, Hundley tells the story of a magpie attempting to find presents for her pals, but botching their requests (kind of like a birdie Amelia Bedelia). For example, when a lonely mouse says they would like “another mouse,” the magpie gives the critter a computer mouse. Hundley crafts his characters out of combs, rusty spoons, old keys, and other objects. The book has a jubilant bounce to it that captivates.

I Dream of Popo, illustrated by Julia Kuo, written by Livia Blackburne, published by Roaring Brook Press, ISBN: 978-1250249319.

With quiet assurance, Blackburne tells this lovely, personal family story about a young girl who moves from Taiwan to the United States. She has to find her footing in a new place, in a new school. All the while she misses her grandmother, her beloved Popo. Kuo’s crisp, tender illustrations capture their special bond. This is emotionally direct without ever feeling too syrupy. It would work well with storytimes about grandparents, families, and moving someplace new. Pretty much everyone will relate to having to meet with loved ones on Zoom instead of in person.

Out of Nowhere, illustrated and written by Chris Naylor-Ballesteros, published by Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, ISBN: 978-1534481008.

Another unlikely friends story, this one between a beetle and a caterpillar. The art in Out of Nowhere really has its own unique look with little bursts of red in a mostly grayish black and white landscape. A beetle becomes confused about the sudden disappearance of their caterpillar pal; they don’t know she has wrapped herself up in a cocoon. So feeling brave (sorta kinda), the beetle sets out a journey to find her and encounters dangers along the way. This sweet story about perseverance and accepting change will make a great read-aloud for groups both large (the pictures will show nicely across a room) and small.

The Ramble Shamble Children, illustrated by Lauren Castillo, written by Christina Soontornvat, published by Nancy Paulsen Books (an imprint of Penguin Random House), ISBN: 978-0399176326.

First, let’s have a big round of applause for Christina Soontornvat who not only received two 2021 Newbery Honors (for her acclaimed middle grade novel A Wish in the Dark and her remarkable non-fiction book All Thirteen) but also a Sibert Honor for All Thirteen as well (plus many other accolades). She teams with the always fabulous Caldecott Honor winner Lauren Castillo for this charmer about a group of kids who decide to make their ramble shamble house a little more fancy. The book feels like a jubilant throwback to works about seemingly unsupervised kids; the adults are nowhere to be seen. The kids work together on the garden and with other chores. Well, except for the youngest who spends his time happily in the mud. Beautifully illustrated, with a bouncy text that begs to be read aloud.

Sato the Rabbit, illustrated and written by Yuki Ainoya, translated by Michael Blaskowsky, published by Enchanted Lion Books, ISBN: 978-1592703180.

This book has a compelling dream logic to it. So many authors try to tap into the way children think. The stories kids tell can take many surreal and improvisatory turns. First released in Japan in 2006, and now making its first appearance in the US, Ainoya’s episodic wonder does an excellent job capturing the imaginative mindset of the titular character. Just as Max puts on a wolf suit in Where the Wild Things Are and experiences an adventure, Haneru Sato slips on a bunny suit and becomes a rabbit. Sure, why not? We follow Sato through many quick chapters, each packed with weird whimsy. For example, in one vignette he catches stars. And in another he sails on a giant watermelon (which he happily munches on as he drifts). It’s a joyful wild rumpus that beats to the sound of its own drummer.

We Wait for the Sun: The Story of Young Dovey Johnson Roundtree and Her Grandmother’s Enduring Love, illustrated by Raissa Figueroa, written by Dovey Johnson Roundtree and Katie McCabe, published by Roaring Brook Press, ISBN: 978-1250229021.

This moving account tells a childhood story of groundbreaking Black lawyer, minister and army veteran Dovey Johnson Roundtree and her beloved grandmother. Set over 100 years ago in Charlotte, North Carolina, the book shows how Dovey used to wake up before the sun rose to collect berries with her grandma and other women. Illustrator Figueroa does a beautiful job with light and shadow throughout. The first person present tense narration is vivid, giving the reader a you-are-there feeling. When the sun rises towards the end, and the colors emerge, the moment feels truly magical. Excellent and informative back matter complete an already dynamic book.

Picture book of the day: I Like Trains is the perfect storytime book

I Like Trains, illustrated and written by Daisy Hirst, published by Candlewick, ISBN: 978-1536212761.

I cannot wait to start doing in-person storytimes again. Due to the pandemic, my last preschool storytime was in early March 2020. For years, I used to meet weekly with a fairly large crowd of cool kids and their parents/caregivers. We would have fun with goofy puppet plays, silly songs, and interactive books. Yes, I have done some virtual programs and those have been enjoyable (although learning to play to a camera has made me feel a bit, oh, disoriented).

For in-person live storytimes, I would choose books possessing large pictures that show well to a big group and engaging stories that will keep them hooked. When I resume them (someday soon I hope?), I will definitely spotlight several 2020 and 2021 books that will fit right in with my storytime set list. Books like Daisy Hirst’s cheerful and delightful I Like Trains.

I Like Trains has everything I’m looking for in a preschool storytime book: bold illustrations, a large font that allows me to point at each word as I read them out loud, opportunities to invite audience participation (the “chugga chugga” “all aboard” prompts), and an engaging easy-to-follow story. Well, plus it has trains. And dogs who love trains. And dogs who ride trains and enthusiastically describe their journey to a special place. It’s a book that invites the storyteller to ask questions: do you like trains? do you read books about trains too? have you ever been in a train station? ooh, what do you see through the train window?

Hirst’s expert use of white space allows the screenprinted illustrations to pop off the page. Her simple and direct language bubbles with enthusiasm for its topic. It’s a slice of life celebration of a topic children adore. Its bouncy charms sneak up on you. It’s one of the books where not much seems to happen and everything seems to happen. A seemingly simple train journey taps into something universal: feelings of joy and intergenerational connection. I Like Trains will have storytime audiences cheering “encore, encore, more, more.”