When my grandfather passed away last November, I wrote several posts on books that deal with death. It was surprisingly cathartic. Two picture books have been published recently that incorporate themes of loss and death, but in rather abstract ways and I’ve found both to be comforting. I think about my grandfather a lot. The sequence is always the same: something will spark a memory and I’ll smile, which is closely followed by the sadness of once again having to remember that he is gone.
Both of today’s recommendations are excellent books, because they leave quite a bit unsaid and children will understand them in different ways at different stages of their development. The first is Rabbityness by Jo Empson (Child’s Play, $16.99). Rabbit liked doing lots of rabbity things. But Rabbit also liked doing unrabbity things, like painting and making music. The middle pages of the book are filled with colors and evocations of music, until “one day, Rabbit disappeared” and as much as the other rabbits looked for him, he could not be found. Rabbit, however, had left them gifts and they “filled the woods with color and music once again”. The book is told in the past tense, although what exactly happens to Rabbit is never overtly stated. It is a lovely book filled with color that remind us of the gifts that the people we love leave for us.
The other book, which comes out today, is Bluebird by Bob Staake (Scwartz and Wade, $17.99). Bluebird is wordless and the illustrations are rather muted in white, light blue, and grey. These colors work really well for this story and the bluebird, rendered in bright blue, stands out. The story narrates a few huge and weighty topics: feeling alone, bullying, protecting your friends, and death. But because the book is wordless, the story manages to create a space for the seriousness of each topics without being heavy-handed. The reader is left to tell themselves a story that they are able to handle. Nothing more. Color is only introduced in the final few pages and the visual impact of these new colors adds brightness precisely when the story is the most dark. It is further comforting that although the boy loses the bluebird, he is not left alone. This is a stunning story about saying goodbye.
The Seven Silly Eaters, by Mary Ann Hoberman and illustrated by Caldecott winner Marla Frazee, is one of my all-time favorite read alouds (HMH, $7.00). This book shouldn’t be read in any way but aloud.
Not so long ago, they say,
A mother lived—just like today.
Mrs. Peters was her name;
Her little boy was named the same.
Now Peter was a perfect son.
In every way—except for one.
Sure, sure. You get it. It rhymes. But, assuming you’re not going to make a tool of yourself in public, go back and read it out loud. Do you hear it? Can you feel the words tumbling off your tongue? The entire story is written in this alternating trochaic trimeter (reminiscent of Blake’s “The Tiger”) alternating with iambic tetrameter. The meter loops back and forth driving the narrative forward.
So what is Peter’s problem? He’s a picky eater. As are his subsequent siblings. Peter likes warm milk; his sister Lucy prefers pink lemonade, hand-squeezed. By the time Mrs. Peters makes applesauce for Jack, oatmeal for Mac, bread for Mary Lou, and eggs (poached and fried) for the twins Flo and Fran, she is exhausted. For her birthday, the group of persnickety foodies decide to make their own individual dishes of choice for their lovely mother. The results are a catastrophe. Until, they discover something very peculiar about their collective eating habits.
A Flower in the Snow, by Tracey Corderoy and illustrated by Sophie Allsopp (Sourcebooks Jabberwocky, $16.99), is a delightful winter picture book about friendship. Luna and the polar bear are the best of friends and quite devoted to each other. When they find a golden flower growing in the snow, the polar bear gives it to Luna. The flower fades, as flowers do, and the polar bear is distressed to watch Luna fade as well. In an attempt to make her happy, the polar bear sets out to find another golden flower. Both Luna and the polar bear eventually learn that being with the one you love is far better than any gift they could ever give you.
It’s a sweet book — perfect for reading while cuddled up by the fire with cup of cocoa — but it has just enough humor to keep it from becoming overly sappy. The illustrations inspire wistful smiles. I went ice skating in Central Park last weekend, and I can assure you that I am not as graceful a skater as Luna, let alone the polar bear. The polar bear travels far and wide to find a golden flower, but these pages are great because of the jarring disjunct between the polar bear and the surrounding environment. It’s not every day you see a polar bear navigating through the tropics. I can’t say that I laughed out loud — it’s not that kind of book — but my heart smiled. And I was a little jealous, because everyone needs a polar bear to cuddle up with in the winter.
Our owner recently had a visitor from the UK, which seemed like a perfect excuse to request a few copies of Slow Loris by Alexis Deacon (Red Fox £5.99). In case you’re wondering, Slow Loris is not a name. Slow Loris is a slow loris. He really is very slow. And all the visitors at the zoo think he is very boring. But Slow Loris has a secret. This phenomenal book, complete with lift-the-flap gems, and fold-out pages, will keep kids laughing. It is my all-time favorite picture book from the UK and one that I love to quote from when the occasion arises (which is more often than you’d expect). I’m delighted to have some copies in our store again and I can’t wait to start sharing it with people. Unfortunately it’s hard to come by in the US, but it’s well worth tracking down. Even if you need to implore a friend visiting the UK to bring you a copy. Or better yet, plan a trip over yourself.
