picture books are wonderful because they sing out like a brass band, but others
are just as marvelous because they murmur like a night wind. Here are three
A Story from the Underground Railroad by Henry Cole
a picture book that’s wordless is usually more of a storytelling choice than a
symbolic one, but here the wordlessness is both, as the title implies. This is
a story about keeping quiet for all the right reasons, about keeping a secret
to keep someone safe. It is also about not needing to speak to help someone
out—which makes me think of quiet kindnesses in everyday life.
our story begins, a young farm girl bringing the cow home from the pasture
watches five men pass on horseback. The first one is carrying a Confederate
flag, so we understand that this story takes place in the South during the
Civil War era. The girl goes to feed the chickens, and then her mother sends
her to fetch the eggs from a small barn. As she does so, she is frightened to
realize that someone is hiding in a big stack of corn stalks laid in one corner
of the barn, perhaps to dry for feed.
girl runs back to the house, but even before she goes inside, she starts to
calm down and think about what this means. She does not say anything to her
family, but after dinner she goes out to the barn with some food for the
fugitive. Perhaps my favorite part about this story is a spread showing
different hands holding different food items on the same checked cloth—showing
that each member of the family separately slips out to the barn to feed the
runaway slave hiding there.
next day two men come to the farm looking for a runaway slave, but the girl’s
family sends them away. That night the runaway is gone, but she has left a
simple gift behind for the girl, something she has made from the checked napkin
and the corn husks.
good picture book is like a poem. It is hard to tell a story well in just a few
words or just a few pictures, but Cole succeeds beautifully. The entire book is
done in charcoal pencil on cream-colored textured paper, giving it a sepia look
like photos from the late 1800s as well as a subtle richness. The North Star,
or rather the Little Dipper containing the North Star, is a motif used in a
piece of art that appears on the book cover and inside the book; it is also
shown on two other spreads, tying the story together.
a graphic novel, the picture book format does not allow for a lot of sequential
storytelling, but Cole has chosen his moments well, and the narrative flows
logically. I like the way he shows most scenes at a medium distance, but
includes the occasional close-up. One of the best spreads in the book is simply
all those corn stalks with their marvelous texture—and one eye of the hidden
girl looking out.
includes an author’s note that explains about the Civil War stories he heard as
a boy growing up in Virginia, as well as more information about how slaves used
the North Star to guide their escape to freedom.
may require you to use a few words of introduction to give young readers
historical context. But the sense of quiet urgency, the threat of discovery,
the courage of the runaway, and one farm family’s kindness need no words, as
Henry Cole so wisely shows us.
Beetle Book by Steve Jenkins
knew a guy in Los Angeles who created original artwork using photographs of
beetles. They were really gorgeous, so it’s no surprise to me that the beetle
art in Jenkins’ latest nature book is, too. The cover alone is worth the price
I will admit I was a little put off when I first opened the book and saw how small the font
size is, but I quickly got used to it and realized that its size means the text doesn't compete with the illustrations. Beetle names are in boldface in the
text, which is helpful. Another nice touch is that the author-illustrator gives
us many of the beetles in black silhouette to show their actual sizes.
lets the stark white backgrounds set off the beetles’ strong colors and shapes, taking full advantage of negative space and the beetles' symmetry to create graphic art-influenced illustrations. Many of the beetles are static, portrait-style, but some are shown in action,
most notably two rhinoceros beetles dueling to win a mate. The illustrations
are all the more breathtaking when you realize that they are done entirely
using “torn- and cut-paper collage.” Jenkins has joined the rarified ranks of Eric
Carle and Lois Ehlert in his use of the technique.
science content may remind you a little of an Eyewitness book. The Beetle Book
is filled with fun facts. For example, have you ever heard of the forest fire
has special heat-sensing spots on its body. It can detect a fire from more than
20 miles (32 kilometers) away. These beetles fly to the site of the forest fire
and lay their eggs in charred wood—wood that is now free of predators." I
thought he was going to say the beetles sensed the fire and flew away from it,
but instead the beetles fly to the fire!
beetles, shiny beetles, poisonous beetles (if you eat them!) and camouflaged
beetles—Jenkins introduces readers to a colorful cast of characters. One of my
favorites is an Australian beetle called Wallace’s longicorn, which has a body
that’s not quite 4 inches long and antennae that can reach 15 inches or
so in length. (Illustration above is a dung beetle.)
just end with one final fact, Jenkins’ opening sentence: “Line up every kind of
plant and animal on Earth… and one of every four will be a beetle.” So yes,
we’re outnumbered. But if you’ve got a budding scientist on your hands, get him
or her The Beetle Book
Also: See The Beetle Book cover art below at the end of last week's post.
Moon Jumpers by Janice May Udry, illustrated by Maurice Sendak
is a golden oldie, a Caldecott Honor Book back in 1960, predating Sendak’s 1964
Caldecott Medal for Where the Wild Things Are
. I am happy to bring it up now
because Harper Collins is reissuing the book in February. So just how well does
The Moon Jumpers
is retro in two obvious regards: it’s a quiet book, and the dad in the book smokes a
pipe. The text of the story would be a real hard sell if Udry sent it out to
Scholastic or any other publisher today. Fortunately, she sold it in a kinder,
gentler day, and then Sendak’s illustrations made a slight story into something
significantly more magical. Basically, four kids go outside and play around. Then
their mom calls them in and they go to bed.
what does Sendak do with this material? He adds a cat, for one thing. He shows
how four kids can make a game out of anything, including a tree branch and the
moon. And he gives the whole thing this really atmospheric feeling, reminding
us that there is something mysterious and a little wild about the night and the
moon. The four children—two girls and two boys—are a bit pretty, especially the
girls, but we can happily forget that as they strike kid poses and flop around
and goof off. (See Sendak’s brilliant work showing how kids move and the faces
they make in Ruth Krauss’s A Hole Is to Dig
spreads here are flatter and simpler than in some of Sendak’s later work,
though you can see hints of Where the Wild Things Are
in his trees and bushes.
The shapes of the house, the trees, and the shadows make new meaning out of the
night, as do the figures of the children. One spread I particularly like
doesn’t show the children at all, just the house, the night, and the cat.
I am not giving enough credit to Janice Udry for her own understanding of
children. What do the children do, playing outside?
climb the tree just to be in a tree at night.
we make a little camp and pretend we’re on an island for the night.
make up songs. And poems. And we turn somersaults all over the grass.
tell ghost stories. And holler “Boo!” under the window.
jump and jump, over and over, and higher and higher. But nobody has ever
touched the moon."
even if you had four kids instead of two and weren’t afraid of them getting
snatched from the yard and could get them out the door after dark, they would
probably sit on the porch playing video game apps.
hate to cite nostalgia, but it’s another good reason for liking this book. Most
of all, though, I think I like it for the mood. People don’t necessarily talk a
lot about that as a book illustration skill, but one reason Maurice Sendak is
considered a master illustrator is because he could create a tone so distinct
it was like a voice calling softly through the night.
Moon Jumpers reminds me of that—and of catching fireflies when I was a child in
my grandmother’s backyard.