Injustice, that sweet universal quality, makes for great children’s books. Whether it’s a picture book or a young adult novel, if you can tap into a rInjustice, that sweet universal quality, makes for great children’s books. Whether it’s a picture book or a young adult novel, if you can tap into a reader’s sense of unfairness you have yourself some children’s book gold. It’s the instantaneous gateway to identification. Adults too often forget how painful those early lessons about how the world is an unfair place feel. Children’s books tap into that feeling, while also giving kids a sense of hope. Yes, the world is a mad, bad place sometimes. But there are times when things work out for the best. And if its takes disgusting flavor balls in delicious sandwiches to reach that cathartic ending, so much the better. I wouldn’t argue that Andre Marois’s The Sandwich Thief is the greatest book on this subject I’ve ever seen (it could use a little work in the empathy department), but when it comes to tapping into that feeling of unbridled rage in the face of a cold, calculating world, this title definitely knows its audience.
There are upsides and downsides to having foodies for parents. On the one hand, they can seriously embarrass you when they overdo your school lunches. On the other hand, delicious sandwiches galore! Marin’s a big time fan of his mom’s sandwich constructions, particularly when graced with her homemade mayonnaise, but then one day the unthinkable occurs. Marin goes to take his sandwich to the lunchroom only to find it is gone! When it happens a second time on a second day Marin is convinced that a thief is in his midst. But who could it be? A classmate? A teacher? Everyone is suspect but it’s Marin’s clever mama who knows how to use her mad genius skills to out the culprit, and in a very public way!
Writing a good early chapter book takes some daring. The form is so incredibly limited. It’s best to have a story that can be read in a single sitting by a parent, or over the course of several attempts by a child just getting used to longer sentences. In this book Marois sets up his mystery with care. There are lots of red herrings, but the author also plays fair, including the true villain amongst the innocuous innocents. The adults made for particularly interesting reading. For example, I loved the portrait of Marin’s principal Mr. Geiger, a man so rumpled and ill-fed you wonder for quite some time how he got his current position (he redeems himself at the end, though).
I like to tell folks that we are currently in a new Golden Age of children’s literature. This is, admittedly, a fairly ridiculous statement to make since few people can be aware of a Golden Age, even if they are already waist deep in it. Still, the evidence is striking. Never before have authors or illustrators had so much freedom to play around with forms, construction, colors, art styles, etc. It’s not a free-for-all or anything (unless you’re self-publishing) but ideas that publishers might have balked at twenty years ago are almost commonplace today. Take The Sandwich Thief as one such example. Here you have an early chapter book that draws heavily on the classic comic tradition. But speech balloons aside, artist Patrick Doyon makes every single page an eclectic experience. A French-Canadian editorial illustrator who had never made a children’s book prior to this one, in this book Doyon moves effortlessly between two-page spreads, borderless panels, sequential art, the works. You might be so wrapped up in the form that you’d miss how limited his palette is. Working entirely in orange, red, and black, Doyon’s talents are such that you never even notice the missing colors during your reading experience.
Sadly, there are some aspects to this brand new book that feel like they were written twenty or thirty years ago (and not in a good way). When identifying the potential thieves in his classroom, Marin falls back onto some pretty broad stereotypes. We’re in an era when body acceptance makes old-fashioned fat shaming feel downright archaic. With that in mind, the identification of one student as “Big Bobby” whose “main hobby is eating” is particularly unfortunate. Add in “Poor Marie” whose mom lost her job and can’t afford to eat, and you’ve got yourself an odd avoidance of sympathy. Another reader of this book mentioned that the villains is of a similar lower-socioeconomic level, which is questionable. There are also a couple insults like “Numbnuts” floating about the text that will pass without comment in some households and be a major source of contention in others. FYI.
Winner of the Governor General’s Literary Award for Illustrated Children’s Literature, French Language, Marois and Doyon’s first collaboration is for any kid that comes in looking for a fun read with a mystery component. With its classy format and striking cover it may even appeal to the Wimpy Kid contingent. Hey, stranger things have happened. It's a true bummer that the book dumps on so many people along the way but it may still appeal to any kid who craves a little justice in the world. Particularly if that justice comes with the taste of chalk-textured cat pee.
There is a perception here in America about the Germans. It is a firm belief that, as a nation, they are devoid of a sense of humor. Americans love toThere is a perception here in America about the Germans. It is a firm belief that, as a nation, they are devoid of a sense of humor. Americans love to bring this up. I’m not sure what they’re trying to prove necessarily when they say it, but the idea has been repeated so often that few would bother to contest it. Can you name any German stand-up comics? How about funny imported German films? What about funny German picture books? AH HA! There I’ve got you. Because while I cannot pull out of a hat any comics or movies, what I can do is show you without a sliver of a doubt that thanks to picture books like those of Sebastian Meschenmoser, we have absolute proof that Germans have a distinct and ribald sense of humor. With the release of his latest book in the States, Gordon and Tapir, Meschenmoser plumbs the Odd Couple concept with some distinctive twists of his very own. This is some primo German goofball stuff.
The book opens wordlessly. A penguin goes to his restroom with a newspaper. He reaches for the toilet paper. But what is this? Someone’s used it all up. And not just anyone. The penguin, who goes by the name of Gordon, stamps down the hall to his roommate Tapir’s room. Inside he finds the animal reclining in a toilet paper constructed hammock, an elaborate fruit cup in hand and a headdress that would wow Carmen Miranda on his noggin. Immediately Gordon launches into a litany of transgressions Tapir has engaged in. The floor’s sticky with fruit, the dishes are never done, and why exactly has there been a hippo living in the bathtub for the past few days? Tapir isn’t taking this lying down. He has his own complaints, like why does EVERYTHING have to be so neat and tidy? Why does the garbage have to stink of fish all the time? And why can’t Tapir join Gordon’s all-penguin club? Eventually, Gordon moves out and once Tapir discovers this he gives the bird a call. Turns out, it is a fantastic solution. Now Tapir can be dirty, Gordon can be neat, but they can visit each other and be friends again far better than if they lived together. Happy endings for all.
I’ve always carried the torch for Meschenmoser’s art. From his sleepless animals in Waiting for Winter to his previous penguin dip into surrealism in Learning to Fly the man has a strange kinship with the furry and feathery. So much of the character development in these tales comes from their body language. For example, there’s a spread in this book where Gordon lies in bed on his back staring at the ceiling at 3 a.m. while Tapir does much the same thing, albeit blearily, in his own room. This is followed by a silent film of sorts where Gordon finds a new place to stay in the paper and takes off as Tapir hears the door open and looks up with just the saddest expression in his eyes. Any picture book that dares to go silent for an extended amount of time in the center of the story is being gutsy. It’s not easy to pull off, and Meschenmoser ups the ante (as it were) by rendering everything during those wee hours of the morning in black and white graphite sketches.
