Spring is a big time of year in the world of picture book-publishing. Right around now—March-ish, April-ish—we tend to see a significant number of new titles reach shelves. Today, I’ve got four books that have one thing in common: They are the four that most fired me up this week. They are books I hope you go out of your way to find.
First up is Once Upon a Time, which comes from illustrator Raúl Nieto Guridi, who publishes under simply “Guridi.” A breath of fresh air, this story was first published in Spanish two years ago, translated into English and released in the UK last year (I believe), and will be on American shelves next month. (Yes, you’ll have to wait just a bit for this one, but it’ll be worth it.) It’s the story of Bard, who loves words. He continues to love them as he grows, and he makes sentences and then paragraphs and then “unforgettable stories” out of them. The people who live in his village are transfixed by his stories. They come to Bard with new words in the hopes he’ll tell them new tales.
One morning, Bard stops speaking. No one understands why. There is merely silence. In fact, there are three spreads of Bard’s silence in this languidly-paced story. The townsfolk are baffled and speculate as to what might be going on. Is Bard upset? Angry? In love? They never find out, and neither do we as readers. However, one person—a musician, named Ballad—just listens to all the theories, “staring into space” and soaking it all in. One day, he “softly and sweetly” plays his cello. “End” says Bard, finally speaking. That “end” is actually a beginning, as words flow from his mouth again. Whatever the reason for his silence, something about the music dislodged and rearranged that reticence in Bard—and it moved him to find his voice.
Visually, Guridi keeps things simple with his loose-lined, gestural illustrations. There’s a lot of breathing room on these spreads, fitting for such a contemplative, enigmatic tale. In a series of delightfully quirky illustrations, we see the village folks dressing up as storybook characters to try to prompt Bard to speak again. What Guridi does with line here is mesmerizing. (Just check out the cover and note the placement of the title.) This is a story that raises implicit questions—just what exactly happened to Bard and can you,as the reader, relate?—and it’s lovely to see that in a picture book for children. There’s a lot to think about, and we as readers are asked to sit with the absence of pat answers.
F. Isabel Campoy provides the introduction to Jaime Hernandez’s The Dragon Slayer: Folktales from Latin America, a set of comics from Toon Books. Here, she writes that the Latin American heritage is “richly diverse, a unique blend of Old World and New, spanning a continent across many geographic boundaries and cultures.” But, she adds, one recurring theme is the presence of strong women. Hernandez takes three folktales from Hispanic and Latino cultures and gives them new spins—a story in which a palace kitchen maid bests a seven-headed, flesh-eating dragon (and also puts the king in his place); a young woman named Martina Martínez marries a mouse, who falls into a soup pot (a story that actually ends in a fiesta); and idle Tup, the youngest of three sons, manages to outwit his family and yield an impressive crop of corn, thanks to some ants. Publishing at the same time is a Spanish-language edition of the book.
Each comic, save the title page, is laid out in pages of six panels each, and the uncluttered artwork is brightly colored. The book closes with succinct, yet detailed, notes on each story, its history, and accompanying historical images. A bibliography and a note encouraging readers to tell their own stories (this includes some of the stock phrases, in both English and Spanish, of storytellers) are included. With its eye-catching design, appealing cover, and its spirited stories, you may have to pry this entertaining and informative book from the hands of children.
Drawn from Nature comes from UK artist Helen Ahpornsiri. This is a 60-page informational picture book about the natural world and its splendors—plants and animals in the changing seasons—and from it I learned many facts. I didn’t know that female hares, at the beginning of each Spring, stand on their hind legs and “box” on male hares in an effort to impress them with their strength. Nor did I know that deer actually shed their antlers and that stags who engage in rutting will “crown” themselves with bracken in an effort to appear more intimidating. And I didn’t know that the top part of a mushroom we see (the rest of it winds its way through the soil) is called the “fruit.” I could go on. The book is packed with information, including in the tiny-print captions to many of the images.
But it’s the detailed, intricate artwork that steals the show. Ahpornsiri created these illustrations from pressed plants. It’s all petals and leaves, and it’s simply beguiling. You’ve been warned not to have plans any time near the moment you sit down to pore over this book, because you will be tempted to do so for hours. It’s sublime. And it’s the choices Ahpornsiri makes that are especially intriguing. Her image of an owl (arguably, the book’s most stunning one) includes significant negative space on a black background: The owl’s stomach is made up of wispy white flowers and smaller, drier petals. She does something similar with the image of a hibernating hedgehog, all leaves and petals for its quills, face, ears, and legs—with white space making up its body. These illustrations, and the book’s thoughtful design, are a study in eloquence.
Finally, though another bunny book got much more attention this week, don’t miss the new picture book from the singular talent that is Rowboat Watkins. I don’t want to say too much about the plot of Big Bunny, because it’s filled with surprises. Suffice it to say that any caretaker who has read to a child — and that antsy child isn’t satisfied with the book’s plot—will relate to this story of what we assume is a parent reading to a child. (We don’t see them till the book’s close.) In this case, the child listening isn’t pleased with the book’s scare factor—as in, this child wants bigger, better, and scarier in this story of a bunny. And the child keeps changing the story, turning the “BIG BUNNY” of the story into a “ginormously SCARY bunny.” Eventually, the child gets to take over the storytelling. SCORE.
I love how the Kirkus review for this book notes that “Watkins’ glee in crafting a near-anarchic tale is infectious.” I love that in more ways than I can count, as I think that many aspects of parenting (not just bedtime readings) are anarchic. (As caretakers we just have to embrace that, don’t we?) There’s so much over-the-top humor here. Expect many laughs at story time, in particular. This book is also a celebration of the abundant imagination of children, though is it a human child in the end? I can’t spoil it for you, but do yourself a favor and find a copy to read on your own, preferably with your favorite child in your lap. And let the anarchy commence.
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.
DRAWN FROM NATURE. Text and design copyright © 2018 by The Templar Company Limited. Illustrations copyright © 2018 by Helen Ahpornsiri. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA.
BIG BUNNY. Copyright © 2018 by Rowboat Watkins. Illustration reproduced by permission of the publisher, Chronicle Books, San Francisco.