Saturday, March 03, 2012

Some picture books of note:

Batty (Francis Lincoln; 2011)

Sarah Dyer’s book about a bat named Batty trying to fit in with the other animals at the zoo is refreshingly disorienting, as you can tell simply from the cover, on which her name is upside down. Actually, Batty and the title are upside down in the picture, but the cover is right side up.

The images on the pages will either appear upside down or right side up, depending on whose point of view Dyer is showing us the images from—the reader’s own point-of-view, or Batty’s (the text similarly gets turned upside down at times, and the text on the back cover and back cover flap is also upside down.

Batty isn’t the most popular animal at the zoo, we’re told, as “All he can do is hang upside down.” Determined to become as popular as the other animals, Batty flies from exhibit to exhibit, seeing what the other animals are doing, and trying to fit in.

Each mini-adventure begins with a two-page spread of Batty taking in the animals’ activities—the penguins play water sports, the lions tan and lounge—followed by another two-page spread in which Batty attempts to join them and finds a reason why he can’t—he doesn’t like the gorillas searching his fur for fleas, the exotic birds are too loud for his sensitive ears—and so on.

After sadly flapping back to his home enclosure, Batty learns there is something he can do other than hanging upside down, something that results in one being rather popular.

Dyer’s artwork has a lovely homemade, almost primitive or folksy look to it, although that tone belies the skill that went into the designs and “acting” of the characters.

The illustrations are done with pencils and pastels, although some of them look like figures were cut out from one type of paper and put atop another type of paper. (I’d show you an example, but the fine print is extra-pissy sounding about anyone transmitting any images for any reason).

Dyer draws great animals, especially tapirs, who only make a cameo. You can see her lions, fleas and a monkey and a gorilla here.

Crocodile’s Tears (Abrams Books; 2011)

Alex Beard’s picture book is a depressing one, from it’s opening lines to the educational information about African wildlife in the back.

Those opening lines are these:

On the banks of the Mburu River in Africa, Crocodile lay in the sun.

He opened his eyes and began to cry.

Isn’t that the worst? When you wake up and begin your day by crying? Poor crocodile. What’s his deal, exactly? It’s severe depression, right? That would be my diagnosis.

Rhino and Tickbird also want to know why Crocodile is crying but, afraid to ask him themselves (since crocodiles are such dangerous predators), they decide to ask a Gold Eagle, which is very rare in Africa these days.

The Gold Eagle doesn’t know either, but he suggests that perhaps Crocodile is crying because he misses the huge herd of elephants that used to live in Africa, and suggests the pair ask an elephant, “if you can find an elephant.”

Because elephants are so relatively rare now, it takes them a while to track one down, but they eventually do, and the pattern repeats over and over: Each new animal doesn’t know, but suggests that it may be because Crocodile misses some pleasurable aspect of some indigenous wildlife which is disappearing, and suggests to Rhino and Tickbird that they find one of those disappearing animals and asks one of those animals.

Finally, after learning of all sorts of wonderful animals that aren’t around much, and how it’s getting harder for the animals to be themselves these days, as a last resort, Rhino breaks down and just asks Crocodile, at which point Beard teaches us another new and less depressing fact about an African animal, and offers a refreshingly unexpected end to a story that grew wearyingly predictable.

Unfortunately, Beard walks back the finality of that ending in a two-page coda that shares space with Beard’s author’s note.

I liked his art work, which despite being somewhat flat and lacking in the sorts of textures or highly-idiosyncratic design sensibilities I’m usually most attracted to, does boast a noticeable African art influence, and thus looks a bit like a compromise between storybook naturalism and African art renderings of the animals.

The subject matter is depressing as hell, but merely because it reflects the reality of the dire straights so many animal species—even the big, beautiful, well-known animals scientists refer to as “charismatic megafauna” are in today—not because of any inherent weakness in the story.

It includes a two-page glossary of animals, in which each of the many animals encountered in the story are shown in photograph (allowing a careful reader to easily examine the choices Beard made in transmitting them into his style) and given a paragraph explaining a bit about them and how their behavior and depiction in the story lines up with their real behavior. Almost all of them are either endangered, or their populations are dwindling enough that there’s cause for concern.

A share of the proceeds from Crocodile’s Tears goes to the Shompole Community Trust, an animal preserve in Kenya that the Maasai people oversee. I saw that note on the inside cover flap after borrowing the book (for free) from the library, and thus my reading it didn’t help the preserve or the animals that live in and around it in any way, shape or form, and so I learn that, once again, I am a jerk.

(I similarly felt like a jerk when I ordered the War Child Presents Heroes album through inter-library loan because I wanted to hear The Like’s cover of Elvis Costello’s You Belong To Me, only to discover the album benefited children affected by war, and I probably shoulda just bought it, because I a too am pro-child and anti-war. I like The Like; that’s a decent anthology too…all covers of songs from great, older artists by mostly pretty good younger ones, like Scissor Sisters covering Roxy Music’s “Do The Strand” and The Yeah Yeah Yeahs covering The Ramones, Beck Dylan, Peaches The Stoooges and so on).

