Friday, May 13, 2011

A Bouquet of Picture Books

Spring is heading towards summer now. The jacaranda are starting to bloom here in Los Angeles, and you really should check out some of the picture books that have come out in the last few months. Here's a sampler:

All the Water in the World by George Ella Lyon, illustrated by Katherine Tillotson

I didn't get this one in time for Earth Day, but it ends with a "Keep it green" message that makes it a good pick for anyone's Earth Day collection. Mostly, though, it's a science lesson about the water cycle, told in Lyon's beautiful poem and illustrated flowingly by Tillotson. We're told that water "wobbles in blue pools" and "fills your cup up." Best of all is the author's simple, focused description of the way water leaves an ocean or lake and moves cloudward: "Thirsty air/licks it from lakes/sips it from ponds/guzzles it from oceans," and then we're shown with text moving up the page that "this wet air/swirls up...."

Tillotson's illustrations are rendered digitally, but they have the feel of watercolor, appropriately enough. White backgrounds heighten the effect of strong blue water moving across the page, pouring in simple, graphic-style illustrations from grass-green hoses and grape-purple taps. Yet the real strength of this book is the clear lines of poetry that take us on a journey through the water cycle and show us the importance of water for the living things on our planet. An effective work of nonfiction poetry and a lovely book for your collection.

The Loud Book! by Deborah Underwood, illustrated by Renata Liwska

If you're like me, you fell in love with The Quiet Book and made a point of getting your hands on this follow-up volume by the talented Ms. Underwood. In the previous book, the author listed different types of quiet, but now we find out about the varieties of loud. I won't give away too many, but a few of my favorites are "last slurp loud," "crowded pool loud," and "deafening silence loud."

Liwska's cast of soft-looking animal children enact the different louds with panache. Underwood takes care to set many of her loud moments at school and at home so that they will be familiar to young readers. I especially like the surprising ones, when the bear and the rabbit and their other friends are caught with their eyes wide and their mouths round.

This is a simple book, but a satisfying one, the kind you and the kids can savor and reference long after you close the cover. It would also make a good writing prompt, since children would no doubt enjoy making up their own kinds of loud. Like its predecessor, The Loud Book! is well worth adding to your library.

Rapunzel, retold and illustrated by Sarah Gibb

Fewer of these long picture book fairy tales are being published these days, so I was happy to see a new version of Rapunzel hit the market. Perhaps it was spurred on by last fall's Disney movie, Tangled... At any rate, Gibb's illustration style is markedly different from the style of what I consider the best-known version, Paul O. Zelinsky's 1998 Caldecott-winning book. Gibb's artwork is relatively flat, in some spots resembling silhouette art, though with color. On other pages, Gibb goes all out with black silhouette figures. The art is also rather decorative.

This romanticized approach comes together nicely, however, and I think it will appeal to the target audience. The way I see it, it's all right to go a little prissy/girly with this stuff as long as you do it beautifully, and this illustrator does a fine job. There's an almost theatrical feel to the page spreads. I particularly like the one of the prince riding through the forest, with the tower glimpsed between the trees up ahead and his dog looking back to see if the prince is coming. (I'll show part of that spread here.)

The retelling, while detailed, is clear and moves along at a good clip. I was only occasionally distracted by clich├ęs, as in the description of Rapunzel: "Her long hair was a shining waterfall of gold, and her eyes sparkled like twin stars."

Speaking of stars, your starry-eyed princess-mad 7- to 9-year-old might like Sarah Gibb's Rapunzel very much.

When a Dragon Moves In by Jodi Moore, illustrated by Howard McWilliam

What's really fun about this book is that the dragon moves into a small boy's sandcastle at the beach. I don't know that I've ever seen a dragon at the beach in a children's book before, although I have seen bats. There's a bit of a secondary, symbolic story here when the dragon represents the boy's apparent frustration with his family, who won't pay attention to him and his talk of dragons. I was more interested in the dragon's mischief for its own sake, however, and that's most likely what young readers will get out of the story, too.