Then there are the little visual details and gags. The humor is sublime here. Meschenmoser is just as comfortable with silent gags (remember, this is coming from the man who made Charlie Chaplin references in the images of Mr. Squirrel and the Moon) as he is with words. Some of the jokes are there for the parents doing the reading. Did you notice the tapir in a bathing suit that bedecks the inside bathroom door? Or the fact that when Gordon stomps from the bathroom to Tapir’s room the wallpaper goes from a pristine fish pattern to paper that’s torn and peeling in large chunks? Did you see that the little cactus that Tapir gives to Gordon as a housewarming present is sitting on his dresser earlier in the book? And did you know that every single one of Gordon’s penguin friends is based on a famous author? I’ve good money riding on the fact that one of them resembles Sigmund Freud. I loved that Gordon has a goldfish swimming in his party drink (a tasty treat for later?). And so tiny you’d probably miss them but worth it every time I notice them is this: mongooses in teeny tiny colorful party hats. Life is sweeter because they are there.
But for all that, the real reason I loved this book as much as I did was that the lesson I took away from it wasn’t American in the slightest. Imagine if a Yank tried writing the same book. Gordon and Tapir would have their differences. They’d have their fight. They’d both spend a sleepless night. Then the next morning Gordon would make a concession, Tapir would make a concession, and they’d work out their differences. And there is nothing wrong with a book about meeting someone halfway. Yet what I loved so much about this book was the fact that it eschewed every rote picture book plot I’d come to expect and went in an entirely new direction. Because honestly, let’s face it, sometimes friends are NOT meant to live together. Couples grow apart, people change, and there are times when you are much closer to someone if they don’t share the same space that you do 24/7. Meschenmoser makes it crystal clear that Gordon and Tapir’s friendship is stronger when Gordon leaves. Now I’m sure some folks will read this as a “stick with your own kind” narrative (after all, tapirs and penguins don’t even occupy the same temperate zones) but I’d argue that their friendship belies that. It isn’t that they don’t vastly enjoy each other’s company. They just need their own personal space at the end of the day, and that is absolutely 100% a-okay.
As crazy as it sounds, this actually wouldn’t be the worst picture book to hand to a small child with parents going through a divorce. I think it’s pretty clear from the book that sometimes you have nothing in common with the person you’re living with and that it’s best for all parties if a split is made. I don’t think the book was written with that intention in mind, and that is probably why it would work particularly well. There isn’t any didacticism to plow through. Just good storytelling
There’s a long history of funny German children’s literature that leads directly to Mr. Meschenmoser. Remember that this is the country where Der Struwwelpeter came to light (though its humor is a bit of an acquired taste). And alongside fellow contemporary funny German picture book artists like Torben Kuhlmann and Ole Konnecke he’s in good standing. With any luck we’ll be seeing more of their books coming to U.S. shores in the coming years. So who knows? Maybe if we get enough Gordon and Tapir types of books the humorless perception of the German people will undergo a change. At the very least, we’ll get some magnificent stories out of the deal. This one’s a keeper.
There are picture books out there that feel like short films. Some of the time they’re adapted into them (as with The Snowman or The Lost Thing or LoThere are picture books out there that feel like short films. Some of the time they’re adapted into them (as with The Snowman or The Lost Thing or Lost and Found) and sometimes they’re made in tandem ( The Fantastic Flying Books of Morris Lessmore). And some of the time you know, deep in your heart of hearts, that they will never see the silver screen. That they will remain perfect little evocative pieces that seep deep into the softer linings of a child’s brain, changing them, affecting them, and remaining there for decades in some form. The Tea Party in the Woods is like that. It looks on first glance like what one might characterize to be a “quiet” book. Upon further consideration, however, it is walking the tightrope between fear and comfort. We are in safe hands from the start to the finish but there’s no moment when you relax entirely. In this strangeness we find a magnificent book.
Having snowed all night, Kikko’s father takes off through the woods to shovel out the walk of her grandmother. When he forgets to bring along the pie Kikko’s mother baked for the occasion, Kikko takes off after him. She knows the way but when she spots him in the distance she smashes the pie in her excitement. Catching up, there’s something strange about her father. He enters a house she’s never seen before. Upon closer inspection, the man inside isn’t a man at all but a bear. A sweet lamb soon invites Kikko in, and there she meets a pack of wild animals, all polite as can be and interested in her. When she confesses to having destroyed her grandmother’s cake, they lend her slices of their own, and then march her on her way with full musical accompaniment.
Part of what I like so much about this book is that when a kid reads it they’re probably just taking it at face value. Girl goes into woods, hangs out with clothed furry denizens, and so on, and such. Adults, by contrast, are bringing to the book all sorts of literary, cinematic, and theatrical references of their own. A girl entering the woods with red on her head so as to reach her grandmother’s reeks of Little Red Riding Hood (and I can neither confirm nor deny the presence of a wolf at the tea party). The story of a girl wandering into the woods on her own and meeting the wild denizens who live there for a feast makes the book feel like a best case fairy encounter scenario. In this light the line, “You’re never alone in the woods”, so comforting here, takes on an entirely different feel. Some have mentioned comparisons to Alice in Wonderland as well, but the tone is entirely different. This is more akin to the meal with the badgers in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe than anything Lewis Carroll happened to cook up.
Yet it is the art that is, in many ways, the true allure. Kirkus compared the art to both minimalist Japanese prints as well as Dutch still life’s. Miyakoshi does indeed do marvelous things with light, but to my mind it’s the use of color that’s the most impressive. Red and yellow and the occasional hint of orange/peach appear at choice moments. Against a sea of black and white they draw your eye precisely to where it needs to go. That said, I felt it was Miyakoshi’s artistic choices that impressed me most. Nowhere is this more evident than when Kikko enters the party for the first time, every animal in the place staring at her. It’s a magnificent image. The best in the book by far. Somehow, Miyakoshi was able to draw this scene in such a way where the expressions on the animals’ faces are ambiguous. It isn’t just that they are animals. First and foremost, it seems clear that they are caught entirely unguarded in Kikko’s presence. The animals that had been playing music have stopped mid-note. And I, an adult, looked at this scene and (as I mentioned before) applied my own interpretation on how things could go. While it would be conceivable for Kikko to walk away from the party unscathed, in the hands of another writer she could easily have ended up the main course. That is probably why Miyakoshi follows up that two-page spread (which should have been wordless, but that’s neither here nor there) with an immediate scene of friendly, comforting words and images. The animals not only accept Kikko’s presence, they welcome her, are interested in her, and even help her when they discover her plight (smashing her grandmother’s pie). Adults everywhere who have found themselves unaccompanied (and even uninvited) at parties where they knew no one, and will recognize in this a clearly idyllic, unapologetically optimistic situation. In other words, perfect picture book fodder.
