Peter, his dad, and his dog, Harold, move to a narrow house just on the other side of “dark unfriendly woods,” across a rickety bridge.
Smudgy grays describe this new, murky place, communicating all of Peter’s uneasiness and uncertainty. Details as sharp as his edgy fears (“Terrible things hid in the trees”) ripple through riveting illustrations, in overwhelming floral wallpapers and spiky tree trunks, all bathed in graphite. Colors (yellows, blues, greens, and purples) appear only in spots, buoys in rough waters. Gripping narration unspools the story with the measured, easy command of a Grimm—or a Neil Gaiman. Children might wiggle a bit as they absorb, with grave recognition, the streaming undercurrents of discomfort and loneliness. To combat both these feelings and the things in the woods, Peter builds a pillow man he calls Lenny, Guardian of the Bridge, and, soon after, a friend for him named Lucy. These pillow people, somehow human in both their form (button eyes convey remarkable feeling) and puffy vulnerability, seem swollen with acute worries. They are the Guardians, after all. Subtly, quietly, Lenny and Lucy eventually move a bit, lifting their hats to a neighbor girl named Millie, who comes to Peter bringing binoculars, marshmallows, and the unspoken promise of friendship.
Hypnotic artwork and storytelling invite children to linger in the wild woods of worry and emerge intact, enriched, and utterly invigorated by this complex, contemporary fairy tale.
(Picture book. 4-8)
The book jacket’s depiction of a Leonardo da Vinci–esque creature transporting a child across an emerald sky signals a highly original approach to a pitch for a pet.
Sporting a scarlet bowler hat, the cylindrically shaped girl describes her requirements: cuddly but strong; adept at flying and swimming; capable of shrinking and growing on demand. The dialogue indicates that she is talking with her parents. They may be offstage, but it is also possible that what seems to be the monster/pet on the facing page (and elsewhere) is a dreamy composite of the parents—a provocative ambiguity. Soon after Rikki crawls into bed, a voice invites her to play hide-and-seek. The ensuing nocturnal adventure involves the rhinoceroslike creature’s fulfillment of her wishes. Composed of a patchwork of foil and saturated colors (especially red and green) and replete with a tusk, wings, and stylish shoes, the monster continuously morphs, expanding at the climax to escape a spiky sea ogre. While the textured scenes are mysterious and quirky, and the protagonist is anxious at times, the award-winning, Czech-born collaborators balance tension with joy: “Rikki’s heart beats faster, full of excitement.” Girl and pet have fully bonded by the conclusion, when the child asks the monster to stay “please, and always protect me.”
This title feeds and calms listeners’ imaginations in the most delightful way.
Left alone when her mother leaves for work, a child amuses herself with television, dolls, and a toy deer before boarding a bus for her grandmother’s house.
The ensuing experience, in which she falls asleep, misses her stop, and runs scared into the woods, is pulled directly from the author’s childhood in China. In this wordless, 112-page graphic novel, her constantly-in-motion protagonist is rescued by a mysterious stag that leads her up a ladder of clouds into a puffy paradise. The animal is a perfect playmate. Humorous close-ups reveal a hands-on exploration of the animal’s muzzle, toothy smiles, and affectionate nuzzling before the afternoon’s excitement. Guojing’s telling is skillfully paced. Early on, a sequence of 12 nearly square panels on a page conveys the child’s sense of confinement, loneliness, and boredom. Varying in size and shape, digitally manipulated graphite compositions create a soft, quiet atmosphere within which a gamut of effects are achieved: brilliant, snowy light, the etched faces of shivering street vendors, nuanced cloudscapes, and the pure black of a whale’s interior after the duo and a new friend are swallowed, Jonah-style. Majestic settings, tender interactions, and pure silliness lead readers to pore closely over these images, pulled along by shifting perspectives, ethereal beauty, and delight in the joy born of friendship.
Rare is the book containing great emotional depth that truly resonates across a span of ages: this is one such.
(Picture book. 5 & up)
Five toys ranged on a windowsill exemplify existential pleasure.
