May 20, 2017

Du Iz Tak? Illustrations make all the Difference!

Candlewick Press, 2016

Whether you are new to this blog or a regular reader, the title of my blog should make it obvious that I value picture books far beyond their appeal as entertainment, concepts, stories, or information. I love picture books that accomplish any or all of the above, but especially so when they trigger brainwaves firing faster than any video game or other device could accomplish. That quality, in fact, is the basis for my many arguments that the true, wide audience for picture books is NOT limited to early ages.

Wordless books (examples here) often have that effect, as do books that require manipulation or physical engagement (examples here). In the case of this featured title, hold on to your brainwave caps and prepare for fun. 
DU IZ TAK? is written and illustrated by Carson Ellis. In addition to it's visual appeal and narrative, it's also an homage to communication and communities. In this case it's a community of fanciful, insect-y creatures who share a common language, but not one we would recognize. It works for any language, which I found to be particularly appealing in this image of the cover of the Chinese version, here.
This book received a 2016 CALDECOTT HONOR and starred reviews from KIRKUS, PUBLISHERS WEEKLY, and HORN BOOK, among many other well-deserved accolades. I hadn't intended to write a post about it because the glowing commentaries from voices more widely circulated than mine were numerous, and they included so many of the points I would have made here. 
And yet...
When I checked it out of the library for a second time, I realized there were so many rich ways to consider the depth of this book. There are sub-plots and visual narrative threads dealing with life cycles of plants and animals, with predator/prey interactions, with collaboration, communication, creative play, cause-effect chains, observation/inquiry models, and habitats in which communities abide.

Young readers (and older ones) come to various conclusions about how the invented language should be "translated". In general, many have arrived at this conclusion:

"Du iz tak?" translates as "What is that?"  
"Ma nazoot." translates as "I don't know."

But even the use  of traditional punctuation leaves openings for dramatic differences of interpretation. Yes, the little critters' faces and their evolving scenes offer a degree of likelihood as to what they would be saying, but that is minimal. 

Let's just try those two lines with various attitudes attached:
What is THAT? (surprise? fright? excitement?)
What IS that? (revulsion, annoyance, irritation?)
WHAT is THAT? (shock, anxiety, demanding?)

and the possible responses:
I don't KNOW. (reflecting surprise, frustration, concern?)
I don't know. (annoyance, avoidance, confusion, even worry?)
I DON'T know. (denial, argument, irritation?)

And each page turn opens up additional options for assigning personalities and attitudes to each speaker. Which is to say, this is book that has a powerful effect on all readers, from the opening green, life-saturated endpapers to the final ones, and including each spread within the covers. The final spread presents the copyright/dedication but includes the dapper, mustachioed little caterpillar uttering his final "ta-ta!". 
I realized, after repeatedly examining page after page, that it was likely his smugness that drew me back to check it out again. That little dude seemed to know that there is no saying good-bye to this book. I encourage you to read it again, if you are already familiar with this winning book, or discover it for yourself and form your own opinions about these remarkable little chatters.
You won't regret it, and if you translate lines differently, I welcome your interpretation in the comments.

May 19, 2017

OVER in the WETLANDS: A Hurricane on the Bayou Story

I became a fan of the work of Caroline Starr Rose after reading her verse-novel, May B.  soon after its release in 2012. Since then I've become a fan of all of her books. I'm also an admirer of her leadership among educators and creators, and of her kind, thoughtful approach to other writers and to life in general. I'm convinced I'll have the pleasure of meeting her in person someday, and I look forward to telling her all this in real life.
Meanwhile, it's a pleasure to feature one of her more recent books here.

