Time for the second part of my long list of quality picture books published this year! (Check out the first part of my recommendations, focused on kids age 2-7, here.) Get your shopping cart or library list ready!
The Farmer and the Clown by Marla Frazee
I fear that in this age of Accelerated Reader and ridiculously over-emphasized high-stakes testing, the beauty and power of the wordless picture book genre may wane. Kids can't take a test on books that don't have words, because wordless picture books lend themselves to varied interpretations, which limits the usefulness of a multiple-choice response. Wordless picture books speak through illustration alone, and consequently are able to work on many levels. They can engage readers from preschool through adulthood, and their subtle strength can particularly acutely render emotion.
When I learned that one of my favorite illustrators, Marla Frazee had a new picture book in the works, I immediately pinned it to my reading list. Frazee has authored more standout picture books that I could ever do justice in describing to you. There are a handful of children's book illustrators whose work I make sure to always take a look at, and Frazee is just that good. Good enough to win a Caldecott Honor in 2009 for All the World, which is a beautiful gift book especially appropriate for the birth of a child, or for a preschooler's birthday.
The Farmer and the Clown is the wordless story of a white-bearded farmer who takes in a tiny clown who falls from a circus train in the middle of rural somewhere. In a few exquisite pages Frazee develops the relationship of the old farmer and the very young clown until the train returns to claim the company's lost family member. With no words at all, Frazee portrays the budding relationship between farmer and clown, from initial hesitation through to a bittersweet parting. And just when that poignant goodbye seems almost too much to bear, Frazee throws in a final page that is just humorous enough to lighten the mood and leave her readers laughing instead of crying.
I love this book. It is just perfect in every way. It's bittersweet and beautiful, just like life.
Frances Dean Who Loved to Dance and Dance by Birgitta Sif
Birgitta Sif is relatively new to the picture book scene stateside, and I am delighted with her work. Frances Dean is a little girl who's inspired to dance and dance with the wind on her skin and birdsong in her ears. But, like many kids, Frances is a bit reluctant when it comes to letting anyone else see her in her favorite form of self-expression. The birds and another young girl who likes to sing (in private, of course), inspire Frances to step out of her comfort zone and risk dancing in front of others. The end spread shows what Frances' talent does for the world when it is shared, rather than hidden. A hit-home message about the importance of taking risks, both for ourselves, and in order to inspire others. Sif's digitally-colored pencil illustrations deftly portray Frances' movement and emotions, from joy to anxiety to triumph. This is a book that begs to be shared.
A Library Book for Bear by Bonny Becker and Kady MacDonald Denton
This is the fifth installment in the critically-acclaimed Bear and Mouse series, and Becker and Denton haven’t lost their collective touch. Bear and Mouse are the Odd Couple of picture book land, and their opposites-attract relationship is once again center of a charming children's story. This time Mouse drags a reticent Bear ("I have all the books I need right here.") out of the house for a first-time visit to the library. Once Bear and Mouse reach their destination, Bear goes on and on in a louder and louder voice about his discontent with the "most excessive" library and his inability to find a book about pickles that aren't dancing. As a librarian, I adore the fact that while Mouse is panicked by Bear's use of his outside voice indoors, the children's librarian doesn't blink an eye, but invites Bear to storytime, which happens to feature a book about, you guess it, non-dancing pickles.
Don't worry if you're not a library lover. The setting is secondary to the main players. The Bear and Mouse books are appealing because of the relationship between its protagonists, and because kids enjoy watching crotchety old Bear learn how to live a little at the hands of a very persistent, but quietly coaxing, mouse.
Mix It Up! By Hervé Tullet
I'm guessing a whole bunch of you are familiar with French author/illustrator Tullet's blockbuster Press Here, which received accolades across the board as an interactive children's book sans iPad or other electronic device. Press Here is indeed fantastic, creative, and original, and is one of those books that is published every once in a while to remind me that children's books are an art form, and that the envelope can continue to be pushed, thank goodness. Tullet has recently followed upon his success with Mix It Up!, in which kids learn all about color mixing by turning and shaking the book as instructed by the narrator. This is a book about art, a concept-teaching book, and a work of art in itself. It's fun, educational, and insanely clever. I'm positive kids will love it. My kindergartner has made me read it to him many times and he loves pushing the covers of the book together as hard as he can to make the colors mix up properly.
