Saturday, January 29, 2011

Thoughtful Picture Books You've Never Heard Of

I have a shelf in my library that's just for the sort of picture book of which reviewers tend to write, "This might appeal more to adults than children." Or at least, for the kind of book called "quiet," the kind for thoughtful children: philosophical, contemplative books. And because I'm in a contemplative mood myself, today I thought I'd share a selection of such books. (Some of them are out of print, just so you know.) I'll match up the ones with similar themes.

How to Paint the Portrait of a Bird, by Jacques Prévert, illustrated by Mordecai Gerstein

The first book is not actually in my house at all. I loaned it to a 17-year-old student who is doing an art project about birds and is using it for visual reference (along with half a dozen other picture books about birds!). Gerstein, author/illustrator of the more familiar The Man Who Walked Between the Towers and the recent metafictive work, A Book, has got to be one of the most creative people in picture books today, right up there with Emily Gravett. Here he has taken a poem by a French surrealist poet and made it into a stunning picture book about creativity, art, and hope. A boy artist tries to capture a bird in his painting—literally. The bird is alternately a muse, a work of art, and a kind of friend. The boy is patient in a way that few children are, but it's not a bad idea to present young readers with the possibility of such patience.

To Everything There Is a Season, Ecclesiastes (The Bible), illustrated by Leo and Diane Dillon and Turn! Turn! Turn!, Ecclesiastes (The Bible) and Pete Seeger, illustrated by Wendy Anderson Halperin

These two books are celebrations of that beautiful passage in the Bible about the changing seasons of life. Halperin specifically bases hers on Pete Seeger's lyrics, which are drawn from Ecclesiastes. Each of her watercolor illustrations is presented in a circle, evoking the mandala as well as the circle of life and other classic seasonal imagery. And each circle is broken into smaller illustrations that reflect the verses on the page. This is the kind of book where you sit and look at each part of each spread, commenting together with a young reader or just thinking by yourself.

Much as I like Halperin's take on the famous words from Ecclesiastes, I have no qualms about saying that Leo and Diane Dillon's book is even better—though perhaps less kid friendly. Well, unless you have an older child studying art history. No, really. The Dillons illustrate each couplet with a different art style from around the world. There's a nice annotated list at the end of the book explaining all this. Suffice it to say that they include everything from Inuit stone-cut art to shadow play from Thailand, from Russian icon paintings to Japanese woodcut. (No Impressionism here, but Europe is represented. The spread shown above, which you will no doubt guess is inspired by Egyptian art, illustrates "A time to be born and a time to die.") It's all very beautiful and inspiring in a way I can't even explain. Just try to get your hands on this book!

The Little Stone Lion, written and illustrated by Kim Xiong

This is a simple book written in the voice of a small stone lion who is the guardian spirit of a Chinese village. He speaks in measured tones of his role protecting the village. And—that's about it. But there's a good feeling to this book, which is quietly upbeat in spite of being illustrated in dim, nearly monochromatic tones. While it's not exactly a hot addition to your children's book collection, there's just something nice about this haiku-like book. If you like rock gardens and classic Asian poetry, take a look at The Little Stone Lion.

Thank You, World by Alice B. McGinty, illustrated by Wendy Anderson Halperin; Homeplace, by Anne Shelby, illustrated by Wendy Anderson Halperin; and Love Is, 1 Corinthians 13 (The Bible), illustrated by Wendy Anderson Halperin

Hmm. I hadn't realized how many of these were illustrated by Halperin! Actually, I don't have Love Is, but it obviously complements Turn, Turn, Turn, listed above. Thank You, World has a sort of Good Night Moon rhythm as a child's voice expresses thanks to things like the sky, the sun, and the grass. What makes this one really great is that each spread is accompanied by art showing children in eight different countries around the world: the U.S., Mexico, Bolivia, France, Mali, Saudi Arabia, India, and China. So we see how the kids interact with whatever is being thanked in the text. (Pair this book with Jeannie Baker's Mirror.) A great choice for showing children that kids around the world do and care about the same things.

