Planes, Trains, and Automobiles

Well, maybe not exactly planes, trains, and automobiles. But you know those children who get really fired up reading books about things that go vroom? There’s a reason you can throw a rock and hit a children’s book about transportation: they are loved by many a child. Today, I’ve got three new ones worth your time, one an arrival from overseas.

I want to start with James Kwan’s How It Feels to Be a Boat, on shelves next month. “Quirky” gets over-used in children’s book reviewing, but that adjective applies here.

The book, written in second-person, speaks directly to you, the reader, likening you to a boat. It’s right there on page one: “You are a boat.” As a boat, you have “squirmy corridors that twist inside”; levers and pulleys that “flex your strong muscles”; and a “furnace-heart.” Furthermore, inside the belly of the ship that is you is a whole crew. There’s the Chef, the Big Brass Band, and Daniel. Oh, and there’s Octopus. And Superhero. And Bill and June, near your furnace-heart, who paint each other’s toes. I love that Kwan doesn’t feel the need to explain Daniel, Bill, June, or anyone else for that matter. They are who they are. They are the quirky (there’s that word again), unusual parts of you, and they need no justification.

Told you this one was peculiar. (And thank goodness it is.) 

The crew gets along, though sometimes they fuss at one another. When they argue, it causes fear and dismay for you, but “you are strong.” The challenge is that you, the boat, need to know where to go, but everyone argues about which direction to take. This leads to a series of wordless spreads in which we see the boat dramatically crash. The crew rallies and fixes you, and you’re crooked now. But, as Kwan reminds you again, “you are strong.”

There are many details here for children to pore over and soak in. There will be bent frames over the open book, children delighting in following the tiny creatures inside the very belly of the ship, who appear to be in their own rooms, the twist and turns of the ship’s interior. The musical instruments are anthropomorphized to delightful effect; Daniel is consistently in a diaper and crown; and the Chef meticulously decorates her pastries. When the arguing starts and the tension grows, we see these expressive characters much closer, thrust into the action as we are. And there, always, sits the red heart, vulnerable and fragile.

6.16 Little Plane Learns to WriteIf it’s planes you want, and for even younger readers, there is author-illustrator Stephen Savage’s Little Plane Learns to Write. Savage has created a small handful of other vehicle titles for young children, including Supertruck, which was award a 2016 Geisel Honor.

Here, we meet Little Plane, who is ready for flight school, where he’ll have to practice “arcs, dives, and loopity-loops.” It turns out that such moves can create letters in the air, and the plane soars higher to write. But Little Plane’s words are always short their letter “O”s, because the loopity-loops make him queasy. Instead of “clouds,” we see “cluds,” and instead of “rainbow,” we see “rainbw,” as Little Plane swoops through the air.

Those children just learning the fundamentals of reading will love being one up on the protagonist; expect to hear loud declarations about missing letters, whether they can read the words yet or not. At the same time, they may empathize with Little Plane, who thinks to himself that writing is just too hard. Readers will run their fingers over these simple sentences, laid out in big, black font on uncluttered spreads. Who saves the day (er, night) at the end of this sweet, winning story? I won’t spoil it, but find a copy for your favorite preschoolers. If they love vehicle stories, in particular, they’ll fall for this one.

For something entirely different—a peek into another culture, that is—for much older readers, there is Anjum Rana’s This Truck Has Got to Be Special, an import (on shelves next month) with art by Hakeem Nawaz and Amer Khan. In this one, readers take a trip to Swat Valley in the north of Pakistan, where truck art is commonly practiced. As one of the book’s closing notes explains:

 “[V]ehicle decoration has acquired an iconic status – and is the hub of an entire craft economy
  devoted to it. Trucks are painted according to their owners’ wishes, to add to their prestige
  and status. … Various kinds of artisans work on trucks: carpenters, metal workers, and
  painters. …”

The story is told from the point of view of Chinar Gul, who enlists the skills of Zarrar, his artist friend, having traveled two hundred miles to a truck-yard. In this lengthy text, Chinar explains the appeal of the decorated trucks, as well as their cultural significance: “It’s very exciting to think that I can paint my truck the way I want. … [H]aving seen so many trucks, all so beautifully decorated, I realise it’s like getting your house done up. It makes it welcoming and your own.”

6.16 Imp_truckChinar has great passion for his work as a driver and tells about his experiences on the Karakoram Highway; the beauty he sees in the landscape (“Disasters apart, this is a beautiful part of the world”); how people tend to decorate their trucks and the symbolic significance of their artistic choices; and much more.

The author herself is an interior designer, who works with truck artists; Nawaz and Khan, the two illustrators, are truck artists themselves; and Sameer Kulavoor is credited as handling the “illustration design.” (He’s described at the book’s close as being “particularly ardent about street life in the Indian subcontinent.”) The book features line drawings, which are then juxtaposed with brightly colored truck art, making page turns fun. It’s striking.

And it’s a collaboration that tells a fascinating story. I had no idea that truck art was a popular art form (not only in Pakistan, but also in Indonesia, Afghanistan, The Philippines, and parts of South America). Older readers—middle schoolers, even high schoolers, especially those with a fondness for their wheels—will find much to like here.

Vroom, vroom.

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.

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