Schwartz & Wade Books, 2015

In  OVER IN THE WETLANDS: A Hurricane-on-the-BayouRose applied her extensive writing talent and craft to a picture book that has all the hallmarks of a future classic. It is listed as an informational book for ages 3-8, but it's rhymed verse will appeal far beyond the very young and can serve as mentor text for writers of any age. 
Its lyrical, rhythmic narration is perfectly enhanced by the illustrations of Rob Dunlavey. His website is worth a visit, offering a glimpse of his multi-faceted techniques and his mastery of nature illustration. You can view several spreads of his fluid, dense, and moody art from this book, depicting bayou scenes in various weather conditions and moods, here. 
I've lived all my life in the part of the country often referred to as "tornado alley", but have no first-hand experiences with hurricanes. Nevertheless, I found the ebb and flow of each page turn provided immersive and emotional insights into the often-described process of hurricane development, destruction, "eye", resumption, and eventual resolution.

"Gentle as a whisper too soft to hear,
a faint breeze hints that a storm draws near."
"Wind-whipped waves
smash up debris. 
Turtles swim for safer seas."
hours endless.
storm's relentless."

The author's note in the back matter includes a map of Gulf wetlands, a simple introduction to issues surrounding the value and disappearance of wetlands, and suggested websites for exploring and finding answers to questions. Details about the animals in the narrative text are described in the "More about" page, providing immediate answers for younger readers and for the adults who will read this book to them- again and again. 

This book is a perfect example of why I proclaim the POWER of picture books for readers of any/many ages. In one of my earliest posts I summarized that power as "3 C's": 

That post was written five years ago. At that time the ubiquitous digital media was well established, but it was still several years before the current climate in which algorithms filter what we find on searches and what we see and read in social media. A picture book, especially one like this, invites and nearly demands that we PAUSE, peruse, and become mindful of the content. That includes its purpose, its validity, and its effect on our emotional and intellectual lives. It doesn't need to be "bookmarked", it refuses to be scanned or skimmed, and it expects us to return to it multiple times. Joyfully. Mindfully.

In this case, I know I will.

Please do.

May 13, 2017

Pets and Poetry: A Perfect Partnership in Picture Books!

April, already several weeks in the rearview-mirror as I write this, is POETRY MONTH, and yet poetry picture books are priceless all year long. If you're new to this blog, here's a link to my deeply held belief that "THEME MONTHS" are a double-edged sword, whether in classrooms, libraries, or home. May happens to be National Pet Month, though, and I simply can't ignore it. Cartoonist Patrick McDonnell (MUTTS) uses his characters to advocation for animal rescues/adoptions, and you can see that he walks the walk, here.

Scholastic, 1997
Since I launched a personal campaign to shine my spotlight, limited as it may be, on poetry picture books throughout the year, this is a perfect opportunity to rave about a favorite of mine, WEIRD PET POEMS, compiled by Dilys Evans and illustrated by Jacqueline Rogers.

This is a testament to the timelessness of picture books, and, most especially, of poetry. Dilys Evans is a noted artist and poet, and she contributed her editorial skills to draw poetry from as long ago as 1930 through to contemporary publications. She contributed the launching poem and combined her selections in a story-in-poems that reveals energy, enthusiasm, curiosity, humor, and imagination.


Hooray! Hooray!
I'm eight today and now I have my own pet!

It can't be too hairy. It can't be too tall.
It can't be too scary. It can't be too small.

Mom doesn't like snakes. She doesn't like frogs.
Or anything else that lives near a bog.

So it cannot be slimy and must not drool.
What does mom make me for, an absolute fool?

My pet will be perfect in every way.
It will love me to pieces, and want me to play.

I'm not sure what it is yet, Mom says that's just fine.
But as soon as I see it, I'll know that it's mine.

Okay, let's get started. I know where to look.
So turn the next page... we'll look in this book!

Thus begins a search for the perfect pet, transported by poets including Lee Bennet Hopkins, Marilyn Singer, Karla Kuskin, and Shiki, among many other notables. The birthday boy searches, always accompanied by his little sister (sometimes only visible via her topknot). The candidates range from bulldogs to turtles, porcupines to pterodactyls, dozes to yaks, and beyond. The concluding haiku is by none other than ISSA:


Under the willow
With a leaf stuck in his mouth
The puppy sleeps.

