There is no secret formula to making picture books and each of the featured books in today’s post illustrate that the picture book format is a vehicle to a destination unknown for the reader and the listener (and sometimes for the creators themselves). The picture book is about potential and that potential knows no boundaries. As you write or illustrate, periodically remind yourself about the audience. Who are you writing for and why? The two questions I want answered in a picture book are: So What? What if? The following books answer these two questions in ways that interest me.
In A New Green Day, Caldecott Honor winning Antoinette Portis combines poetry, a sense of place (and being), and a love of nature with the playfulness of a riddles that will engage the reader with every page turn. Both listeners and readers (young and older), may delight in the language of the poetic riddles that lead to common elements of nature and how we explore and enjoy.
Moving beyond one day to a year of seasons, Caldecott Honor winning picture book creator Rachel Isadora uses a universal childhood question to frame the characteristics of seasons in Do I Have to Wear a Coat? The illustrations and text include city and county scenes, Isadora’s use of vignette illustrations and straightforward descriptive text is welcome in the large canon of picture books about the seasons. A very small added bonus is how the season is named on each page spread.
Jennifer K. Mann combines so many different techniques to describe Ernestine’s overnight outdoor experience in The Camping Trip. While the cover suggests the trip is a success, it is not without its complications. The endpapers are perfectly pitched with camping supplies (don’t forget to look at the case cover for a night view). Ernestine can’t wait to go camping with her aunt Jackie and cousin Samantha and she is sure that she will love it. She quickly finds that camping has lots of good moments but that parts of it are hard and at times, even scary. Mann’s use of panels, full bleed art, and just the right amount of text masterfully sets the tone of this book about new experiences and risk taking. Readers and listeners will be motivated to take on the joys and realities of camping.
In a very different kind of adventure, Minh Lê and Caldecott Medalist Dan Santat pair up again (Drawn Together was their previous collaboration) to create Lift. This picture book adventure shows that the balance between text and images is not often 50/50. The story would not work without either element and together they make this graphic novel picture book lift off to adventure.
Kids can make a difference and Kamala and Maya’s Big Idea written by Vice President Harris’s niece and illustrated by Ana Ramîrez Gonzalez is based on a true story of the two sister’s ingenuity. This can-do story is well balanced in terms of problems and solutions. The focus is on community and how to navigate reaching a goal which creates a great model for contemporary young people who may be trying to find their way to make the world a better place, one community at a time. The two-page back matter provides context for how the author was inspired to write about her mom and aunt, and tell one of the stories from their childhood. While not a biography, this is an example of how a book may lead a reader to take action.
If you missed Rowboat Watkins’ Pete with No Pants and Most Marshmallows, find those backlist titles. There are few picture book creators who hit all the sweet spots with clever humor, human insight, and entertaining details. His latest book Mabel: A Mermaid Fable is no exception in the Watkins’ canon of hit-the-spot picture books. The text and illustrations are well balanced and together they create a story that reminds readers that they may not be missing anything at all by being themselves.
While chickens have been protagonists in picture books for a long time, comic artist Sam Wedelich manages to update and refresh Chicken Little’s adventures while reminding readers that fact checking is a good habit. Chicken Little: The Real and Totally True Tale is a clever comic-delivered tale with “utter hen-demonium” in which Chicken Little has to check the facts to determine why she was bonked on the head. Taking on a classic tale is always a tall task and Wedelich proves that you can update a well-known tale with a contemporary twist. To find out how this inquisitive and thoughtful chicken approaches other famous protagonists, Chicken Little and the Big Bad Wolf just published.
In another chicken tale, Catch That Chicken by Atinuke, illustrated by Angela Brooksbank, Lami is the best chicken catcher in her village. This is her greatest skill and a big part of her identity, But, when she hurts her ankle and can no longer run after the chickens, she has to figure out how to make the chickens come to her. Atinuke’s background as a traditional storyteller translates beautifully into the picture book storytelling format that is enhanced by the dynamic, energetic illustrations. I want more of Lami and her adventures.
Nana Akua Goes to School is the story that has stayed on my mind since it was published last year. Tricia Elam Walker and April Harrison’s universal picture book about a child’s embarrassment about a relative is poignant and sensitive. Zura loves her Nana Akua but worries that her grandmother’s tribal marks might scare other kids. When Nana goes to school she shares the West African tradition of her face markings and uses face paint to paint washable markings on everyone while explaining their meaning. This picture book is an exemplar of a sensitive and respectful book about affirming people for who they are.
For so many of us, our names are tied to stories. A few years ago, Juana Martinez Neal’s 2019 Caldecott Honor book Alma and How She Got Her Name added to the well-loved older picture books about kids and their names such as Name Jar (Yangsook Choi) and Chrysanthemum (Kevin Henkes). Names are personal and part of our identity and Jamilah Thompkins-Bigelow wrote a book, Your Name Is A Song, that honors the differences in names and how important it is to pronounce them correctly and respectfully. The emotional setting, poetic text, and pragmatic approach is set by both the text and the illustrations by Luisa Uribe. Even the color palette is evocative of a song and the freedom that comes when you feel seen and heard.
Change is inevitable and it can also be hard and sad. This past year has been a lot about change for many people around the world and for so many of them books have provided stories with worlds and comforts that they needed. Newbery Medalist’s Meg Medina’s most recent picture, Evelyn Del Rey is Moving Away, illustrated by Sonia Sánchez, is a realistic picture book that is comforting and loving while being so universal in appeal.
My pre COVID-19 life used to be about wondering and wandering and while that has changed in the last year, there are still parts that wonder and wander, often falling into (or over a book). The Wanderer by Peter Van den Ende is an epic visual tale, with no words, about a paper boat and its 96-page journey (yes, there are 96-page picture books). Comfort. Fear. Fairytale. Stormy weather. Imagination. Wonder. Wander. The journey and the destination are worth the pages.
Wishing you a great month filled with piles and piles of picture book reading. As you read and explore the stories, the structures, the word choice, the pagination, and your emotional and intellectual response to each book, remember that people bring their own experiences to the picture books they create. And, no two readers will respond in the same way. Here’s to hoping this list will add to your exploration of the word of picture books and that your journey docks in a place that you may not have anticipated.