In the mode of such pastel-hued, minimalist delights as A Good Day (2007), Henkes presents a pig with an umbrella, a bear with a kite, a puppy on a sled, an owl with spots, and a rabbit with stars (this last is depicted as a spring-loaded rabbit head, rather like the innards of a jack-in-the-box). Respectively, the first four wait for the rain, the wind, the snow, and the moon; the rabbit just likes waiting. Henkes keeps readers gently off-balance as to the nature of these toys' sentience. Sometimes, as when comically on their backs "sleeping," they seem stiff and immobile; other times, as when they huddle together during a thunderstorm, eyes wide and frightened, their bodies exude warmth and softness. Images are snapshots of single moments, and never is a child depicted; it is left to readers to decide whether the toys move on their own or have been posed by a hand outside the frame. The story is all about quietly filling in the gaps; though little appears to happen beyond the changing of seasons and arrival (and in one case, tragic departure) of other toys, the protagonists' contentment with just waiting is contagious.
Waiting as a joyful activity in itself is almost never celebrated; this Zen-like meditation might win some converts.
(Picture book. 3-6)
Clement, Jean, and Alan Alexander (a small rabbit, miniature elephant, and a pint-sized bear) enjoy a proper pajama party—complete with chicken dances, funny faces, balloon bounces, midnight snacks, stargazing, and lullabies.
Maggie, a little girl herself, acts as a chaperone, nudging them into bed when their eyes get heavy and finally leading them in an evening giving of thanks. Her lyrical recounting of the friends' night together, strung together with sweet S sounds and snug images, sends readers slipping and sliding into sleep themselves. Some parents might feel tempted to sing such quaint rhymes: “Cozy pajamas, / a happy surprise, / night birds singing / sweet lullabies.…” This picture book's satisfyingly soft illustrations and diminutive dimensions (7 inches by 8 1/2 inches) feel just right for its plush language and darling characters and content. Handmade paper absorbs pen, ink, and watercolor artwork: islands of images, nebulous in shape but rich in saturation and suggestive linework. As so often with McDonnell, the details charm even the most cynical viewers: the wee animals chow down to a chorus of “nom”s; they sleepwalk their ways to bed uttering little “Z”s. Reproduced on unusually and comfortably thick card stock, the illustrations offer tactile as well as visual joy.
Small listeners will nestle deep under their covers feeling thankful for tender books that make bedtime a pleasure.
(Picture book. 2-5)
Readers walk in the shoes of three students struggling after immigrating to the United States.
Readers meet Maria, from Guatemala, Jin, a South Korean boy, and Fatimah, a Somali girl who wears the hijab. O’Brien fosters empathy by portraying only one challenge each must overcome rather than overwhelming readers with many. Maria struggles with the language. Though back home, “Our voices flowed like water and flew between us like birds,” the sounds of English elude her. Clever, phonetically spelled dialogue balloons bring home to readers how foreign English sounds to Maria. For Jin, writing is the trouble; the scribbles of American letters close the door to the wonderful world of stories. Fatimah’s challenge is abstract: she cannot find her place in this new classroom. Gradually, each child begins to bridge the gap—soccer, stories and shared words, artwork—and feel like part of a community. O’Brien’s watercolor-and-digital illustrations masterfully use perspective, white space, and the contrast between the children “back home” and in their new settings to highlight the transition from outsider to friend. Other diverse students fill the classrooms, including a child in a wheelchair. An author’s note tells O’Brien’s own immigrant story, how difficult the transition is, the reasons families might emigrate, and how readers might help.
Whether readers are new themselves or meeting those who are new, there are lessons to be learned here about perseverance, bravery, and inclusion, and O’Brien’s lessons are heartfelt and poetically rendered.
(Picture book. 5-10)
A lonely crow tries to make a friend, literally. As the seasons progress, the plans change. In the fall, he uses sticks for a body, a crabapple for a head, and leaves for wings. But when the wind blows, his friend is gone. In winter, he piles snow, adds a seed for an eye, and sticks for wings. But when the sun shines, his friend is gone. When spring comes along, a bird calls, and this time Crow finds a real friend. Together they build a nest, and come summer, Crow has a family. Children taking their first steps into reading will easily follow the simple text on each page. The illustrations complement the text brilliantly. Done in ink and watercolors, an iridescent crow, his colorful creations, and his final true friend stand out against a white background. Readers will appreciate Crow’s resourcefulness as he creates his friends and will not need any prompting when they read the “Oh no!” text as the wind blows the fall creation to pieces or the sun melts the winter creation. The overall message of the importance of friends and family is sweet but not cloying.
