For all but a few, the night is a foreign country.
Dreams are when the world turns upside down and inside out, and Bansch does a superb job illustrating its kooky-spooky state. Here, a dozen creatures settle in for the night: the elephant in the tall grass, the bird in its nest, the cat by the stove, the bat, wrapped in a red blanket, in its cave. The artwork is a sophisticated use of collage—for instance, beautiful examples of 19th-century European cartography become tree trunks—with color deployed for special effect and spidery linework adding a creepy-crawly quality. Dark shades are complemented by snappy red tulips in the elephant’s shadowy grass, and the polar bear’s cave is a luminous, delicate light blue. While the text is minimal, it is also evocative: “The dog slumbers in his cozy doghouse, / and the polar bear snores loudly in his ice cave.” Midbook, when the moon is full on one page and in full eclipse on the next, the book must be turned around and started from the other end. Then the youngest listeners will get the topsy-turvies of dreamtime: “But sometimes at night the elephant dreams in the bird’s nest, / the cat purrs in a burrow on a cushion of hay, / and the bird lies in the tall grass.” All’s fair in the Land of Nod, and inviting, too.
With the feel of a fine and handsome tintype, this Austrian import makes night newly beguiling.
(Picture book. 2-6)
Defying simple categorization, Cecil’s 144-page illustrated narrative presents a street dog that dreams of home, a light-skinned girl who longs for companionship, and her father, a juggler who panics in front of an audience.
Rendered in oil and printed in softly textured black and gray duotones on white paper, the scenes unfold in circular compositions (suggesting spotlights), accompanied by several sentences per page. Act I and II follow a similar pattern: noisy cars awaken Lucy, and she trots along the pavement to an apartment building’s entrance. Eleanor lowers a piece of sausage on a string from a second-floor window. The juggler’s exceptional skill is showcased when no one is looking, but he is yanked offstage each disastrous night. It is when the sensitive girl attempts to bolster her father’s confidence that changes occur. Each character’s daytime decisions lead to new outcomes after their paths intersect for a show-stopping evening performance during a climactic third act. Quirky caricatures featuring lopsided eyes and flat heads interpret the drama in the streets and interiors of a diverse community in an undetermined urban yesteryear. Children ready to move beyond early readers will appreciate the pace of the page turns and the chance to discover visual details that characters miss.
A brief denouement in the final act reveals that each main character has given the others just what they needed; a clever structure and a satisfying story.
(Picture book. 6-9)
Viewers follow the unfurling of an exotic woodland plant through the actions and invented language of beautifully coiffed and clothed insects.
The nonsense narrative is presented through dialogue. Because the conversations connect to specific phenomena and many words are repeated, decoding occurs fairly quickly. “Du iz tak?” (Probably: “What is that?”) “Ma ebadow unk plonk.” (Perhaps: “I think it’s a plant.”) The true meaning is anyone’s guess, but therein lies the fun. A large trim size and an abundance of white space on the opening pages send readers’ eyes to the delicate ink-and-gouache winged creatures and the small green shoot at the base of the spreads. Over several days and nights, the scene builds: a caterpillar forms a cocoon; a snail emerges from its well-appointed log to lend a “ribble” (“ladder”) so its friends can build a “furt” in the rising stalk; a cricket fiddles in the moonlight. Danger appears—a menacing spider that seems intent on caging the plant in its web until an enormous bird swoops in, altering the course of events. But there is glory too as the “gladdenboot” blooms and the encapsulated moth takes flight. This is certain to ignite readers’ interest and imaginings regarding their natural surroundings.
Following the minute changes as the pages turn is to watch growth, transformation, death, and rebirth presented as enthralling spectacle.
(Picture book. 4-7)
In this cozy import, inventively placed cutouts on alternate pages turn geometric abstractions into apples, birds, a birdhouse, and other outdoorsy sights.
“All you need for apples are circles and the color red.” The transformations of color and space as the pages turn are consistently surprising: three simple white circles on a red field become autumn apples high on a leafy branch; a line of five short rectangles opposite one long vertical one assembles itself into a ladder; robins move into a new birdhouse until a winter storm arrives with a jagged bolt of lightning and a blast of wind to blow it down. But with a basket and a hammer, “I’ll climb the ladder and hang the birdhouse and take the apples in to eat.” Views through a window of a robin floating over a snowy landscape and, later, a close-up of “baby robins, and apple flowers” in spring are only slightly less minimal than the terse text or the rest of the art. Readers will marvel at the way Felix plays with shape and color, turning seemingly arbitrary arrangements of forms and angles into recognizable representations.
This very simple seasonal turn invites viewers to look afresh at shapes and colors and changes.
(Picture book. 3-5)
Forget A is for Apple. Here letters appear alongside delightfully ambiguous artwork and phrasing, offering up multitudes of interpretations and variations of story.
Readers know right away this isn’t a traditional ABC book. “THAT’S NOT AN ANSWER” appears on the letter A’s page, with a fierce cat hissing at a bird in flight. Cubist, mildly abstract artwork employs blocks of color, assured linework, and expressive brush strokes to deliver succinct, complex images with astonishing force and embedded meanings. Square pages and lavishly thick paper contribute to this immensely pleasing reading experience as well, nudging readers to run fingers across the beguiling matte illustrations as they revel in deciphering them. Phrases, fragments, exclamations, declarations, and angling adjectives accompany each picture, providing context and catalyzing imaginative analysis. N’s “A NIGHTMARE,” with a lurking animal, partially obscured behind trees, and a worried walker, dressed in red but with a hood looking much like an animal mask, provides ample fodder for decoding—and perhaps for nighttime visions too! Sometimes funny, occasionally eerie, often bizarre, such fantastic images keep readers alert, expectant, and excited.