Cupcake (Disney/Hyperion; 2010)

This is a children’s picture book by Charise Mericle Harper, the lady responsible for the popular Fashion Kitty books, which I didn’t realize when I first picked it up, because I wasn’t looking at the author’s name on the cover, only at the super-cute cupcake on the cover and thinking, “What a cute cupcake!” and “Boy, I sure would like to eat a cupcake…”

This is the story of Cupcake, a cupcake. “After a special coat of icing,” he became Vanilla Cupcake, and met his new brothers and sisters, seven different cupcakes with different flavors and elaborate decorations. At the end of a party, Vanilla Cupcake is the only one left on the table, and he’s pretty bummed out because nobody picked him (I guess he doesn’t know that the other were picked to be eaten alive and then slowly digested). A little green Candle sees Vanilla Cupcake crying, and can relate to his angst over being “not fancy…just plain and white and ordinary.”

You see, there’s a whole bunch of fancy and elaborate candles these days too.Candle decides the thing Cupcake needs is a very special topping, and so he sets about finding various things in the kitchen to put on top of Cupcake in the hopes of finding the right topping.

You can probably guess what the most special topping could be, one that could solve both Cupcake’s and Candle’s problems…but that’s because you’re smart, and Candle is not, and so the book humorously ends without Candle ever arriving on that idea.

There are recipes for “Deliciously Plain Vanilla Cupcakes” and “Deliciously Plain Buttercream frosting.”

You might want to ask your mom to help you make them. And you’ll definitely want to ask your mom to then bring me a couple, as I was serious about wanting that cupcake in the first paragraph.

The Gingerbread Man Loose in the School (G.P. Putnam’s Sons; 2011)

I find picture books like this one fascinating. Though it looks like a picture book on the outside, with its hardcover and large size, on the inside it’s a straight-up comic book. Not any sort of prose/comics fusion, it’s just a comic book—there’s not a single image that doesn’t appear in a panel, with most pages being divided into traditional comic book page grids, there’s not a single word of narration that doesn’t appear in a narration box atop a panel, and there’s not a single line of dialogue that takes place outside of a dialogue bubble. It’s a comic book that sells for the price of a picture book…and boasts the durability of a picture book.

It’s written by first-time author Laura Murray, a teacher from Toronto who based this story on a real event that occurred in her classroom. It’s drawn by Mike Lowery, who is responsible for the charming illustrations in the rather charming Ribbit Rabbit.

The story is a sort of riff on the classic story of the Gingerbread Man (of which there are so many among modern children’s picture books that I’ve lost count of them). Here it’s not the Gingerbread man who’s being chased, however; he’s doing the chasing—the grade school class who made him have disappeared (they actually just went to recess) and he bolts out to find them.

Between meeting the gym teacher, school nurse, janitor and principal, he declares variations of, “I’ll run and I’ll run, as fast as I can. I can catch them! I’m their Gingerbread Man!”

I imagine kids will dig the story a little more than I did, but I absolutely loved Lowery’s art, and it had little to do with the fact that he illustrated this thing as if it were his own personal mini-comic, save with “traditional screen printing, and digital color.” (The artwork looks as if it were drawn with an old-school ink pen, the lines assured but uncertain, as if made without the benefit of a straight-edge, and the color looks like it was applied with imprecise watercolor painting—I guess that’s simply an affectation of the artwork, but it’s a rather accomplished affectation).

Do take some time to poke around his website; there’s a lot of great art on it.

Plus, of special interest to those of us with affection for the medium of comics and a love of Batman, is a nine-page comic strip entitled “Batman: Fighting and Stuff” that he did:It’s stuff like this that makes me lament the fact that DC didn’t follow their hardcover Bizarro anthologies with a monthly, 24-page Bizarro Comics monthly, featuring three, eight-page-comics from artists like this telling stories like these.

I Want My Hat Back (Candlewick Press; 2011)

This book was recommended to me by a person who had previously had it recommended to her, and now I’m going to recommend it to you.

It’s written and illustrated by Jon Klassen, the artist responsible for illustrating the charming Cats’ Night Out (discussed in this previous post on picture books).

It is the story of a bear, a bear who had a hat. This bear has lost his hat, and, as the title says, he wants his hat back.

Making wonderful use of white space, Klassen draws the bear standing on its hind legs in a void, a few flecks of dirt and rocks and some weeds signifying the ground he’s standing upon. The look on his face is the same you see on the cover—blank, guileless, emotionless.

On the facing page is the bear’s dialogue.

Short, declarative and to the point—not a word wasted.
Suck on that, Ernest Hemingway.

The bear’s search goes like this: He asks a woodland creature if that creature has seen his hat, and the creature says no.

Klassen draws the bear over in the same pose, with the same expression, standing in front of various animals asking about his hat (A fox, a rabbit, a turtle, etc.)

Depressed at his failure to locate his hat, he lies on his back, and thinks sad thoughts, until he has a moment or realization—a moment that will come to him long after readers, even very young ones, will have solved the mystery of the bear’s missing hat.

