I’ve got in front of me a stack of Fall 2015 picture-book imports, as well as books that were first published here in the U.S. but were written and/or illustrated by those from other countries. I love to see what picture-book creators overseas are doing. With the exception of the very entertaining British import Frog on a Log?, written by Kes Gray and illustrated by Jim Field—highly recommended for beginning readers, in particular, and you can read more about it here—these upcoming Fall books strike a serious tone.
Learn Your Lessons
Message-driven books in children’s literature as a whole don’t fare too well, but slip that message into an allegorical tale and you may have a chance to move readers—or at least get some thought-provoking conversations started. Moletown and I Am a Bear aim to do just that.
Moletown comes from German author-illustrator Torben Kuhlmann and is a tale with a warning about progress and urban sprawl. Mind you, it’s mostly wordless; it’s the detailed art that tells most of the story and packs a punch. Moletown begins in a “lush green meadow.” A few moles move in and set up shop, complete with electricity. Cities are built, transportation evolves, and overpopulation and overconsumption take their toll. The problem is, as Kuhlmann pauses to show us from above ground, the mounds of dirt that top the moles’ very vertical homes have protruding pipes, spewing pollution. These may be moles, but this will look all too familiar to the humans taking it in. The sprawling, cinematic spreads are for poring over. And Kuhlmann leaves readers with a bit of hope in the form of one—and only one—small patch of green grass at the book’s close.
Jean-Francois Dumont’s I Am a Bear was first published in France in 2010 and takes a look at the all-too-common fear and dismissal of the homeless on the streets. Making the homeless protagonist a bear in human clothes, Dumont explores the ways in which communities systematically disregard those in need, building sympathy for the bear—particularly at the end when a young girl acknowledges and even visits him. “I may only be a bear lost in the city,” we read at the book’s close, “but I am a teddy bear. And that’s no small thing!” Readers sense there’s hope for the bear to lead a brighter life, now that he has a friend. The Kirkus review calls it a “naked appeal to sentiment—but also to sympathy.” It’s a stark and striking story that certainly should prompt meaningful conversations with children.
For your nascent philosophers, make sure you find a copy of The King and the Sea and I Am Henry Finch. They’re head-scratchers, always a good thing for children.
Heinz Janisch’s The King and the Sea, illustrated by Wolf Erlbruch, was originally published in Germany in 2008. It’s a collection of “21 Extremely Short Stories,” featuring a king who interacts with the likes of a bee, a ghost, a pencil, a star, and a tree. Each Zen-like story is an enigmatic little treat, ones whose themes (often having to do with power) children can ponder long after the book is closed, and Erlbruch’s minimalistic illustrations of the wide-eyed king strike just the right tone.
Alexis Deacon’s I Am Henry Finch, illustrated by Viviane Schwarz, is a crunchy philosophical book from two Brits. Henry and his fellow finches, cleverly depicted in this story about self-awareness as fingerprints with simple wings, are threatened by a long, green beast, who likes to snack on them. After Henry has a realization one night that would make Descartes proud (“I think”), he persuades the beast—from inside the beast’s stomach, no less—to free him and stop taunting his family. There are lots of picture books about being unique and breaking away from the flock, but this one wrestles with some big ideas too. Just how powerful are our thoughts? It’s a great conversation starter and a rare bird. (You knew that was coming.)
Irena Kobald’s My Two Blankets, illustrated by Freya Blackwood, is an Australian import, all about a young girl and her Auntie who flee war and move to a new country where “everything was strange.” Surrounded by people who don’t speak her language, the girls wraps herself in an old blanket at home, where she feels safe. It’s at the park one day where she meets a girl who smiles and waves, and her world opens up. Kobald’s writing is gentle and sensitive, and Blackwood’s illustrations are some of the loveliest I’ve seen this year. A beautiful book.
Two White Rabbits from author Jairo Buitrago (from Mexico) and illustrator Rafael Yockteng (from Colombia) tackles the complex issue of migration. A young girl and her father travel alone, heading toward the U.S. border from somewhere in Central America. The story is told from the girl’s point-of-view, and her confusion is heartbreaking. Her father, overwhelmed and fearful himself, is too worn out to explain to her their situation. In one spread, we see so-called coyotes (the human kind) threaten to capture the pair, but they flee just in time. It’s frightening—but full-on honest. The book’s close is open-ended, thoughtful, and even melancholy, as we see the girl’s father count the limited number of bills in his wallet with worry on his face. A candid look at the plight of migrants today, it’s a book that, as the starred Kirkus review notes, is understated and powerful.
All Dressed Up
Let’s wrap this up by quickly looking at a lone biography here.
First published in Holland two years ago, Annemarie van Haeringen’s Coco and the Little Black Dress looks at the life of Coco Chanel, for whom we have to thank for the little black dress. (As a fan of simple wardrobes myself, I say: Hear! Hear!) Readers learn about her childhood: “She lived in an orphanage even though her father was still alive. It was worse than being an orphan: she felt rejected, abandoned, as if she were a mistake… a little nothing.” However, little Coco worked hard at sewing for the head nun and found work later as a seamstress. It was in the “dignified and stately” homes where she worked that she developed strong opinions about the confining wardrobe for women at the time—and brainstormed ways to change it. The rest is (fashion) history.
Van Haeringen’s delicate illustrations bring to mind the work of Ludwig Bemelmans; much is communicated with very little but with tons of style and energy. The book lacks source notes, though I have an F&G in hand, so perhaps the final version includes this. (I hope so.) This one is charming.
Here’s to border-free, cross-continent reading.
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.