Ignored by her digitally distracted family, a girl draws a red door on her bedroom wall and steps through.
A lush green forest twinkles with lanterns and strung lights; a dizzying castle towers, its gates, turrets and halls linked by complicated waterways; a hovering aircraft festooned with propellers and wheels holds an imprisoned purple-plumed bird. Amid these marvels, the girl appears markedly ordinary with her common pageboy haircut, minimal facial features and simple clothes. She could be anyone, really, and readers will easily appropriate her journey as their own. Putty-colored grays and flat, boxy city shapes defined the girl’s urban reality, but here, color rules, modulating from mossy greens to slate blues to dusky purple—all punctuated with her crayon’s brilliant red and the yellow of a golden bird cage. White pages highlight action (the girl’s crayon whips up a boat, a hot air balloon and a magic carpet when needed), but most spreads deliver fantastically intricate pen, ink and watercolor architectural illustrations that remain playfully engrossing. They conjure contextual questions with no clear answers, or perhaps with so many answers one’s imagination finds itself opening door upon door and crossing thresholds, just as the girl did to escape loneliness. After freeing the bird, she needs its help for a quick escape through a small purple door back to her everyday street and back to a boy who wields an equally powerful purple crayon (an obvious and moving homage).
An imaginative adventure story whose elaborate illustrations inspire wonder, careful examination and multiple reads.
(Picture book. 2-6)
Young readers and listeners will feel like cheering when this unprepossessing hero gets his due.
Davies’ signature caricature art lends itself perfectly to an exaggerated visual accompaniment for this earnest, simple and sweet tale of a boy, his bike and a bully. Ben’s great new bike takes him by any route he likes to school, including the long one over hill and dale, hopping across a stream on the heads of what look like sharks, leaping a line of school buses. But, alas, arrival at school only means that Adrian Underbite (“perhaps the world’s largest third-grader”) makes off with Ben’s bike. When Ben later finds Adrian in “a significant spot of trouble,” both readers and Ben may find that doing the right thing is not the first thought that comes to mind. “How extraordinarily terrible,” Ben muses sardonically. There are a few tense moments in the brief narrative when it seems that no good deed will go unpunished, but a familiar story emerges—spoiler here: A bully has a change of heart—and it becomes astonishingly fresh and fun in Davies’ hands. Davies’ cheeky, cheerfully frayed line gives readers figures somewhat larger than life—and indeed twice as natural. Ben’s hasty, heroic hoodie rescue is dramatic and funny, and the last line and accompanying illustration will provoke out-loud laughter.
Great amusement for the bold and timid alike.
(Picture book. 4-8)
Floca took readers to the moon with the Apollo 11 mission in Moonshot (2009); now he takes them across the country on an equally historic journey of 100 years earlier.
In a collegial direct address, he invites readers to join a family—mother, daughter and son—on one of the first passenger trips from Omaha to Sacramento after the meeting of the Union Pacific and the Central Pacific in May 1869. With encyclopedic enthusiasm, Floca visually documents the trip, vignettes illustrating the train’s equipment as well as such must-know details as toilet and sleeping conditions. Full- and double-page spreads take advantage of the book’s unusually large trim for breathtaking long shots of the American landscape and thrilling perspectives of the muscular engine itself. The nameless girl and boy provide touchstones for readers throughout, dubiously eyeing an unidentifiable dinner, juddering across a trestle, staring out with wide-eyed wonder. Unjustly undersung as a writer, Floca soars with his free-verse narrative, exploiting alliteration, assonance and internal rhyme to reinforce the rhythms of the journey. Frequent variations in font and type (“HUFF HUFF HUFF!” is spelled out in ornate, antique letters) further boost the excitement. Front endpapers provide detail on the building of the transcontinental railroad; back endpapers show the steam engine in cross section, explaining exactly how coal and water made it go.
Nothing short of spectacular, just like the journey it describes.
(Informational picture book. 4-10)
Sensing that the moon needs cheering up, a young inventor provides instructions for an expedition to plant sunflowers there.
Gerstein, who profiled The Man Who Walked Between the Towers in 2003, had begun by imagining an even greater challenge, which he describes here. Addressing readers directly, his busy narrator offers a “simple but brilliant” 24-step plan for space travel using 2,000 used truck inner tubes for a slingshot; 238,900 miles of garden hose for a tightrope to the moon; and a suit borrowed from NASA. Special clamps will help the bicycle stay on the hose, which serves double duty; it’s also a conduit for water for the plants. Step by step and sub-step, the boy explains the process. His instructions are straightforward but cheerfully outlandish. They include details with special appeal for listeners (the “really cool sound” of the launch). The pacing is perfect, and illustrations add to the humor. (Pay careful attention to the moon’s changing expressions.) Pen-and-ink and oil-painted panels expand to show the journey. Captions, which had been securely attached to the edges of the frames while the boy was earthbound, float around on full-bleed double-page spreads until they sink back to the bottoms of the concluding panels.