Shelby and Halperin's Homeplace tracks a house through generations of the same family somewhere in small-town America. The house gets additions, and so does the family as members come and go, love and grow. Halperin creates a feel of ordinary intimacy with her watercolor artwork. It's one of the coziest books you'll ever read and is also an excellent introduction to ideas like heritage and the passage of time.

The Fox by Margaret Wild, illustrated by Ron Brooks

I was reminded of this book when I saw it on a blog list of best Australian picture books while participating in the Comment Challenge a few weeks ago. There are times I'm not sure I even like this book, but it's gorgeous in a brooding, brutal way. Aesop's fables meets YA dystopian fiction—that's the tone here. You know those YA novels where the girl has a nice relationship with the boy next door, and then she is seduced away by the false promises of a hot bad boy, only to learn that he is using her and go back to the first boy, emotionally damaged by her experience? It's that story, only with friendship instead of romance. Plus the boy is a dog and the girl is a magpie. Oh, and they are both crippled and help each other with their disabilities. Then there's Fox, whose hunger has envy and malice in it. The artwork is brilliant, but sort of scary, all blacks and oranges and a touch of blue. Even the text is written by hand in a rough, apocalyptic style. The title character himself is the most stunning incarnation of "fox" you'll ever see, his oranges blazing across the duller backdrops. The author, aptly named Margaret Wild, sets up a sweet little scenario of friendship and then proceeds to destroy it. And yet, the last page leaves us with a flicker of hope.

This Is a Poem That Heals Fish by Jean-Pierre Simeon, illustrated by Olivier Tallec

This is actually a book about defining poetry, or a book showcasing a poem about poems, but it doesn't really matter because the story is a happy meander through a world where various neighbors, relatives, and even canaries are willing to pause in their work (or their singing) to take a stab at defining poetry, all because a boy is asking. And he is asking because his goldfish is sick, dying of boredom. One of my favorite couple of lines in the book is his mother's response to the problem: "—Hurry, give him a poem! And she leaves for her tuba lesson." There's also a quiet humor to the way the boy replies to each definition of "poem" he's given: "—Oh...? Okay." There's a bit of metafiction going on as the boy puts all of the definitions together into a poem about poems which he recites to his sick fish, but the fish has a response of his own, giving the book's ending the kind of twist you expect to find at the end of a good poem. Of course, the definitions are tiny poems in their own right. They'd make a good writing prompt; you could have kids write their own definitions of what a poem is and create a class poem. Here's an example from the book, the canary's definition: "A poem is when words beat their wings. It is a song sung in a cage." The canary's name is Aristophanes. Of course.

The Weaver by Thacher Hurd, illustrated by Elisa Kleven

I like both Hurd and Kleven, and while I don't know if this book quite works in some ways, it makes me smile because it's lovely and symbolic and expresses a great fondness for the world and all the people in it. The author and illustrator envision a young girl in a red dress high up in the sky who weaves our days—the beauties of nature, each smile and moment—then sort of flings them over the world into being. Pragmatic children may question the concept. But there's a nice feeling to this book, and I think it makes a very soothing bedtime story. The Weaver quietly emphasizes the way all of us share the same world.

I Want to Paint My Bathroom Blue by Ruth Krauss, illustrated by Maurice Sendak, and
I Am Cherry Alive by Delmore Schwartz, illustrated by Barbara Cooney

Okay, maybe you've heard of these two. Both are written in a child's voice, and some might argue that they're a little self-conscious that way. On the other hand, I think both of them do a good job of capturing the joie de vivre of childhood. Krauss's book is just a ramble of dreams, beginning with words that seem ordinary but gradually lead us into the world of the imagination: "I want to paint my bathroom blue—my papa won't let me paint it blue—once I painted a rocking-chair blue and it was pretty. I want to paint my kitchen yellow and my sitting-room white with turtles and all my ceilings green." The dreams then move off in a new direction, and then another. It's slight, and it ends rather abruptly, but it moves readers into a place they might not otherwise go, a place Harold might have created with his purple crayon. Instead of a story starter, this book is a dream starter. Sendak's illustrations, as always, are just right.

