Little Brown

Marla Frazee’s LITTLE BROWN reminds me of when I used to teach college composition, attempting to engage students in big questions around issues that are almost impossible to track back to any satisfyingly clear origin. You can imagine my RateMyProfessor ratings.

When the “facts” of any emotional situation are buried, entangled, or complex, it’s all about being able to hold or imagine multiple perspectives, yeah?

In LITTLE BROWN, Marla Frazee deftly shows kiddos the vulnerability each aggrieved side brings to a point of potential reconciliation, and why the moment that ends a stalemate can be approached 1,000s of times before someone works up the courage to make it happen.

Little Brown wants to join the other dogs and nurse grievances. The other dogs can rely on group dynamics to avoid navigating a situation that might cause them to examine their behavior even when Little Brown makes it harder and harder for them to ignore him.

I think a lot about the competing pressures for and against “lessons” in picture books. Here, Frazee gives ample opportunity to consider things from all angles, with little readers drawing their own conclusions. Sometimes resolution’s for the birds.

Avocado Asks

Avocado hasn’t given too much thought to their place in the world: a grocery store is a grocery store is a grocery store. But when an innocent question results in both the fruits and vegetables rejecting Avocado as one of their own, things sure get lonely.

In AVOCADO ASKS, Momoko Abe‘s delightful illustrations buoy the spunky Avocado (Avo is pleasantly spiteful when the cheese reject him) as Avocado journeys about the store, searching for belonging. In contrast to the fruits, vegetables, and other food items nestled in their containers, Avocado’s searching is a wonderful freedom.

Ultimately, Avocado finds their home not within a group but an idea: letting others label you, or claim or reject you, is about as conducive to happiness as a hill of beans.

Avocado’s got a free-spirited tomato to thank for that realization, and I love the way this simple-on-the-surface story explores big questions about human nature and the risks we can allow ourselves to take, and the payoffs we can find when we take them.

SMUG SEAGULL

I love a “voice-y” picture book, especially when that voice is bombastic and pitch-perfect silly. My own kiddo loved Maddie Frost‘s SMUG SEAGULL so much that he made me act out the french-fry stealing scene at approximately 6:10 a.m. for a week straight – for anyone who’s wondering, that’s before sunrise, folks. SMUG SEAGULL is a thief. A good one. He rules the sky and sand, and he’s pretty sure everything’s all about him. Why wouldn’t it be?

This book is such a delight because even though the eponymous seagull learns his lesson, he stays very true to his I-am-who-I-am seagull self. I wish there were more kids books like this out there.

After getting his comeuppance from a clever crab (who is their own excellent model for not being dissuaded from pursuing what you want just because someone else claims it as their territory), the seagull has an epiphany that lets him maintain his outsized self-esteem while finding a fresh take on his old designs.

To me, SMUG SEAGULL niftily balances being a person in the world with affirming a healthy dose of confidence and self-esteem to pursue the things that matter to you. Yeah, it’s funny like that.

The Night gardener

It never happens. But it could.

That mysterious, inexplicable encounter that cleaves the mundane and exposes something irrefutable and altering.

What’s even more magical is that the possibility, like a placebo, has its own generative effect.

You bet I’m talking about the action in the Fan BrothersTHE NIGHT GARDENER, which reminds me so much of Gabriel García Márquez‘s “The Handsomest Drowned Man in the World.” (One of my all-time favorite short stories, along with “Yours,” by Mary Robison and anything by Lucia Berlin. Treat yourself to a cuppa and a quiet hour.)

William, the ostensible MC, like so many heroes and heroines, is parentless, living in a drab orphanage. Until the mysterious, itinerant Night Gardener arrives. Using form, or art, he shares a profound kindness and act of love, helping William and his fellow townspeople shake off their stupor, to begin living again, or for the first time.

Art, in the Fan Brothers’ story, is taken in through the eye but also passed down through the hands, and draws us out of one way of being and into another.

Art is folky, democratic. Put talent aside–the truth is that like Andy Warhol’s Coke, art belongs to everyone and anyone can do it. It can fill a lack. It can’t be our mother, but the magic is it can mother us.

The bear must go on

Remember how Shakespeare was known for taking someone’s meh ur-text and turning it into a canonical piece of Western literature? That’s kinda the feat that Bear pulls off in Dev Petty and Brandon Todd‘s charming THE BEAR MUST GO ON.

Rabbit, Squirrel, and Other Squirrel (brilliant) dream of putting on a big show to wow their forest friends, but Bear blissfully demurs and sticks to the sidelines, jotting notes and creating art–a little ditty he sings to himself. While his pals frenzy themselves in a quest to create all the accoutrements for a real crowd-pleasing event, they, uh, forget to create the show.

You can guess what’s coming. Dev Petty’s dialogue is so snappy, and Brandon Todd’s illustrations have such a bumptious woodland-carnival-meets-Broadway vibe that the stakes get painfully high before Bear saves the day.

Ultimately, this is a classic find-your-voice book, but I also love the way Bear has his cake and eats it, too. While everyone else is mucking around in the nuts, Bear is doing what matters–creating the thing.

Kids are too little to relate, but of course PBs are an all-ages show. And you never really know what’s sinking in. So three cheers for Bear: how nice to abstain from the planning committees, the decisions on catering, the dress-code elaboration. One voice never sounded sweeter.

i am a bird

There’s something so satisfying when simple premises get at big truths, like Hope Lim and Hyewon Yum‘s I AM A BIRD.

