I write about picture books a lot. Naturally, I have many conversations with people about said picture books. (I can’t help it. It’s my favorite topic.) Lately, I’ve been chatting with people about what 2014 looks like so far in the realm of illustrated books for children. It’s still so early in the year, I find myself repeating—though I do know that, thus far, my two favorite books, without any exception, are Lois Ehlert’s The Scraps Book: Note from a Colorful Life and Patricia Hruby Powell’s Josephine: The Dazzling Life of Josephine Baker, illustrated by Christian Robinson.
It all made me want to step back and look at recent picture books I think are good. And I had to really step back pretty flippin’ far, ’cause I have stacks and stacks of new ones in my office. (I use the word office loosely. More like the messy corner of my bedroom.)
So, with no rhyme or reason here—other than the theme of Recent Picture Books I Like—let’s get to it:
New from K.G. Campbell, who illustrated the reigning Newbery winner, is the story of a mermaid who discovers her true talents—The Mermaid and the Shoe, to be released in a few weeks. At first glance, the book has a lot in common with the classic Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale, “The Little Mermaid.” But keep reading. At its heart, this story of Minnow the mermaid’s revelation that she has the soul of an explorer, which sets her apart from her sisters, is a tender (with humor to boot) story about identity, self-acceptance, and even the loving bond between father and daughter. The story itself doesn’t break any new ground, nor does it need to, but Campbell’s elegant illustrations, with fluid lines and a palette beautiful in its restraint, are utterly charming.
While we’re on the topic of outstanding illustrations, don’t miss Mina Javaherbin’s Soccer Star, illustrated by Renato Alarcão and out on shelves just this week. The Kirkus review calls it a “lovely story about soccer, gender and hope,” as it tells the tale of a young boy and his sister, living in poverty-stricken Brazil, who both dream of being soccer stars. Girls don’t play on these teams, but by a stroke of luck and circumstance, the protagonist’s younger sister gets a shot to let her kickin’ soccer skills shine. As Javaherbin’s immediate, present-tense story flows eloquently along, Alarcão brings readers rich, luminescent spreads of the siblings’ neighborhood and community. The way he depicts sunlight on water is worth the price of admission alone.
If you missed Emily Gravett’s Matilda’s Cat, out in March, then by all means, hurry to your nearest library or bookstore. Gravett—who makes a refreshing and copious use of white space, bless her—tells here the story of a young girl and her cat. Matilda, dressed up in the feline equivalent of Max’s wolf costume, is rambunctious and always ready to play. In particular, she wants to play with her cat. The text tells us one thing about what her cat loves to play, but the illustrations tell us another. “Matilda’s cat likes playing with wool,” the book opens. The girl dances in a mess of wool, while her cat hides in trepidation. The next spread says her cat likes “playing with wool, boxes…” Well, look closely. The cat merely glares at Matilda and her ardent love of cardboard. On it goes. In the end, we see that her cat loves what matters most, really: Cuddling in bed and sleeping next to the human who loves her the most. It’s an affectionate, playful story, executed in the smart, spare way of the gifted Gravett.
Last, but not least, I have two words for you: Steve Jenkins. I try to avoid hyperbole when not at cocktail parties (I use cocktail parties loosely, too—we introverts don’t get too psyched about them), but is there anything Jenkins can’t do? As made clear by the number of times I’ve written about his books, I’m a fan of his nonfiction titles—those he’s illustrated for others, those he’s done with his wife Robin Page, and those he’s both written and illustrated himself. One Kirkus reviewer even called him “a master craftsman.” That pretty much covers it.
Out on shelves this spring (and there could even be others I’m missing) are Jennifer Ward’s Mama Built a Little Nest, illustrated by Jenkins and all about birds’ nests, and Eye to Eye: How Animals See the World, which he both wrote and illustrated. In October, Steve and Robin will bring readers Creature Features: 25 Animals Explain Why They Look the Way They Do. With each of these books, you’re in excellent hands, especially if you’re looking for engaging and informative books for those animal-loving children in your life.
I hope you enjoy these. There’s a lot to celebrate in their pages. And it’s exciting to think of what the year will next bring us.
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.