Translation is a delicate art. Done well, it creates some of our greatest children’s literature masterpieces. Done poorly and the book just melts away from the publishing world like mist, as if it was never there. Because I do not have a final copy of this book in hand, I don’t know if the translator for this book is ever named. Whoever they are, I think they knew precisely how to tackle it. Originally published in what I believe to be Japan, I marvel even now at how the story opens. The first line reads, “That morning, Kikko had awoken to a winter wonderland.” We are plunged into the story in such as way as to believe that we’ve been reading about Kikko for quite some time. It doesn’t say “One morning”, which is a distinction of vast importance. It says “That morning” and we are left to consider why that choice was made. What happened before “That morning” that led up to the events of this particular day? Whole short stories have been conjured from less. I love it.
If none of the reasons I’ve mentioned do it for you, consider this: On the cover of this book perches a squirrel in a bright red party dress in the crook of a tree. Tiny squirrel. Tiny red flowing gown. A detail you might easily miss the first ten times you read this book but it is there and just makes the book for me. Add in the tone, the light, the mood, and the writing itself and you have a book that will be remembered long after the name has faded from its readers’ minds. Something about this book will stick with your kids for all time. If you want something that feels classic and safely dangerous, Miyakoshi’s book is a rare piece of comfortable animal noir. No one is alone in the woods and after this book no one would want to be.
Did you know that Europeans have absolutely no interest in the works of Dr. Seuss? It’s true. For years his works have been untranslatable (though greDid you know that Europeans have absolutely no interest in the works of Dr. Seuss? It’s true. For years his works have been untranslatable (though great inroads have been made thanks to some recent Spanish editions) and those that remain in the original English have done very poorly in the United Kingdom. Americans by and large tend to be baffled by this. We look at the British lists of Best Picture Books and the like and find them Seuss-free zones. Abandon Seuss, all ye who enter here. I once asked an overseas friend if she’d ever heard of The Lorax. What she’d heard of was the abominable Danny DeVito movie. It doesn’t bear thinking about. Here in the States we rely heavily on Seuss because he was such a genius when it came to writing rhyming verse for the very youngest of readers. Now I hold in my hands a big, beautiful, thick collection of poetry for the very smallest of fry and I have to face an uncomfortable notion. If indeed the English are capable of producing books this good for kids this young, perhaps they don’t need any Seuss. With Rosen and Riddell pairing in this way, they seem perfectly capable of making remarkable, rhythmic, ridiculously catchy titles of their very own.
Thirty-five poems greet you. Thirty-five varying in complexity and content. Just to set the tone, the first rhyme is “Tippy-Tappy” and it contains such a catchy rhythm and happy beat that kids will be bouncing in tandem by the time it is done. Next is “The Button Bop”, limited in word count, high on bops. Accompanied by the vibrant watercolors of artist Chris Riddell, each poem aims to set itself apart from the pack. Some are short, and some slightly longer. Some are anxious or scared while others beat their chests and roar their loudest. It feels like there’s something for everyone in this collection, but the takeaway is how well it holds together. A treasure in a treasury.
Michael Rosen isn’t a household name in United States, but I’d say at least one of his books is. Anyone who has ever sought out or read We’re Going on a Bear Hunt, illustrated by Helen Oxenbury has read his words. We’re just nuts about that book, and we have him to thank for it. Despite that, he’s not an author to relegate himself to just one kind of story. Indeed, I haven’t seen him produce much of anything quite as young as “Bear Hunt” in years (or, at the very least, I haven’t seen works of his brought to U.S. shores this “young” in content). That’s why this book is such a surprise and a delight.
If you have a small child, you grow accustomed to the classic nursery rhymes. They have, after all, withstood the test of time. Still, roundabout the one hundred and fortieth time you’ve read “Bye, Baby Bunting” you long for something a little different. Imagine then the palpable sense of relief such a parent might feel when reading jaunty little poems like “What a Fandango!” starring (what else?) a mango. The thing about Rosen is that so many of his poems feel as if they’ve been in the canon of nursery rhymery for centuries. “Oh Dear” is very much in the same vein as “Hush, Little Baby” all thanks to its regular rhythm and repetition. “Party Time” counts down and brings to mind “This Old Man” in reverse. And should you be under the misbegotten understanding that writing poems of this sort is easy, go on. Write one yourself. Now fill a book with them. I’ll just wait right here and finish my sandwich.
It is also worth noting that without including any verbal instructions, even the dullest of parental readers will catch on pretty early that many of these poems are interactive. Consider “Finger Story” where your fingers are instructed to do everything from “wake up” and “stretch” to “climb” and “slide”. And just in case they’re still not getting it, Chris Riddell’s art is on hand, showing a pudgy youngster and an orangutan of uncommon sweetness walking their fingers together on the ground.
What is interesting to me here is that in terms of age of the reader, Rosen isn’t limiting himself solely to toddlers. There are a couple poems in here that preschoolers would probably appreciate more than their drooling, babbling brethren. “I Am Hungry”, for example, stars a hungry bear listing everything he could eat at this moment (both the usual fare and unusual selections like “A funny joke” or “The sound of yes”) ending with “Then I’ll eat me” which is just the right level of ridiculousness to amuse the canny four-year-old. And “Don’t Squash” is going to ramp up the silly levels pretty effectively when a splatter happy elephant is instructed not to squash her toes, nose, a bun, the sun, cars, stars, a fly, or the very sky.
Now just the slightest glance of a gander at the back bookflap of this book and you’ll get an eyeful of the sheer talent Rosen has been paired with over the years. His words have been brought to life by folks no less eminent than Helen Oxenbury, Quentin Blake, Bob Graham, and more. Truth be told, I don’t really know if this is his first book with Chris Riddell or not. I will say, though, that when I saw that Riddell was the artist on this title I was surprised. When last seen in the States, Riddell had illustrated that nobly intentioned but ultimately awful Russell Brand Pied Piper of Hamlin. Nothing against Riddell, of course, he did what he could with the material ( Clockwork Orange Piper and all). So usually when I see his work I associate it with children’s books a bit more on the hardcore side of the equation. Neil Gaiman and Paul Stewart and the like. Could he do adorable? Could he dial back the disgusting? Yes, yes, and (for good measure) yes again. He has that thing we like to call in the business “talent”. Seems to suit him, it does.
Riddell also seems capable of occasionally re-interpreting Rosen’s rhymes with a particularly child-centric view. The poem “Are You Listening?” felt wildly familiar to me, for example. On the left-hand page sits a guilty dinosaur, slurping a piece of spaghetti, looking mildly nervous. On the right-hand page a toddler is berating a small dinosaur stuffed animal, and it will be very easy indeed for kids looking at the picture to extrapolate the relationship between the realistic dino on the left-hand page, and the one on the right. Sometimes I even got the impression that he was softening the content a tad. The poem “Winter” is one of splinters and blisters, but thanks to the gentle hand of Riddell it turns into a snuggly bear hug with mom. All this and he makes the book multicultural as well. Manifique.
