This week, I read two brand-new picture books I really like, both from authors and illustrators overseas (Wales, England, and Australia) – Bob Graham’s Home in the Rain and Nicola Davies’ King of the Sky, illustrated by Laura Carlin. “It rained and rained and rained,” begins one. “Didn’t it rain!” begins the other. A steady rain even hit the roof above my head as these two stories unfolded for me. They are, in part, about driving, relentless rain as stand-ins for obstacles in life – and the grace sometimes required to get through it.
Davies’ book is a tender, beautiful thing and is, at its core, an immigration story. The book’s narrator, a young boy, tells of his isolation in his new home, having moved from Italy. All of it—the ceaseless rain, the metal towers and chimneys, the smelly streets, the coal dust, “and no one spoke my language”—makes him feel as if he is not where he belongs.
But one thing does remind him of home. The pigeons, who belong to one Mr. Evans, remind him of the birds who strut in St. Peter’s Square in Rome. In turn, this reminds him of “sunlight, fountains, and the vanilla smell of ice cream in my Nonna’s gelateria.”
Davies brings the elderly Mr. Evans to life with her lyrical, tightly-constructed text, using vivid figurative language and deft characterization. He has worked in a coal mine all his life. (Pair this one with this year’s gorgeous, award-winning Town Is by the Sea, written by Joanne Schwartz and illustrated by Sydney Smith, for two moving stories about coal mines). Years of this kind of work have taken his breath away, making him speak “soft and slow.” But he smiles “like springtime” when his pigeons fly: “I like to see them fly after so long underground,” he whispers to the boy. (This is a moment that gives me happy chills.) Mr. Evans trains these birds for racing.
The boy loves the pigeons, especially a white-headed one, whose eyes “blaze fire.” He names him Re Del Cielo, “King of the Sky.” He joins Mr. Evans in releasing the birds, and eventually in releasing the King of the Sky in a long-distance race during which the pigeon is to fly thousands of miles to Rome. The trip, which generates a fair amount of anxiety for the boy, is so much symbolism for the boy’s own transition to a new home. He’s convinced the pigeon won’t make it back, especially after a storm blows in.
In the next spread, readers are privy, however, to a vision of the pigeons landing in Rome – even near a gelateria. Could it even be Nonna’s? When the pigeon makes it back, a hero and a champion, a fledgling hope in the boy takes shape, hope that he will see the town, past the rain and coal dust, for the new home that it is. He will find that belonging.
Davies brings the story full-circle in elegant ways, and Laura Carlin’s mixed-media illustrations exhibit the same type of smudgy, scratchy-yet-soft look that won her accolades for The Promise, also written by Davies and published in 2014. (It was named a New York Times Best Illustrated Children’s Book of the Year. Here’s my 2014 Kirkus Q&A with Davies about the book.) This new collaboration is mesmerizing.
As for Bob Graham’s graceful (in more ways than one) new book, Home in the Rain, it’s clear the man is on a roll. His past several books have been contemplative, almost meditative, stories that invite readers to consider the value of living in the moment. Graham, mind you, doesn’t preach at child readers to be here now. He’s too smart for finger-wagging. But many of his stories, including this one, are 32 pages of ordinary moments distilled in a way that calls forth their magic. In other words, Bob Graham can make the ordinary extraordinary.
Francie and her pregnant mother are stuck on the highway as the rain pours down. A semi passes, one so large that it washes their car up onto a picnic area on the side of the road. Before showing readers the mother and daughter in the car, Graham invites us to see all the nearby creatures in that moment, here and now – a baby rabbit, who dove for cover; a field mouse, wet and confused; the kestrel above it, who loses sight of its prey; and more. They all matter, Graham seems to be saying. This moment. Right now.
In the car, mother and daughter discuss the baby and what his or her name will be. Francie’s mother is unsure. Later, when stopping for gas after pulling back into traffic, a name comes to her, as sure as the driving rain that’s dominated their evening. “What was about to happen would not be noticed by anyone,” Graham writes. Here, he once again explores the seemingly insignificant people and occurrences around Francie and her mother at that very moment, reminding readers that, in fact, nothing is insignificant – not the seagull in the parking lot, not Francie dancing in the rainbows of the puddles the rain has formed, and not the man in the nearby car feeding his dog fried chicken legs. They all matter, because they all make up this moment.
I can’t very well spoil the ending by giving away the baby’s name, but what matters is Francie’s mother swooping her up for a hug, Francie knowing “that she would remember this moment forever!” In the end, they are reunited with Francie’s father, the family hugging tenderly on the front steps.
Memorable, expressive characters (Graham has, for decades now, created characters rich in diversity, well before it was a Twitter hashtag) ; a story that makes you think and have all the many feels; and warm, detailed illustrations: this book has it all.
As does Davies’ and Carlin’s book. Both are worth poring over, worth sharing with children. Better yet, save them for a rainy day.
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.