As all caretakers know, there’s a window of childhood, the one in which separation anxiety also tends to rear its head, in which young children gently push their boundaries for independence and self-reliance. It’s a balancing act for both the adult and the child—to shorten the small one’s leash and encourage exploration. Three brand-new picture books on shelves, all set in the wild outdoors, address this push-and-pull of growing up.
The one most explicitly remarking upon this caretaker-child bond is Ashley Wolff’s Where, Oh Where, Is Baby Bear? There have been two previous books featuring Wolff’s curious bear (Baby Bear Sees Blue and Baby Bear Counts One), who is a stand-in for adventurous toddlers everywhere, and this is a welcome addition. In this story, Mama Bear and Baby Bear head out when the sun sets to search for food. As you can guess from the title, Baby Bear consistently wanders off as they explore. “Where, oh where, is Baby Bear?” Mama repeatedly calls, to which Baby Bear answers, “Here I am, Mama.”
This seek-and-find, call-and-response tale makes it story-time gold for the toddler set (also perfect for lap-time, one-on-one reading). It’s a comforting notion too—that Baby Bear may drift away, but Mama Bear is always there to comfort when he wanders back. And as with her previous Baby Bear books, Wolff illustrates this via linoleum block prints with watercolors. Warm colors, expert composition, vivid textures: It’s all here. Beautiful.
Jacob Grant’s Through with the Zoo will not only speak to young children eager to explore their independence, but it also speaks to the hermit in us all. It’s the story of Goat, who “dreamed of having space.” He doesn’t want hugs. He doesn’t want to be petted. He doesn’t want anyone near him. (Ah, it’s me every damn morning, sad to say. I can relate.) It’s all getting a bit exhausting for him, since … wait for it … he lives in a petting zoo.
This petting zoo is “packed with grabby little hands.” In one very funny illustration, we see the zoo from outside its fence, Goat leaning over it as if trying to get air. Children (and their grabby little hands) are packed within, and the long-suffering look on Goat’s face is comedy gold. Goat decides to head to the “big zoo, so safe from the wild children.” I love how Grant turns the tables on the notion of exactly which creatures are wild here.
Things don’t go so well. There’s a too-clingy koala; there are entirely too many penguins; and the bears like to cuddle. When Goat eventually finds a lone tree, he gets all the space, time, and silence that he craves. Granted, he definitely needed some alone time, but just like last year’s Caldecott Honor book Leave Me Alone! (Vera Brosgol), Goat comes to realize that, with all things in moderation, the empty space was lacking a hug here and a hug there. Back to the petting zoo he goes. At least now he knows where his alone-space is, should the need for quiet time pop up again.
Most of Grant’s illustrations, rendered via charcoal and crayon (and digitally colored), have a copious white-space border around them, making it all the more striking when Goat, say, leaps past the illustration into the white space that is the unknown (just before he decides to try the zoo). These borders fall away as the story continues and Goat explores the world past the petting zoo. The full-page, full-bleed illustration showing welcome hugs at the end is sweet without being cloying — the book’s “and it was still hot” moment.
Kate Banks’s How to Find an Elephant, illustrated by Boris Kulikov (good things happen when these two are paired up), also features a child heading out on his own to bravely explore. Written in a direct and inviting second-person voice, it’s filled with advice on elephant-finding, given specifically to the main character, a young boy with a map, backpack, and binoculars at the ready. “The best place to find an elephant is in the wild,” Banks writes. Readers will want to take their time with the page turns, since on every spread Kulikov hides an elephant. Look closely: What you think is a tree trunk is really an elephant leg. Hidden behind those bamboo leaves? An elephant’s face. On the cover itself, the boy’s left leg is actually on an elephant trunk. Kulikov even uses white space to delineate the massive creature:
As noted on the book’s very first page, the most opportune time to look for an elephant is “on a dull day when clouds hover on the horizon looking like spaceships. And you’re thinking up something to do.” In other words, when bored, put your imagination to work. Children will enjoy the journey with Banks and Kulikov as their guides.
Which, oh which, will you share with children first? You can’t go wrong with any of these new titles. Happy exploring.
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.
WHERE, OH WHERE, IS BABY BEAR? Copyright © 2017 by Ashley Wolff. Illustration used by permission of the publisher, Beach Lane Books, New York.
THROUGH WITH THE ZOO. Copyright © 2017 by Jacob Grant. Illustration used by permission of the publisher, Feiwel and Friends, New York.
HOW TO FIND AN ELEPHANT. Text copyright © 2017 by Kate Banks. Pictures copyright © 2017 by Boris Kulikov. Illustration used by permission of the publisher, Margaret Ferguson Books, Farrar Straus Giroux, New York.