Stories of loss, seeking comfort, and being found are what I have for you today. These are two new picture books that are, seemingly, about very different things—but, at their core, are about finding refuge.
Pea Pod Lullaby comes from Australian author and illustrator Glenda Millard and Stephen Michael King. Evidently, as King was creating the book’s illustrations as part of a project at the Manning Regional Art Gallery in New South Wales, Australia, Glenda watched his storyboard emerge and revised her text. The two also welcomed comments from visitors to the gallery, who watched them work. The book was first published last year in Australia but has made its way to American shelves.
The lyrical text is delightfully open-ended and brings to mind the relationship of a parent and child: “I am the small green pea / you are the tender pod.” Though the text does address a boat, the sky, and wind at one point, the art is doing the heavy-lifting in terms of storytelling, extending the text to tell the story of a woman, a child, and a baby fleeing a war zone. The title page spread shows them running past barbed wire in a sky exploding with red and orange. They cross the sea; welcome to their boat an abandoned polar bear; leave the bear on a glacier with polar bear cubs; and are welcomed by a man and his dog when they reach land.
King’s watercolor and ink illustrations, often broken up into horizontal, border-less panels of action to accelerate the pace, are filled with comforting round lines (the clouds in the sky, mother and baby, the light emanating from the lantern that hangs from their small, green boat) and warm, reassuring colors (soft greens, yellows, and blues). This may be a harrowing journey for the characters, but readers are given visual hints that they will be safe in the end.
Best of all, this is a text that works on many levels. Readers will wonder: are these words the baby’s thoughts? Yes, perhaps. (My favorite moment may be: “I am the looking glass / you are the image there / see me.” Is this not the challenge for all parents at all stages of a child’s and teen’s development—to truly see and accept what is front of them?) But as the family reaches land—“I am the castaway / you are the journey’s end / welcome me”—it is as if the words speak for all of them. They can even speak for all refugees. “I / You / We,” the text reads as King illustrates our globe itself, suspended in space, on the final page. It’s as if the very words in this book bloom; with each page turn, they open their arms wider to include more of the world. It’s an enigmatic, wondrous poem, this text.
The Kirkus review for Jeff Newman’s and Larry’s Day Found (the title comes with a period right after the word), describes this book as “story that will break hearts so it can put them back together.” Yep. That reviewer nailed it. Prepare yourself before you read.
This is the wordless tale of a young girl grieving a loss. Look closely at the opening endpapers (at least I’m fairly certain they’re the endpapers, as I’m looking at an early unbound copy of the book) to see that hidden underneath the girl’s bed is a dog basket. It must be under furniture and out of sight, readers deduce, because she no longer has a need for it. Or perhaps it’s too painful for her to see. Sure enough, in a later spread, you see a missing-dog sign hanging in her bedroom. Her dog Prudence is gone.
But her face brightens when she spots another lost pup, wandering one evening in heavy rain. She brings him inside and feeds him, and the two become friends. She even drags out Prudence’s old dog bowl for the new pup. The two bond, but during a trip to the pet store one day, she spots a missing-pet sign on a telephone pole. This dog she has grown to love is named Roscoe, and someone else who loves him dearly is looking for him. And, yes, the girl returns him—but not until she takes some time to think about it and perhaps say goodbye. This is conveyed in one masterful spread in which Day brings us three moments in time, a sleepless, contemplative night for the girl.
It is with sheer exhilaration that a boy welcomes Roscoe in his arms again when the girl returns him. Her face, however, communicates the sorrow (and even shock) of wondering if she will ever have that moment with her own Prudence. She may have done the honest thing by returning Roscoe, but it didn’t come without its fair share of significant heartache. (For those wondering, there is a happy ending for the girl, even if it doesn’t involve Prudence.)
In his pen and ink, watercolor, and gouache illustrations, Day uses color sparingly; often, the furniture in the girl’s home is merely rendered via pen, but she and the dog are washed in color. In other, more emotionally intense moments, swaths of watercolors capture a mood—such as, the spread during which the girl decides whether or not to return Roscoe. It is dominated by the blue of the night, which also so expertly captures the girl’s sorrow.
Both of these gentle stories are also about digging deep to find the courage to do what’s best or do what’s right — and, in the end, the characters of both books are stronger for it. Two memorable, beautifully drawn stories. Don’t miss ‘em.
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.
PEA POD LULLABY. Text copyright © 2017 by Glenda Millard. Illustrations copyright © 2017 by Stephen Michael King. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA.
FOUND. Text copyright © 2018 by Jeff Newman. Illustrations copyright © 2018 by Larry Day. Illustration used by permission of the publisher, Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, New York.