It's time for one of those "quick looks" at recent picture book offerings.
First up, DOWN THE HOLE, written by Scott Slater and illustrated by Adam Ming. Down the Hole taps into classic animal relationships, especially the predator/prey cycle of life that keeps our world in balance but places one species in the "bad guy" role and the prey becomes the "underguy". That automatically casts the prey as the hero of any story, at least most stories. Turning such a tale into something original isn't always easy, since this plot appears over millennia and across cultures globally. When the "underguy" manages to outwit the "bad guy", readers/audiences are satisfied.
In this case, the combatants are Fox (with hints of past success diminishing this particular community of rabbits in the past) and the underground "menu", the bunnies . Outwitting that fox, who, on the cover, lurks above ground, begins when Fox invites a bunny to come up and "help" a friendly fox.
The leader bunny demonstrates bright dialogue, alert to the past and aware of the current intentions. Meanwhile bunny leader (wearing collar and tie) and his rabbit crew devise a way to eliminate the problem, not just at the moment but permanently.
The text includes some fun word-play, sly hints and twists (with the bunny proving to be every bit as sly as the fox), and a delightful view of the benefits of cooperation. Even so, I might have rated four stars for all that, since it covers such familiar ground. But the illustrations elevate my opinion by providing extra layers of visual narrative elements, especially in the life underground extending beyond the bunny warren (residents like mice or moles or groundhogs). These images include one particular underground dweller who might tip that predator/prey scale.
The art itself is genuine bonus. Colorful and fun, yes. But also very effective at elaborating on the appeal of this tale. The illustration note in back describes creating digitally on PROCREATE combined with hand-painted textures and icons in acrylic guache on fancy watercolor paper. The combination media and techniques give a nearly collage-like effect at times, always adding to the impact of the humor, reactions, and depth, despite the somewhat cartoonish images. The spreads suggest movement, attitude, anticipation, suspense, and foreshadowing.
Next up is another picture book that takes a lively and appealing story, then elevates it to memorable through the talents of the creator. THE CONCRETE GARDEN, written and illustrated by BOB GRAHAM, is not a classic animal tale, nor is the art style similar. This is a realistic contemporary story inspired by the period in which pandemic isolation was lifting locally, allowing kids and adults to emerge from the restrictions imposed by viruses and winter conditions. In this case, an intensely populated urban apartment complex releases a swarm of cabin-fever kids and their masked adults to swarm onto an outdoor concrete space. From the fifteenth floor alone a cadre of kids, diverse in age and identities and pursuits launch themselves into the open air for the best antidote to confinement, PLAY!
This provides a perfect launch for the brilliant emergence of masterpiece via improvised changes and creative additions, collaboration and accidents, as well as attention and appreciation. As above, this would be worthy choice if it ended there. But, it is elevated in this case not only by the appealingly child-friendly and clever art, but also by pushing the story to its easily imagined next days. Yes, chalk on concrete has a surprising lifespan if conditions are good, but when it rains... it pours.
In this case, I won't spoil the author/illustrator's clever extended thinking, but he certainly must be in touch with his inner child. Not only does he explore domino-effect expressive art options that rain provides, but continues by setting the stage to suggest a future use for material fragments of the project. I found myself wondering about potential uses for those fragments long after closing the cover of this book. That's a wonderful impact for this story, but also an example of making picture books as layered and dense with positive elements as possible.