Many picture books on shelves are about the experiences children have with other children their own age, but every now and then a memorable intergenerational tale comes along. I’ve got three new ones today, ones that are about the things we gather, the things we share with others, and the things we leave behind.
Marianne Dubuc’s Up the Mountain Path, rendered via her soft pencil, watercolor, and colored pencil illustrations on a warm palette, is a story the Canadian author-illustrator wrote for and about her grandmother, even if the elderly figure in this book is a badger. Mrs. Badger is “very old,” and she’s seen, and collected, a lot of things on the hikes she is fond of taking. Her kitchen is filled with pebbles, sand from the ocean, a bird’s nest, etc. Nothing much stops her either: she lives at the foot of a mountain and still hikes to its peak (Sugarloaf Peak), cane in hand, every Sunday. She stops and talks to her many forest-creature friends along the way; she’s made a lot of friends in her travels over the years. One day, a kitten is spotted watching Mrs. Badger. She befriends the cat, named Lulu, and eventually convinces her to join her on the hike to the top of the mountain. (Poor Lulu has to work up the courage first.)
At 72 pages, this is a book that takes its time. This is fitting, given that it’s a story about a journey and the friends and acquaintances made along the way. (Mrs. Badger may collect things on her journeys, but at its heart this is a story about shared experiences.) In fact, the book includes more than one leisurely-paced journey. To rush things in a much shorter book would have significantly weakened its effect. The hike to Sugarloaf Peak becomes a habit for Mrs. Badger and Lulu, Mrs. Badger teaching her protégé how important it is to listen on such walks. Lulu even makes the trek by herself when, one day, Mrs. Badger doesn’t have the strength to make the climb. Granted, Lulu always returns to tell Mrs. Badger what she has discovered, what she learned, and whom she met. But Mrs. Badger never hikes with Lulu again after this point. And Mrs. Badger’s absence — perhaps even her death — is implied: “Gradually,” we read, “Mrs. Badger’s mountain becomes Lulu’s mountain.” Soon, Lulu is even showing a new friend the hike, just as Mrs. Badger once did for her. It’s a bittersweet, but mostly sweet, ending to a reassuring tale about generosity.
Dad’s Camera comes from two Australians, author Ross Watkins and illustrator Liz Anelli. It’s a story that will break your heart and is dedicated, in part, to “all families touched by Alzheimer’s.” It is told from the point of view of a child, who tells us on the first page that “Dad came home one day with one of those old cameras, the kind that uses film.” He proceeds to take photos of all the things in his everyday life at home, objects such as his cereal bowl, measuring tape, books, fruit on the table, and tools. When the child also notes that his father started doing “more funny things,” such as putting a screwdriver in the refrigerator, the boy adds: “The doctor told Mom this was part of the process and said to expect more of the same.” So, Alzheimer’s isn’t explicitly called out in the text itself, but as mentioned already, it’s in the dedication, as well as a short closing author’s note.
The family is upset that the ailing man will not take a photo of them, given that he’s taking photos of “things he didn’t want to forget.” At one point, the boy’s mother yells at her husband: “Aren’t we worth remembering?” The boy’s father stands there, looking confused. It’s a searing moment here that Watkins captures, honest and painful. On the next spread, we read that the man has lost the camera itself. On the next spread, he’s gone: “Then we lost Dad.” The ending, which I won’t ruin for you, involves a surprising package that arrives in the home — with film inside. It’s a gift just for the boy and mother, involving a special discovery, revealed once the boy and his mother develop the one (and only) photo on the film cartridge.
That Anelli uses monoprints to illustrate this is meaningful. This is a kind of printmaking that involves images made only once. (Other types of printmaking result in multiple originals.) There is a spontaneity and tenderness to these illustrations; much like the father is trying to capture his life in the limited time remaining for him, Anelli is capturing impressions made in a single print — much like a life is.
Thank You, Omu! is a story inspired, according to the book’s backmatter, by the strong female role models in Oge Mora’s life. Mora’s parents are Nigerian, and in their language “omu” means “queen.” But for Mora, growing up, the word meant “Grandma.” Her own grandmother loved to cook — and to share what she cooked with anyone who came to her table. In this story, the elderly Omu cooks a thick red stew for “a nice evening meal.” The pleasing smell wafts through the neighborhood, and a host of people, one by one, come to her door to ask for a bite — a little boy, a female police officer, a hot dog vendor, the mayor, and many more. Omu shares generously with them until she is left with nothing in her pot. But when everyone shows up at her door that evening with food — “We are not here to ask … We are here to give” — they feast and dance and celebrate.
This is a story that flows with the pleasing repetition of certain phrases (“thick red stew from the big fat pot for her nice evening meal”), as well as a series of growing “KNOCK KNOCK”s for those who approach her door — making it a great read-aloud choice for story times. And reminding everyone that picture books can include some of the most sophisticated vocabulary children will see (just one of picture books’ many perks), the text includes such delicious words as “delectable” and “scrumptious.” Mora’s textured collages are composed of simple shapes that may inspire children to get out their own scissors. Creating these busy, but never cluttered, compositions with acrylics, markers, pastels, patterned paper, and clippings from old books, her focus is always on the characters, their faces composed of a few lines, yet perfectly expressive.
It’s a genuinely heartwarming story, especially inspiring to read after a day of hard news. It’s one to be shared, as all three books here are. Just as Omu would have it.
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.
UP THE MOUNTAIN PATH. Text and illustrations copyright © 2017 Marianne Dubuc. English edition © 2018 Princeton Architectural Press. Illustration used by their permission.
DAD'S CAMERA. Text copyright © 2016 by Ross Watkins. Illustrations copyright © 2016 by Liz Anelli. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA.
THANK YOU, OMU! Copyright © 2018 by Oge Mora. Illustration reproduced by permission of the publisher, Little, Brown and Company, New York.