Over at NPR last week, I heard a pop culture critic talk (here) about what he calls his Ghost File, or the books, television shows, and movies he didn’t review during the year. “[I]t's the great frustration,” he said, “that every year I'm haunted by all the terrific things I haven't talked about ….”
He gave me an idea. As someone who writes about children’s books all throughout the year, I have my own mental Ghost File at year’s end and thought I’d type it up here this week. Here are the seven (since my blog is Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast) children’s books, both picture books and middle-grade novels, that I wish I’d discussed at their time of publication.
David Barrow’s Have You Seen Elephant? – There are always a couple of picture books people rave about all year that somehow fall through the cracks for me. This was one – until last week, that is, when I got my hands on a copy. This is an import, released in March, and was first published in New Zealand in 2015. It’s the cheeky, funny story of a young boy playing hide and seek with an elephant. When the boy tells the elephant that he can hide first, the elephant tells him, “I must warn you though. I’m VERY good.” What follows is delicious absurdity as the elephant cleverly hides, doing his best to blend in. The boy never sees him. (Or is he just humoring his mammoth friend?) Either way, child readers will delight in being one-up on the hapless boy. And the badum-CHING ending? Mighty funny.
Jason Reynolds’ Ghost – Reynolds’ middle-grade novel, released in August, was a National Book Award finalist, and it’s the compelling story of a boy named Castle “Ghost” Crenshaw. His father has been in jail for several years now, since pulling a gun on Ghost and his mother. When Ghost finds himself on his school’s track team, discovering he’s a talented runner, he learns a lot about opening up to new friends and what it is precisely that he’s running from. I can’t remember where I read that this book brings to mind the genuine, endearing voices found in the likes of Jack Gantos’ and Christopher Paul Curtis’ characters, but it’s an apt comparison. You really root for Ghost. This one’s the first in a trilogy, and Reynolds leaves you hungry for more.
Alessandro Sanna’s Pinocchio: The Origin Story – Italian artist Sanna brought readers the sublime The River in 2014, and he was back this August with this haunting, beautiful, and wordless tale. Here, Sanna focuses on the piece of wood that eventually becomes the marionette, as if the wood is the toy’s very soul. It begins with a falling star, crashing to the earth, where a tree eventually grows. When a piece of lightning hits it, a branch falls. Alive with energy and joined by a fox and a cat, it wanders the forest, is set afire, is eaten by a snake and a shark, and much more. And that’s only the beginning, the final page reading, “So begins the story of a piece of wood.” The art here is spectacular, and there’s much to chew on.
Kelly Barnhill’s The Girl Who Drank the Moon – This fantasy novel is my favorite of 2016, and it was a memorable read-aloud for me and my own daughters. It’s the story of a kind witch, the adopted daughter she inadvertently fills with magic by way of moonlight (in a memorable, lyrically-written scene I won’t soon forget), and their efforts to fight the very political Protectorate, who live in fear. Everything about this moving story is a breath of fresh air.
Kaya Doi’s Chirri & Chirra – Evidently, Doi is a well-loved children’s book creator in Japan. I can see why. This first book in a trilogy, published in Japan over a decade ago but hitting U.S. shelves this September, is charm and whimsy at its best. The two girls, Chirri and Chirra, bike through the forest, stopping to eat, play in the water, nap under a tree, and eventually retire in a forest hotel, where a beautiful concert takes place. Translated by Yuki Kaneko, it’s a sweet book that manages to avoid excessive sentimentality, and Doi’s art is beguiling.
Barbara McClintock’s Lost and Found: Adèle and Simon in China – Adèle and Simon are back (we were lucky enough to meet them back in 2006 and spotted them again in 2008), and this time they visit their Uncle Sidney in China. The book is a series of handwritten postcards sent home to the children’s Mama, and in these notes, we learn that Simon is once again careless with his possessions. It’s a seek and find game of the best sort, though, in McClintock’s world, where readers can pore over her elegant, finely detailed illustrations to locate what absent-minded Simon has lost. This book is simply gorgeous, and McClintock is a national treasure.
Martin Brown’s Lesser Spotted Animals: The Coolest Creatures You’ve Never Heard Of – I’m sort of cheating here, since this book releases next week, I believe. I didn’t really miss it this year, since it’s not out yet. But I’m here to tell you that, once it hits shelves in a few days, you’ll want to find a copy. This is an informational book about “the coolest creatures you need to know but never get to see” – such as, the speke’s pectinator, dagger-toothed flower bat, ili pika, and many more. It’s a very funny and playful book with wry cartoon illustrations. Animal lovers of all stripes (bad pun intended) are going to hope there are further volumes.
Truth be told, there are even more Ghost Files in my head, but it’s good to get at least seven out of my brain and on the record. Here’s to getting caught up on every other book in my to-be-read pile before 2017 makes her grand entrance.
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.