Portmanteau post time! Since returning from vacation I've made a concerted effort to catch up on new picture books. It's a burden. I'm kidding. It's a joy. I love paging through a giant stack - it's like sitting on your friend's floor going through her records. Thirty years ago. *shakes head* *misses 12" record albums for a minute* *wonders where all her Siouxsie and the Banshees records got to*
Anyway, when you read ten or twenty picture books at a time, the winners - and the weirdos, and the "hmm" books - quickly distinguish themselves from the rank and file.
Niño Wrestles the World by Yuyi Morales
YES! No really, I mean... YEEEEESSSS!
My pick for Caldecott. Not kidding. The art is so dang gorgeous, peppy, appealing, touchable, and lively. With clear, potent colors and lovely painted swingy lines. The sharp edges and sort of rough textures - a lot of this looks like it was printed or painted on a concrete wall, like a wrestling poster - are a departure for Yuyi Morales, whose work is usually soft, soft, gentle, and soft, with a side of soft. Her shapes and forms have always had presence and weight though, and so here she just puts a hard edge to them and paints them like a carton of cascarones. Oh I love it.
Right? Sharp! Graphic! Those colors! Plenty of Spanish words and inventive onomatopoiea, plus Mexican cultural icons. The giant stone Olmec head makes a particularly formidable foe. But just, I mean, come on - SO CUTE, with the underpants and the little buddy legs! Awwww.
Oliver and his Alligator by Paul Schmid
Another BIG YES.
Nervous about the first day of school? Take an alligator. I like the language here - it's simple and clear and doesn't dodge Oliver's vague fears. Oliver takes the alligator to school "in case things got a little rough." "A little rough" - that's kind of the way we actually talk to kids. AND Oliver and his Alligator doesn't introduce new fears that might not have already occurred to a jittery kid already. Boy, there are some books that are all like, "What if the janitor's hairy? / What if the lunch lady's scary?" and the kid you're reading to turns white and goes, "What's a lunch lady? Are they scary? Oh my god what's a janitor? WHERE ARE YOU SENDING MEEE?!"
Also, Paul Schmid's pencil line is pure, clean genius. I have given this to one (1) grandmother of a soon-to-be kindergartner and one (1) teacher returning to the classroom after 8 years home with her own kids. They feel better now.
Ike's Incredible Ink by Brianne Farley
Sometimes your process is your story. It's true. And when nonfictional, real-life adult writers write that story, it is often nooo story you would want to read - tedious, heartbreaking, solipsistic, or some wretched combination of all three.
But when a blobby little guy in a picture book, a guy with jester feet and a head like a toaster and a yen for storytelling decides that the only thing that will cure his writer's block is creating his own ink, and then sets off on a quest for dark inky ingredients that will take him to, among other places, THE MOON, now that is a process story you will want to read.
Super Hair-o and the Barber of Doom by John Rocco
Much as I adore the art in this book - the composition, the palette, the page where Rocco and his friends stride all backlit toward the reader's POV EXACTLY like a crew of heroes in a campy action movie - and am charmed by the spare story, in which Rocco gets the Full Delilah and loses his superpowers, it's the sweet ending that sticks with me the most. Don't know why, but this one always ends in a little happy sniffle for me.
No Fits, Nilson! by Zachariah OHora
"Amelia covers Nilson's mouth and stares him down with a gorilla eye lock, repeating the words 'banana ice cream' over and over."
There are two things I like very much here.
- This acknowlegement that an overtired, impatient toddler is a very fragile thing, and can only be kept in check by means of hypnotic concentration and mantra-like murmured promises of ice cream.
- The twist at the end that shows us the dual, near-schizophrenic nature of the child. All day Amelia has been urging Nilson to keep his cool. She uses techniques like distraction, recontextualizing ("This is an ADVENTURE, not errands!"), and goal attainment. Her savvy and patience are quite remarkable, so the eventual discovery that Nilson is just a stuffed animal and therefore all the fits and near-fits in the book were in fact Amelia's - underscores and gives credit to the hard, polarizing work of self-regulating that we ask preschool kids to learn to do.
