Dec 19, 2017

THE FOG: Seeing What Matters Most

Tundra Books, 2017

THE FOG, with words by Kyo Maclear and pictures by Kenard Pak, is an especially appealing picture book. It took several readings for me to analyze some of its deeper attractions, but my love of the book was spontaneous and strong.

Here's the premise, which is a natural charmer. 

There is an icy northern island, called Icy Land, of course. It attracted many visitors, who were the subjects of Warble the Warbler's rapt attention. Using optical devices and field guides, Warble stays happy and busy classifying and recording the vast variety of human visitors. 
Examples included #671, Behatted bibliophilic Female, #669 Hairy orange-crowned Male (juvenile), and many others. Warble never tired of the observations and note-taking.
the day a warm fog rolled in from the sea, turning the bright, icy island into a dull,  ghost-like expanse. Warble's attempts to disperse the fog failed. Efforts to raise awareness among the other birds failed. Eventually even Warble wondered if this is just the way things had always been, would always be. 
#675 Red-hooded Spectacled Female (juvenile) came into view, singing!
Their friendship blossomed, they found ways to confirm that this "new normal" was not, in fact, normal at all. 
Their commitment and actions lifted the fog so that the bright light of day and the sparkling stars of night were once again part of their lives. 

Doesn't this sounds cute, quiet, and lovely? Well, that's the trifecta kiss of death for getting a picture book published these days. Where are the robots? The superheroes? The crocodiles?
Wait for it... summary completely ignores the delicate humor, wry irony, clever illustration details, sensitive friendship, and intentional comic elements that are as subtle as fog but are ingenious and irresistible. I reread this a half dozen times on the first day I had it, and another dozen times since then. Each time it maintains the original appeal, but reveals another nuance or generates another smile.
That makes it an easy book to recommend, period. 
But it is so much more than that.

  • During this foggy, dark time of year it is a particularly hopeful book, reminding readers that the sunshine and stars will eventually return. 
  • It's a cautionary story about the danger of accepting as "normal" those things that make us less than we are and limit our potential. It reminds us to persevere.
  • It's a testimony to the power of friendship. The power of friendship is greater than the sum of the parts. We would do well to follow the example of Warble and Red-hood, to seek friendships filled with mutual respect, curiosity, openness, and kindness.

But there's more... so much more. 
Author Maclear framed her adult memoir around the concept of birdwatching, and birdwatching themes are immersed in some of her other adult books. That makes this flipped premise  of a "bird-watching" even more ironic and engaging, and explains why the clever details are so accurate and appealing. Illustrator Pak captured and expanded that sensibility to the Nth degree, including the endpapers. I'm curious to know if Maclear provided Warble's "field notes" to inspire those endpapers of if Pak created them on his own.

Get your hands on a copy and see for yourselves how well this picture book demonstrates that there's no limit to the depth and breadth of ideas within its covers. Then add a comment to let me know what you think!

Dec 1, 2017

The Statue of Liberty and Her Right Foot: Who Knew?

As a Cybils panelist last year my category was nonfiction picture books. This category is growing dramatically in the publishing world, in numbers and in the quality and variety of offerings. There are various reasons for this, but most importantly, in my book, is the fact that nonfiction books are consistently popular with kids.

(I've linked some previous  posts from my Cybils nonfiction year in the notes below.)

Among the things I enjoy most about nonfiction books for young readers, especially picture books, are those "AHA" moments they provide, no matter what the age of the reader.   
An added benefit of outstanding nonfiction books is that the "AHA" discoveries may come from a variety of sources. The rarity or oddity discovered may reveal an entirely "new" person or event. (HERE and HERE). Or, some unnoticed or unknown aspects of a highly familiar topic may be offered, like discovering a hidden sweet in the center of a salty snack. Books can provide quirky surprises about the very famous SHAKESPEARE (Will's Words), or insights into well-known modern folks like Anne Frank and Ruth Bader Ginsberg.
Stunning discoveries can be equally gasp-worthy when exploring plant and animal topics, geology, or space

Even though my category as a Cybils panelist this year is poetry, I continue reading widely and often in other categories. The end-of-year season for best-of books is upon us, and that includes lists devoted exclusively to nonfiction for young readers. The New York Public Library issues a "One Hundred Best" list without sub-sorting categories, but it is obvious when scrolling through the list that nonfiction (and poetry!) have firm standing among their 2017 recommendations. 

Chronicle Books, 2017
Making the cut on many of these lists, with my personal prediction of more awards to come, is HER RIGHT FOOT by Dave Eggers, with art by Shawn Harris. In fact  (pun intended), this book has earned enough starred reviews to fill the crown of our very own STATUE of LIBERTY, the subject of the book. From the distinct perspective of the cover, the retro art makes it clear that this is no ordinary litany of facts and figures. There is no shortage of picture books that will provide information and insights to the statue's creator, it's symbolism and role in American history, the poet and poem, and the impressive statistics about the statue's size, weight, and other dimensions. A great place to start, if that's what you're seeking, is this post on Written And Bound's Blog.

In this case, though, the author's perspective is as distinct as the artistic perspective on the cover and on each page within. The book's heft (104 pages), the sturdy paper stock, and the illustration shifts from raw edges to heavy backline art to collage images underscore the  reader's  sense of this iconic statue's massive but vibrant significance in our national identity. 

This is a remarkable book on many levels. The retro art and palette, the pacing and integration of complex information, the depth of content presented in accessible conversational style, and the ultimate conclusion combine to make this an ideal book for middle grade readers. Second person direct address voice is difficult to find in quality books, and this one does it with flair. There is an ironic, nearly snarky, tone at times, but one that doesn't overdo it for effect or undermine the serious significance of the subject. 
Eggers's text spans the years prior to the creation of the statue,  through its iconic era, plants the statue firmly among the issues of today, and then strides on into the future. Those transitions are impressively handled and I can't think of another recent book that so effectively links history to current events, spanning 150 years. 
Back matter provides additional fuel to my argument that this picture book was never meant for babies, but is instead an ideal match for the humor, curiosity, and cautious idealism of adolescents.
You can read more of the glowing reviews on Chronicle's web page, here. For now, though, 

I'll close with this quote from Publishers' Weekly starred review:

★ “Eggers’s crucial and timely re-examination makes Liberty an active participant in a debate that is more contentious than ever.” 

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.