The whole is a grand flight of fancy perfect for a new generation of dreamers and planners. (Picture book. 5-9)
This excellent early reader will send new readers’ confidence soaring.
“Ben had a balloon,” begins the spare text, accompanied by a picture rendered in cut paper and ink showing Ben holding a red balloon aloft. The next spread shows only the lower portion of Ben’s body at the top of the page as his sister, standing on the ground below him, says, “Bye, Ben.” Ensuing pages show Ben soaring higher and higher up into the sky as first a window, then bees, a tree, a kite, a big hill, rain and a rainbow all call out, “Come back, Ben.” The repetitive text will reinforce new readers’ engagement, while Ben’s consistent smile (a simple, small u shape) provides reassurance that he is untroubled by his ascent into the sky—even when he reaches a smiling moon who says, “Hi, Ben.” Ben collects moon rocks in his pockets, and their weight triggers his descent back to Earth, past all of the things that called to him as he rose up to the heavens. When he returns to his home, art on the penultimate spread shows Ben waving from his window, “Bye, balloon,” he calls, but the balloon is absent from the page. A supremely satisfying page-turn shows Ben’s sister sailing upward while holding onto the balloon’s string. “Bye, Ben,” she calls.
A good friend will help you prepare for your challenges and will see you through them, as Bear does for Mole in another charming tale in the series from Hillenbrand (Kite Day, 2012, etc.)
As Bear packs books into his knapsack, Mole asks for help in removing his training wheels and checking his bike for safety. Each simple sentence is clearly illuminated with carefully rendered mixed-media artwork, from “They removed”—with Bear holding the bike steady as Mole wields his wrench—to “Mole snapped”—as the pleased little mammal, snout in air, properly fastens his helmet. A tender, double-page spread shows Bear placing a reassuring paw on the back of worried-looking Mole’s bike as the large-type words declare, “At last Mole was ready.” Now comes the wild action! A sophisticated simultaneous succession shows Mole wobbling toward a gentle “crash” on the facing page. Bear encourages the sobbing Mole to try again, and this time he succeeds—scattering plenty of leaves and animals as he gains speed. At journey’s end, everything comes full circle as the friends arrive just on time for a tale at the storymobile. The few words in the text include such vocabulary as grimaced, hoisted and exhaled, making this a terrific choice for a read-aloud from a precocious older sibling to a younger one.
Exploding with puns, wordplay and the irrepressible desire to re-imagine “Little Red Riding Hood” one more time, Holub and Sweet bring forth some actual useful writing advice—that’s not just for beginners.
It’s Write On! Day at the Pencilvania School, and all the little pencils and their teacher, Ms. 2, are about to follow the story path. Ms. 2 gives our heroine, Little Red, a basket of nouns and reminds her to stick to the path. She becomes entangled in descriptive adjectives, stuck in a sentence that just keeps going, and is rescued and then ambushed by adverbs and random nouns. Principal Granny seems to have a long electric tail and a growly voice when Little Red gets to her office. It’s not the principal but the Wolf 3000—a voracious pencil sharpener! But Little Red has one noun left, and she uses it judiciously. Watercolor, pencil and collage give the magnificent Sweet lots of material to play with: The little pencil-pupils each have an identifying eraser cap (a stegosaurus, a basketball, a map of Pencilvania). When Little Red looks for excitement in her story, she goes to the gym and is “quickly drawn into the action,” as all the pencils twist, jump and play catch on the page. The artwork—which integrates written text in a variety of lettering styles—fills the pages with a riot of color, shape, movement and design. Endpapers and title pages are all part of the tale. Little kids should love the illustrations and their multiplicity of meanings, and older children trying out their writing wings will find good, strong advice.
Every writers’ group should start with this story. (Picture book. 7 & up)
A stirring invitation to leap, dive, soar, plunge and thrill to the natural world’s wonders and glories.
“Right outside your window there’s a world to explore,” writes Kerley. “Ready?” In huge, bright, sharply focused photos, a hang glider and a mountain climber dangle in midair, a paleontologist carefully brushes dirt off a fossil, an astronaut dangles near the International Space Station, and spelunkers clamber amid spectacular crystals. These dramatic images mingle with equally eye-filling scenes of muddy, soaked, laughing young children—some venturing alone down a forest path or over jumbles of rock, others peering into a snow cave or a starry sky. “Size things up,” suggests the author. “Get a firm grip. Then… / …start climbing.” This may well leave safety-obsessed parents with the vapors, but that may be all to the good. Explanatory captions for several of the photographs, from very brief profiles of the explorers to the stories behind the photos themselves, appear at the end.
