Aug 5, 2018


It's that time again... back to school, around the world!  Whether a child can walk out their front door and take a few steps to the schoolhouse door (as I did), or boards a bus, or walks miles on a dirt road (as my mother did), getting there matters. Many kids feel the stirring excitement of going to school in their bones, usually fostered by their parents' messages about the value of learning. 

little bee books, 2018
ADVENTURES TO SCHOOL: Real-Life Journeys of Students From Around the World is co-authored by Baptiste and Miranda Paul and illustrated by Isabel Muñoz. It makes a compelling case that this feeling is a universal experience. 

This delightful recent picture book uses imagined but convincing first-person-voiced young locals describing trips to school under challenging circumstances. This combines with informative illustrations and narrative text to reveal daily school-travel in remote areas around the world. The balance of voices/perspectives is effective in connecting and developing empathy as well as curiosity and respect. Expository sidebars include images of each country's flag, an iconic indigenous animal, and up-to-date facts about the featured country as a whole.

Author notes in front- and back-matter are helpful in recognizing the universal importance of education and the extent to which families value and support learning and progress for their children. Notes about research and authenticating sources are especially valuable, including cautions about online videos, often viral, making claims about places and people that are no longer true or perhaps never were. 
I particularly appreciated the range of locations across many continents (including North America) and the album-like double page spread at the back to assemble images and place-designations for the fictionalized characters within the book. One additional feature I would have enjoyed would be a world map marking and labeling each character with a location. I can easily see this book being used to launch a geography/map unit of study, for a classroom or for individual readers and families.

I'm pleased and privileged to say that both Miranda and Baptiste are personal friends of mine, and I was expecting to invite them to answer a few interview questions here. Before asking, if they'd have time in their busy lives, I developed a list of questions. Then I went online to search for prior interviews so that I could eliminate duplicates and be sure to provide something fresh for readers. In the process I found that Maria Marshall had posted an extensive interview with Miranda and Baptiste on her blog, THE PICTURE BOOK BUZZ (HERE). It's not surprising that some of my questions matched hers, but she had covered every topic on my list! I was especially interested in how they had divided up the writing work, and was excited to read about their process in this earlier post. Actually, Maria's questions were even more comprehensive than my own, included the same interior spread and author photos, and also provided information about upcoming books and links to other reviews.

I know when to take a step back and give the stage to others, and this is a perfect case. I also know when I've found another picture book blog to which I should subscribe, which I did (and you should, too). Please, take the time to click the link to this comprehensive blog post (Repeated HERE!) 

So, instead of an interview, I'll remind you to get your hands on this book and share it with kids. While you're at it, check out my previous post about IT'S YOUR FIRST DAY OF SCHOOL, BUSY BUS! by Jody Jensen Schaffer. Both books tap into the excitement of returning to school, and between the two of them there's something for any age!

Aug 1, 2018

A Trio of Timeless Picture Books

The goal for anyone producing text and/or illustrations for picture books is to create books that are "classic", timeless, lasting. In this post I'll first feature a book from 2003. (That's FIFTEEN YEARS AGO already! How did that happen?) Then I'll share a release that was first published in Japan in 2003, but released in the USA in 2017. I'll end with a retold story with origins from centuries ago but newly released in 2018. 
So let's get this time-travel started!

Dial Books for Young Readers, 2003
THE SNAIL AND THE WHALE,  written by Julia Donaldson and illustrated by Axel Scheffler, is a truly charming book. With crisp lines  and vibrant jewel-tone illustrations, it offers an unusual twist on unexpected friendships. The seemingly effortless rhyme and repetitive nested text moves the story in wavelike rhythm from its tropical opening through the Arctic and beyond. The little snail uses slime as cleverly as Charlotte used her web to send messages that invite adventures and then to save the life of the whale. It's an undeniably heartwarming tale, and well worth dwelling on the expansive spreads and the tiny details, especially the eyes of snail, whale, and their community of critters. It's a wonderful read-aloud and could serve as mentor text for writing.

Chronicle Books, 2017

This next book was released in Japan that same year. THE FOX WISH was written by Kumiko Aman and illustrated by Komako Sakai. Often non-English books make their way to release in America, but more typically they do so within a year or so of the original publication. In this case, Chronicle Books released this English version in 2017, and I'm so happy that they did. 