Draw! by Raúl Colon
Yet another wordless picture book makes my list of recommendations, and this one is making waves throughout children's book land. I feel nearly certain we'll see it on major award lists. Colon, a Puerto Rican-American, is another of my most-beloved illustrators, and I've curated his books here. He uses an entirely original style that melds pen and ink, watercolors, and Prismacolor and lithograph pencils, and sometimes reminds me of pointillism a la Seurat, but with tiny lines instead of dots. Colon is undoubtedly talented; I can't recommend highly enough the dreamy, time-lapse, semi-sepia feeling his gorgeous artwork leaves me with.
Draw! is Colon's first wordless outing, to my knowledge. It opens with a young boy of color leafing through a book on African animals, then moves on to show him picking up his sketch book. As readers, we get to nearly-literally travel inside this city boy's imagination as he draws exotic animals. As he daydreams about interacting with the animals via a friendly elephant's back, Colon shifts the artwork from pencil drawing to his traditional style. This indicates that we've left the real world an entered another, much more exciting one that includes some humorous and touching animal/boy encounters. The story ends back in real time, with the boy demonstrating his artwork to his class. Then Colon follows up with an explanatory endnote about growing up in New York City as a boy who let his imagination and penchant for drawing take him around the world.
This is a story that will touch readers on more than one level, as Colon explores the artistic process, childhood imagination, and tells a ripping good yarn -- all without words. Because of this, a young child can enjoy the basic imagined adventure story and an older child can benefit from encountering a potent message about the significance of creative inspiration. The best books meet varied readers right at their particular age and level of experience. And one that does it without words? Well, wow.
Telephone by Mac Barnett and Jen Corace
Barnett's ingenious collaboration with Jon Klassen in Extra Yarn blew my socks of a few years ago; since then I've always taken a close look at anything the former publishes. Barnett has a knack for writing great storylines about imaginative topics, with a twist. With Telephone, he and artist Corace continue along those creatively successful lines, and I'm very happy with the outcome.
We’ve all played "telephone" once or twice as a demonstration of the way words morph as they travel. Telephone starts out simply enough, with a mother telling a young kid to let her son know it's time to come home for dinner. The message becomes convoluted and funny along the way. But wait. The characters aren't people -- they're birds of all makes and model, dressed just like the humans they portray, and communicating by flying from piece to piece of a power line. Finally, a (wise old) owl sets the message straight in a slyly humorous ending. Corace's watercolor, pencil, ink, and gouache illustrations appear three dimensional, and has she ever got a knack for facial expressions. As a parent I found Telephone touchingly sweet, but also very entertaining. My kids loved it, too.
What If …? by Anthony Browne
It's difficult to do this complex picture book justice in a review, but I'm going to give it a shot in hopes you'll pick it up to see for yourself. This is the story of Joe, a young boy who is very nervous about attending a party. He asks his mother repeated anxious questions as they walk to the event: What if I don't like the food? What if there are A LOT of people there? When will you come get me? This serious conversation is interspersed with surrealistic encounters in which Joe and his mother view fantastic scenes inside houses they're passing along the way to the party. This sounds odd, I know, but these spreads serve to add a little levity to the mood. Finally, mom and son encounter the true party house, and a scary-looking darkish door opens to reveal a bunch of friendly, colorful, warm, and welcoming kids who invite Joe in. After the door closes behind Joe, it's his mother's turn to be besieged with the internal what-ifs that she's kept undercover in an effort to calm Joe. Next, we fast-forward to the mother and child reunion at party's end. Joe's smiling face is backlit with sunshiny yellow as he announces how much fun he's had. Mama asks if he'd like to have a party of his own, to which he responds with enthusiastic delight.
Browne, an English picture book artist who has been publishing for many years, uses not just words, but light versus dark colors, and the imaginative versus reality to great effect in What If …? This is the perfect story to share with a fearful child (and most children are, to one extent or another). I especially love that it reveals to kids that they are not alone in their fears, as even adults feel intimidation and worry. A reassuring book featuring beautifully effective illustrations.
Emily's Blue Period by Cathleen Daly and Lisa Brown
This special book resides in a place close to my heart. Daly interweaves two stories, one of a young girl's connection to a famous artist (Picasso), and another of her use of artistic expression to start the healing process when faced with family upheaval. Daly writes with just a light enough hand not to overwhelm us about a topic that, according to statistics, affects many, many children. Emily's parents are living in separate residences, and she and her younger brother are learning to cope with a major life shift. Through a collage art project, Emily is able to gain a feeling of control over her circumstances and even help her little brother adjust. An interworking of themes rendered in a way that, instead of overwhelming kids, will help them feel they can weather loss of control, in any area of life. And, Brown's pencil and watercolor illustrations perfectly capture Emily's Blue Period, and Emily's emergence therefrom.
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