Also, there's a cereal in this book called "Frosted Sheriff" and I want some of that.
Dream Boats by Dan Bar-el, illustrations by Kirsti Anne Wakelin
So pretty, so gorgeous. But so frustrating! This cover does not do this book justice.
I first noticed Kirsti Anne Wakelin's work in the quietly nostalgic Looking for Loons. Her keenly observed wildlife paintings - right up there with some of the best naturalist artists I've ever seen. And now, in Dream Boats, she gets to paint dragons and skies and beautiful plants... oh my.
The Things I Can Do by Jeff Mack
Maybe it's just because I like messy, but I adore this. Young Jeff shows us all the things he can do, and I've already handed it to a kid and told her she can write her own book of things SHE can do.
Brush of the Gods by Lenore Look and Meilo So
Marvelous work from both Look and So. Prose that sings, paintings that are exquisite and lively but never precious. Based on the life of T'ang Dynasty painter Wu Daozi, called "China's greatest painter."
Meilo So is I think a little bit underappreciated - she draws expressive people and well-proportioned animals, her colors and line are swingy and marvelous, and she does a great job with environments and buildings. Hurry and the Monarch was just a jewel of a book, and Moonbeams, Dumplings & Dragon Boats: A Treasury of Chinese Holiday Tales, Activities & Recipes belongs in every school library. But like this book, I feel that the cover of Moonbeams is not as strong as the art inside. Too much going on. Imagine this cover with the bystanders edited out. Shrink the houses at the top so that they're almost a border. Then, even if you left the artist the same size - he is quite petite, for a main character - I think he, and his beautiful swirling horse, would stand out in better focus.
Awesome Dawson by Chris Gall
"The Vacu-Maniac has a brain made of cat food, Dawson."
"That could be a problem."
It's funny, it's beautiful, it's exciting, and it features the best deadpan talking cow sidekick I've seen in a picture book so far this year!
Can Chris Gall just be in charge of all picture books for a while please? He is the best.
The Beginner's Guide to Running Away from Home by Jennifer Huget and Red Nose Studio
I love the conversational text, the cinematic diorama scenes, and the super humor. Our hero's reasons for leaving: "It's never my turn to pick the TV show. That dumb baby. Peas. PEAS. PEAS!" are admirably concise and well-stated. And I laughed out loud when he recommends pinning your note "where your parents can't miss it" - on that dumb baby.
But in truth, Red Nose Studio bought my admiration on the first page, where the refrigerator is decorated with a drawing of an AT-AT walker. My Ezra could have drawn that picture when he was 4, and yes, we would have put it on the fridge. It's those Everynerd touches that hit you right here.
Puss Jekyll Cat Hyde by Joyce Dunbar and Jill Burton
Now, listen. This a fine book for kids. Poems built on observation describe a black-and-white kitty's various moods and seeming split personality. Any kid who has a cat will recognize - yup, that's what cats are like. We have a black and white cat named Brother John who is certainly half cuddlebutt, half terrorist, and my kids would recognize Brother John in these pages.
But this is not necessarily a book that my kids would clasp to their bosom and cherish. Rather, any clasping and cherishing likely to be inflicted upon this book will be done by grownups who have owned cats, loved cats, and spent A LOT of time with their cats. Not to put too fine a point on it... LIBRARIANS. Maybe also writers and illustrators.
Fog Island by Tomi Ungerer
I am going to buy me another house one of these days, one with giant windows and big plain walls and maybe a view of water, and I am going to blow up these spectacularly composed ink and watercolor and maybe a little gouache paintings and wallpaper that house with it.
It will look lush but austere, warmly gray, precise, and a little funny. I'll speak in an accent when I yell at my cats in that house.