I Am Cherry Alive is a proclamation of uniqueness, far more convincing than the stuff generated by hopeful self-esteem movement types. Its words are heartening, and the illustrations are just plain pretty. The book begins: "'I am cherry alive,' the little girl sang./Each morning I am something new./I am apple, I am plum, I am just as excited/As the boys who made the Halloween bang:/I am tree, I am cat, I am blossom too." Besides Krauss and Sendak's book, try pairing this poem about a child imagining herself to be any number of things with Don and Audrey Wood's Quick as a Cricket. Or with Sendak's Really Rosie.

Switch on the Night by Ray Bradbury, illustrated by Leo and Diane Dillon, and
The Boy and the Cloth of Dreams by Jenny Koralek, illustrated by James Mayhew

Bedtime stories are a dime a dozen, and Mercer Mayer's There's a Nightmare in My Closet is the quintessential book for soothing kids who are frightened of the dark. But here are a couple of unusual, touching books that address the same issue. Switch on the Night is Bradbury's one and only picture book, first published in 1955. Whichever editor chose the Dillons to illustrate this new edition was a genius (1993, with a reprint in 2004). The book tells the story of a little boy who is afraid of the dark. When night comes, he turns on every light in the house. And he is still scared of the night, lurking outside. Then a little girl named Dark comes and points out that the boy isn't switching off the light, he's switching on the night. She introduces him to the beauties of the night, and he goes outside and plays with other children who are there enjoying a moonlit romp. (You might want to pair this one with The Moon Jumpers by Janice May Udry, illustrated by Maurice Sendak.) Of course, a lot of people don't let their kids play outside after dark these days, except maybe in the backyard. But the book still works, especially when the boy and his new friend figure out that switching on the Night also means switching on the crickets, the frogs, and the stars. Here Bradbury's text really begins to soar, overcoming a certain didacticism. The book is further elevated by the illustrations, some of the Dillons' most stunning ever.

The Boy and the Cloth of Dreams is a sort of allegory, yet it works as a story. What's really marvelous is that the illustrator created a real "cloth of dreams" for the jacket and endpapers, framing his watercolor narration. When the story begins, a small boy (he looks about five) tears the cloth of dreams his grandmother made him—a very special blanket. When she first spread it over his cradle, she said, "It will keep the dark night things away...but only, of course, until he is big enough to forge his own courage." Now, when the boy wakes with nightmares for the first time ever at his grandmother's house because the cloth is ripped, he must seek her help. But instead of simply comforting him, she explains that he must go to the top of the house by himself and fetch the threads of moonlight and sunlight that she needs for mending the blanket. This book is a quest book, a fairy tale, and a story about growing up, all within a very small space. When you read it, you'll appreciate why the tone of the text is slightly elevated, like the storytelling of a Homer or a Tolkien. The illustrations are rich and mythical, dark and mysterious, yet touched by gold. It's no surprise that The Boy and the Cloth of Dreams was one of the New York Times best illustrated books of the year in 1994.

When I Heard the Learn'd Astronomer by Walt Whitman, illustrated by Loren Long

I suspect mostly grown-ups would appreciate this book, in which Walt Whitman's poem is brought to life by Loren Long's artwork. The poem is small, the narrative slight, and the paintings rather dark. And yet—what a wonderful poem. What elegantly effective illustrations. Perhaps a slightly older child will appreciate the meaning of the moment captured by this book, in which a young boy accompanies his parents to hear a lecture by an astronomer and winds up going outside to just look at the night and the stars. There are a couple of nice touches here. For one thing, Loren Long adds spot illustrations of rocket ships and stars done in pencil by his own young sons on the white pages bearing the text opposite the deeply colorful narrative paintings. And I like the Einstein quote included on the last page. (Pair this with Billy Collins's poem, "Introduction to Poetry," perhaps.)

This is a good book to end on, with the image of a boy looking up at the stars alone, thinking and dreaming. Because, much as I love a rowdy story like The Three Little Pigs or No, David!, sometimes it's best to go slow, and to let your imagination find its own path. Perhaps one of these books will help you—and your young reader—to do just that.

See also my Amazon Listmania list, "Simply Beautiful Picture Books."

