Feb 29, 2024

A LEAP DAY Duo: Two Fun New Titles

 It's time for one of those "quick looks" at recent picture book offerings.

Clarion Books

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.

Candlewick Press

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.

Feb 25, 2024

THE RED JACKET: A Lively, Laughable Parable

HARPER, 2023

 Who wouldn't want a RED JACKET... with French fries in the pockets!?! That premise had me at hello, to overuse that phrase. THE RED JACKET was written and illustrated by Bob Holt. Stars of this show would seem to be seagulls, one in particular. But, upon a second glance, it must be the jacket, right? 

That's a reasonable response, until you read the book. Then you'll realize that the "star" of this story is a very real but abstract one we can all have, give away, and still have even more for ourselves. Obviously, I'm not talking French fries!

You've probably heard that description about love, and that's certainly true. Our hearts grow in capacity for love the more of it we give away. Yet this "star" doesn't require you to be as invested as loving others. We can change the lives of strangers, even casual acquaintances. If you doubt that, read this entertaining, delightfully ageless picture book. Creator Holt clarifies that in his dedication, but saves it for the end of the book so as not to be a spoiler.

How does someone create such a picture book that can soak to any age? Plenty have accomplished this, but THE RED JACKET uses a terrific blend of image and text and universal experiences. The illustration talent is evident from the cover, and does not disappoint throughout. Despite its vibrant, comic-style approach, every detail counts, including the most minimal gestures, body language, and facial expressions (on seagulls, crabs, turtles, and more). This visual narrative success allows Holt to combine wordless spreads with others that include speech-bubble minimal text, while relying on common-knowledge awareness of the risks of living beachside. There, massive waves can sneak up on you and change your life. The very youngest will "get" every page, and audiences of every age will read themselves into this situation, the relationships among the characters, and the inner life of central character, Seagull BOB.

In the opening spread Bob stands a few steps away from a squabble (one of several collective nouns for seagulls) on a seashore, where his face and posture reveal his belief that he is neither known nor welcomed as he'd like to be. Right there, it is easy to feel empathy, isn't iit? Perhaps it triggers similar emotional reactions  within our adult selves. (Think: first time attendee at a conference of "your people", or at a new school, or even at a social event to which you were invited. Or am I alone in this?) Kids feel all of the above, even a first day at a preschool. Tears are not all about separation anxiety, but include feelings about not belonging there. Within a day or two of breaking that wall to feel welcome, the worried kiddo races into class enthusiastically. 

That's the way this humorous and appealing story catches each of us where we are. A random act of kindness from a bird wearing a red coat helps Bob feel "seen", giving him the confidence to speak out, resulting in many surprise discoveries about his community, and about himself!

This story carries readers (again, of any age) on an emotional journey allowing self-reflection, developing empathy, and encouragement to notice "others" whose facial and body expressions suggest they might need to hear they are welcome. This doesn't burden each of us with being the endless "door-front greeter", but rather builds communities in which everyone sees themselves as empowered and having a voice.

The RED JACKET was the adaptive device that gave Bob his own voice. If all of this sounds heavy handed or didactic, that's unfortunate, because it is neither. It's a lively romp, layered with authentic emotions and humor, while inviting readers along for the ride. The SEL (social and emotional learning) potential of THE RED JACKET is boundless, but so is the re-again-potential. I hope you'll give this one a try and share it widely.

Feb 20, 2024

Too BIG To Miss!


I rarely begin a post about a book for little kids with the cover at the top, and seldom with such a large version of the cover. In this case, it felt like my only choice. I'm asking  you to see, immediately, that this picture book, this book for "little kids" is a very big deal. Apart from the obvious medals indicating that I am not alone in this opinion, it was also selected as best fiction picture book by bloggers, receiving the CYBILS AWARD in that category. 

Please, meet this remarkable book. BIG is written and illustrated by the multi-talented VASHTI HARRISON. Those medals on the cover represent the most prestigious of the many annual awards- Caldecott Gold Medal, National Book Award Finalist for Children, and Coretta Scott King Honor as Author and Illustrator. 

So what's the BIG deal about this book? Can you guess by looking at the cover? I thought I could, and I connected with the potential of its contents before even cracking the cover. The little girl under that BIG word, BIG, is adorable. Her pink ballet tutu is adorable. Her young body looks strong and intentional. And yet, do as I did. Look a bit closer. Check out her eyes. Under her uncreased forehead, below her precious pompom hairdo, those eyes suggest something deeper than intention. 

(Once I finally got my hands on this book for a close-up exploration), my eyes rested on this cover for many minutes. Those eyes hold her story within a dab of deftly placed and angled black line. There is commitment, persistence, and pain. Here we see a child who has lost some of the joy of childhood, one who makes her choices from a place of deep pain and self-healing, but not from spontaneity or trust. She is no longer crushed by the negativity BIG has conveyed but instead elevates it and owns it. It's unfair to think of such a young and adorable child needing to stand on her own, but she has been made to do so. If you can get that from the cover, you'll approach the story you're about to read with the significance it deserves.