The book has a great first line, by the way: "If you build a perfect sandcastle, a dragon will move in." We see the boy putting the finishing touches on one side of the castle as the dragon ducks his head to move in, suitcase in hand, on the other side of the castle. (A suitcase covered with travel stickers, mind you, one of them clearly reading "Route 66.")

The dragon is a pleasing shade of red, and all that fieriness makes a great fit for a July/August beach beast. McWilliam's slightly cartoonish artwork is rendered in vibrant colors, beginning with the yellow of the sand. I especially like the early scenes, when the boy plays with the dragon, using it as a raft, a kite, and a bully deterrent, among other things. After an interlude in which his family won't believe in the dragon and the boy starts acting up, we get a nice ending with still more dragons showing up to inhabit still more sandcastles.

A Butterfly Is Patient by Dianna Hutts Aston, illustrated by Sylvia Long

The team is back! In case you haven't cast your eyes upon An Egg Is Quiet or A Seed Is Sleepy, get a move on—and check out this new book while you're at it.

Much as I love the interior text and illustrations, my favorite thing about the duo's books is matching up the endpapers, which in this case are set one page in (not sure what the name for that would be, exactly!). In An Egg Is Quiet, one set of endpapers had eggs, while the other set showed what the eggs would hatch into. In A Butterfly Is Patient, you can look at the caterpillars in a spread at the front of the book and then find their matching butterflies in a spread at the back. (Though I did find two extra butterflies, ones whose caterpillars aren't shown in the front!)

The large text in the book, presented in very pretty handwriting, says things like the title phrase, "A butterfly is patient," and "A butterfly is creative." Smaller text explains what the butterflies are up to, elucidating the meaning of the larger phrase. Color-drenched artwork brings all of this to life, sometimes providing special touches like a close-up of a Great Purple Hairstreak's egg on the bottom of a leaf or a whole page of Monarch butterflies on the wing. Butterflies, eggs, and caterpillars are neatly labeled by name throughout. We also learn the difference between moths and butterflies, how butterflies form "puddle clubs," and the identities of the world's largest and smallest butterflies.

I've read reviews of the earlier books in which nonfiction folks criticized the attribution of feelings to natural objects such as eggs because of the use of terms like "patient," but I don't think kids are that easily confused. Their lives are full of metaphors, let alone facts and opinions. Most of them catch on to the difference, even though they may at times use their imaginations rather deliberately to assign emotions to flowers, goldfish, and dolls/action figures.

The bottom line is, these are gorgeous books, and they stand out in the rather large crowd of books on topics such as eggs, seeds, and butterflies. (Besides, you know you want to figure out which two caterpillars are missing!)

Hot, Hot Roti for Dada-ji by F. Zia, illustrated by Ken Min

In this upbeat book, Aneel's grandparents come to visit, and he clowns around with his marvelous grandpa, Dada-ji. With a wink and a smile, Dada-ji tells Aneel of his boyhood adventures—a series of tall tales in which he wrestles water buffalos and hissing cobras, besides working on his parents' farm. What's the source of his youthful strength? Piles of hot, hot roti! Kind of like Popeye's spinach, only resembling pancakes. (Or tortillas, or Navajo fry bread—most cultures seem to have a variation of this one!)

When Dada-ji hints that he's hungry, there's only one thing to do: Aneel starts cooking up roti for his grandfather. After cooking and eating, both are newly energized and go outside in search of adventure.

This book has more flavor and flair than the plot might suggest. For one thing, Zia punctuates her story with energetic expressions like "Arre wah!" For another, Dada-ji is a great character, full of personality, a lot like his favorite side dish, "tongue-burning mango pickle." I like seeing such a solid grandfather-grandson bond, as well.

Ken Min's illustrations capture the story's energy with bright colors and strong lines. His portrayal of Dada-ji is especially effective.

