It’s mid-year, and that’s when lots of people in many fields like to take a step back and look at How Things Have Gone Thus Far. I’m a big music-lover, and I like to read the thoughts of music magazines and music blogs on the best albums of the year so far. It’s just fun, not to mention a great opportunity to hear music you may have missed earlier.
People in the book world like to do this, too, and in the realm of picture books, people like to make mid-year Caldecott predictions. I don’t tend to do those at my own blog or even over here. However, one thing I do participate in annually is a wonderful workshop sponsored by the Center for Children’s and Young Adult Literature at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. I join other presenters to speak at an in-service for school librarians about what we think are the best titles of the year thus far—all in an effort to make their book orders a bit easier when they get back to work in August. (Yes, in the South, our summer is over when the Northeast is merely halfway done.)
When I speak at this workshop, I work hard to make sure I cover the spectrum—that is, informational books, fiction, biographies, poetry…you get the idea. The goal is to cover what I think are the best picture books of the year, period. That means it shouldn’t matter what category each book falls into, but that’s never a problem. There’s a lot of goodness out there—every year, I find that some of the best always include nonfiction titles. Some of the best always include poetry. You get the idea again. And I try to lump like books together: Let’s talk about poetry now, and then let’s talk about folktales. That kind of thing.
However, I always tend to start out by naming my absolute very favorites, no matter what category they live in. So, I’ve been thinking about those picture books a lot over the past few weeks. What are those books that I think are some of the year’s best so far, ones I think a children’s librarian has gotta see and have in his/her collection? I thought it might be fun to take a look today.
Remember this one? Jon J Muth’s Hi, Koo! A Year of Seasons is, I think, one of the year’s most outstanding picture books thus far. It came out really early in the year, and it was met with wonderful reviews all around. It’s a collection of 26 original haiku about the four seasons, and it’s also an alphabet book. It’s a captivating exploration of nature, filled with Muth’s signature watercolors, luminous and playful.
Also outstanding is Deborah Underwood’s Bad Bye, Good Bye, illustrated by Jonathan Bean. It’s the story of one boy and his family’s big move to a new place, and as the Kirkus review notes, the story is really about an “emotional journey that’s expressed with a raw honesty.” Underwood’s rhyming text is bare bones, getting right to the heart of the matter without wasting any breath (“Bad day / Bad box” the boy says on moving day). Bean’s illustrations are a wonder of light and shadow. Here’s what he said at my site about creating the artwork for it:
The illustrations are made in a somewhat old-fashioned way. Instead of pre-set CMYK colors (cyan, magenta, yellow, black), I picked Pantone colors from a book of paint swatches, similar to what you find in a home paint shop. This allowed me to create a particular mood, depending on the colors I chose. However, it also meant that it was my job to pre-separate the art (separate the illustrations into four colors, corresponding to the traditional CMYK.) This was a lot like solving a complicated puzzle, since each illustration required four paintings, a separate painting in black and white for each color. The rewards for the extra hassle are consistent and deeply saturated colors throughout the book—an effect CMYK can’t match.
If you haven’t seen this one yet, do yourself a favor and find a copy.
Two of my other very favorites this year are illustrated by Melissa Sweet—Firefly July: A Year of Very Short Poems, edited by Paul B. Janeczko, and Jen Bryant’s picture book biography of Peter Mark Roget, The Right Word: Roget and his Thesaurus, coming to bookshelves in September. (To see how Melissa found just the right art for the latter, you can read more here at her visit to my site this week.)
Last, but far from least, my two very favorites: Patricia Hruby Powell’s Josephine: The Dazzling Life of Josephine Baker, illustrated by Christian Robinson, is one of the most superb books you’ll see all year. This is how you do a great biography, my friends. Excellent writing and dynamic illustrations that fit together like puzzle pieces. It came out in January (a lifetime ago in the zippy-quick world of book publishing). Let us not forget it!
And the one I can’t live without? Lois Ehlert’s The Scraps Book: Notes from a Colorful Life. Simply perfect. This picture book memoir is incredibly inspiring. I want to give it to every child I meet—for that matter, every human, no matter what age.
I can’t wait to see what the rest of 2014 brings us.
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.