A visionary alphabet book that seeks to introduce not only letters, but nuanced narratives to eager, unfettered young minds.
(Picture book. 3-8)
Introducing Pug Man, a wrinkled sack of grump…when things aren’t going his way.
Meschenmoser draws Pug Man as a thicket of spidery, gray lines. Readers meet him while he is still under the bedcovers, and he reeks of grump. Finally: there’s his face, which is a little squinty for a pug. It doesn’t matter. This dog has character. He has slept until noon. Grump. He does his business. (He looks like Whistler’s mother relieving herself.) Grump. There is no milk, cereal, nor coffee. Grump, grump, grump. The morning paper has been left out in the rain. “It was a bad day for Pug Man.” But wait. “Suddenly a fairy appeared.” A pink and gold fairy that looks as if she has been drawn by a kindergartner. She rains goodies down on Pug Man: raspberry drops, cake, the friendship of a kitten or a piglet. “Castle, car, swimming pool, / You’ve got three wishes—that’s the rule.” (The fairy speaks in couplets. Pug Man doesn’t speak. He projects.) Pug Man takes the offer. He wishes for breakfast. He wishes for a dry newspaper. He wishes the fairy would turn into a silent piglet. Yes, Pug Man is a bit rough on the fairy, but they are his wishes, wishes that erase the granite grimace from his face. He even grins.
Wonderfully grouchy, with a touch of wickedness and a soupçon of warmth and color.
(Picture book. 4-10)
Readers may never look at concrete, or shaped, poetry in the same way again.
Of course the words on the pages convey the outline of objects and ideas in Raczka’s stunningly inventive new collection of “word paintings,” but so do letter arrangements and shapes in the poem’s titles. See, for example, “DIPPER,” set against a black two-page spread, with the second P in the title soaring aloft, cup-shaped, at the top of the page, while the shape of the poem itself resembles Ursa Major. The letters in the title “eracer” appear with a partially obliterated c, while the poem includes a pencil-shaped line whose eraser-tip “end” is about to wipe out a “misstake”! And so goes each delightful, child-friendly poem and creative title. Readers will enjoy turning the volume upside down and every which way to catch every word and nuance and won’t miss illustrations a bit. As Raczka points out, “In the poems…I’ve created pictures with words.” Youngsters will be inspired to put their own writing implements to paper voluntarily. Indeed, the author’s final effort is entitled “poeTRY.” Teachers might wish to challenge students to devise cleverly lettered titles, then exchange papers with partners who will follow through with themed poems.
Kids will want to wade deeply into this marvelous, winning mix-up.
Sturm pays tribute to the Japanese art of kamishibai storytelling with a wordless tale of two wicked children who are turned into monkeys.
Bearing sticks and angry expressions, a boy and a girl chase a red bird up a mountain slope—only to meet an enraged wizard who transforms them and leaves them to be chased by a tiger, then captured for a circus sideshow (“They Read! They Write!”). By the time they are released, both have undergone inner transformations too, and their reverent treatment of the bird when it returns leads to final glimpses of three birds flying off together. (Though inspired by the Japanese art, Sturm draws Western characters; the children and wizard are white, though the sideshow crowd is multiracial.) In an afterword with photos, Sturm (of the Adventures in Cartooning series) explains how traditional kamishibai works, drawing a clear connection between the art and graphic storytelling. He leaves decorated but otherwise blank pages opposite each of his cleanly drawn full-page illustrations throughout as silent invitations to viewers to supply their own narratives, dialogue, and sound effects to his story. Children will not be slow to take him up on the offer.
For all its simplicity, an episode rich in drama, humor, pathos, and thematic depth—with plenty of latitude for verbal embellishment.
(Graphic early reader. 4-8)
Innovative design meets a classic lost-and-found story in this remarkable Japanese import.
The slipcased book initially seems like a codex bound on the right. The first scene shows a child at a door with text reading “knock! knock! / I’m home!” When opened to the first double-page spread, the recto shows the girl with her mother, both wearing concerned expressions, and the text reads “My bear….” The facing verso shows the girl looking out the window: “Is my bear there?” Next, instead of turning pages right to left, a large section of pages on the verso flips up, revealing the girl in her apartment on the verso below (now facing the initial recto “My bear…” page). Pages then continue unfolding to the right and up, to the left and up, and so on, as the girl climbs flights of stairs in search of her bear, knocking on neighbors’ doors in black-and-white scenes. Brightly colored, whimsical interiors appear behind each neighbor’s door, but the bear is missing until she reaches the rooftop and spies a bird flying with it. The bird returns it at the topmost verso, and remaining pages turn like a gatefold page to the left, creating a third facing page and initiating an eight-page downward, unfurling descent as she joyously returns home to cuddle in bed with her bear. Though its format and construction make it a challenge for library circulation, its playful stretching of the boundaries makes it a must for anyone interested in the apparently infinite possibilities of the physical book.