Vivid glimpses of what waits for anyone who is willing to stop just looking and go.
(Picture book. 6-8)
The life of the classical Chinese painter Wu Daozi is imagined as a magical artistic adventure.
Look’s text is brief and impressionistic, conveying with quick brushstrokes the mythical genius of the artist and his own wonder at the miraculous work of his brush. She begins with Wu Daozi as a boy studying calligraphy but discovering that his brush has other plans: “Each day something new and surprising dripped out of Daozi’s brush,” as lively lines turn into trees, a fish, a horse. So’s friendly ink-and-watercolor paintings are a mix of graceful lines and careful detail, conveying a world in motion. The black and white of Wu Daozi’s classical-style paintings as she depicts them come alive in bright colors: A butterfly, a camel, a flying dragon fill with color and flap or step off the wall as Wu Daozi finishes painting them. A seated Buddha smiles in glorious colors as Daozi adds a last touch of his brush. Brush strokes emphasize and echo the liveliness of Wu Daozi’s work in the flying sleeves of his robe and a swirling shock of his black hair. An author’s note gives Wu Daozi’s dates and explains his importance to Chinese art, including the fact that none of his 300 frescoes have survived; a note about the legend that Wu Daozi possibly cheated death by painting himself into paradise follows the last enchanting illustration.
A cheerful introduction not only to Wu Daozi, but to the power of inspiration.
(Picture book. 4-9)
In this testament to resiliency and kindness during natural disasters, the Japanese boy Kenta’s soccer ball is swept away by a tsunami and eventually returned by a child living across the Pacific Ocean.
The opening double-page spread depicts an aerial view of lower-elevation homes being swallowed by waves; the ending spread, Kenta’s reunion with his soccer ball while nearby, construction workers re-build his town. From beginning to end, author/illustrator Ohi manages an admirable balancing act. Young children are exposed to the realities of loss and damage while also viewing such things as children at play in the emergency shelter at the school gym and dolphins frolicking in the same waves that have carried people’s belongings far away from their homes. Clever but accessible wording abounds, as in “The school gym was crowded with people looking for what they’d lost. Kenta found his mother and father. The ocean found Kenta’s soccer ball.” The watercolor-and-pencil illustrations are roughly hewn, but they include such careful details as English-language signs along the shoreline when the ball reaches North America. Muted colors work well with the sparse, poetic text to create an appropriate gentleness. The placement of words and pictures—and the clever device of pale banners for text over darker backgrounds—ensure easy use as a read-aloud to a group of young children.
An eminently child-friendly treatment of the devastation that follows disaster.
(Picture book. 3-7)
Rifka accidentally finds herself onstage in a Yiddish theater production and speaks her first lines as an actress: “Piff-Paff! Not to worry.”
The Yiddish theater was a vibrant part of immigrant life in New York in the first part of the 20th century. Rifka’s parents are actors who introduce her to the magical world of that theater. She is especially impressed with the way in which her parents can take on the personae of the characters they play, with just a bit of makeup, some props and costumes, and changes in body language. The surrounding elements of the city are also part of the fun. They travel on the subway with its noise and diversity. They eat at the Automat, putting in their nickels and taking out the food. Perlov makes it all come alive, employing a conversational syntax that speaks directly to readers. It is a memoir told with love and nostalgia, for it is her own story, told from a distance of nine decades. Kawa’s illustrations are as magical as any theater experience. She employs a variety of media to turn real places and events into fantasy landscapes from several perspectives, in dreamlike images that are somewhat reminiscent of Chagall. Look closely and there are tiny shapes and designs floating through the larger pictures.
Unusual and unabashedly charming.
(Picture book. 5-9)
Head lice morph into friendly fellows in this comical and necessary title.
When the intrepid narrator’s mother discovers his infestation, she immediately jumps into action. Factoids about lice and their transmittal and treatment follow quickly. The youngster suffers from a large dose of shame as he wonders how they found him. He willingly cooperates with his ever-vigilant mother as she marches boldly into the fray, which climaxes with a visit to “a professional lice treatment place.” Alas, the lice return, and the treatment must be repeated. Never fear, the boy knows his medieval history and readies for the next joust with suitable head armor. Shannon’s trademark color palette of yellows and oranges, so wonderful in his David books, fills the spreads with explosive energy as his magnificently magnified lice leap off the pages with endearingly expressive faces, personalities and costumes. Playful lettering becomes part of the page design and demands a most expressive reading voice. Few books for young readers come with a warning. Heed the one boldly penned on the back cover: “This book will make you ITCHY!”
Don’t scratch your head over this purchase: Entertainment and information are all wrapped up in one funny and disinfected package.
(Picture book. 4-7)