The warmness, it is all around. I live in Baltimore, and a large percentage of our Gross Domestic Product this time of year (mid-April til October) is humidity. Humidity and 90-degree temperatures.
It's kind of ridiculous. I have spent an August weekend in New Orleans that was more temperate. I have crossed the Equator and been more comfortable. I have ridden in an open boat on the AMAZON and not chafed so badly. Camped in THE SAHARA. Hiked THE BADLANDS. I experienced nicer weather in THOSE PLACES. Where else have I been that's hot? MADURAI, INDIA. No, Madurai was hotter than this. I actually thought we were going to die in Madurai.
Nothing for it but to go to work, help kids with their summer reading assignments, and read picture books. What have I read this week that knocked my socks off? These books:
Big Bad Baby by Bruce Hale, illustrated by Steve Breen
Humor via understatement and incongruity. Lots of neato details to keep 'em looking. Librarians lined up on a roof hollering a storytime through megaphones. And a cameo appearance by the frog from Steve Breen's Stick.
Princesses Are Not Just Pretty by Kate Lum, illustrated by Sue Hellard
"Mrs. Blue arrived to clear the trays.
'Mrs. Blue!' cried all the princesses at once, 'which of us is the prettiest?'
'Oh dear. Must rush along,' said Mrs. Blue.
'WHICH?' demanded the princesses.
'Oh look, is that a squirrel?' asked Mrs. Blue."
SHE MADE THE SQUIRREL JOKE. I'm in.
Sugar-frosted frilly illustrations will satisfy the appetite for sumptuous, while the story emphasizes that prettiness is surely the least important of these princesses' good qualities.
Snap! by Janet A. Holmes and Daniella Germain
He wears his crocodile face to his first day at a new school so he can SNAP! at anyone who speaks to him. And then he makes a friend. Not, shall we say, unpredictable. But cute, and sharp.
The four stars are for the illustrations - nice strong ink lines with lots of crosshatched shadows. Clear watercolors. AND that cool compositional thing where the artist cuts out her elements and collages them with enough built-up space between layers to create shadows. Gives the work a tactile, dimensional look that I think feels very familiar to kids.
Send for a Superhero! by Michael Rosen, illustrated by Katharine McEwen
"Hey! What's this? The money is being sucked out of my hand by a mysterious force!" Don't you love that? We all know that you don't have to make a statement like that in a comic. Even little kids know that that is funny because the picture already tells you what is going on.
I don't know when over-obvious narrative became so funny. I guess Don Pardo. Maybe Love of Chair. But anyway, it is. Moving on. The book is funny and great, and is a lot like the kind of story my kids make up with their dad. And it gets the Special Achievements in Sound Effects Award for "Neeaaoww" (the sound a spaceship makes as it tears through Earth's atmosphere) (of course).
Sugar Hill: Harlem's Historic Neighborhood by Carole Boston Weatherford, illustrations by the great R. Gregory Christie
You got Zora Neale Hurston (or maybe Lena Horne) in a white turban winking at me from the cover of your book? SOLD, Carole Boston Weatherford.
Then you offer me a swingy, spare poem and expressive, simple watercolors? Yes ma'am. Sign me up.
Whose Hat is That? by Anita Bijsterbosch
Animal sounds and bold graphics - nice for pre-k. Extra points for including a peacock (who says "Pheew" - most accurate!).
A Perfect Place for Ted by Leila Rudge
Your standard pet-and-owner-find-each-other yarn, with a laugh-out-loud twist at the end.
The Mermaid and the Shoe by K.G. Campbell
Every time I do this, read forty picture books in a day, there's always one that I finish and sigh, "No more calls, ladies and gentlemen. We have our winner." That's this one tonight. This inky undersea fable of the littlest mermaid sister who looks for her place among her dainty, accomplished sisters, and discovers that she fits in by looking outward.