In this story, a father bikes his daughter around their town on the way to dropping her off at school. She loves birds and enjoys the people they meet on their way. Except one.

Things I love about this book:

1) Fathers and daughters–is it just me, or do we not see enough of these indomitable duos?

2) After noticing someone she hasn’t seen before, someone who looks a little different from the people she’s used to, maybe a little more reserved, a little worn thin, the girl comes out and says something that I think is so perceptive and smart:

“Daddy, I don’t like her.”

The dad offers up a response that challenges the girl’s reaction. But the girl won’t be placated, and Hyewon Yum does some nifty things with the art when the girl wonders if the woman is not as harmless as the dad says.

The girl and woman eventually find a point of connection and thaw toward each other, which is essential for the kinds of interactions we want our kids to have, and the MC learns a lesson that expands her world – imo, the very best kind. How often do we allow kiddos to express their gut reaction, their dislikes and suspicions? It’s a fine line, for all the obvious reasons, but this story handles it superbly. Letting the MC struggle, and keeping the antagonist aloof – not everyone has to think you’re cute, kid! – to eventually bring them together through common ground. Caw caw, my friends, cheep cheep.

My TWO BORDER TOWNS

While funny picture books are my jam, David Bowles and Erika Meza‘s buoyant MY TWO BORDER TOWNS might have been my favorite children’s book I read in the past year. I have a real soft spot for picture books that feature families, and this simple-on-the-surface story incorporates some big, big topics – but with such a deft touch. And Erika Meza’s art – wow. It is gorgeous. I wish I had a print of just about every spread in this book.

A boy and his father travel from the U.S. to visit relatives and run errands on the Mexican side of the border. Bowles captures the magic of a trip–lively streets, special treats, playing with cousins–and, soon, there’s just one more stop. On their way home, father and son bring medicine and small gifts to refugees who they have befriended and who are camped on the border between Mexico and the U.S.

Bowles gets at the sadness and unfairness of the situation of those seeking entry to either country, but also ends with optimism, when the boy

“imagine[s] a wonderful day, when all my friends from the Other Side can go back and forth between my two border towns, just like me.”

Ultimately, MY TWO BORDER TOWNS reflects the vibrancy of border-town family life, something I heard Bowles say was important for him with this book. The family abounds in riches. And it’s a gift to be able to address something like unjust, short-sighted refugee and immigration policies and still leave people wanting more. But we do. As the family knows, there’s room enough for all of us.

Bob, not bob!

Y’all. J’adore.

Liz Garton Scanlon and Audrey Vernick must have had themselves in stiches writing this one, it’s so dang joyful and clever. And Matthew Cordell channels his inner Roald Dahl for delightful, exuberant, absurdist art, the perfect foil for a book about being so sick, no one, not even your beloved mom, can understand a thing you’re saying.

When poor Little Louie’s cold is so bad that his stuffed-up pronunciations has his dog Bob coming running when he calls for his mom, you know it’s gonna be a rough few days. For everyone.

But who saves the day? Louie’s intrepid mom, who wisely gives in to babying her baby (and the delightfully giant, drooly, and snuggly Bob), and the look of pure love on Louie’s face…

I can’t remember if I read or heard an editor say in passing (Karen Boss??) that she often finds picture books a lonely place for the MCs, and that really stuck with me.

And while no one is disputing the culture and counter-culture, the solo butt-kicking, SELing, problem-solving, and world-changing;

the ambiguous, hole-poking, could-be-this, could-be-that, is-it-just-a-joke thinkery that goes on in lovely picture books everywhere, I could eat this one with a spoon all day everyday.

Sometimes, our kids just need us, and we love them just by loving them.

THE OLD TRUCK

One of the pleasures of reading picture books for the first time is the way they renew our sense of discovery. Picture books are sprints, but the best ones create richly evocative worlds, compressing time and experience into something that reflects or approximates essential elements of our lived encounters. The first time I read Jarrett and Jerome Pumphrey‘s THE OLD TRUCK, a feeling of immense poignancy washed over me. I blinked back tears and tried to sound “normal” as I finished speaking the last page. That’s what an incredible picture book can do.

THE OLD TRUCK, Jarrett & Jerome Pumphrey

The Pumphrey brothers’ book is direct, simple, and fundamental, but also mysterious. Emotionally, THE OLD TRUCK exists firmly in a maternal/parental space or cadence, but who is the steadying and fortifying mother? I think it is the truck–which was there at the beginning, when a pregnant mother is about to give birth, and is there at the end, when the daughter of that mother is now a mother of her own little girl and raising her on the same farm. I also loved seeing a black family centered in this farming story.

The eponymous truck is akin to a tutelary spirit, a household god. And like our gods and watchful spirits, it both gives and receives, supporting the family with its labor, but also in need of rest, repair, and perhaps most importantly dreaming. The truck’s imagination feeds the girl’s imagination. The girl’s imagination, translated into creativity, into hard work, feeds and preserves the family and the family’s way of life.

THE OLD TRUCK is one of those books I’m tempted to keep talking and talking about, but I’ll stop. Go and see for yourself. And scoop up their about-to-be released PB: SOMEWHERE IN THE BAYOU.