Is it very British? With an author from London and an artist from Brighton it runs the risk of indulging in a bit of English chicanery. There wasn’t much that struck me as containing a particular sense of humor, though, with the possible exception of the poem “Once”. A thoroughly silly but darker little work, it will probably remind Yankee readers more of Shel Silverstein than the aforementioned Seuss. There is also “Lost”, the story of a small mouse all alone, without any particular happy resolution in sight. Had such a poem appeared in a collection for small children originally in the States, I don’t think it’s ridiculous to think that an American editor would have gently nudged the author away from ending the poem with the somewhat dire, “I don’t know, I don’t know, anything at all. / I’m going to sit still now and just look at the wall.”
The least respected form of children’s literature in existence is poetry. It hasn’t any American Library Association awards it can win. It typically is remembered by teachers in April and then never thought of again. But nursery rhymes fare a bit better. Not every parent remembers to read them to their children, but a fair number try. Getting those same parents to read original works of poetry to their little kids can be trickier, so it helps if you package your book as a big, beautiful, lush and gorgeous gift book. Delightful to read aloud again and again (a good thing since I’m afraid you will have to, if only to please your rabid pint-sized audience) and lovely to the eye, Rosen and Riddell aim for the earliest of ages and end up creating a contemporary classic in the process. It may not be Seuss but you won’t miss him while you read it. A necessary purchase for any new parent. A required selection for libraries and bookstores everywhere. Or, as the book puts it, “Tippy-tappy / Tippy-tappy / Tap, tap, tap.”
There is a story out there, and I don’t know if it is true, that the great children’s librarian Anne Carroll Moore had such a low opinion of children’There is a story out there, and I don’t know if it is true, that the great children’s librarian Anne Carroll Moore had such a low opinion of children’s books that involved “gimmicks” (read: interactive elements of any sort) that upon encountering them she’d dismiss each and every one with a single word: Truck. If it was seen as below contempt, it was “truck”. Pat the Bunny, for example, was not to her taste, but it did usher in a new era of children’s literature. Books that, to this day, utilize different tricks to engage the interest of child readers. In the best of cases the art and the text of a picture book are supposed to be of the highest possible caliber. To paraphrase Walter de la Mare, only the rarest kind of best is good enough for our kids, yes? That said, not all picture books have to attempt to be works of great, grand literature and artistic merit. There are funny books and silly ones that do just as well. Take it a step even farther, and I’d say that the interactive elements that so horrified Ms. Moore back in the day have great potential to aid in storytelling. Though she would be (rightly) disgusted by books like Rainbow Fish that entice children through methods cheap and deeply unappealing, I fancy The Red Hat would have given her pause. After considering the book seriously, a person can’t dismiss it merely because it tends towards the shiny. Lovingly written and elegantly drawn, Teague and Portis flirt with transparent spot gloss, but it’s their storytelling and artistic choices that will keep their young readers riveted.
With a name like Billy Hightower, it’s little wonder that the boy in question lives “atop the world’s tallest building”. It’s a beautiful view, but a lonely one, so when a construction crew one day builds a tower across the way, the appearance of a girl in a red hat intrigues Billy. Desperate to connect with her, he attempts various methods of communication, only to be stumped by the wind at every turn. Shouting fails. Paper airplanes plummet. A kite dances just out of reach. Then Billy tries the boldest method of reaching the girl possible, only to find that he himself is snatched from her grasp. Fortunately a soft landing and a good old-fashioned elevator trump the wind at last. Curlicues of spot gloss evoke the whirly-twirly wind and all its tricksy ways.
Great Moments of Spot Gloss in Picture Book History: Um . . . hm. That’s a stumper. I’m not saying it’s never happened. I’m just saying that when I myself try to conjure up a book, any book, that’s ever used it to proper effect, I pull up a blank. Now what do I mean exactly when I say this book is using this kind of “gloss”? Well, it’s a subtle layer of shininess. Not glittery, or anything so tawdry as that. From cover to interior spreads, these spirals of gloss evoke the invisible wind. They’re lovely but clearly mischievous, tossing messages and teasing the ties of a hat. Look at the book a couple times and you notice that the only part of the book that does not contain this shiny wind is the final two-page image of our heroes. They’re outdoors but the wind has been defeated in the face of Billy’s persistence. If you feel a peace looking at the two kids eyeing one another, it may have less to do with what you see than what you don’t.
Naturally Antoinette Portis is to be credited here, though I don’t know if the idea of using the spot gloss necessarily originated with her. It is possible that the book’s editor tossed Portis the manuscript with the clear understanding that gloss would be the name of the game. That said, I felt like the illustrator was given a great deal of room to grow with this book. I remember back in the day when her books Not a Box and Not a Stick were the height of 32-page minimalism. She has such a strong sense of design, but even when she was doing books like Wait and the rather gloriously titled Princess Super Kitty her color scheme was standard. In The Red Hat all you have to look at are great swath of blue, the black and white of the characters, an occasional jab of gray, and the moments when red makes an appearance. There is always a little jolt of red (around Billy’s neck, on a street light, from a carpet, etc). It’s the red coupled with that blue that really makes the book pop. By all rights a red, white, and blue cover should strike you on some level as patriotic. Not the case here.
Not that the book is without flaw. For the most part I enjoyed the pacing of the story. I loved the fairytale element of Billy tossed high into the sky by a jealous wind. I loved the color scheme, the gloss, and the characters. What I did not love was a moment near the end of the book where pertinent text is completely obscured by its placement on the art. Billy has flown and landed from the sky. He’s on the ground below, the wind buffeting him like made. He enters the girl’s building and takes the elevator up. The story says, “At the elevator, he punched UP, and he knocked at the first door on the top floor.” We see him extending his hand to the girl, her hat clutched in the other. Then you turn the page and it just says, “The Beginning.” Wait, what? I had to go back and really check before I realized that there was a whole slew of text and dialogue hidden at the bottom of that previous spread. Against a speckled gray and white floor the black text is expertly camouflaged. I know that some designers cringe at the thought of suddenly interjecting a white text box around a selection of writing, but in this particular case I’m afraid it was almost a necessity. Either than or toning down the speckles to the lightest of light grays.
Aside from that, it’s sublime. A sweet story of friendship (possibly leading to more someday) from the top of the world. Do we really believe that Billy lives on the top of the highest building in the world? Billy apparently does, and that’s good enough for us. But even the tallest building can find its match. And even the loneliest of kids can, through sheer pig-headed persistence, make their voices heard. A windy, shiny book without a hint of bluster.
