Who says the dog days are uneventful and slow? Over here in the picture book section we're playing with trains, learning about numbers, traveling the world, and experiencing minor peril! I love the plots of picture books.
Let's see what we've got...
Me First by Max Kornell
I like this book a little more every time I look at it. I like the way that Martha and Hal compete, cheat, and cooperate. I like that Martha ACTUALLY tries something a little bit dangerous and falls in the creek, and I like that both kids are a little bit shaken up by that. That feels really real to me.
I also like this artist's palette of pretty-but-not-cloying watercolors. Warm browns, clear blues, and greens ranging from lemony to khaki illustrate a family picnic. Chunky marker lines give the art a little bit of a stained-glass quality. And clock this composition on the cover - overlapping triangles slide the eye toward Hal, about to take a risky first step. A puffy cloud up above bears down. It's a sunny scene in peaceful colors but it is subtly packed with potential energy. This fella Max Kornell knows his business.
Yup. A little more every time.
Train! by Judi Abbot
YEAAHH! Little Elephant ONLY likes trains. Oh my god did I have that kid. The Thomas the Tank Engine theme song still rolls through my head like a demon calliope. I can still name you 25 Thomas engines without even breaking a sweat - I was hanging with a little kid at a toy store train table a couple weeks ago and asked him his favorite train. "Percy!?" I scoffed. "Percy sucks - he has such an unwarranted inferiority complex! Why not Boco? Ben? Even James! Not Diesel 10 - that guy's a dick - but how about Mavis?" Not in so many words.
The Fraternity of Mr. Conductor: Ringo, Carlin, and Jack Donaghy. That is one weird Venn diagram.
And can I ask - why the hell do libraries (mine included) and children's bookstores and mall kid corrals all have train tables? Train tables come with the extra added feature Inevitable Conflict. Tracks are LINEAR. You are GOING to have a head to head pissing match. PLUS 50% of the toddlers in the world believe that once they have had their hands on a Thomas train, that train car is THEIRS. He has been PLAYING with it. He has given that train a personality and a story in his head and now you are saying they must be PARTED?! Nuts to that bullshit. And there it goes. There are more tearful, furious scenes at public train tables than there are on the first day of daycare.
If you are like me, this compilation of ALL THE CRASHES will do your PTSD (post-toddler stress disorder) a little bit of good.
Anyway. Little Elephant. On a train ride (a real train, Joel) Little Elephant meets up with kids who are NOT into trains. Little Cat is into planes, Little Penguin likes cars. "Whatever, kids," Little Elephant thinks. His first exposure to people who are not exactly like him convinces him that they are notably inferior. Yep. Welcome to being you, buddy. But then the train goes through a tunnel and all the toys get mixed up and then they play together and all their single words, "Train-plane-digger-digger, train-plane-car!" string together into a train song. SO satisfying!
Cat Napped by Leeza Hernandez
Will be fun to bust out for storytime - the simple rhymes bounce as they tell a story of a curious kitty who is briefly lost. Big pluses for YOWLs and MEOWLs and a wide range of emotions on the faces of both the kitty and his girl.
Mr. Brown's Fantastic Hat by Ayano Imai
It's like Haruki Murakami for first graders! (Is compliment.)
Add this to the short list of artistic hat books for children (Caps for Sale, I Want My Hat Back and This Is Not My Hat, Milo's Hat Trick, Hat by Paul Hoppe, and the better-get-some-recognition-this-year debut title Brimsby's Hats).
One World Together by Catherine and Laurence Anholt
I would like this just a little bit more if it were the kid from Kenya whose mother was a doctor, and the Dutch twins who spoke of all the wonderful animals in their country, instead of the reverse.
Princess Wannabe by Leslie Lammle
Huh. Where has Leslie Lammle been all my life? This is some darn fine illustration, all crunchy curves and smooth volumes. And the story is cute and clever too. I am always on the lookout for picture books that will satisfy the frilly princess craving while providing good story and strong characters at the same time. (See also Princesses Are Not Perfect, Dangerously Ever After, The Worst Princess, and There's a Princess in the Palace) Win!
You Are Not Small by Anna Kang and Christopher Weyant
Deceptively simple, and lots of laughs. Each bear declares that his perspective is the proper one (YOU are BIG), and insists that the other guy should allow himself to be defined thusly. NO. I am not big. YOU are SMALL. Deep.
Bonjour Camille by Felipe Cano and Laia Aguilar
Bonjour, Camille! Get up! Put on your battledress and face the day! Hide the umbrellas! Eat cherries!
Encourage inventive plans with this petite, semi-abstract picture book.
So, here's a neat thing about Bonjour Camille. The author and illustrator are Spanish - not French as we might imagine - and Laia Aguilar, the artist, is co-founder of Bobo Choses, a purveyor of design-y clothes for truly cool enfants. Wow, man. I would totally wear this ferny mohair sweater if it came in my size. I totally would.