A poem by the most noted poet of all time, ANONYMOUS, opens and closes the book:


Alligator, hedgehog, anteater bear,
Rattlesnake, buffalo, anaconda, hare.
Bullfrog, woodchuck, wolverine, goose,
Whippoorwill, chipmunk, jackal, moose.
Mud turtle, whale, glowworm, bat,
Salamander, snail and Maltese cat.
Polecat, dog, wild otter, rat,
Pelican, hog, dodo, and bat.
House rat, toe rat, white deer, doe,
Chickadee, peacock, bobolink, crow.

Now for a word about the illustrations by Jacqueline Rogers. From the alphabetic-animals used to spell out the title to the comically inadequate leash  the boy has tethered to an enormous and  curmudgeonly dog(?) on the back cover, every intricate detail matters. The expressions on human and other animals, the elaborate and moody backgrounds, and the complex relationships depicted in each double-page spread all demand exploration and examination. They hold up well in repeated readings, offering new discoveries each time through the book. 
There is ample justification for the current emphasis on diverse voices and images in all forms of children's literature, spearheaded by WE NEED DIVERSE BOOKS. But a book like this, published twenty years ago, is proof that illustrators like Rogers offered outstanding examples of mainstream books that appeal to and reflect ALL readers. In fact, since this title seems to be out of print, now is perfect time to reintroduce it to a whole new generation of young people. It's available in libraries, so don't wait for that to happen before checking it out for yourself. And, if you don't already have a pet, consider adopting one from a rescue center. Who knows, it might even inspire you to write a poem or two for yourself.

If you happen to enjoy poetry, pets, and particularly haiku, take a look at a previous post that  featured exactly those kinds of books, here.

May 2, 2017

Prudence the Cow Is Not Cowed by the Herd!

Cows are, by definition, herd animals. Conventionally, they are also considered docile. Even, dare I say, boring?  Cows, one would presume, spend their days and nights dozing, grazing, chewing cud, and zoning out during twice-daily milking. In some more imaginative scenarios, they might moo along to mood music piped into milking parlors. Otherwise, a cow is a cow is a cow, unless...

You're speaking of the adventurous cow in MOO!, written by David LaRochelle and illustrated by Mike Wohnoutka.

Or, if you're inspired by the rebellious cow in Jill Esbaum's I AM COW, HEAR ME MOO!  with lively illustrations by Gus Gordon.
Henry Holt & Co. BYR, 2017

In each case, (and several others), authors embrace the rebellious side of cows, often sending them exploring, escaping, or even rabble-rousing.

The latest portrayal of a non-conforming cow can be found in PRUDENCE the PART-TIME COW, written by prolific author Jody Jensen Shaffer and illustrated by Stephanie Laberis. (Release date, June 13, 2017)
In her case, Prudence has an inventive and creative drive, but her herding instincts remain firmly intact. Her herdmates, however, are less than approving, registering disdain and outright disapproval for this other-than-"normal" bovine who is disrupting their routines. Prudence associates and participates, but always notches her engagement up a level or two, (or more), looking for improvements and refinements to those routines. 
Her projects and suggestions invite criticism if not outright bullying. Prudence reads, calculates, analyzes, designs, constructs, and otherwise multitasks during their grazing, shading, pool-standing routines. Prudence is an innovator, that's for sure.

These endeavors and reactions are portrayed with a blend of clever text and comically odd illustrations. Anyone who has ever waxed poetic about the moo-dy, dreamy eyes of cows will enjoy the expressive eyes of Prudence and her peers. The other cows reveal disdain to the extent that you can imagine eye-rolling as their next step, while Prudence's gaze reveals boredom, enthusiasm, dismay, determination, hopefulness, and satisfaction. Wordplay is equally clever, as are the "extra-cow-ricular" pursuits of this very intelligent cow. 

This is an original take on a non-conforming cow, incorporating elements of peer-pressure and bullying, expressing individuality, and adding a dose of STEM topics into the mix. (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math). Prudence and her herd are cows you'll want to meet.

An advance copy of the book was provided in exchange for my honest review.
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.