It’s time for my 2017 Children’s Book Ghost File, a tradition I started last year here at Kirkus. It’s an idea I lifted from an NPR critic, who writes every December about the terrific books, television shows, and movies he didn’t review during the year—but I’m going to cover the well-worth-your-time children’s books that will haunt me in 2018 if I don’t tell you about them now. Let’s get to it. I’ve got six books this year.
Stephanie Graegin’s Little Fox in the Forest—This wordless picture book all about an act of kindness. It received a starred Kirkus review and uses color to great effect. In a blue-tinged world, we meet a girl who takes her favorite stuffed animal, a fox, to show-and-tell at school. Soon, it’s confiscated on the playground by a real fox—granted, a sweater-clad anthropomorphized one. He takes it to his home in a magic forest, which the girl and her friend discover while pursuing her beloved toy. Here, the book explodes into color, primarily earth-toned hues that pop off the page after all the more muted, cool blues. Enchanting in all its details and laid out in a mixture of paneled and full-bleed spreads, don’t be surprised if the children in your life visit this one over and over again. Bonus: The front and back endpapers are a delight.
Anushka Ravishankar’s Hic!, illustrated by Christiane Pieper—This Fall offering from Tara Books (India) is sheer fun. Here, we meet a young girl, who we assume lives somewhere in South Asia, who is doing her best to eradicate a stubborn set of hiccups, something to which any child on the planet can relate. The tri-color palette, the distinctive lines, the exaggerated humor, and Ravishankar’s seamless rhyming (featuring no less than the word “cacophonic”) all add up to a book it’s a joy to look at and hear. My only regret is that I have yet to hold a copy in my hands (I read a PDF version of the book), as evidently the Risograph—the printing system it was printed on, which combines the technology of screen printing with a photocopier—gives the book what the publisher calls “a unique textural experience.” Bonus: No two books are identical. You can bet I’ll be looking for a hard copy soon.
Who Am I?: An Animal Guessing Game, written by Steve Jenkins and Robin Page and illustrated by Steve Jenkins—You can throw a rock and hit these kinds of guessing-game picture books, especially those about animals, but it’s Steve Jenkins and Robin Page behind this one, so you know you’re in for some high-quality art and superb book design. This is for preschool-aged readers, who on alternate spreads are presented with the features of a particular animal, followed by that animal’s reveal on the following spread. “I have … springy back legs, a fluffy white tail, a twitchy pink nose, two long, furry ears, and a carrot to munch! Who am I?” The page turn reveals a beautiful rabbit, staring right at us, illustrated in Jenkins’s distinctive style — via his textured cut- and torn-paper collage. Ample white space lets these creatures steal the show. Bonus: Two closing spreads share more fun facts about the animals featured in the book, as well as sources for further reading.
Cao Wenxuan’s Feather, illustrated by Roger Mello and translated from the Chinese by Chloe Garcia Roberts—I talked here at Kirkus in April of this year with Kendall Storey, Co-director of Elsewhere Editions, the new children’s imprint from Archipelago Books, and she briefly mentioned Feather. But let me do my part here to remind you to pick up a copy, if at all possible. Both Wenxuan and Mello are winners of the prestigious Hans Christian Andersen Award (2016 and 2014, respectively). Wenxuan, as he writes in an opening note, believes that “a good picture book comes very close to philosophy.” Here, the feather of the book’s title, looking for the bird from which it comes, essentially asks: Where do I come from? Where am I going? To whom do I belong? No small questions in this book that the starred Kirkus review calls a “Zen exploration of belonging and groundedness.” The translation is thoughtful and fluent, and Mello’s illustrations are delicate, beautiful. Bonus: The book’s design is such that it’s as if you are opening a box or envelope, making this book truly gift-like.
Andrea Tsurumi’s Accident!—Mario Russo nailed it in the New York Times when she called Tsurumi’s book a “groovy debut.” But we also can’t forget when Travis Jonker described it as “completely nuts and completely charming,” because it is also those things. Lola is an armadillo, and she makes one simple mistake (she spills juice on a lovely upholstered chair), which freaks her right out and has her fleeing to, of all places, the library. “I’ll hide in the library! They have books and bathrooms.” This made me laugh out loud, as well as the chaos that follows — especially when the next creature she runs into has also encountered an accident (a broken swing) and joins Lola on the mad dash to the library, adding that they can hide there forever “or just till we’re grown-ups.” (I love this so much. I’m 45 years old and still often feel like this.) The pandemonium accelerates to intentionally and very funny hyperbolic proportions—it’s not easy to keep such chaos as effortless to follow with one’s eyes as Tsurumi makes it —with an entire town of creatures unable to accept, at least until the end, that sometimes accidents happen; you can accept this; and then you can try to fix it. I can’t wait to see what Tsurumi does next. Bonus: There’s a surprise under the dustjacket.
The Purloining of Prince Oleomargarine, written by Mark Twain and Philip Stead and illustrated by Erin Stead—I’m saving my favorite for last. Using only some rough notes and an outline, found in the Mark Twain archives at the University of California, Philip Stead fleshes out an unfinished tale from Twain. If you’ve not already read this, let me try to convince you in the short space I have left. There are some very funny imagined conversations between Twain and Philip, even when Twain is in the throes of his “relentless gloom.” There’s an unassuming, endearing hero, whom Erin depicts as a young black boy (as Adam Gopnik has pointed out, this has been “puzzlingly ‘controversial,’ suggesting that it is possible to create a controversy about anything”), who keeps a pure heart. There is superb writing: Philip has Twain tell him in one of those imagined conversations that “an unprovoked kindness is the rarest of birds.” There’s a “decent, polite, and noble” skunk character, Twain telling Philip that he’ll risk the “silly prejudices of the unenlightened” to keep a skunk in the story (“there will always be those who turn up their noses at the sight of a skunk”). There are Erin’s absolutely exquisite illustrations. There are the six words that “could save mankind from all its silly, ceaseless violence, if only mankind could say them once in a while and make them truly meant.” (No, I won’t give those words away here.) Bonus: There’s Pestilence and Famine, a chicken, and probably my favorite character in 2017’s children’s books. This book is a remarkable achievement. Find a copy and dive in.
Happy reading — in this year and into the next.
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.