Leading me to a couple of thoughts. I have been back and forth over the past year or so discussing gender participation in picture books with a couple of friends. Sometimes it seems like the picture book creators who get all the attention are disproportionately male. There are a few theories about this - guy creators are celebrated by mostly-female publishing houses; guy creators are more available to go on book tours; guy creators are more conscious of grooming their career so that it is an actual 'career' they can proudly defend at the Thanksgiving dinner table and so they do more promotion and book trailers and whatnot... and then there's my most recent theory. ("Oh, great, let's hear THIS," I can hear you thinking. Quit rolling your eyes!)
My current theory is that talented young female artists may not be leaping into picture books these days. Design and illustration are in a marvelous moment right now - everywhere you look there's a throw pillow, a roll of wrapping paper, toys, textiles, and t-shirts that are super clever, wonderfully appealing. Major mass-market stores (Target, IKEA) are using great design as a calling card. Production techniques have improved so that good art doesn't get hashed up by sloppy printing. There's a lot of action in these design realms that have traditionally been identified with women.
Then there's Etsy, and a million online boutiques that specialize in jaunty, imaginative design and art. There's a lot of freedom in making things for the long tail. A lot of illustrators - and I have to say, primarily female illustrators - supplement their published work with work in other media, whether as an additional, instant-gratification creative outlet, or to augment the ol' income. Leigh Hodgkinson makes dolls and stuff under the name Wonkybutton. Julie Paschkis does textiles. Viviane Schwarz makes games. Pamela Zagarenski sells beautiful cards on Etsy. Nikki McClure's prints, calendars, t-shirts, and cards are available on Buy Olympia. "Hedgehog in a fez." Heh heh.
Then there's the fact that the boys' clubs that are the comic book industry - and to a lesser extent the animation and game industry - are finally really opening up to women. And maybe it's just me, but I am seeing more women in editorial illustration.
I see young women picture book artists like Divya Srinivasan and Julia Kuo making their way with a variety of projects. Divya has done album covers and animation, while Julia drew a graphic novel, creates visual identities, and does a lot of editorial. Do male artists diversify like this? (I mean besides Intel celebrity Bob Staake, whose covers for The New Yorker almost make me want to read The New Yorker. And besides Peter Sis, who doesn't apparently sleep, and so designs stage sets and murals alongside book projects.)
I think artists, more so than the rest of us, have to take work where they can find it. Or find work where they can take it. If everybody in the industry is sending manuscripts to Jon Klassen and Dan Santat, Jon and Dan are going to be drawing books nonstop... which will keep them uppermost in the mind of editors looking for illustrators, and so they'll get sent all the manuscripts, and so on. You can spend the money to send them to signings and festivals because they can promote more than one book at the time. Everybody will already be familiar with their books when awards time comes around.
How do you get onto that merry-go-round? And is it more difficult for female artists to swing aboard? That's what my friends and I have been talking about. But my question is - are women lining up for that ride? Or are they finding more lucrative work - or more creative freedom - drawing superheroes or salad plate patterns or tea towels on Etsy? Do they design a children's clothing line and then maybe paint a storybook? Have they skipped the merry-go-round and are instead buying tickets for for the Wild Mouse?
Whoops, that was kind of a tangent, wasn't it? A tangent leading up to a terrible, terrible metaphor. Sorry. I am, as usual, basing all this on no facts whatsoever, merely observation and anecdote. Gender stuff is astonishingly hard to gather data on. Anyway, on to - oh here's irony - a man who can't help it if he plays to all of children's publishing's weak spots, the adorably scruffy and charmingly Irish Oliver Jeffers.
None the Number: A Hueys Book by Oliver Jeffers
Ok let's just start with the two Hueys on the title page who are holding up fingers to indicate "Zero, one, two, three." They totally look like they are throwing up gang signs, and I LOVE THAT.
Then let's address the fact that FOUR is the number of tantrums Kevin throws every day. Some kids will nod and go, "I know a kid like Kevin," and others will be like, "Man, I'm so glad Kevin isn't my brother," while still others will be reassured. "I totally throw four tantrums a day," they'll think. "I appear to be within the normal range."
SIX is fishermen waiting for the bus, and if you think Oliver Jeffers is not affected by living in Brooklyn surrounded by hepcats, just take a look at the peacoat and Breton jersey - to say nothing of the hats - on this page.
NINE is seagulls trying to snag Frank's french fries, which reminds me of a tragic story involving a saltshaker on the Ocean City boardwalk. That poor bird.
So all told, I'd have to call None the Number my favorite one-to-ten book since One Was Johnny.
The Good-Pie Party by Elizabeth Garton Scanlon
Posy's family is moving, but she can't stand the idea. She especially can't bear the idea of saying goodbye to her best friends. So they say good-pie instead, and dang it - now I've got a sniffle. And I'm hungry!
Til next time!