Dot, Clem, Ozzie, Ollie, Maya, Nalah, Loula, and Ripple. Henry, Dorothy, Francis, Betsy, Willow, Jemmy Button and Anna Hibiscus. Plus French film icon Jacques Tati and former Vikings defensive end Alan Page.
These are my new best friends. And they are just a very few of the main characters of picture books nominated for Best Picture Book in the Cybils Awards. Go on, take a peek at the nominations list. Wow, right?
It's a diverse bunch of folks - there's a dolphin, a dog, foxes, monsters, princesses, squirrels and more than one bunny. Loula is French, Noah and Na'amah are South Asian in The Enduring Ark, the Lucky Ducklings live in Montauk, the Tiny King is Japanese, and Anna Hibiscus lives in "Africa, amazing Africa." Jemmy Button was real. Mr. Hulot was the fictional alter ego of the real actor Jacques Tati.
Some of the characters in these books have developmental differences, some are their friends. Some have impulse problems or crazy imaginations or are having a bad day. Some learn A Valuable Lesson and some have A Positive Influence on Those Around Them. That's to be expected when you read 194 picture books in two months.
I am not going to do capsule reviews of my favorites. My brain can't yet process which ones are my favorites. I am going to do capsule reviews of the books that made me think the most in the past little while.
Lucky Ducklings by Eva Moore, illustrations by Nancy Carpenter
I don't even have anything to say about this book, a simple story about a brood of ducklings who fall through a storm grating and are rescued by compassionate humans. What's there to say? The story is heartwarming, the ducklings are fuzzy.
With a story like this, the art of the author is to stay out of its way - to RESIST cloying rhymes and over-personification. Eva Moore resists! (Except she can't help naming the duckies. I probably couldn't either.) And the art of the illustrator of a story like this is to RESIST super-cuting the whole thing up. Since the illustrator is Nancy Carpenter, well, yeah. Nancy Carpenter RESISTS! But Nancy Carpenter seems to enjoy the way people and animals actually look - I've always appreciated her homey and realistic depictions. She's been compared to Robert McCloskey, and I'm going to RESIST saying more.
The Tiny King by Taro Miura
The tiny king is lonely, then he falls in love and has a family and is happy. Do you need a lot of plot in a book for preschoolers? Nope. You don't. We get to look at colors and shapes and numbers while we read this book - we get to point those things out and look for them with our little lapsitters. So groovy, with natural rhythm and movement.
Nalah and the Pink Tiger by Anne Sawyer-Aitch
I like this unconventional picture book quite a bit. It is crazy busy to look at, with insane hot colors and an abundance of pattern that on a technical level flattens the illustrations out and makes them a bit hard to read - think Persian carpets, South Asian miniatures - but I think preschool audiences will be fascinated.
The author is a "puppeteer and stilt-walker" and says that she "has a lot of talented friends with strange skill sets." Her illustrations are made using a technique borrowed from making shadow puppets - very interesting, and explains why the whole thing looks like batik.
I know a disproportionate number of puppeteers and stilt-walkers myself, and that may inform my appreciation of this book. My friends and relatives who are drawn to the discipline and showmanship associated with these unconventional skills have a few things in common: they disdain conformity, are impatient with limitations, and often chafe against authority. A lot of them would be diagnosed with ADHD if they had to sit through elementary school again.
Not casting aspersions on Anne Sawyer-Aitch, in fact quite the opposite: whatever it is in the brain of people who teach themselves how to spin twelve hula hoops at a time, who think a skirt made of ribbons is the most beautiful kind, who find the abstraction of puppets to be the best medium for storytelling - I think people like these should write more picture books.
How To by Julie Morstad
Contemplative and nonlinear, a meditation on prosaic joys. How to fly a kite, how to be brave. Give this to your friend who is pregnant for the first time so that she can think about how much she has to look forward to, and how much she has to teach.
Julie Morstad's rather precious, self-conscious style bugs the crap out of me in her work for grownups - I think it reminds me too much of the work of Henry Darger, who was the opposite of self-conscious - but here it seems not self-conscious at all, and is JUST RIGHT.
Hello Mr. Hulot by David Merveille
Ok look: I have never seen any of Jacques Tati's Mr. Hulot films. So let's start off by saying you do not need a familiarity with French midcentury cinema to appreciate this very cool, nearly-wordless picture book. But we're going to fix that at the end of this post.
David Merveille's limited palette and funny-pages compositional style shoulder the bulk of the storytelling responsibilities here. His line and shapes are clean and sophisticated, while Mr. Hulot is anything but. Hulot is a star - cluelessly lucky, always optimistic. Short of pantsleg and long on perseverence, he is appealing across generations and geography.