Earlier this year, I wrote here at Kirkus about Jonathan Bean’s Building Our House, which is still very high on my list of Favorite 2013 Picture Books (a list that lives solely in my head) and which was also awarded this year’s Boston Globe-Horn Book Award in the category of Picture Books. In fact, that book might be standing triumphantly on the tip-top of the Favorite 2013 Picture Book Mountain, flag securely positioned in the ground, waving boldly and flapping in the wind. I find Best-Of lists hard, so this is arguable, but boy howdy do I love that book.
If you count both my blog (my follow-my-bliss, unpaid hobby) and the freelance writing I do about picture books (my follow-my-bliss, paying gigs), I write about picture books quite a bit in any given week. There are some weeks I have to really dig through the stacks of picture books that threaten to buckle my house’s foundation to find subject matter. And then there are weeks like this one when a new book shows up, and I fall so hard for it that I know, without question, I want to write about it.
Jonathan Bean’s new one, Big Snow, is like that. Granted, it was released in late September, but I’m just now seeing a copy.
I always make efforts to mix things up here in my Kirkus columns—here I am writing about Jonathan Bean’s work again, in other words, during one year—but DANG, he’s good. So, so good at making picture books that engage children, not to mention he’s got a style all his own.
Big Snow is all about the anticipation of the awesome (in more ways than one) weather event that is a heavy snowfall, as well as the utter joy of it all. (This, as a Southerner, is something I know little about, but it’s not entirely foreign to me.)In fact, on the title page illustration, we see a boy standing outside, sled in hand and all wrapped up in his winter wear, with a look of utter desolation on his face. We can see that he’s waiting for that snow, was expecting it, yet it hasn’t arrived. It’s very funny. (Poor guy.)
He heads back inside to ask his mother the first of many questions about the snow: when it will arrive, how much will there be, etc. He promises to help her with household chores, but it’s clear his mind is elsewhere—the flour in the kitchen, the suds while cleaning the bathtub and the white, cool sheets of his bed make him think of snow—and he keeps wandering back outside.
Snowflakes begin to fall (in the South, that’s enough to CLOSE SCHOOLS FOR AN ENTIRE WEEK, though I momentarily digress), but he still really wants that mammoth snowfall. Eventually, he falls asleep and dreams of a snow so big that drifts invade their home. When he wakes…you guessed it: His big snow has arrived.
There’s a lot that charms here. There’s humor in Mom’s increasingly furrowing eyebrows, as the boy keeps wandering off, not to mention her attempts to vacuum the snow in the boy’s dream. There’s the boy’s nearly palpable energy every time he enthusiastically bolts out the door to check on the snow status. There’s the tension that quietly builds as Bean steps way back to consistently give us aerial views of the neighborhood so that we can see how the snow is accumulating.
Best of all, there’s a lovingly and intricately created world, once you crack open the book and step inside. There’s warmth, so much warmth, for a book about snow: the sunny, yellow kitchen walls; the cozy living room with the family cat, snuggling; the shaggy, comfy carpets of the home and smooth kitchen tiles; the miniature Christmas tree, next to where the boy sleeps by the home’s front entrance. It’s all ultimately contrasted against the heavy nighttime snow, the boy’s dream come true (though at least the snow has remained outside, where it belongs).
Bean has so expertly captured a child’s joy and wonder over winter. And, whether or not he intended it, it all makes me think of Ezra Jack Keat’s iconic The Snowy Day. If Bean did, indeed, intend for this to be an homage, well…this, my friends, is how you honor a picture book classic without being derivative, something which is hard to pull off.
Big Snow is a big delight.
BIG SNOW. Copyright © 2013 by Jonathan Bean. Published by Farrar Straus Giroux, New York. Illustration reproduced by permission of the publisher.
Julie Danielson (Jules) conducts interviews and features of authors and illustrators at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, a children's literature blog primarily focused on illustration and picture books.