Because it’s the holidays, I had some down time this week to look through some early-2017 picture book releases. At the same time, however, 2016 isn’t quite over yet, so today I’m going to tell you about two expertly crafted picture books – one out this week in the last gasp of this year and one that hits bookshelves just next week, as we’re kicking off 2017.
Lucky Lazlo, written and illustrated by Steve Light, was released this week. It’s sheer fun in many directions, but it’s especially entertaining for theatre-lovers of all ages. It’s very much an adventure story: young Lazlo is in love with the girl starring as Alice (as in, Wonderland) in a production at the Peacock Theater. He buys her a rose, the “last red one—how lucky!” A nearby cat watches and trails the boy. Lazlo may be lucky, but he runs into … well, let’s say he walks into some bad luck when he bashes right into a pole. He is deeply in love, after all, and in the midst of his reverie doesn’t pay attention to where he’s going. That sly cat runs away with his rose.
Let me pause here to say that, if you’re familiar with the books of author-illustrator Steve Light, you know that what you’re getting treated to are hand-drawn and hand-colored fountain pen illustrations. Light has an unmistakable style, and it’s a joy to pore over his intricate drawings with their occasional splashes of color. (In the book’s beginning, Lazlo is one of the only spots of color on the city streets, as if love is literally lighting him up.) Light’s books are not ones you want to rush. Take your time. Linger. Read. Repeat. Enjoy.
The boy runs after the cat. The chase is on! He’s determined to retrieve the rose for his Alice. He runs through the theater and, eventually, even across the stage. Readers get a look at the behind-the-scenes goings-on of a production: we see a costumer, the musicians and orchestra, the props table, and more. Lazlo does get his rose back in hand, but you almost don’t want to see the story end. The moment he chases the cat across the stage is a feast for one’s eyes (with what is probably the most color on any one spread), the stage depicting the Mad Tea Party scene, yet the cat has wreaked complete havoc. (Speaking of Alice, be sure to remove the book’s dustjacket to see a fantastic cover with a smiling Cheshire Cat.)
Best of all—thespians, prepare to be pleased—the spreads are filled with nods to theatre superstitions. “The more research I did,” Light explains in a closing author’s note—“the more I was drawn to the superstitions and harbingers of good and bad luck surrounding theaters and actors. It’s no wonder that things go wrong for Lazlo and the cast and crew at the Peacock Theater. They have broken every superstitious rule in the book!” On the same page, Light lists various theatrical superstitions and asks readers if they can locate them in the book. I knew about “break a leg” and a small handful of others, but for one thing, I didn’t know that, say, it’s considered bad luck to exit a dressing room right foot first. For another thing, I didn’t know the reasons why “good luck” is seen as bad luck to an actor. Fascinating.
In the end, Lazlo’s in luck—he gets a kiss on the cheek!—and the cat has caught the theater mouse for which he ditched the rose. And readers are lucky to have been privy to the whole adventure.
Out on shelves on January 3rd will be Emily Jenkins’ A Greyhound, a Groundhog, illustrated by Chris Appelhans. This one’s an adventure too – an adventure for two creatures (can you guess which?) and an adventure in rhyme. Teachers and librarians, take note: this will be one of your best new read-alouds for young children.
What Jenkins does here, playing around with words and rhymes, is spirited and ear-catching. It’s a book that possesses the same spirit, if you will, of Emily Gravett’s Orange Pear Apple Bear. There are differences, but both books do a lot with very little, a simple set of words. After introducing the greyhound (“a round hound”) and groundhog (“a round hog”)—and, yes, Appelhans succeeds in making each round, something you have to see with your own eyes—Jenkins adds only a small handful of words and continues rhyming. Her meter and rhythms are spot-on: “A greyhound, a groundhog, a found little roundhog.” The phrase “a rollicking read-aloud” may be a staple of review-speak, but it fits perfectly for this book.
Some editor somewhere was wise to pair Appelhans with this text. He’s smart enough to keep the shapes simple and the spreads uncluttered. Even his choice of watercolors propel the movement of the animals—the beautiful, long, lean greyhound seems in constant motion—and keeps the pages breathing. But the most impressive thing here is the book’s pacing. The two creatures run and play, which builds to a kind of “around and around and around” delirium, Appelhans giving us a series of glorious spreads as the animals chase one another. It’s a swirl of words and watercolors and builds even further to an “astound” spread, where the two creatures marvel at the flight of butterflies. Eventually, the two collapse, and readers are left nearly breathless as well.
Two beguiling picture books for saying goodbye to the old year and welcoming the new one, each a pleasure to share with children.
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.