At the end of John Cage and Lois Long’s Mud Book, we see a birthday cake made out of mud with dried dandelions for candles. To boot, we’ve been instructed prior to that precisely how to make a mud cake. “Make a wish,” this last page states with unequivocal glee.
I love this. Could there be a better antidote to the very indoor lives many suburban American children live today? I don’t think so. Join me now in exploring this picture book and a small handful of other new ones that celebrate the wild outdoors – or, even in some cases, the wild landscape of a child’s imagination. Be prepared to get messy. No fussing over wind-blown hair allowed.
Composer, music theorist, artist, and writer John Cage and textile designer and artist Lois Long are no longer with us. (Cage died in 1992 and Long, in 2005.) Evidently, the two created Mud Book in the mid-1950s, it was set aside for decades, and it was then rediscovered and self-published in a limited edition in 1983. Thanks to Princeton Architectural Press, it’s on shelves again now.
This small book—its trim size is about 5” x 5”, fitting for a book to take outside as a set of instructions—is subtitled How to Make Pies and Cakes, and that’s exactly what we get here. The image on the title page spread is the painting of a small, mud-caked hand, an indication that the author and illustrator are serious about us putting the book to use. There are instructions for making a mud pie and a mud layer cake.
Don’t expect any contemporary font here; the text is hand-rendered, often with words scratched out. On some pages, you see scribbly text underneath the darker writing, as if Cage or Long wrote a first draft and then wrote in marker over those very words. The people-free illustrations—other than seeing an occasional hand or foot, there are only images of mounds of dirt, the sun, and the tools you need to create with mud—use the same technique, and it all adds up to a book that communicates a gloriously messy, spontaneous vibe, just right for a book about a day of mud play in the hot sun.
Look closely at the bookshelf on the first spread in Marc Martin’s A River, originally published in Australia two years ago, and you’ll see a book on the bottom shelf, called Wild and Wonderful. That summarizes Martin’s book well, though it’s ultimately the story of an adventure of the imagination.
A young girl sits at her desk, drawing. In front of her is a wide window, showing the city laid out in front of her. A river winds through the city. “Sometimes I imagine myself floating along the river,” we read, “swept away in a silver boat toward the horizon. Where will it take me?” The rest of the book answers that question, and we are taken on a journey with the girl in her boat under bridges, through a polluting city, past farms, through valleys, down a waterfall, through a jungle, and much more – all the way to the middle of the ocean. In the end, the girl—still at her desk in front of the window and having drawn it all—faces a sleeping city.
There’s a certain remove between the reader and the adventure; we always see the girl in her boat from afar, but that also allows readers to take in some of Martin’s colorful, vibrant landscapes. (This book features just about every shade of blue and green possible, and it’s lovely.) This distance is fitting, too, for a story that ultimately honors the child who, for one reason or another, won’t be hopping into a silver boat to explore. Instead, she safely explores in her mind’s eye, but she possesses a vivid imagination, this one.
A Walk in the Forest, originally published in France in 2015, is the debut picture book of Maria Dek, an illustrator based in Poland. It’s a book that pays tribute, through the eyes of one young boy, to the abundant wonders of a forest. Dek likens it to a playground and depicts the boy running; shouting (“in the forest, you can shout as loud as you want”); and discovering animals, birds, plants, nests, and other “treasures.” Dek writes, “All is small in the forest. All is big. And deep.” In her full-bleed spreads with textured watercolors, she keeps the views interesting with occasional aerial perspectives and close-ups (a beautiful fox right in front of us or feet wading in water).
What I like best is that Dek also acknowledges the mystery and spectral magic of forests. “It’s maybe a little bit scary,” she writes toward the end. The book’s final page says, “You’ll go there tomorrow, when you’re older.” I love this emotional turn the book takes. Close the book and check out the cover again: the boy has a paintbrush in hand, and he’s painting the trees seen on the cover. Could it be that the boy, like the girl in Martin’s A River, never actually walked into and explored a forest? Did he just do it in his mind’s eye or on a canvas? Is he nervous and psyching himself up for a forest adventure that is yet to happen, one that frightens him a little? I suppose it’s for the reader to decide.
Finally, there is The Gold Leaf, written by Kirsten Hall and illustrated by Matthew Forsythe. An author’s note explains what gold leafing is (“gold is pounded into thin sheets that are then layered between paper and pounded some more … [and] pressed against an object’s surface and applied by brush”) and how the author’s grandfather did the gold leafing on many famous buildings in New York City, including the Lincoln Center and Carnegie Hall.
This is a beautifully-designed forest story, one featuring, as you might guess from the title and that author’s note, a gold-leafed gold leaf in a forest filled with animals happy to see spring arrive. The gold-leafing appears sparingly—as the Kirkus reviewer noted, too much of that could have verged on gimmicky—in the form of a beautiful leaf that has reared its head “amid all of the newness and excitement” of spring. The animals are so eager to possess it (“Each wanted it more than anything else in the world”) that they pounce on and snatch it from one another. We see the leaf progressively crumble and diminish at each page turn – until it lay in pieces on the forest floor.
The long summer comes, followed by autumn and another winter. (It’s winter that opens, albeit briefly, this cyclical story.) When spring arrives once again and the creatures spot another gold leaf, no one clamors for it. On the final page, Hall writes that the animals’ happiness resided in the very fact that “it had come back to them after all.” It’s a touching (but not treacly) ending, beautiful in its redemption, striking in its grace. And Forsythe’s velvety, luminescent illustrations all throughout the book are a sight to see.
Lace up your boots. Once you’re done with these, you’ll be ready to head outside. Bring on the mud.
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.