This print, created by illustrator Emily Winfield Martin, sits in my home office:
I’ve had it for a number of years now, but it wasn’t till recently that my husband told me he’s always thought of it, tone-wise, as a lot like The Shining meets Wes Anderson. This made me laugh. And it got me thinking about how Martin’s work—she’s illustrated three picture books and a novel thus far—is sometimes described as “whimsical” and “sweet.” Last year’s The Wonderful Things You Will Be is a great example of those qualities. Yet what draws me to her work are the often subtly surreal undertones, as you can see in this piece here. (It’s called The Costume Party, and when I asked Emily for her permission to share it here, she said, “I hope the reason you want The Costume Party image is because the title of your column is ‘Emily Loves Sedate Parties.’" This also made me laugh. I can certainly relate to feeling at parties like that girl on the couch.)
Emily’s newest book, The Littlest Family’s Big Day, is a pleasing mixture of the sweet and the subtly surreal, and I thought that, in writing about it today, I’d pair it with two other brand-new picture books I’ve seen that could, arguably, go in the same category. (I like books like this. They always keep things interesting in the sprawling picture book landscape.)
My favorite thing about The Littlest Family’s Big Day met me as soon as I opened the book. We see a tiny family of bears on the endpapers—plus, a baby fox; I love that the dark brown mama bear and light brown papa bear seem to have adopted a fox—and the very edge of the book jacket is made to look like a ruler. This gives readers a vivid sense of just how tiny this family is. (Also, for many children it is FUN TO MEASURE, SO VERY MUCH FUN TO MEASURE!) The story is of a family who moves to the woods, finds a place big enough “for all their little things,” and explores. They get lost but (“Were they alone?”) meet lots of other woodland creatures along the way. After an owl helps them home—“when you are Lost, it is the best time to be Found”—they end up celebrating with all their new neighbors.
This is a story that will utterly delight People Who Love Tiny Things. (My best friend is so inclined. I sent her this article the other day, and it spoke great truths to her.) But even if Tiny Things don’t captivate you, the slightly surreal Emily dreamscape of well-dressed bears; newspaper-reading ladybugs; orange-eyed bunnies with hard stares; pipe-smoking frogs; and giant, mute owls may do so. (The language is also charming: “They set out on a wander.”) Maybe the illustration showing the family resting and snacking on strawberries summarizes best the allure of her work for me. You, as the reader, may see dainty, adorable bears on the surface, but look closely: The dapper boy bear’s mouth is open wide, and he possesses a few really sharp teeth. There’s a savage under there. Or, in other words, it would be easy to let a sort of loopy whimsy go too far, but Emily knows how to temper it with welcome eccentricities.
If I’m going to continue with Wes Anderson analogies, Kyo Maclear’s The Liszts, illustrated by Júlia Sardà, who lives in Barcelona, is a lot like Edward Gorey meeting Charles Addams in a bar and the two buy Anderson a drink. This is the story of Mama, Papa, and Grandpa Liszt. They fill their days with list-making. Even their children, Frederick (the youngest), Winifred (the oldest), and Edward (the middle one) do the same. A stranger appears one day and invites himself in. Everyone is too busy making orderly lists to engage with him anyway – except for Edward. (Isn’t it always the middle child, after all, who feels the most at-sea, the most sensitive to the plight of others?) Edward and the visitor hit it off and have imaginative adventures; as a result, things start to change a bit around the house when the family comes to realize that it’s good to leave space at the bottoms of lists “just in case … something unexpected comes up.”
To call this highly stylized story quirky doesn’t quite cut it. Both text and art are deliciously bizarre and dark-humored: Mama makes lists of ghastly illnesses; the daughter, who prefers top ten lists, makes lists of her favorite bands, the illustrations showing readers she possesses a penchant for pre- and post-punk German bands; the youngest boy draws the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse; and the visitor lurches, positively looming (albeit good-naturedly) over everyone, hair covering his face and a tiny fez atop his head. Know any older readers with a fondness for Gorey and black humor (yes, there are even black endpapers)? This one’s for them.
One of the most charming moments in The Liszts is when Edward and the visitor realize they have a lot in common. Suddenly, they can’t stop talking, sharing questions that plague them: Where do we come from? How do I know my life is not a dream? Where do my thoughts come from? Where are my pants? A similar set of existential musings happens in The Bear Who Wasn’t There: And the Fabulous Forest, an import written by Oren Lavie and illustrated by Wolf Erlbruch. Originally released in Germany in 2014, it’s on American shelves this month.
This story happens Once Upon a Time and all starts with an Itch. Who becomes a bear. The Bear Who Wasn’t There, that is, whom Erlbruch gives a big, cheerful grin. He wonders if he’s the first or the last. He wonders, as he stands there alone: “Are you me?” There’s even a piece of paper in his pocket that asks this question and includes helpful clues (that he’s nice, happy, and handsome), so he sets out to try to prove these things in order to find himself, to cement his very existence. The book is filled with the bear’s paradoxical, enigmatic, and sometimes Zen-like musings as he meets various creatures in the forest who assist him, including the Convenience Cow (“a large, soft cow in the shape of a sofa” or perhaps “a large, soft sofa with the personality of a cow”), the Lazy Lizard, the Penultimate Penguin, and a Turtle Taxi. This one would make for a thought-provoking read-aloud at story time. Get those children settled—it’s a lengthy text—and present to them this gloriously left-of-center tale. Watch their heads spin. It’ll be memorable.
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.