At my own site, Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, I like to keep my eye on the work of debut author-illustrators—even, for that matter, up-and-coming student illustrators. Today, I want to focus on the solidly good picture books of three debut author-illustrators. Let’s take these in chronological order by release date, shall we?
First up is Phoebe Wahl’s Sonya’s Chickens (you’ll come for the elegant endpapers and distinctive art and stay for the powerful story), which Kirkus has already given a star in its review. Wahl visited my site back in 2013 when she was about to graduate from Rhode Island School of Design. She hits it out of the ballpark with this first book, on shelves now and a story she both wrote and illustrated. Sonya’s Chickens is about many things, including autonomy and independence, but also the shock young children experience when they face death and the fact that life can be inherently unjust. We’re talking the death of a farm animal in this case, but this can still be traumatic for young children.
Young Sonya’s papa comes home one day with three fluffy chicks, and Sonya is eager to be the one to take care of them. “I’ll be your mama,” she tells them. It’s with much attention and affection that she tends to the growing creatures, but one scary night of “rustling bushes and shadows” a fox eats the third chicken. “Before she knew it, strong arms scooped [Sonya] up and she cried into her papa’s beard.”
It’s here that her papa comforts her and tells her that the fox did something that seems unfair to humans but that makes great sense to a fox: he was merely trying to provide for his family, as all creatures do. “So even though it’s sad for us,” he concludes, “we can understand why he did it.” This is a revelation to Sonya, though she still grieves for the creature she once nurtured. It’s an open-hearted and honest story; Papa is unflinching in an explanation that boils down to the two-pronged Yes, Life Is Unfair and…well, The Food Chain. Hey, it seems brutal, but this is the way it works, my dear child.
Wahl’s illustrations—rendered in watercolors, collage, and colored pencil—are rich. The collage pieces add texture and depth to the spreads, and the palette is particularly beautiful: deep navy blues, rich greens, and rusty mustards and reds. It’s dusky and earthy and beguiling. I can’t wait to see what she does next.
Jayme McGowan’s One Bear Extraordinaire (also a starred review) is one to pore over. McGowan also visited my site, back here in 2012, where she talked about how she makes her intricate cut-paper art—and she even shared a sketch from this book, back then a fledgling thing but, lucky for readers, coming to shelves next month. It’s the story of a traveling, one-man-band kind of bear, who has a song in his head, not to mention his guitar, harmonica, drums, and tambourine in hand. But one morning his music just won’t kick as it usually does. “Something is missing,” he says. “I don’t know what it is.”
After he sets out to find it, he meets other musicians along the way: Fox with a banjo; Raccoon with an accordion; and Rabbit with a fiddle. It’s when they meet a Wolf Pup that things go haywire. Just like that one rowdy kid in every classroom, he wreaks havoc and generally causes much chaos and confusion. But as it turns out, it’s because he isn’t doing what he’s called to do—and, in his case, it’s howling. Once he lets loose with this sound “so wild and wondrous the entire forest jumped up to listen,” Bear knew he’d found what he was previously missing. And now his impromptu merry band of music-makers is complete.
It’s an entertaining story of acceptance and community with wonderful, juicy words like “footslogged,” but the art is what really stands out. There’s a detailed note—well, as detailed as you can get on a title page—about McGowan’s medium of choice, her 3D illustrations. They involve sketches, inks, colored pencils, watercolors, scissors, and tweezers. She assembles these cut-out pieces, as she explained in her visit to my blog three years ago, layer by layer into paper theaters, with the aid of wire, string, toothpicks, and clothespins. Then she gets out her camera…and voila! It’s a show you don’t want to miss.
Finally, coming in October is The Sea Tiger, the debut from British author-illustrator Victoria Turnbull. The Sea Tiger is best friends with Oscar, a young merman. That’s right: Sea Tiger. One of many great things about this book is how you are asked to just run with it, the notion of a fierce yet tender tiger of the ocean whose fur ripples in the water.
Oscar and his feline friend, who is so loyal and devoted, have all kinds of adventures, but sometimes when you have that one introverted friend, you have to push him or her out of comfort zones and assist in helping that person (er, merboy) find another comrade. That’s the heart of this story, as Sea Tiger nudges Oscar towards another friend—this one a mermaid—at the book’s close. And the art! O! The art! Turnbull’s colored pencil illustrations sing with eloquence and grace. Her lines, so fluid, and vistas, so dramatic, are nearly breathtaking in spots. I can’t wait to see what she does next too.
That goes for all three women, if I haven’t already said it. I eagerly await what’s next on the horizon for each of these talented author-illustrators. For now, I hope you can find these picture book delights in the next couple of months and enjoy them yourselves.
THE SEA TIGER. Copyright © 2014 by Victoria Turnbull. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA.
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.