I remember, when my children were young, setting out a blanket in the front yard, on a warm spring day, for the three of us to lie on. We brought a stack of picture books with us for reading in the warm spring sun. As the weather warms up (at least it’s doing so here in Nashville), I think of that and how, if my children were still preschool-aged, I know precisely which spring picture books I’d read them now, new ones from Matt Phelan and Sebastian Meschenmoser.
Matt Phelan’s Pignic is geared at just this age—that is, toddlers and preschool-aged readers/listeners. It’s easy to overlook how hard it is to succeed at bringing entertaining books to this audience. But Phelan succeeds here with this simple story about pigs who head out for a picnic on a beautiful spring day—and who manage to overcome several obstacles.
The palette here is all spring — cheery, soft greens, pinks, blues, and reds. We see a family of pigs head out for a “pignic,” Phelan filling this text with simple declarative sentences and short phrases. But there are also some perfectly-placed exclamations (“Hooray!”) as the pigs face the day’s challenges and manage to stay cheery. One pig who wants to climb a tree, yet can’t reach, gets assistance from a turtle. When there’s no wind for flying a kite, the big bad wolf (in a darker, but never too scary, blue) appears to huff and puff and provide some wind. (In two very funny drawings, we see that his better side has beat his killer instincts, thanks to merely the pigs’ adorableness and charm.) When dark clouds appear and bring the rain, the result is mud. “Mud? Mud!” What could be better for a family of pigs?
There a lot of round, comforting lines in Phelan’s drawings, and he captures a great deal of emotion in relatively simple compositions. My favorite is the spread depicting the downpour, all dark pencil lines with the pigs huddled on the right side of the spread, a fuzzy heapin’ huddle of sadness. But, two spreads later, they explode in joy, flinging mud and celebrating the goodness that dark clouds bring. I always love to see Phelan, who has created award-winning graphic novels for older readers (such as, The Storm in the Barn), return to books for the young set.
Germany is mighty lucky to have author-illustrator Sebastian Meschenmoser, one of the country’s most beloved illustrators, and here in the States we’re lucky to have had publishers over the years who have brought us English translations of his work. It’s Springtime, Mr. Squirrel! is his newest, originally published in Germany as Herr Eichhorn weiß den Weg zum Glück. It has been brought to us by NorthSouth books and translated into English by David Henry Wilson.
If Meschenmoser’s name is new to you, please know that the title character of this book has appeared in other picture books he’s written and illustrated, so when you’re done with It’s Springtime, Mr. Squirrel!, you might want to secure a copy of Waiting for Winter, published in 2009 (has it really been almost a decade?), and Mr. Squirrel and the Moon, published three years ago.
So, essentially, this is a new installment in Mr. Squirrel’s adventures. Here, it is spring in the forest, and we see Mr. Squirrel, nearly stumbling from the hollow of a tree trunk, waking up to find “that the world has changed!” He and his friend, the hedgehog, are bleary-eyed, stunned by the sun. The bear also wakes—and is thrilled. He’s ready to enjoy the sun, explore the meadows, and feast. Squirrel does just that in the exuberant spread that follows. Meschenmoser has an impressive ability to fill up a spread without it being too busy, and we see that here as we watch Mr. Squirrel run, gather food, and then engage in a fully-belly rest.
So, what could possibly go wrong? Well, the hedgehog isn’t joining Mr. Squirrel in his spring-time feast. He’s too busy being dumbstruck by love. I suspect that high levels of dopamine haven taken over any physical hunger he may normally have at the beginning of spring. He has been down to the pond, you see, and he has spotted a lady hedgehog, her back facing him. We get a bit of a flashback here, a spread Meschenmoser covers in a happy pink-for-love hue. But, though he fell head over heels with this hedgehog, he ran away. Mr. Squirrel decides his job is to help his friend woo her and win her love. He does so by attempting to make hedgehog a) look dangerous and b) prove his worth in a dangerous fight with a formidable opponent. The hedgehog is a rather helpless actor in the game—he just steps back to let Mr. Squirrel do what he thinks is best—and a lot of the humor comes from that tension, as well as Mr. Squirrel’s assurance that he’s doing the right thing. There’s also the surprise bittersweet ending, which I can’t ruin for you.S
There is almost a kinetic energy to Meschenmoser’s loose-lined, sketchy style, which works to great effect here in a story about the power of spring, and love sweet love, to wake one from a stupor.
Half-glass-full pigs. Helpful wolves. Lovelorn hedgehogs. Happy reading, and here’s to spring sightings wherever you are.
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.
IT'S SPRINGTIME, MR. SQUIRREL! Copyright © 2018 by Esslinger in Thienemann-Esslinger Verlag. English translation copyright © 2018 by NorthSouth Books, Inc. Illustration reproduced by permission of NorthSouth Books.
PIGNIC. Copyright © 2018 by Matt Phelan. Illustration reproduced by permission of the publisher, Greenwillow Books, New York.