The desert is my mother/ el desierto es mi madre

Like the Pumphrey brothers’ magical THE OLD TRUCK, there’s a wonderfully enigmatic quality to Pat Mora and Daniel Lechon‘s classic picture book, THE DESERT IS MY MOTHER.

With its rhythmic structure and poetic imagery, THE DESERT IS MY MOTHER also has a prescient environmentalist framework, bringing the desert to life by showing all the ways the places where we live shape and nurture us. Plus, the bilingual text centers the experience of Spanish-speaking readers while helping children imagine and reimagine the places of their everyday experience. “I say,” offers the narrator, and the desert gives:

I say teach me.
She blooms in the sun’s glare,
the snow’s silence,
the driest sand.

Le digo, ensename.
Y florence en el brillo del sol,
en el silencio de la nieve,
en las arenas mas secas.

Mora’s desert places teem with life, and all the ways the earth will survive us. Mother’s love is unconditional. It’s never too late to return it.

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.

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.

FRANK THE SEVEN LEGGED SPIDER

Michaele Razi’s FRANK THE SEVEN LEGGED SPIDER is brilliant. Yes, it’s funny, it’s clever and a little gross, (which, you know, kids) but what I love most about it is the way it raises and never answers a big ole “WHY?”

cover image of Michaele Razi's Frank the Seven Legged Spider

If you don’t know this book, please don’t try to glean its secrets from a YouTube read aloud. It’s gotta be read in person. So, get thyself to your library or bookstore poste-haste.

Now, I don’t want to give away the secret (though it’s killing me not to!). But I do want to talk about that “why?”. Let’s just say something happens to Frank. Something bad and unexpected, and which we the readers can learn the origins of, although Frank never does.

So, quit talking in circles you might be thinking. What’s the big deal? And it’s just this: Razi’s book acknowledges that sometimes bad things happen and sometimes the source of that hurt is surprising. But more than that, we may never get a why – we’re not always owed one and even if we are, tough cookies, baby! Lots of times, it just never comes.

My kiddo spotted the secret on the first read. And it was delightful. Sometimes in life we’re Franks, sometimes we’re what’s on the other side of Frank’s missing leg. Accident? Maliciousness? Circumstantial evidence? No matter – Frank lets it go – the leg, that is – and finds his own mischievous way forward.

I love books like this, so please drop any of your related favorites in the comments. Or tell me what you think about Razi’s book.