Alas for poor emu. Forever relegated to be consider a second rate ostrich, it encompasses all of the awkwardness and none of the stereotypes. Does anyAlas for poor emu. Forever relegated to be consider a second rate ostrich, it encompasses all of the awkwardness and none of the stereotypes. Does anyone ever talk about burying your head in the sand like an emu? They do not. Are schoolchildren routinely called upon to ooh and aah at the size of an emu’s egg? They aren’t. And when you watch Swiss Family Robinson, do you ever find yourself wishing that the kids would try to saddle an emu for the big race? Not even once. Emus are the second largest living bird in terms of height, coming right after the ostrich, and you might be fooled into believing that they are the less interesting of the two. There, you are wrong. Wrongdy wrongdy wrong wrong wrong. I do not wish to start a war of words with the prominent ostrich societies of the world, but after reading Emu by Claire Saxby (illustrated by Graham Byrne) I’m a bit of what you might consider an emu convert. Chock full of interesting information and facts about what a typical emu might experience in its day-to-day life, the book is full of thrills, chills, and a species that gives stay-at-home dads everywhere a true animal mascot.
Meet the emu. Do not be offended if he fails to rise when you approach. At the moment he is safeguarding a precious clutch of eggs from elements and predators. While many of us consider the job of hatching eggs to be something that falls to the female of the species, emus are different. Once they’ve laid their eggs, female emus just take off, and it is the male emu that hatches and rears them. In this particular example, the male emu has a brood of seven or so chicks but though they’re pretty big (ten times bigger than a domestic chicken hatchling) they need their dad for food, shelter, and protection. The chicks find their own food right from the start and within three to four months they’ve already lost their first feathers. They zigzag to escape predators, live with their fathers for about a year, and have a kick like you would not believe. Backmatter of the book provides more information about emus, as well as an index.
This is not what you might call Saxby and Byrne’s first rodeo show. The Aussie duo previously had paired together on the book Big Red Kangaroo, a book that did just fine for itself. Following a kangaroo called “Red”, the ostensibly nonfiction title was best described by PW as, “An understated but visually arresting portrait of a species.” For my part I had no real objections to the book, but neither did I have anything for it. Kangaroo books are not rare in my children’s rooms, though the book was different in that it was written for a younger reading level. That same reading level is the focus of Emu and here I feel that Saxby and Byrne have started to refine their technique. One of the problems I had with Red was this naming of the titular kangaroo. It felt false in a way. Like the author didn’t trust the readers enough to show them a typical day in the life of an animal without having to personalize it with faux monikers. Byrne’s art too felt flatter to me in that book than it does here. This may have more to do with the subject matter than anything else, though. Emu faces, after all, are inherently more amusing and interesting than kangaroos
In terms of the text, Saxby utilizes a technique that’s proven very popular with teachers as of late. When kids in classrooms are given open reading time there can sometimes be a real range in reading levels. With this in mind, sometimes nonfiction picture books about the natural world will contain two types of text. There will be the more enticing narrative, ideal for reading aloud to a group or one-on-one. Then, for those budding naturalists, there will be a complementary second section that contains the facts. On the first two pages of Emu, for example, one side introduces the open forest with its “honey-pale sunshine” and the emu’s job while the second block of text, written in a small font that brings to mind an expert’s crisp clean handwriting, gives the statistics about emu (whether or not they can fly, their weight, height, etc.). In the back of the book under the Index there’s actually a little note about these sections. It says, “Don’t forget to look at both kinds of words”, and then writes the words “this kind and this kind” in the two different fonts.
Artist Graham Byrne’s bio says that he’s an electrical engineer, builder, and artist. This is his second picture book and the art is rendered digitally. What it looks like is scratchboard art, with maybe an ink overlay as well. I enjoyed the sense of place and the landscapes but what really made me happy was how Byrne draws an emu. There’s something about that bright yellow eye in the otherwise impassive face that gets me. I say impassive, but there are times when one wonders if Byrne is fighting an instinct to give his emu some expression. There's a scene of the emu nosing his eggs, his beak appears to be curling up in just the slightest of smiles. Later an eagle threatens his brood and there’s almost a hint of a frown as he runs over to the rescue. It’s not enough to take you out of the story, but such images bear watching.
In comparing the emu to the ostrich I may have omitted certain pertinent details. After all, the emu doesn’t have it quite so bad. It appears on the Australian coat of arms, as well as on their money. There was an Emu War of 1932 where the emus actually won the day. Heck, it’s even not too difficult to find emus on farms in the United States. Still, culturally they’ve a far ways to go if ever they are to catch up with their ostrichy brethren fame-wise. Books like this one will help. I think there must be plenty of teachers out there a little tired of using Eric Carle’s Mister Seahorse as their de facto responsible-dads-in-the-wild motif. Now kids outside of Australia will get a glimpse of this wild, wacky, wonderful and weird creature. Consider it worth meeting.
Look, I don’t wanna brag but I’m what you might call a going-to-the-airport picture book connoisseur. I’ve seen them all. From out-of-date fare like BLook, I don’t wanna brag but I’m what you might call a going-to-the-airport picture book connoisseur. I’ve seen them all. From out-of-date fare like Byron Barton’s Airport to the uniquely clever Flight 1-2-3 by Maria Van Lieshout to the odd but helpful Everything Goes: In the Air by Brian Biggs. Heck, I’ve even examined at length books about the vehicles that drive on the airport tarmac (see: Brian Floca’s Five Trucks). If it helps to give kids a better sense of what flying is like, I’ve seen it, baby. And I will tell you right here and now that not a single one of these books is quite as good at explaining every step of the journey as well as Lisa Brown’s brand new The Airport Book. I’d even go so far as to say that it’s more than just an instructional how-to. Packed with tiny details that make each rereading worthwhile, a plot that sweeps you along, and downright great information, this one here’s a keeper to its core.
“When you go to the airport, you can take a car, a van, a bus, or even a train. Sometimes we take a taxicab.” A family of four prepares for a big trip. Bags are packed with the haste that anyone with small children will recognize. Speed is of the essence. As they arrive at the airport we meet other people and families taking the same flight. There’s airport security to get through (the book mentions the many lines you sometimes have to stand in to get where you’re going), the awesome size of the airport itself, the gate, and then the plane. As we watch the younger sister in the family is having various mild freakouts over her missing (or is it?) stuffed monkey. The monkey in question is always in our view, packed in a suitcase, discovered by a dog during the flight, and finally reuniting with its owner on the luggage carousel. The family meets up with the grandparents and at last the vacation can begin. That is, until they all have to go home again.
The problem with most airport-related picture books is something I like to call the Fly Away Home conundrum. Originally penned by Eve Bunting, Fly Away Home is one of those rare picture books out there that deal with homelessness in a realistic way. The story features a father and son living out of an airport. Since it touches on such an important, and too little covered, topic, the book continues to appear on required reading lists, in spite of the fact that the very premise is now woefully out-of-date. There are few areas of everyday American life that have changed quite so dramatically over such a short amount of time as the average airport experience. That’s why so many things about The Airport Book rang true for me. When Brown covers the facts surrounding departures and goodbyes to family and friends, she doesn’t set the scene inside the building but rather on the sidewalk outside of ticketing, as people are dropped off. Later you see people at their gate plugging in their cell phones willy-nilly (something I’ve never seen in a picture book before). It lends the book a kind of air of authenticity.
