It takes a certain kind of talent to create a winning picture book for toddlers and preschoolers. There are two on shelves now—both, as it happens, illustrated by former recipients of the Sendak Fellowship—that are just that.
I’m teaching a grad course on picture books this summer, and we’ve been talking in class about one of the hallmarks of a true picture book—an illustrator’s ability to extend a picture book text. The words may say one thing, but the illustrations say more. Or another thing altogether. Or might even contradict the text. In the case of Laurie Ann Thompson’s My Dog Is the Best, illustrated by Paul Schmid, it’s the latter—and it’s delightful.
The story features a yawning dog on the title page spread itself. The toddler next to the dog is rarin’ and ready to play with only a blanket, a ball, and a few toys as his props. He narrates the text in short, simple sentences, explaining how his dog loves to play—he does tricks, plays tug, scares away monsters, and much more. Look closely, though: Through most of the adventures, the dog is sleeping. (Needless to say, playing dead is easy for him.) “My dog is the best. He is fun. He plays ball,” the boy states. But playing ball in this instance is merely the dog curled up—he looks like a ball, to be sure, but he’s still snoozing away. In one laugh-out-loud spread, the dog “helps the firemen,” and here the boy has piled his fire truck toy and blocks near (and even on) the dog, who happily sleeps through it all.
The very young readers/listeners at which this story is aimed will delight in these contradictions—the fact that the boy drives the play, while the hapless dog dozes the entire time. Both author and illustrator capture the tireless energy of toddlers, as well as their determination and good will, albeit selfish. (Children on the fence between the id and ego stages of personality development won’t give a flip if the dog engages in the play or not. All that matters is that their needs are met, hallelujah. Of course his dog is the best!)
Schmid’s uncluttered spreads on cream-colored paper let the boy and the dog take center stage. He accomplishes a lot with simple, relatively thick lines; the body gesturing of both characters, as well as their expressions, are spot-on. It’s remarkable how much Schmid communicates with merely two dots for eyes. (It’s all in the eyebrows.) Round shapes and circles dominate the spreads—comforting shapes, indeed, for the preschool children at which the book is aimed.
It must also be noted that the book gracefully captures the stalwart devotion of a pet dog. In the end, after all, the boy might be ready to nap, but the dog is now awake and ready to play, nudging the ball in his face. Just remove the book jacket to see the surprise cover illustration, which perfectly conveys the bond of a child and his pet.
Also perfect for preschoolers is Eve Bunting’s Whose Shoe?, illustrated by Sergio Ruzzier. Now, in this world of ours we have some spectacular duos—from Bonnie and Clyde, to Lennon and McCartney, to Gillian and David, to chips and salsa. I think, after two previous collaborations (2011’s Tweak Tweak and 2013’s Have You Seen My New Blue Socks?), we can add Bunting and Ruzzier to this list. When those two are paired up by smart editors, good things happen.
Yes, we’re going from socks to shoes in this story of an exceedingly polite mouse, who finds a “handsome, lonesome shoe.” Instead of running off with it, he queries everyone he meets to find its true and rightful owner. No one claims it until the end, and in the meantime readers get to revel in Bunting’s fluid rhymes and Ruzzier’s shoes, which range from sensible to sassy, as the various animals the mouse meets tell him what they typically wear on their feet. (The elephant gets the most entertaining pair of shoes. Bunting never actually notes in the text that it’s an elephant the mouse is supposed to be talking to; she only notes that the creature the mouse has met likes high heels. So perhaps it was the illustrator’s decision alone to make it an elephant, and it’s a funny moment.)
Something else I’ve been talking to my students about is the sophisticated vocabulary we often see in picture books, which makes it all the sadder when you hear parents or educators pushing children toward chapter books at younger and younger ages, as if picture books are merely for “babies” (and in utter disregard for the complex processes of visual literacy occurring when a child engages with a picture book). After all, Beatrix Potter’s The Tale of the Flopsy Bunnies, published in 1909, opens with, “It is said that the effect of eating too much lettuce is ‘soporific.’”
Bunting’s text includes such delicious words as pursue, inquiring, inspiring, astounded, and considerate, making it a joy to read aloud to young children. Ruzzier’s soft lines and warm palette are inviting; he alternates spreads with cloudless skies with spreads showcasing billowing watercolor clouds and sunny vistas, and the final illustration is a cozy treat that brings the mouse’s journey to wonderful fruition.
Both books are excellent additions to your picture-book shelves.…
MY DOG IS THE BEST. Copyright © 2015 by Laurie Ann Thompson. Illustrations © 2015 by Paul Schmid. Published by Farrar Straus Giroux, New York. Spread (without the text) reproduced by permission of Paul Schmid.
WHOSE SHOE? Copyright © 2015 by Eve Bunting. Illustrations © 2015 by Sergio Ruzzier. Published by Clarion Books, Boston. Spread reproduced by permission of Sergio Ruzzier.
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.