One of my favorite podcasts, Pop Culture Happy Hour, closes every week with a roundtable question for the podcasters who run the show over there: “What is making you happy this week?” I’m asking myself that question today, but I’m thinking of picture books. Here’s my response, a handful of five new picture book titles worth your time.
Candace Fleming’s Giant Squid, illustrated by Eric Rohmann – Good things happen when Fleming and Rohmann collaborate, and this particular beauty came out in September. Writing about the giant squid, readers quickly learn, is a challenge in and of itself, since there’s a lot of scientists who don’t know about this elusive deep sea-dweller, “hidden from view.” (The first time scientists even saw a living giant squid was in 2006, Fleming states in a closing note.) But Fleming handles it beautifully with evocative language and a respect for the creature that lives in every word on the page. Rohmann’s paintings of the squid and its dark, otherworldly home, rendered in oils, are dramatic and, at turns, spine-tingling. You may never forget his image of the giant squid’s beak, and it may or may not take care of my nightmares for the next decade or so. (Nor will you forget Fleming’s wording about what becomes of the creatures the squid digests with the “ribbon of muscle” that amounts to the squid’s tongue. Never were the words “pasty” and “sludge” so deliciously terrifying.) Rohmann brings us brief, mysterious glimpses of merely parts of this creature, mirroring the way scientists have learned about it (bit by bit), until one glorious double gatefold, where we see (very nearly) the whole animal. It’s one of my favorite moments in picture books this year.
Elise Gravel’s The Great Antonio – This is another offering from TOON Books, who bring us beginning-reader and early chapter-book comics. Gravel is writing about a fellow Canadian, the great (in more ways than one) wrestler Antonio Barichievich. (Barichievich, to be exact, was born in Croatia but lived in Canada from the age of 20.) He was six foot three, weighed 460 pounds, had incredible strength, and performed unusual feats, such as pulling a 443-ton train over 65 feet or pulling a bus with his thickly-braided hair. Writing about him in a playful, over-the-top manner (“it may be that he used his [braids] to communicate with aliens … and they gave him his strength”) and incorporating hand-lettering into her cheerful cartoon art, it all adds up to a sweet tribute to a tough man who, gratifyingly, let his freak flag fly. Mighty entertaining.
Maribeth Boelts’ A Bike Like Sergio’s, illustrated by Noah Z. Jones – I’m always interested to see books that touch upon class issues and income equality. In this one, a boy named Ruben, clearly from a family struggling to make ends meet, longs for a cool, new bike like his friends have. When his buddy Sergio says, “Ask your parents again. Your birthday’s coming,” Boelts writes: “Sergio forgets there’s a difference between his birthday and mine.” At the grocery store one day, a woman drops a hundred-dollar bill. Ruben, thinking it’s merely one dollar, grabs it but doesn’t work too hard to chase the woman down. “It’s just a dollar,” after all. When he realizes later how large the bill is, he keeps it a while; it’s not lost on him that he can now easily purchase the bike. Instead of having Ruben return the money over a crisis of conscience, which may or may not have eventually reached him, Boelts has him temporarily misplace the money and panic. Then upon realizing how the woman who dropped the money must feel, he returns it. “I am happy and mixed up,” Ruben thinks afterwards, “full and empty, with what’s right and what’s gone.” Yep. That. Life is often this complicated, and Boelts doesn’t condescend to child readers by simplifying it all. Is Ruben rewarded with a bike in the end? No, he isn’t. A good one to share with children. Let them think on it a while. And then some.
Richard Jackson’s In Plain Sight, illustrated by Jerry Pinkney – This is a joyful, loving week-in-the-life snapshot of a young girl and the playful relationship she has with her wheelchair-bound grandfather, who lives with her and her parents. Every day when Sophie comes home from school, her grandfather asks for her help to find something he has lost – a paperclip, a rubber band, etc. Jackson’s dialogue here is particularly good. Sophie and Grandpa speak to one another with ease and warmth; they’ve got a distinctive rhythm going. And readers will want to lean in to look more closely for the objects “in plain sight,” while Sophie looks as well. Pinkney populates the grandfather’s room with hints to his past, and it all makes for a book to pore over and, best of all, share one-on-one with a child. Some of these spreads nearly glow with a warm light from the window from which Grandpa sees the world. Beautiful.
Roger Duvoisin’s The Happy Hunter – Heaven bless Enchanted Lion Books for this reprint, originally published in 1961. Mr. Bobbin lives at the edge of the forest. He enjoys idling outside, smoking his pipe. When Autumn comes, so do the hunters. “They looked like knights in armor as they went in search of little rabbits, partridges and pheasants.” Mr. Bobbin decides it must be great to look so bold, and he also longs for a gun to clean and polish. But when he aims his gun at the squirrel, pheasant, duck, fox, and opossum he meets, he’s too delighted by their habits and smarts to shoot. Still, each day that he heads home he mutters to himself that it was a good day: “I had a nice walk through the fields.” Later, when he’s too old to hunt—in a moment nearly 50 years a precursor to the existence of Amos McGee—all the creatures whose lives he spared go visit him. Enchanted Lion so lovingly, thoughtfully designs their books, including reprints. This story of the peace-loving Mr. Bobbin is a joy just to hold in your hands.
What picture books are making you happy this week?
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.