Last week, when the New York Times announced their 2011 list of the Best Illustrated Children’s Books, there were a couple of titles on there I hadn’t seen yet. One, Yu Li-Qiong’s A New Year’s Reunion, illustrated by Zhu Cheng-Liang, was not officially released till a day or two after the list was announced. When I finally saw a copy, I could easily see why the judges chose to include it on their list.
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There are certain adjectives which get used and re-used and then re-used some more when it comes to reviewing children’s books. (And I actually enjoy reading reviews—there’s something to be said for at least knowing you’re a nerd—so I am all too familiar with these words.) “Buoyant,” “whimsical,” “jaunty” and “quirky” are some. “Vibrant” is another. You’ll likely read “vibrant” as a descriptor for the illustrations in this book—in fact, the publisher itself describes it that way on the jacket flap—but “vibrant” hardly even begins to cover it here. These are colors, compositions and emotions that jump right off the page without wasting any time about it.
“Papa builds houses in faraway places,” the book opens. “He comes home only once each year, during Chinese New Year.” Speaking here is Maomao, the man’s young daughter, who cries in alarm when he arrives and sweeps her up in his arms. She’s not seen him in a long while, you see; he now has a beard; and he gets very close. (Naturally. He’s missed his daughter, while away.) She needs some time to adjust. His visit to the barber to shave his beard helps: “The Papa in the mirror is getting more like Papa the way he used to be.”
It’s the little, day-to-day things young Maomao does with Papa that consume the middle portion of the book, as it should be. Children don’t need elaborate gifts. (Maomao gets a fortune coin from Papa that pretty much makes her year.) They don’t need complicated outings. (Hanging out on the roof with Papa, they watch the “dragon dance on Main Street.”)
And it’s when Maomao loses that beloved fortune coin that the tide shifts a bit, and we see her sorrow. She eventually finds the coin again, mind you, but the loss of the coin works on more than one level, more than just the way in which children get attached to small objects: She knows on a deep level that her father will have to leave once again. And the moment she says goodbye…well, it’s so beautifully done and tenderly and subtly rendered that, if it doesn’t put at least one teardrop in the corner of your eye, I don’t want to know you.
The book brings to mind Bo R. Holmberg’s A Day with Dad (2008), illustrated by Eva Eriksson. Though Holmberg’s picture book is about divorce, both he and Li-Qiong convey so much with the body language of their characters. And both authors know exactly the kind of details to which children attend, filling the narrative with it, making the story come to vivid life.
And that aforementioned vibrancy? The reds! Oh! The rich, deep reds! Cheng-Liang’s detailed gouache illustrations are inviting, popping off the page with warmth and energy. They bring to my mind the words of legendary editor May Massee, archived in an interview at the site of Emporia State University: "A good children's book…a good little picture book, you can hold in your hands. You can feel the weight of it…It has solidity. And validity. And that's how it lives." Sure, she’s talking about a book’s weight, but there’s also a density, if you will, to such deeply felt and textured illustrations.
This one was originally published in Taiwan in 2008. Thanks to Candlewick for bringing it to the States.
Julie Danielson (Jules) has, in her own words, conducted approximately eleventy billion interviews and features of authors and illustrators at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, a children's literature blog focused primarily on illustration and picture books.