Note for Worried Parents: The little girl in I Am Cherry Alive is very innocently nude in a couple of the illustrations, e.g., when she goes swimming in a pond. And, as I explained above, The Fox is awfully dark in tone for the picture book crowd. Perhaps older children would enjoy reading and discussing it.

Update: Thanks to Tabatha for this link about an award-winning short film based on the same poem Gerstein used, To Paint a Portrait of a Bird.


Tabatha said...

Kate, Thanks for this list. When I was looking up the first book, I found this video of it. Looks promising!

Anonymous said...

I love when you do posts like this. It's like coming across a treasure trove! That Amazon link is going to come in handy too. Thanks!

Amy L V said...

Wow. What a gift this list is. Thank you, Kate! Some of these I know and love...the rest, I am ordering. Much gratitude to you, from me, my children, and my teacher friends! A.

Kate Coombs said...

Tabatha--Very cool! I'll pop that into the post as an update.

Brandy and Amy--I'm so glad you like the list! It's always great to discover new book treasures, isn't it?

Anonymous said...

There were a couple of titles I must check out, I have not encountered them before, so thank you for that.
In reference to Fox, thinking about it I think there is a bit of a trend to darker themes in Australian picture books. In recent years there has been some very remarkable books published, Fox is one, but others like Requiem for a Beast, or The Island are quite dark in their themes but they are all books I admire, I think of them as more picture books for older readers though. Shaun Tan's work can also be a bit like that, The Red Tree is a favourite of mine. Mostly I think I am drawn to picture books with a sense of humour. You have given me a new list of books to check out next time I'm at the town library.

Anonymous said...

Ah, the challenge implied in the title of your post! Love it. I thought I would be able to gloat after seeing the first book, but I had not heard of all the rest of the titles. They look intriguing.

I might not have heard of How to Paint a Portrait of a Bird, were it not for the handselling that the owner of my favorite Indie did when it released. I took it home, read it and decided to read the book, K - 8, the following week. First, I was sorta shocked at how entranced all the kids were. Didn't matter the age. It got 'em. Second, I found something new nearly every time I read it.

Important post.

Kate Coombs said...

BP--I LOVE The Red Tree! Not to mention The Arrival. Interesting about Australia being a hotbed of dark picture books in recent years. :)

Toby--You're welcome! I can't think of Cherry Alive without smiling.

P&K--Heehee. Didn't realize my title was a challenge, but I guess it is! It's nice to hear that students liked How to Paint a Portrait of a Bird. It's such a hopeful, thought-provoking, deceptively simple book. (And thanks.)

kathrynjankowski said...

I had no idea Ray Bradbury wrote a picture book. And, yes, choosing the Dillons to illustrate was inspired!

Madigan Mirza said...

Funny, I am actually familiar with most of these. Some are books that I just love... I love the illustrations of Wendy Halperin, Elisa Kleven and the Dillons.

Several of these are actually tops on my "most hated/disliked" picture book list. I disliked The Fox by Wild so very much. It's such a depressing book.

Not that I'm saying that all picture books should be sweetness and light and good times... there are books that I'll call, "message books" for example, Lifetimes by Bryan Mellonie and Robert Ingpen, a wonderful book for discussing death with children. Or even snarky and wild, like Arlene the Sardine by Chris Raschka, about a fish who basically commits suicide because she thinks it would be cool to be appreciated as a sardine - a dead fish in a tin can. You have to have a certain sort of humor to appreciate it.

I felt like the message of The Fox was that in most cases, individuals are self-interested and petty, and when put in a horrible situation, nothing can ever be improved. What a downer that book was!

Kate Coombs said...

Madigan--You are clearly a girl after my own heart! The only piece of original children's book art I own is by Elisa Kleven...

And yeah, I really don't care for The Fox; it just feels rather mean-spirited. But I do like the drama of its art, and I figured I should throw in SOMETHING for fans of dystopia and non-Hollywood endings! :)

Tongue-in-cheek is a whole 'nother thing, of course--I'll have to look for Arlene the Sardine.

Kate Coombs said...

Madigan--Also, look at my post about Picture Books with Bite from the list of my favorite posts on the right side of the blog. Be sure to link through to Seven Imp's excellent posts about snarky, strange picture books!