Just last week, I did a favor for a friend and watched his four-year-old daughter for a day. I’d forgotten how much work it is to be in charge of a preschooler. It’s also a true delight, but preschoolers certainly keep you on your toes—and also gently (or not so gently) nudge you to slow down and see the world in new ways. It probably goes without saying that I wanted to read her some picture books, and I found a small stack of brand-new ones that were surefire hits.
Speaking of slowing down to see the world in new ways, I’ll start with Kazue Takahashi’s Kuma-Kuma Chan’s Home, originally released in 2001 in Japan and translated by Mariko Shii Gharbi. I wrote here at Kirkus two years ago about the import that precedes this one, Kuma-Kuma Chan, The Little Bear. This follow-up is delightful in many of the same ways as its predecessor: the small trim size is perfect for tiny hands; our main character, Kuma-Kuma Chan (a thumbprint-looking bear), is endearing; and the spare story celebrates the act of slowing down and spending time with a friend.
In fact, this one is even about the silences you sometimes share with a friend, and I love that about this book. In the story, a young man goes to visit his friend, the bear. They have some tea, and at first, they can’t think of what to chat about. “So,” the man notes, “I watch the dust floating around in the afternoon sunbeams.” (I love this too.) Eventually, the man wanders to the bookshelf. Kuma-Kuma Chan examines the expiration date on his box of tea. Both are adjusting to the conversational lull until “little by little we start to talk.” They even end up watching television together. Clearly, both are comfortable with these sorts of parallel activities—and even with the silences—and don’t feel the social strain to keep up small talk. I find this so genuinely reflects the play of children.
Next up is Irene Dickson’s Blocks, which Kirkus gave a starred review. This is a thoroughly engaging and accessible read for very young children. It’s a story of unity, featuring a girl, named Ruby, who plays with red blocks, and Benji, who plays with his blue blocks. They play separately. When Benji becomes curious about one of the red blocks and takes it, Ruby gets upset. A fight ensues. When they fall in a heap after their struggle, all the red and blue blocks also fall in a jumbled mess at their feet. The blocks are no longer segregated by color, and the children begin to play together.
If you’re thinking this story works on multiple levels, you’d be right. Ruby is dark-skinned, and Benji is light-skinned. On the final spread, a boy with even darker skin than Ruby shows up to play. (“Guy has green blocks. What will they do now?”) The book makes a point about integration of many sorts without ever wagging its finger in the child reader’s face. The sentences are short and simple, and the mixed media illustrations with Dickson’s fluid lines are uncluttered, letting the children and their big, bold blocks take the stage. (Note also the clever die cuts on the front page.)
Lastly, Emily Gravett has a new offering in her Bear & Hare series. It’s called Bear & Hare—Where’s Bear? and arrives on shelves this week. It’s the first U.S edition and was originally published in the U.K. in 2014. Gravett is an author-illustrator I often tell parents about, as she’s made a career of whip-smart, beautifully illustrated, and child-friendly books for kids.
In this one, Bear and Hare are playing a game of hide-and-seek. Bear hides first, and there’s a lot of laugh-aloud humor here for children: The very large Bear tries to hide under a lamp shade, behind a moderately sized stack of books, behind a fish tank, and more. “Oh, Bear!” says Hare, who is getting frustrated with Bear’s inability to make this game a challenge. On every other spread, Hare hides his eyes to count, and Gravett paints the numbers one to 10 in big, colorful shapes that jump across the page, perfect for children listening to stories and first learning numbers.
When Hare hides, Bear manages to play a trick on him by (finally) successfully hiding under a huge blanket on the bed, although it’s his turn to seek. Hare becomes concerned and looks throughout the house for his friend. (Fellow Gravett fans may want to take note of the subtle appearance in the living room of Gravett’s previously published Monkey and Me, which may very well be my favorite story time book ever. This Bear & Hare tale book is filled with just the right amount of details, such as this one, which never overwhelm the story.) All’s well in the end, but it’s a rough time for poor Hare, as he tries to cope with his separation anxiety, something to which toddlers can certainly relate.
Those of you who spend your days regularly with the preschool set simply can’t go wrong with these three new offerings. Happy reading, and happy sharing!
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.