A brightly illustrated story perfect for the very beginner reader.
(Early reader. 4-7)
The deceptively simple counting story of two mice, their adventure, and friendship.
One morning in Ruzzier’s imaginative and colorful world, two mice wake to explore. The tiny window above the bed beckons: water, mountains, and sky are waiting for these two. Starting before the title and ending on the copyright page, minimal text says all that is needed: “One house / Two mice / Three cookies. / Three boats / Two oars / One rower. / One nest / Two eggs / Three ducklings.” New readers will soon notice the number pattern and slow down to see how the droll illustrations extend the story. For instance, the mouse with one cookie has an angry expression and a rather tightly curled tail, while the loose-tailed mouse looks gleeful as it chows down on two cookies. The sunny rowboat scene is not so sunny for the mouse who has to manage the two oars. By the time the two buddies return to their home, all is forgiven when the delicious soup is served. (And, in a visual nod to Sendak, it is clearly “still hot.”) The small trim size and careful attention to details give this book enormous appeal; the decorative floor tiles, ornamental feet on the kitchen table, and mismatched stools fit right in with the red hills and ever changing sky. The simplicity of the text means that the earliest readers will soon be able to pick it up and will return to it over and over.
One story. Two mice. Three cheers. Lots to love.
(Picture book. 3-8)
A half-pint warrior princess wants a battle-ready horse for her birthday but instead receives a little farting pony—who brilliantly defies all expectation.
Pinecone is small and young, and normally she receives cozy sweaters for presents, but she has a warrior’s determination. With this, she attempts to train her sweet, round pony—but to no avail. They are clearly outmatched at the big battle, yet Pinecone shows her mettle, and under the pony’s innocent gaze, hardened warriors melt into sweater-wearing softies. The artist’s digital illustrations, done in an earthy palette, have a warm, handcrafted feel. As majestic horses, iconic warriors (from Genghis Khan to Robin Hood), and cool tools are juxtaposed with Pinecone and her vacant-eyed pony, differences in stature, weaponry, and achievement are cleverly emphasized. Cinematic in layout and perfectly set-dressed, each page will elicit a new round of giggles. Beaton blurs the boundaries of traditional storytelling, marrying fantasy elements to pop culture with a free-associative swagger. This emerging genre, with its zinelike irreverence and joyful comedy, is hip, modern, and absolutely refreshing. Where else can readers find hipster warriors, anime influences, perfectly placed fart jokes, a hidden ugly-sweater contest, and a skirmish packed with delightful nonsense (llamas! knights! hot dogs! turtle costumes!)—and have it all make such wonderful sense?
Instead of breaking bones, this warrior princess breaks the mold—and Beaton is in a class of her own.
(Picture book. 3-8)
Leo, like any child, hopes for acceptance, but it’s hard to find friendship when one is a ghost.
Mystery (the delicious kind) clings to the faded wallpaper and soft blue glow of the title-page spread, as an arm and leg disappear into the wall, and readers are introduced to Leo on a double-page spread apparently empty of people. But then the author’s clever text includes readers in the secret, and Leo is revealed. An amiable and appealing child, Leo has spent many years alone in his home reading, until a new family moves in. Leo tries to welcome them; but alas! They want nothing to do with a ghost, and he’s forced to leave. Invisible and lonely, he roams until he encounters Jane, a girl with a beautiful, big imagination who invites him to play, assuming he’s one of her imaginary friends. Nervously, Leo tells Jane he’s not imaginary, that he’s real and a ghost, and this wonderful, accepting girl says that’s even better. The atmospheric illustrations, done in acrylic paint and pencil, seem simple, but there’s an authenticity and precision that is extremely sophisticated. Robinson creates a vintage 1950s-’60s feel, offering up a raw version of M. Sasek. Together, words and pictures construct a whimsical, delightful story that deeply respects the child. And in Jane, they create a brilliant heroine whose powers lie within her wit, her open mind, and her freedom of play.