With tender-yet-potent minimal text, with expansively emotional and evocative illustrations, with power-laden colors, Harrison addresses a particular issue within Black-girl communities. It is one that also tugs at every boy or girl who has ever felt the pivot from "being big" as a growing-up joy and accomplishment to recognizing "big" as negative. Subtly or literally, moments occur in the lives of children who are larger than average, in height or mass or even per SLsonality, when such a thing as "TOO BIG"  becomes the sharp tip of a universal social spear. That message comes in traditionally-sized clothes, in overt name-calling, in role-assignments, in rejection by peers and even from teachers and parents. Those pink-toned loving words of earliest encounters (caring, considerate, graceful, fun, creative) are buried under darker-hued labels and intentions (cow, moose, not right, TOOOOO anything...). The emotional tattoos of these shifting "assigned identities", including mocking laughter, add weight to the burden she feels, stealing away her true self. 

I don't dare reveal the ways in which my exposition of the story is conveyed within the pages, but it includes her shifting relative size in relation to the pages of the book and a powerful double gatefold-expansion to fully reveal the monstrous-sized pain imposed on this suffering young child. The resolution lies within her, not in the hands of apologies, or of well-meaning "fix-it" or "help you" adults. Her own gentle spirit eventually finds its footing and returns their insults and pain without venom, offering instead her rejection of their impact on her true self. Once she releases the pain within herself she charts her own path to acceptance and self-love, to reclaiming the beauty of wearing pink, of movement, and of grace. She claims her identity, body and soul, and has found power in knowing that BIG is not BAD.

The author note indicates personal experiences that led her to write this, but also explores the documented pattern of Black girls (and boys, too) being seen as older, more mature than their ages, and "too big" to be children. Society does have adultification and anti-fat bias that mandates conformity for many children, but especially Black children. This book matters and its many awards mean it will stay in the canon of available titles across generations, thank goodness. 

I sincerely hope that adults, even those without children, will read this and spend time considering their place within it. As a lifelong teacher, I view my own approach and unaware biases about students who "take up too much space", physically or behaviorally. Working with students identified as having issues in the general classroom meant I also actively taught young people to conform, to "fit in". To my conflicted shame. As an older adult woman, my memory of childhood (despite photograph evidence to the contrary) is that I was fat and not a good fit in a family of slender siblings. Body image, especially for young girls, is a dominant and harmful force in modern American society. This book brilliantly addresses the specific issues related to Black youth, but it has much to say to all of us at any age. 

The author uses the verb "return" in her back note- as in return the playfulness and fun and innocence of childhood to all of our children. 

It's a BIG ask, but each of us has a role in this process  we can't afford to ignore.

Feb 16, 2024

MARA HEARS IN STYLE: A Welcome Story of Fitting In

Speaking from the aging end of life's stages, I know plenty of senior folks who recognize their own need for hearing aid support but who resist wearing the devices. That can be related to wearing them consistently enough to adjust to the sensations and effects so that their benefits can be fully appreciated. There is also a tendency to not want to be "seen" wearing hearing aids, even though there seems to be no such concern about wearing glasses, which are much more obvious. Seniors who feel this was would do well to take a lesson from Mara, a delightful new character.

BEAMING BOOKS, February, 2024

MARA HEARS IN STYLE is written by author/teacher Terri Clemens, and illustrated by Lucy Rogers. In this story, Mara sits at the early-onset stage of hearing loss, needing support not for aging deterioration but for other reasons. Readers meet her lively personality as she prepares for school in her bedroom. Her flashy purple aids and hot pink ear molds reveal her favorite colors and stylish personality. She loves them! And yet... on the first day of attending a new school, she second-guesses herself, wondering if they might go unnoticed if she had chosen a plain color to blend in with her skin tones.

Front and back endpapers represent swirling sounds using blue swoops, droplets, and musical notes. I found the images and blue color choice perfectly represented the conflicting emotions and reactions Mara experiences. The blue conveys her worry and sadness when the aids generate overwhelming cacophony in echoing hallways/lunchroom, and when a new classmate rudely (and loudly) points out how "different" Mara is. The musicality and flow reflect Mara's balanced and upbeat approach to school, including new friends and teacher in her mainstream class and supportive learning in her speech and sign language classes. Within a few spreads, Mara faces both challenges and encouragement, developing friends whose genuine interests in fingerspelling, sign language, and lip reading open more doors for communication and connection and make her feel at home.

Despite the many ways in which more and more young readers are able to find themselves portrayed and included within the pages of picture books (and beyond), the proportion of differences from the dominant culture and established "norms" still shows considerable underrepresentation. At the lowest level of such appearances, especially in leading roles, are sensory disruptive conditions, among others. Things like white canes, hearing aids, and braces appear as tokens or even become signifiers of "lesser" capacity, becoming minor props in the background of the main story. No such issue exists for Mara. 

The great strength of this new picture book is that Mara interacts with the world with some adaptations and extra skills, but shines through it as fully aware and involved in making the most of her new opportunities and owning her own talents and interests. Her desire to fit in, to form friendships, to understand her world, and to be seen as WHOLE are one hundred percent the same as every other child's, as characters, as readers, as neighbors, and classmates. 

The illustrator's page (click above) indicates that she is deaf, which likely strengthens how well she is able to tell a visual narrative in these pages. Young audiences who show an interest may also want to read the graphic memoir/novel and other titles by deaf author Cece Bell, EL DEAFO.

This releases at the end of February but is available for preorder now. The publisher provided a review copy with no promise of a post, but I am excited to share this new and appealing picture book with readers here. I hope you'll read it and do the same with your friends and families.

Picture books are as versatile and diverse as the readers who enjoy them. Join me to explore the wacky, wonderful, challenging and changing world of picture books.