One of the things I appreciate about our bookstore is that most of the picture books are organized by subject. Sometimes it can be tricky to find a book, but it encourages the staff members to become acquainted with content. In addition, when customers come in looking for books about “trains” or “dogs”, we can easily point them to a section for them to browse. “Dinosaurs” are a popular request and as you might suspect there is no end of fiction and non-fiction in this subject. My personal favorite story about dinosaurs is Harry and the Bucketful of Dinosaurs, written by Ian Whybrow and illustrated by Adrian Reynolds (Dragonfly, $6.99). This is a UK title, but it is readily available in the US. Harry finds an old box of dinosaur toys in the attic. With his grandmother’s help, and much to his teenage sister’s disgust, he cleans the dinosaurs off and carries them around in a plastic bucket. Harry is a careful researcher and anoints all the dinosaurs with their proper scientific names. The text is cute, but it’s the illustrations that really make this book. The dinosaurs all have individual personalities and they are perpetually delighted with the adventures that Harry takes them on. They mimic his own emotional response to the world — scowling at Harry’s older sister and (spoiler!) expressing fear and anxiety when they get lost. Reynolds has perfectly captured the imaginative world that children create with their toys and has sprinkled in plenty of humor to amuse adult readers. Don’t forget to spend some time studying the endpapers, too!
December is almost here, and our holiday books are slowly taking over the front of store, but there are still a few fall leaves clinging to the trees — at least where I live. I figured it was time to recommend a few good fall books before they are completely eclipsed by winter. I don’t feel like I’m too behind, though, because a recurring theme in fall picture books is concluding the story with the arrival of winter.
Fletcher and the Falling Leaves, by Julia Rawlinson and illustrated by Tiphanie Beeke (Harper, $6.99), is a rather endearing story about Fletcher, a red fox, who desperately tries to keep his favorite tree from losing its leaves. Fletcher loves sitting under the splendor of the tree’s green canopy. He loves the new vibrant red, oranges, and yellows, too, but he becomes increasingly agitated when the leaves turn brown and begin to fall. His resistance against the inevitable is valiant, but futile. His attempts to tie the leaves back on to the branches and his instructions to stay there evoke bittersweet sympathy. Rawlinson and Beeke both capture the beauty and melancholy of autumn. Fletcher’s despair at the loss of his final leaf is heartbreaking appropriate as we head into the dark months. Fletcher, however, discovers a new kind of beauty, when he wakes up under a glistening canopy of white. A necessary step towards the return of the green.
Stories about fall, and the changing leaves, lend themselves to gorgeous illustrations. Other great leaf books include Look What I Did with a Leaf! by Moretza Sohi (Walker, $7.99), which has inventive suggestions for using leaves in crafts and illustrations, The Little Yellow Leaf by Carin Berger (Greenwillow, $16.99), and Awesome Autumn by Bruce Goldstone (Henry Holt, $16.99).
Here’s another non-Halloween book that’s still appropriate for this time of year. Bob Barner’s Dem Bones depicts dancing skeletons teaching the familiar African-American song (Chronicle Books, $16.99). The illustrations are comprised of colorful torn collages and bring the song to life, if you will. Interesting bone facts accompany the text, making this picture book a one-of-a-kind crossover Halloween/science book (impressive, huh?) And who better to teach lessons about bones, than a band of skeletons?
The skeleton playing the trombone on the front cover cracks me up. Is s/he closing her/his eye sockets?!? That’s one passionate skeleton. No cuddling for this book; break out whatever instruments you have laying around, or make your own, and rock around the house/classroom singing and learning about bones. Your skeletons will appreciate the party.
While I stand by my lack of good Halloween books comment, there are some great related picture books and certainly numerous fall themed books about monsters, bats, owls, leaves, hibernation, and migration. Patrick McDonnell’s The Monster’s Monster (Little, Brown, $16.99) contains the requisite destructive imps: Grouch, Grump, and little Gloom ‘n’ Doom, but they set out to build a monster that is the ‘biggest and the baddest’ of them all. Their new monster — reminiscent of Dr. Frankenstein’s creation, but far cuter, sweeter, and prone to saying ‘thank you’ — surprises them with his own agenda. The message in this book is subtle enough that it doesn’t overshadow the humor of the illustrations. Even though The Monster’s Monster not technically a Halloween story, it’s still a great book find your own little imp to cuddle up and read with at this time of year.