Thinking outside of the box gets a lot of lip service but isn’t always rewarded – especially in the lives of children. Gloriously, there are four brand-new picture books on shelves that celebrate creative thinkers and problem-solvers of many stripes. (To boot, all four have received starred reviews here at Kirkus, and hey, I didn’t even plan that.)
Let’s kick it off with Liz Garton Scanlon’s wild and wonderful Another Way to Climb a Tree, with Hadley Hooper’s luminous artwork. This story, on shelves next week, stars Lulu, who loves to climb tall trees. Nothing much seems to scare her. As the other children watch admiringly, barefoot Lulu climbs cat-trapping, kite-catching trees, the highest and branchiest ones she can find. “When Lulu sees a climbing tree,” Scanlon writes, “she’s here, and then she’s gone, just like that.”
Unfortunately, Lulu falls ill and is house-bound---Hooper depicts her with spots on her skin---and she stares longingly at the tree near her window. The birds know something is not right when the only thing climbing the tree is the sun, “bit by bright warm bit.” Lulu, trapped indoors, envies the sun. At night, she even envies the moon, but when she sees the tree’s shadow on her bedroom wall, she figures out a new way to climb it. Her fingertips “bit by bright warm bit” can climb the tree on the wall, as she stands on her bed. And, just like that, Lulu rediscovers her happiness by thinking creatively.
The protagonist in Carmen Bogan’s Where’s Rodney? (also on shelves next week), illustrated by Floyd Cooper, isn’t prohibited by illness, but he is running into problems in the classroom on account of his own boundless energy. His teacher, Miss Garcia, is frustrated that Rodney won’t stay in his seat, but he’s got windows to find (he’d rather be outside anyway), daydreaming to do, and lots of energy to burn off. When the class takes a field trip to a park (what looks like a national park), Rodney is “more outside than he had ever been before.” Here, in the outdoor classroom, he is attentive, engaging with nature and free to roam and learn. Some children, after all, learn best in such environments – ones that are literally outside of the four-walled box that is a school classroom.
The book was published in a partnership between Yosemite Conservancy and Bogan’s own Dream On Publishing, whose goal is to “promote literacy for children of color by producing high-quality children’s literature that reflects their interests and their lives.” Kirkus’s own review for this book sagely notes that it brings readers a “measured response to the ways black boys may struggle with school cultures that enforce seated obedience over genuine curiosity.” Come for the memorable protagonist; stay for Cooper’s expansive closing illustrations of Rodney taking in the big, wide world---finally in his own element---at the park.
Jeanette Winter’s The World Is Not a Rectangle: A Portrait of Architect Zaha Hadid, coming to shelves in late August, is a book that, as you can tell from the very title, is about someone not interested in confining boxes, be they figurative or literal. It’s the story of famed architect Zaha Hadid, who grew up in Baghdad and faced great discrimination in her career as both a woman and a Muslim.
As a girl, Zaha “loves her mirror because the corners aren’t square.” There are also no corners in nature, and Winter pays tribute to Hadid’s expansive spirit and the nature that inspired her work in these dynamic illustrations depicting Hadid’s groundbreaking creations. She also shows readers how, in more ways than one, Hadid was “strong as iron,” doggedly working despite the barriers she faced. The book’s closing spreads, which feature many of Hadid’s most famous works of art (Cardiff Bay Opera House in Wales, Galaxy Soho in Beijing, Signature Towers in Dubai, and more), are especially beguiling. “When I first saw photos,” Winter writes in a closing Author’s Note, “of Zaha Hadid’s architectural designs in 2010, the buildings seemed to fly.” Winter does justice to this flight in her artwork here.
Finally, there’s Philip C. Stead’s The Only Fish in the Sea, illustrated by Matthew Cordell and coming to shelves in mid-August, the follow-up to 2015’s Special Delivery. This follow-up book is as delightfully bonkers as the first one. I love it when these two collaborate.
Sadie and her friend Sherman (the friend in Special Delivery who asked Sadie where she was going on the book’s first few pages) are back, with Sherman sharing some gossip before we even get to the title page. Evidently, Little Amy Scott received goldfish in a baggie as a gift on her birthday, yet she declared “GOLDFISH ARE BORING!” and went so far as to dump the fish in the sea at the dock (where Jacob Finney has been asleep for as long as anyone can remember, mind you). Sadie deems this impudent behavior unacceptable and simply isn’t willing to let it slide, unlike everyone else. “Because the sea is awfully big … and there are a lot of dangers to face.” So, the two set off to save the fish, who (Sadie determines) must feel at this point like the only fish in the sea.
Sadie takes her adventures (involving cups of tea, 21 pink balloons, giant squids, and a whale) very seriously, as she should, while Sherman seems to be merely channeling courage along the way. Remember the monkey bandits from Special Delivery? They are back (can you spot the can of beans?), and readers will get a kick out of following their adventures on each spread. Sadie and Sherman manage to find the fish, which Sadie has named "Ellsworth," and in the end, all the kind folks they meet along the way gather to celebrate Ellsworth’s new home, where he actually feels he belongs. Little Amy Scott gets to spend her birthday alone. “And that’s all right.“ Aw, snap. Well, such is your lot on your birthday if you’re that inconsiderate anyway.
It’s a lively madcap adventure, spawned by one empathetic, creative girl and her act of kindness. Now, if we can just get a picture book one day about the deal with Jacob Finney and that interminable nap. …
Here’s to the creative thinkers – the climbers, wanderers, dreamers, and fish sympathizers, one and all.
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.