Unlike the oversized, landscape layout suited to a world-traveling whale adventure, this gentle but lively story is told with subtle, woodland colors and produced in a smaller, square trim size. The art itself is deftly blended with blurred edges and  the text is interspersed with cursive font. The overall book design is an ideal format for this young-girl narrator and her little brother Lukie to make a most astonishing discovering. When they return to the field to retrieve her jump rope, they discover a family of foxes jumping rope. These are absolutely delightful foxes, not the least bit anthropomorphized, in my opinion, despite adopting human actions, voice, and names. They truly display fox-like body movements, postures, and expressions, not to mention attitudes. 
You love it already, right? 
But just wait.
This much of the story is pretty evident from the cover alone, but within the pages you'll find it is loaded with surprises. The foxes aren't good at jumping and the girl quickly coaches them to hold their tails up straight. The kids and kits are soon jumping together, having a wonderful time. It's only when Roxie, the girl, takes the handle to turn that she realizes it is her missing rope. Of course she tries to claim it, but one llittle fox has a tale to tell that shines a whole new light on the day, and on the rope. Seriously, this book should be in every home, classroom and library. What a conversation starter it is, for every age, which every classic book should be. 

Holiday House 2018
Finally, take a look at the most recent book, whose title will be immediately recognizable, since the origins of the tale are often attributed to Aesop: WHO WILL BELL THE CAT? This recent version is retold by Patricia McKissack and illustrated by Christopher Cyr. There are plenty who say that retold tales are not needed or wanted in the current "market" for picture books. This book demonstrates well that a lively, well-constructed text and vibrant, expressive art can make even the oldest tales feel fresh and appealing. 
McKissack provides cleverly generic names for the wildly varied barn mice (Smart Mouse, Friend Mouse, Wise Mouse, Wee, Tiny, and Teeny Mice). Cyr offers characteristic and masterful use of light and dark tones in the illustration, framing and highlighting the eyes, personalities, setting, and tension of the dramatic events as they unfold. Rich with personality, the barn rats make a signifiant appearance, as does a carload of "giants" (humans). Not an art stroke or a character is without purpose and occurr naturally. That includes the carload of humans who happen to be people of color, a rare but happy appearance for traditional tales. 

I recommend each of these wholeheartedly, and hope you'll check them out sooner rather than later. Their stories are universal, their artwork is absorbing, and the creators are from around the world. If you know any of these books already, chime in with your own opinions, or come back and comment after you've taken a close look of your own. You won't be disappointed.

Jul 13, 2018

Defeating the Divides: DRAW THE LINE, by Kathryn Otashi

Roaring Book Press, 2018
I'd like to say that author/illustrator Kathryn Otashi's latest picture book, DRAW THE LINE,  is especially suited to current events and social climates. Sadly, my sense is that the polarization within society has become a sustained condition, amplified and glorified by trolls, tropes, and terrible news, gushing at us from a firehose of social media and cable networks. 
That suggests that this book, with timeless truth and universally recognizable emotions, should become an 
immediate and endless must-have. 
Creator Otashi has utilized her talent to convey the simplest of concepts through expressive inanimate objects while revealing simple-but-not-simplistic human relationships and reactions. Her subtle approach to deep but resonant human values make her books as appealing to toddlers as they are to teens. (See covers and link below.)

This also means that descriptions of her stories, particularly this one, sound obvious or uninteresting when described, at least by me. Because of my own inability to do the book justice with words, I'll rely on photos of a few interior spreads to demonstrate specific points. First, a summary:
Two boys, each unaware of the other, are drawing lines when they bump butts. Their spontaneous reactions include surprise, engagement, and the joining of their lines. In only a page turn or two one boy accidentally hurts the other, laughs, and their battle begins, severing their joined line. Their sustained angry, even vengeful expressions create a crack-that-becomes-a-crevasse between them. Only when one of the two seeks out a space in which the divide is narrowest does a potential solution emerge. 

Otashi's concept books offer a master class in the use of white space, selective use of color and blending, and the emotional impact generated by color tones, color depth, shadow, and minimal lines.

The endpapers are solid color, a mid-tone purple. I wondered about that choice, since the battle and resolution throughout are conveyed as much by the purple/yellow shifts and blends as they are by the actions and expressions of the boys. Those endpapers are a pleasant, gentle shade of purple, not suggesting the blackened, threatening tones of the pages with the deepest conflict. Even so, I wondered, "Why not yellow?" Why not at least some aspect of yellow used in the the final endpaper. Then I did what I urge everyone to do, with every good picture book. 
Look again. 
Think again. 
That's when I recognized more clearly how Otashi achieved her final twist, indicating that the closing of the story is actually a beginning. But only a beginning. I'm not sharing that spread here because you really MUST get this book and examine it closely. (The third spread above suggests what develops.) Without a word of text, without any rose-colored glasses, her final spread offers hope while retaining an awareness of the polarity and conflict that surround the boys (us), a reminder that cooperation and collaboration are choices, not magical solutions. 
I wish I could provide this book to every classroom across the country. But why stop there? It's wordless, and other than the generic "western" characters, it provides fully universal appeal AND food for thought and discussion for any culture or geographic location. 
Why would I stop there with my recommendation?
It would also be a wonderful gift book for adults, particularly those who find themselves firmly locked into one set of opinions.
In fact, Otashi's other books (here) would make a terrific gift pack for those same adults.

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.