There are times when I see picture books so perfectly suited to preschool-aged readers that I wish I could snap my fingers and make my own children young again. Or snap my fingers and whisk myself away to a preschool or elementary school library. I’ve got three new ones today, picture books whose author-illustrators know their preschool audiences — and know them well.
Let’s start with Eugene Yelchin’s Pip & Pup, a book that feels like a classic, one you can show a wannabe picture book illustrator and say, here is how you delight a very young reader. This is the wordless tale of two creatures on a farm — a chick (Pip) and a dog (Pup). On the title page spread, we are witness to Pip’s birth: In six illustrations, we see her poke her way out of her shell and struggle to right herself, eventually using the top half of the shell as a hat. She is all yellow fluff with wonderfully expressive eyes, is curious about the world around her, and instantly endears herself to us.
After setting out to explore the farm, she discovers a sleeping dog. His enthusiasm upon waking, which results in happy barking, frightens Pip, who runs and hides in her shell. When rain appears, she dons her shell hat once again. Staying in her shell, she grabs a makeshift oar and rows over in a puddle to the dog (expect giggles at her mode of transportation), who is cowering in the storm. Is he scared of the lightning, of Pip, or of having scared Pip earlier? Maybe all of the above. When she gives him her eggshell hat in the rain, a friendship is forged.
There is great humor communicated via detailed body language in this compelling tale (no words are needed), and the dynamic between the two characters is spot-on. Yelchin captures the vulnerability of each character —particularly, the dog. I love how the bigger creature is more vulnerable and the young one is very much in charge, a dynamic sure to entertain the young children at whom this book is aimed. The book’s pacing is seamless throughout; Yelchin knows just when to build tension and draw out a laugh. And Pup is so eager to please that, when he inadvertently sits on the egg’s shell at the book’s close, he brings Pip a tennis ball. The joke that is Pip’s rolled eyes at her friend’s well-meaning error is saved for the very last page, a small illustration on the copyright page that you’ll miss if you blink. My favorite element of the book’s design, though, may be the most subtle one: Lift the dustjacket to see solid yellow with small red lines on both the front and back cover: It’s Pip’s fluff. Simple. Perfect.
Another emotionally compelling tale for young readers is Hyewon Yum’s Saturday Is Swimming Day, the story of a young girl’s anxiety about swimming lessons. Yum pays so much respect to the interior lives of children in this story that young readers and listeners will surely relate, even if they’ve never once taken a swimming lesson. It’s less about swimming than it is a triumphant tale of learning to face and overcome fears, something young children do on a regular basis as they learn to navigate this world.
Yum paces the story leisurely, introducing readers to what appears to be the girl’s first swimming lesson, one she tries to get out of by telling her mother her stomach hurts. There’s no doubt, mind you, that the girl’s fears have resulted in actual stomach pain, but her mother takes her to lessons with her teacher Mary anyway. While all the other children run, shout, play, and delight in the pool, our brave protagonist avoids the water as much as possible. She sits on the edge of the pool for the entire first lesson, even showering afterwards so that her hair will be “wet like everyone else’s.”
Bit by bit, step by step, and with great patience on behalf of her and her teacher, she learns to kick in the water, do bobs, and even float on her back. Her joy at having overcome her fear and anxiety is almost palpable. Yum fills these pages with detailed drawings of the other children, imbuing them with distinct personalities, and her palette is a sunny, summery one, filled with the blues of the pool and the bright colors of the children’s swimsuits. When the girl floats in the water on her back for the first time, it is sublime, knowing the girl’s victory as we do: “It was so quiet with my ears in the water, and everything looked different.”
Chris Raschka’s New Shoes is told, and seen, from the point of view of a young child, who goes with her mother to pick out some brand new tennis shoes. (The child could be a boy or a girl, but we’ll go with “she” for simplicity’s sake.) This unusual perspective — the child looking down at her own feet — never once shifts throughout the book, Raschka firmly siding with the child in more ways than one and never wavering.
On the surface, this is the story of a fairly commonplace activity for children, but at its core, it’s a story about change, growing up, and autonomy. The child delights in discovering that her feet have grown, and she also delights in picking out her own shoes, making choices about what is best for her. Afterwards, she revels in the comfortable new shoes, running in the grass and even showing her new friend. The text is laid out in a large, bold type, making this a great choice for emerging readers. The tightly-focused watercolor and gouache illustrations rely primarily on cool blues, reds, greens, and purples to animate this intimate, shoe-gazing, day-in-the-life tale.
Yelchin’s and Raschka’s books are already on shelves; Yum’s will arrive in mid-June. Don’t miss these satisfying titles, especially if you have the chance to share them with preschoolers.
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.