Art: tender fronds of delicate white mermaid hair and sharp inked details, with sea creatures in glowing colors or murky darks. An antique palette of sepias, yellows, and blues of every hue. Here's K.G. Campbell's whale:
PS: this is not the first mermaid picture book I have loved this year. We had a brief spate of largely unfortunate YA mermaid novels, but that seems to be over, and with good reason. Mer-people prompt too many questions of physiology for any reader above middle grade - Emily Windsnap is really all the mermaid that any girl needs. But The Mermaid's Shoes by Sanne te Loo is a winsome, pretty book with a wanna-be mermaid theme.
The Day I Lost My Superpowers by Michael Escoffier and Kris di Giacomo
Oh, Enchanted Lion Books, how I love you! Your supersturdy papers are like lovely linen under my fingertips. Your assertive corners and stiff boards announce your presence with authority. Your stitched bindings signal love and craftsmanship and also that the book is going to stay together even after a careless fall from a slippery stack of other, lesser picture books. All books should be built like Enchanted Lion books.
And every child should know that he or she is special like the kid in this book. She flies! (When tossed by a strong pair of hands.) She makes things disappear! (Mostly cupcakes.) And she can become invisible (when a beady-eyed mom prowls in search of whoever drew on the wallpaper and left an umbrella hanging from the chandelier).
Hickory Dickory Dog by Alison Murray
"Hickory, lickery, lunch,
Some yummy food to munch.
The clock strikes noon,
Zack's dropped his spoon!
Hickory, lickery, lunch."
Rufus the scruffy little yellow dog gets in a mess of trouble when he shows up at his boy's school.
Happy kindergarten day done up in Alison Murray's customary sticky-looking colorful inks and brushy lines - which are actually 100% digital! I didn't know!
How to Knock Out Nightmares by Catherine Leblanc and Roland Garrigue
Ah, the French. They've got no qualms about drawing a monster that is legit scary, or a nightmare that is just like the kind of nightmare a kid might actually have. And no hesitation when recommending superstitious measures for warding off nightmares - a sugar cube on the bedstand to attract sweet dreams, a ceremonial sprinkling of confetti around the bed.
Some very constructive advice too - turn your nightmare into a story to tell your friends, draw a picture of the nightmare and crinkle it up and throw it away!
Princess Sparkle-Heart Gets a Makeover by Josh Schneider
It's a Frankenstein story with a happy ending. It's a revenge story without a comeuppance. It's a doll story in which prettier isn't necessarily better. I HEART PRINCESS SPARKLE-HEART!
And wait - there's something about Josh Schneider's persnickety, precise lines that puts me in mind of old supernerdy comics artists. There's an obsessive satisfaction in the way he carves tiny parallel wavy lines to describe a cocker spaniel's fur, or cramped round crinkles for lace. Reminds me of Matt Howarth of all people, and now I want to read Savage Henry again.
Runaway Tomato by Kimberly Reeder, illustrations by Lincoln Agnew
is one to watch
because of his way with
a tomato splotch.
(Also for the way he incorporates game board graphics, panels, Richard Scarry-esque town scenes, and cinematic perspectives in this tale of a giant tomato run amok.)
If I Had a Raptor by George O'Connor
Sassy and energetic, and my favorite bit is the sort of "Uh-oh, busted!" look in the baby raptor's eyes when the little girl describes her as "teensy and tiny and funny and fluffy."
Three Bears in a Boat by David Soman
Well, shit. I keep wanting a female illustrator to be my frontrunner for Caldecott, but then Aaron Becker comes along, or Jon Klassen rewrites all the rules, or David Soman paints a couple dozen beautiful seascapes with tender, expressive bears in 'em.
Masterful. David Soman, whom you know from the Ladybug Girl books he creates with his wife Jacky Davis, has apparently been holding out on us. (I jest. The art in the Ladybug Girl books is just right. If it is not art that pokes you in the eye with its splendid artiness, it is because those books don't want that art.) Here, Soman's art recalls the drawings in Else Holmelund Minarik's Little Bear books AND Beatrix Potter's little paintings of fluffy animals, and you just can't go wrong with forebears like that. Sets the bar high in an already outstanding picture book year.
Happy summer, everybody. Stay cool in the library, and if all else fails, I've got a dozen of these in my freezer:
Blueberry-lemonade-watermelon vodka slushies. MmmmmmMMMM. Come on over!