There is a bit of a didactic, meet-the-culture feel to this book, but that's okay: how many picture books about Indian American families have you come across? Have a taste of Hot Hot Roti with Dada-ji to round out your multicultural collection!

(Note: There's a glossary at the back, though what I really wanted to see was a roti recipe. Aha! Here we go; it's found at the Lee and Low website.)

Quacky Baseball by Peter Abrahams, illustrated by Frank Morrison

I really like this author's Echo Falls mysteries for middle graders, so I was curious to see what he would do in a picture book. The answer would be: play ball! It's Thumby Duckling's first day at the ballpark, and he's all thumbs. Erm, feathers. Actually, this little duck is nervous, and he's a thumbsucker.

We begin with a great picture of the two teams all lined up. Somebody on the opposing team is blowing a bubble, and our hero has his thumb in his mouth. Next we jump to the top of the ninth, when outfielder Thumby "makes the catch. Out number three. How about that?"

But then the duckling is up to bat, and he starts striking out...

Yep, Abrahams has written a classic sports story starring the underdog, or rather, underduck. I doubt there's a question in anyone's mind about what's going to happen, but the book is well paced, and you'll probably find yourself cheering for the little ball of yellow fluff in the baseball cap by the time you get to the game's final moments.

The author then throws in a few pithy sports pointers along the lines of "You win some, you lose some" on the very last page.

Frank Morrison's color-saturated illustrations are done in what appear to be acrylic. The sky is so blue, the dirt is very brown, the grass is intensely green, and Thumby's uniform is a hearty orange and blue. The crowd scene when Thumby makes the game-winning hit is particularly good. Morrison manages to combine small-animal cute with baseball gritty in just the right balance.

Go team!

Me...Jane, written and illustrated by Patrick McDonnell

What a lovely, lovely book! The artwork in the full illustrations is simple and well executed, with a quiet beauty that suits its slightly muted palette (colors, but with a hint of old-fashioned sepia tones). The final, perfect touch is the use of faint, lightly tinted "ornamental engravings from the nineteenth and early twentieth century" on the otherwise white text pages. McDonnell even incorporates a few pages from Jane Goodall's childhood journal, her notes from the nature club she formed, The Aligator Society [sic].

This biography focuses on the famous chimpanzee scientist's early days, when, aptly enough, she hauled a stuffed chimpanzee named Jubilee with her everywhere she went. And where she went was out to observe nature—including sitting quietly inside her grandmother's chicken coop until she could see for herself how eggs were laid.

The simplicity of the text belies its efficacy, particularly in association with the paradoxically sturdy-yet-delicate illustrations. Kids who read this book are likely to get a clear picture of how being a curious child can lead to an entire lifetime of scientific study and adventure.

I think you'll appreciate, as I did, the photos of a young Jane with Jubilee in tow at the front of the book and of the adult Jane with real chimps at the back!

The book also includes notes from the author and from Ms. Goodall herself. The primatologist encourages young people to join her international Roots & Shoots program to work on behalf of the environment.

As Jules put it over at Seven Imp, "...McDonnell’s title on Dr. Jane Goodall is one of the best books you’ll see all year. I say that with confidence, even though it’s only March...." Take a look at her post for more illustrations. (Perhaps you've come across McDonnell's work before, since he is also the creator of the comic strip, MUTTS.)

And now that I have the book in my hands, I have to agree with Jules—Me...Jane will be hard to beat!

Note: Quacky Baseball, When a Dragon Moves In, and Hot, Hot Roti for Dad-ji were provided to me by the publishers or PR folks.


Ruth Donnelly said...

Thanks for sharing these wonderful picks. I've got to get my hands on the Jane Goodall one right away!

Becky said...

I just finished reading The Watcher another picture book biography of Jane Goodall. I wonder how these two compare? I'll have to see if I can find a copy of the other to read now!

Kate Coombs said...

Ruth--I think you'll really like it!

Becky--Is that the one by Jeannette Winter? Her stuff is always good.