The story’s good and the art’s great but what I liked about the book was the language. Brown never tells you precisely what is going to happen, but she does mention the likelihoods. “Sometimes the plane is bouncy, but most of the time it is smooth.” “Sometimes the sidewalks and staircases move by themselves.” “Sometimes there are small beeping cars driving through . . .” As you read, you realize that in a way the narration of the book is being created for us from the perspective of the big brother. He’ll occasionally insert little notes that are probably of more use to him than us. Example: “You have to hold your little sister’s hands tight, or she could get lost.” Mind you, some of the sections have the ring of poetry to them, while staying squarely within a believable child’s voice. I was particularly fond the of the section that says, “Outside there are clouds and clouds and clouds.”
With all the calls for more diverse picture books to be published, it would be noticeable if Ms. Brown’s book didn’t have a variety of families, races, ages, genders, etc. What’s notable to me is that she isn’t just checking boxes here. Her diversity far surpasses those books where they'll throw in the occasional non-white character in a group shot. Instead, the main family has a dark-skinned father and light-skinned, blond mother. Travels through the airport show adults in wheelchairs, twins, women in headscarves, Sikhs, pregnant ladies, and more. In other words, what you'd actually see in an airport these days.
And then the little details come up. Brown throws into the book a surprising array of tiny look-and-discover elements, suggesting that perhaps this book would be just as much fun in its way as a Where’s Waldo game for older siblings as it is their younger brethren. Ask them if they can find The Wright Brothers, Hatchet (don't think too hard about what happens to the plane in that book), the mom’s copy of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, or the person looking for Amelia Earhart (who may not be as difficult to find as you think). There’s also a cast of characters that command your attention like the businesswoman who’s always on her cell phone and the short artist with the mysteriously shaped package.
There’s nothing to say that in five years airports will be just as different to us today as pre-9/11 airports are now. Yet even if our airports start requiring us to hula hoop and dance the Hurly Burly, Brown’s book is still going to end up being the go-to text desperate parents turn to when they need a book that explains to their children what an average airplane flight looks like. It pretty much gets everything right, exceeding expectations. Generally speaking, books that tell kids about what something is like (be it a trip to the dentist or a new babysitter) are pedantic, didactic, dull as dishwater fare. Brown’s book, in contrast, has flare. Has pep. Has a beat and you can dance to it. Like I said, this may be the best dang going-to-the-airport book I can name (though you should certainly check out the others I’m mentioned at the beginning of this review). A treat, it really is. A treat.
Some books for kids have a hard road ahead of them. Here’s a secret. If you want a book to sell just oodles and oodles of copies to the general publicSome books for kids have a hard road ahead of them. Here’s a secret. If you want a book to sell just oodles and oodles of copies to the general public, all you have to do is avoid writing in one of two specific genres: poetry and nonfiction. Even the best and brightest nonfiction books have a nasty tendency to fade from public memory too soon, and poetry only ever gets any notice during April a.k.a National Poetry Month. I say that, and yet there are some brave souls out there who will sometimes not just write poetry. Not just write nonfiction. They’ll write nonfiction-inspired poetry. It’s crazy! It’s like they care about the quality of the content more than make a bazillion dollars or something. The latest book to fall into this category is Jazz Day: The Making of a Famous Photograph by Roxane Orgill. Melding topics like jazz musicians and photography with history, poetry, and some truly keen art, this isn’t really like any other book on your shelves. I’m betting that that’s a good thing too.
It was sort of a crazy idea for a graphic designer / jazz buff to come up with. By 1958 jazz was a well-established, deeply American, musical genre. So why not try to get all the jazz greats, and maybe some up-and-comers, into a single photograph all together? The call went out but Art Kane (who really wasn’t a photographer himself) had no idea who would turn up. After all, they were going to take the picture at ten in the morning. That’s a time most jazz performers are fast asleep. Yet almost miraculously they came. Count Basie and Thelonious Monk. Maxine Sullivan and Dizzy Gillespie. Some of them were tired. Some were having a great time catching up with old friends. And after much cajoling on Kane’s part a photo was made. Fifty-seven musicians (fifty-eight if you count Willie “Lion” Smith just out of frame). Orgill tells the tale in poetry, with artist Francis Vallejo providing the art and life. Extensive backmatter consists of an Author’s Note, Biographies, a page on the photo and homages to it, Source Notes, and a Bibliography that includes Books, Articles, Audiovisual Material, and Websites.
Jazz is often compared to poetry. So giving this book too rigid a structure wouldn’t offer the right feel at all. I’m no poet. I wish I had a better appreciation for the art than I do. Yet even with my limited understanding of the style I found myself stopping when I read the poem “This Moment” written from the point of view of Eddie Locke, a drummer. It’s the kind of poem where it’s composed as a series of quatrains. The second and fourth lines of each stanza are repeated as the first and third lines of the next. It was fortunate for me that Orgill mentions in the back of the book that the poem is a pantoum. I’d never have come up with that term myself (I thought it was a sestina). Most of the poetry in the book isn’t really that formal. In fact, Orgill confesses that, “I write prose, not poetry. But this story demanded a sense of freedom, an intensity, and a conciseness that prose could not provide.” The result is that most of the poems are free verse, which I much preferred.
Did you know that when publishing a book for kids you’re not supposed to turn in your manuscript with an illustrator already attached? True fact. Editors like having the power to pair authors and artists together. To be honest, they have experience in this area and sometimes their intervention is sublime (sometimes it fails miserably too, but that’s a tale for another day). I’m afraid I don’t know what Candlewick editor saw Orgill’s manuscript and thought of Francis Vallejo as a potential illustrator. If I knew I’d kiss them. Detroit born Vallejo is making his debut with this book and you’d never know in a million years that he wasn’t a born and bred Harlemite. His style is perfect for this tale. As adept at comic style panels as he is acrylic and pastel jazz scenes, there’s life in this man’s art. It was born to accompany jazz. It’s also particularly interesting watching what he does with light. The very beginning of the book shows a sunrise coming up on a hot August day. As it rises, shadows make way. This play between light and shadow, between the heat of the photo shoot and the cool jazz clubs that occasionally make an appearance in the text, gives the book its heart. It’s playful and serious all at once so that when you lift the page that reveals the real photograph, that action produces a very real moment of awe.
There’s been a lot of talk in the world of children’s literature lately about the research done on both works of fiction and nonfiction. Anytime you set your book in the past you have a responsibility to get the facts right. Part of what I love so much about Jazz Day is the extent of the research here. Orgill could easily have found a couple articles and books about the day of the photograph and stopped there. Instead, she writes that “Kane was by all accounts a wonderful storyteller, but one who did not always adhere to the facts. With the help of his son Jonathan Kane, I tried to set the story of the photograph straight.” Instructors who are teaching about primary sources in the schools could use this anecdote to show how reaching out to primary sources is something you need to do all the time. The rest of the backmatter (and it really is some of the most extensive I’ve ever seen) would be well worth showing to kids as well.
