I’ve got a wee menagerie in my picture-book round-up this week—pigs, cats, ponies. If you’re looking for other creatures, you’ll have to look elsewhere, but these are three books that won’t let you down.
First up is Marcus Ewert’s rhyming Mummy Cat, illustrated by Lisa Brown and coming to shelves later this month. There are several narrative layers to this sophisticated story about a mummified cat, “who’s passed through Death” and wakes to wander his tomb and be with the “girl he can never forget.” Look closely on the third spread—Ewert takes his time and paces the opening of the story with delicious suspense—to see the cat’s ears peeking up out of his tomb. The girl he seeks is a character inspired by the Egyptian pharaoh, Hatshepsut. In flashbacks, mostly via the murals of the girl’s life painted in her spacious tomb, we see that this girl-queen and her pet were the dearest of friends. It’s this story of friendship and devotion that is the beating heart of the tale, but underneath that narrative is a more sinister story of spite and murder. We see that another scheming girl, jealous of Hatshepsut, orchestrates the queen’s death by releasing a scorpion that bites both her and her beloved cat.
The book closes with a set of hieroglyphs used in Brown’s illustrations, as well as information about ancient Egypt, and both author and illustrator ask readers if they can find these hieroglyphs in the pages of the story. This is not only fun and informative—to leaf back through the story and locate the 17 images to see what details they add—but it also reveals to readers that the murderess herself is none other than Hatshepsut’s sister. The hieroglyphs reveal she was greedy and, most likely, craved to rule in her sister’s stead. (Observant readers, paying close attention to all the murals, will see that the girl gets her comeuppance in the end—and that she wasn’t likely to take the throne any time after her sister’s murder.)
Brown’s ink, gouache, and watercolor illustrations, digitally collaged, feature an earth-toned palette, and she manages to fill the pages with details that don’t overwhelm the compositions. The spread showing the center of the girl’s tomb—a “chamber stuffed with lovely things”—is a delight. Children, especially those interested in history, will pause to pore over this illustration, showing the very things the girl-queen treasured in her lifetime. The final illustration, showing the tender embrace of mummified cat and queen—the text indicates they’ve been friends 3,000 years—is poignant. Be sure to remove the dust jacket to see more illustrations, on both the front and back cover, of the duo: one shows them as friends while alive, and the other, mummified friends. It’s a friendship that overcomes death itself, after all.
If it’s a pony you crave, I recommend Kate Beaton’s The Princess and the Pony, one of the funniest picture books I’ve read all year. (If you’re down with fart jokes in picture books, you might even agree.) It’s the story of Princess Pinecone, small and adorable (she can’t help it), but spunky. She’s a warrior, but while the other warriors in her community get fierce birthday presents, such as amulets, horned helmets, and shields, Princess Pinecone is usually stuck with cozy sweaters. (Mabel would be proud.) She makes it clear that for her birthday this year, however, she’d like a “real warrior’s horse,” thanks very much. She’s thinking a giant, majestic steed. Her parents try, but instead they give her a very small, roly-poly, adorable (he can’t help it), and downright goofy pony, low to the ground and usually with his tongue hanging out. In fact, often he can be found just lying on his back in the grass. He’s a few sandwiches shy of a picnic, this one. And he’s hardly majestic and fierce.
But all’s well that ends well when Pinecone—always one to make the most of a bad situation and an underachieving, dimwitted pony (he simply can’t help it)—heads into battle anyway, and all the warriors literally stop in their tracks to ooh and aah over the pony’s inherent cuteness. Even fierce warriors have cuddly sides after all.
Beaton’s comic timing is spot-on, and it’s refreshing to see her array of warriors—men and women of all shapes and skin colors. I send you here to the official Kirkus review of the book, where this is wisely noted:
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?
That reviewer, whoever he or she may be, pretty much nailed it.
Lastly, just right for very young readers is Anita Lobel’s Playful Pigs from A to Z, coming to shelves in a couple of weeks. Sunny and summery with a pastel palette, Lobel introduces readers to “26 playful pigs” who wake “one golden morning” to go exploring, all rendered via cheery gouache and watercolors. They encounter a magical field, where each letter of the alphabet stands. Each pig explores a letter, and not surprisingly the sentence matched with each letter includes words beginning with that latter: “Lola Pig labeled an L,” and “Wanda Pig watered a W.” Each huge letter dominates the page, perfect for wee ones learning their alphabet, and each letter’s borders feature capital and lower-case letters. It’s a cozy story that lives up to its title: playful and blithe, it’s perfect for sharing with young readers.
Oink, neigh, meow. And happy reading!
MUMMY CAT. Copyright © 2015 by Marcus Ewert. Illustrations © 2015 by Lisa Brown. Published by Clarion Books, Boston. Illustration reproduced by permission of Lisa Brown.
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.