The question then becomes, whom is this book for? The complexity of the subject matter suggests that it’s meant for older kids. Those kids that might have a sense of some of the history (they might have heard what jazz is or who Duke Ellington was at some point in their travels). But would they read it for pleasure or as a kind of assigned reading? I don’t know. I certainly found it amusing enough, but I’m a 37-year-old woman. Not the target age range exactly. Yet I want to believe that there’s a fair amount of kid-friendly material here. Poems like “So Glad” and “quartet” may be about adults talking from an adult perspective, but Orgill cleverly livens the book up with the perspective of kids every step of the way. From the children sitting bored on the curb to a girl peering down from her window wishing the jazz men and photographer would just go away, kids get to give their two cents constantly. Read it more than once and you’ll begin to recognize some of them. Brothers Alfred and Nelson crop up more than a couple times too. Their mischief is just what the doctor ordered. With that in mind, it might be a good idea to have kids read different poems at different times. Save the more esoteric ones for later.
Jazz is hard to teach to kids. They know it’s important but it’s hard to make it human. There are always exceptions, though. For example, my 20-month-old is so obsessed with the book This Jazz Man by Karen Ehrhardt that he’ll have me read it to him a hundred times over. To my mind, that’s what this book is capable of, if at a much older level. It humanizes the players and can serve as a starting point for discussions, teaching units, you name it. These men and women are hot and tired and laughing and alive, if only at this moment in time. It’s a snapshot in both the literal and figurative sense. It’ll take some work to get it into the right hands, I suspect, but in the end it’s worth it. Jazz isn’t some weird otherworldly language. It’s people. These people. Now the kids in the book, and the kids reading this book, have a chance to get to know them.
Last evening I was reading Quest by Aaron Becker to my daughter for bedtime. It’s a good book. I’ve read it approximately 20 times by now, so I shouldLast evening I was reading Quest by Aaron Becker to my daughter for bedtime. It’s a good book. I’ve read it approximately 20 times by now, so I should know. Anyway, we’re reading the book, which is wordless and requires that the reader really pay attention to the story, and as we start I point out to my daughter some feature at the beginning involving statues. Immediately she countered with a different statue detail at the back of the book that I, though having read this story over and over again, had completely and totally missed. That’s the cool thing about child readers. Not only do they find the details the adults are completely oblivious to, but on top of that they’re coming up with cool narratives and storylines of their own, on spinning off of the ones conceived of by the author/illustrators. So when I see a book like One Day, The End I just wanna put my hands together and applaud. Rebecca Kai Dotlich is a genius (and Fred Koehler ain’t sleeping on the job either). She figured out that for kids a story is just as much a product of the relationship between a child and a book’s pictures as it is between a child and a book’s words. Sometimes more. Sometimes much more. And sometimes they’ll be handed a book like this one that lets them examine and indulge to their heart’s delight.
Do you know how to tell a story? It’s easy! Listen to a couple of these. “One day... I felt like stomping. Stomp stomp stomp stomp stomp stomp stomp stomp stomp stomp stomp stomp.” “One day... I lost my dog. I found him.” “One day... I ran away. I cam home.” A small girl tells her tales with a minimum of words. Yet hidden in these words, sometimes literally, are epic narratives. The most ordinary of actions can turn into huge adventures. By the end, the girl is writing whole books out of what could normally be seen as mundane everyday actions. Yet two sentences can yield a whole lot of action.
These days the buzzword of the hour appears to be “visual storytelling” or “visual learning”. And why not? We live in a world of constant, perpetual, enticing screens (or “shiny rectangles” as my brother-in-law likes to call them). Graphic novels have achieved a level of respect and quality hitherto unknown in the history of publishing and I don’t think it’s a stretch to believe that there are more picture books being published today than ever before. Into this brave new world come the kids, their minds making connections and storylines. They mix reality and fantasy together with aplomb. They give their toys lives and thoughts and feelings. So to see a book that sets them free to give these imaginings a little form and structure? That’s great.
On the most basic level, the book is perfect for class writing prompts. The teacher tells the kids to pick a two-sentence story in the book and expand upon it. It works to a certain extent, but I wonder if in some ways it sort of skips the point of the book itself. One of the many points of One Day, The End is that when it comes to picture books, storytelling can be more than simply whatever it is that the words say. Another point is that you don’t have to be loquacious to tell a story. Two sentences will do. It would be fun to do an exercise with kids where they tell two-sentence stories. Two sentences takes off a lot of pressure. There’s no need to include a rise and fall to the action. Anyone can tell a story (a valuable lesson). This book shows you how.
All that aside, the ending of the book was particularly interesting to me. Picture book authors that can stick the landing (as it were) when they finish their stories are rare birds. Such books don’t necessarily come along every day. That said, the ending of One Day, The End is rather magnificent. The whole book until this point has been showing the reader that in the shortest of stories there can be whole epic narratives. So when our young heroine begins by saying “One Day... I wanted to Write a Book” the accompanying picture shows her at a typewriter (a retro move) imagining a whole host of new situations. Turn the page and the following “So I did” shows a line of thick books, each one with a title that relates to the tiny two sentence stories we witnessed before. The implication at work here for kids is that even in the briefest of moments of our lives, which adults might hurry through or remember in abbreviated ways, there are untold tales just waiting to be told. This book is for the five-year-old burgeoning writer. This character wanted to write a book and did. Who’s to say you couldn’t do the same?
I didn’t recognize Fred Koehler’s style the first time I read through this book. Maybe this is a little more understandable when I mention that he only just debuted this year with his own picture book, How to Cheer Up Dad. That book starred affectionate pachyderms. This one, all too human humans. In order to bring Dotlich’s story to life, Koehler sets the action in a kind of timeless past. Cell phones computers, and even televisions are not in evidence. There’s one sequence when our heroine is playing hide-and-go-seek with her brother and we see a large swath of their home together. It’s rather technologically barren, a fact drilled home later when the typewriter makes its somewhat inexplicable appearance. Fortunately, Koehler has a lot going for him, beyond this attempt at timelessness. The font of the story is practically a tale in and of itself, always shifting and changing to suit the described action. And the layouts! I don’t mind saying that part of the reason this book feels so fresh and interesting and fun has a lot to do with Koehler’s layouts. The words that make up the stories appear as part of the illustrated scenes, sometimes dominating the action and sometimes playing a role in it. For example, the story that begins with “One day… I wanted to be a spy” actually shows the girl peering between the letters of “spy”
I also loved that Koehler wasn’t afraid to reward rereadings. Attentive readers will be able to witness the smaller sub-adventures of a cat, a squirrel, a bird, and a little white dog that appear in the periphery of all the action. Then there are even smaller details that you wouldn’t notice on a first glance. The story, “I went to school. I came home” shows our plucky young gal dilly-dallying on her way to class (following a cat that will come up again in a later tale) only to accidentally leave her books somewhere en route. She runs to her classroom, but sharp-eyed spotters will note her missing backpack. Next thing you know the class is following instructions on doing science experiments and she peers at her neighbor (every kid doing the experiments is looking at their book, save her), and accidentally pours her solution into the wrong beaker. And there are other details about the characters themselves that are worth discovering, like that our storyteller always wears mismatched socks. As for the callbacks, if you pay attention you’ll see that an element that appears in one story (like a rubber boot placed over a flower in the rain) may later crop up again later (that same flower grows out of the boot a little later).
To sum up, why not take a page out of this book? One day... I read a picture book. It was great. The End....more
I gotta come clean with you. Skeletons? I’ve got a thing for them. Not a “thing” as in I find them attractive, but rather a “thing” as in I find themI gotta come clean with you. Skeletons? I’ve got a thing for them. Not a “thing” as in I find them attractive, but rather a “thing” as in I find them fascinating. I always have. Back in the 80s there was a science-related Canadian television show called “Owl TV” (a Canuck alternative to “3-2-1 Contact”) and one of the regular features was a skeleton by the name of Bonaparte who taught kids about various scientific matters. But aside from the odd viewing of “Jason and the Argonauts”, walking, talking (or, at the very least, stalking) skeletons don’t crop up all that often when you become grown. So maybe my attachment to Human Body Theater with its knobby narrator has its roots deep in my own personal history. Or maybe it has something more to do with the witty writing, untold gobs of nonfiction information, eye-catching art, and general sense of intelligence and care. Whatever the case, it turns out the human body puts on one heckuva good show!
When a human skeleton comes out and offers to right there, before your very eyes, become a fully formed human being with guts, skin, etc. who are you to refuse? Tonight the human body itself is putting on a show and everyone from the stagehands (the cells) to the players (whether they’re body parts or viruses) is fully engaged and involved. With our narrator’s help we dive deep beneath the skin and learn top to bottom about every possible system our bods have to offer. When all is said and done the readers aren’t just intrigued. They’re picking the book up to read it again and again. Backmatter includes a Glossary of terms and a Bibliography for further reading.
I’ve been a big time Maris Wicks fan for years. It started long ago when I was tooling around a MOCCA (Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art) event and ran across just the cutest little paperback picture book. It couldn’t have been much bigger than a coaster and all it was was a story about a family taking a daytrip to the woods. Called Yes, Let’s it was written by Galen Goodwin and illustrated by a Maris Wicks. I didn’t know either of these people. I just knew the book was good, and when it was published officially a couple years later by Tanglewood Publishing I felt quite justified. But for all that I’d been a fan, I didn’t recognize Ms. Wicks’ work or name, at first, when she illustrated Jim Ottaviani’s Primates. When the connection was made I felt like I’d won a small lottery. Now she’s gone solo with Human Body Theater and the only question left in anybody’s mind is . . . why didn’t she do it sooner? She’s a natural!
Now for whatever reason my four-year-old is currently entranced by this book. She’s naturally inclined to love graphic novels anyway (thank you, Cece Bell) and something in Human Body Theater struck a real chord with her. It’s not hard to figure out why. Visually it’s consistently arresting. Potentially dry material, like the method by which oxygen travels from the lungs to the blood, is presented in the most eclectic way possible (in this case, like a dance). Wicks keeps her panels vibrant and consistently interesting. One minute we might be peering into the inner workings of the capillaries and the next we’re zooming with the blood through the body delivering nutrients and oxygen. The colorful, clear lined style certainly bears a passing similarity to the work of author/artists like Raina Telgemeier, while the ability imbue everything, right down to the smallest atom, with personality is more along the lines of Dan Green’s “Basher Books” series.
For my part, I was impressed with the degree to which Wicks is capable of breaking complex ideas down into simple presentations. The chapters divide neatly into The Skeletal System, The Muscular System, The Respiratory System, The Cardiovascular System, The Digestive System, The Excretory System, The Endocrine System, The Reproductive System, The Immune System, The Nervous System, and the senses (not to mention an early section on cells, elements, and molecules). As impressive as her art is, it's Wicks’ writing that I feel like we should really credit here. Consider the amount of judicious editing she had to do, to figure out what to keep and what to cut. How do you, as an author, transition neatly from talking about reproduction to the immune system? How do you even tackle a subject as vast as the senses? And most importantly, how gross do you get? Because the funny bones of 10-year-olds demand a certain level of gross out humor, while the stomachs of the gatekeepers buying the book demand that it not go too far. I am happy to report that Ms. Wicks walks that tightrope with infinite skill.
One of the parts of the book I was particularly curious about was the sex and reproduction section. I’ve seen what Robie H. Harris has gone through with her It’s Perfectly Normal series on changing adolescent bodies, and I wondered to what extent Wicks would tread similar ground. The answer? She doesn’t really. Sex is addressed but images of breasts and penises are kept simple to the point of near abstraction. As such, don’t be relying on this for your kid’s sex-ed. There are clear reasons for this limitation, of course. Books that show these body parts, particularly graphic novels, are restricted by some parents or school districts. Wicks even plays with this fact, displaying a sheet covering what looks like a possible penis, only to reveal a very tall sperm instead. And Wicks doesn’t skimp on the info. The chapter on The Reproductive Cycle, for example, contains the delightful phrase, “ATTENTION: Would some blood please report to the penis for a routine erection.” So I’ve no doubt that there will be a parent somewhere who is offended in some way. However, it’s done so succinctly that I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised if it causes almost no offense during its publication lifespan (but don’t quote me on that one).
If there is a problem with the book it may come right at the very beginning. Our skeleton hero introduces herself and from there you would expect her to jump right in to Human Body Theater with the bones. Instead, the storyline comes to a near screeching halt from the get go with a laborious explanation of cells, elements, and molecules. It’s not that these things aren’t important or interesting. Indeed, you can more than understand why they come at the beginning the way that they do. But as the book currently stands, this section feels like it was added in at the last minute. If it was going to preface the actual “show” then couldn’t it have been truly separate from the main event and act as a kind of pre-show entertainment?
What parent wouldn’t admit a bit of a thrill when their kid points to their own femur and declares proudly that it’s the longest bone in the human body? Or off-the-cuff speculates on the effects of the appendix on other body functions? We talk a lot about children’s books that (forgive the phrase) “make learning fun”, but how many actually do? When I wrack my brain for fun human body books, I come up surprisingly short. Here then is a title that can push against a certain kind of reader’s reluctance to engage with science on any level. It’s for the science lovers and graphic novel lovers alike (and lord knows the two don’t always overlap). More fun than it has any right to be. No bones about it....more