Klassen’s illustration of this moment of epiphany is spectacularly effective—suddenly, the white page turns red, the bear’s blank eyes widen slightly, and he’s sitting straight up, having bolted upright from a prone position in the time it takes you to turn the page.What happens next is surprising, not only in its implication violence (of the natural predator/prey variety), which one rarely sees in modern children’s picture books, but in the subtle way Klassen tells us what happens without actually showing it, and then the second climax which calls back to an early gag.

This book’s a masterpiece, if that’s not too strong a word for a simple, funny picture book about a bear that wants his hat back.

Little Bea and the Snowy Day (Greenwillow Books; 2012)

This is Daniel Roode’s sequel to his 2011 book Little Bea, which starred a poorly-named bee, who is actually quite large (for a bee).

The plot is almost identical to that of Bear in Long Underwear, save for the long underwear sub-plot. Bea and her woodland animal friends—most of them are even from the same species that appeared in Bear, although Little Bea doesn’t hang out with any sasquatches—look outside one day, see that it’s snowing, and go out and play in the snow. Sledding, skating, snow angles, snowball fights, snowman-building, hot chocolate—the works.

That’s actually the whole story. Little Bea and her friends play in the snow. Who cares? I care.

And why do I care? Because look at how goddam cute these animals are!I could eat Roode’s bear and fawn, they’re so goddam cute.

A Penguin Story (HarperCollins; 2009)

Antoinette Portis' Penguin Story is all about color, and the lack thereof.

Her protagonist, Edna, is a penguin, and accustomed to a life of just three colors: White, like the snow and ice and faces and bellies of her fellow penguins, black, like the night sky and the backs and limbs of her fellow penguins, and blue, like the ocean and the sky.

"There must be something else," Edna thinks and, one day, she sets out on a quest "for something that's not white, not black, not blue."

Eventually she finds it.

Edna discovers orange when she comes across the camp of some scientists, and leads her whole community back to meet them and revel in orange. Eventually they leave, gifting Edna with an orange glove, and this satisfies Edna and her penguin fiends. But Edna can't help but wonder, if there's this, what else can there be?Portis' super-simple artwork exaggerates the monotony of the Antarctic palette, her penguins resembling slightly elongated gumdrops, the back half black and the front half white, with only two dot eyes, a tiny black beak, tiny stick figure-like feet, and wing and tail fins. They're so simple, they consist of only one big curved line, one to three little curved lines (depending on the angle), six straight lines and two dots.

They're cute as the dickens, and the limited detail of their faces allows for rather dramatic emotions to be projected upon them, the simple, declarative texts suggesting what mush be going through Edna's head, behind her rather blank face.

Portis is best known for her Not A Box, something of a modern classic. A Penguin Story deserves to be one too.

Sneaky Sheep (Carolrhoda Books; 2010)

Author Chris Monroe seems especially adept at selling picture books—to me. The combination of her titles and cover images seem to be all it takes to get me to pick up on of her books, and take it home to read as soon as possible.

Monroe is the author of Monkey With a Tool Belt (and Monkey With a Tool Belt and the Noisy Problem) which featured an ingeniously awesome and suggestive, even portentous title, accompanied by a drawing showing the very same, an image as awesome and suggestive/portentous as the words in the title.

Here's another: Sneaky Sheep, with a cover image showing two sheep so sneaky they're barely even on the cover.

This is at least a good a book as either of the Monkey With a Tool Belts, although it's probably narratively stronger than either, and simpler in conception and execution. And, as with those books, Monroe proves to be an incredible cartoonist—she draws very well, packing a great deal of emotion and suggested tension and drama into her fairly simple designs, and her drawing are funny.

The title characters here are Rocky and Blossom, a pair of little sheep who live among their flock in a meadow on the mountain. Unlike their 147 peers, Rocky and Blossom don't like staying in the meadow, and would rather explore...especially the high meadow, way on top of their mountain.

They're tended by a cheerful sheep dog named Murphy, who never lets any sheep leave the meadow. Being sneaky, Rocky and Blossom are constantly attempting to elude Murphy and make their way to the other meadow, but he always catches them and returns them safely.

When they finally do elude him, near the climax of the book, they learn one of the many good reasons they're not supposed to leave their own meadow when a wolf approaches them.

Here Monroe is quite masterful at pairing her words and pictures, so that the text may say something rather simple if suggestive, and the images will riff on that suggestion into a dozen or so jokes, most of which are funnier the more you think about them.

For example, there's a two-page spread in which the text reads only:

Murphy would shake his head.

Murphy knew a few things about Rocky and Blossom.

They had been known to make some bad decisions over the years.

Here's the right half of the spread, illustrating some of their bad decisions:The acing page shows them doing things like running with the bulls and skating on a skateboard ramp clearly marked "Helmets Required" without any helmets on.

All of the expressions Monroe draws on her sheep are pretty funny, but I especially like their sneaky faces:In addition to the somewhat vague, nebulous interrelation between verbal and visual components that picture books share with comic books, Sneaky Sheep borrows direct, concrete comics elements from time to time, putting the characters' dialogue in dialogue bubbles (the lettering of which seems to be done in Monroe's own hand, while there's a all-caps, mechanical font on the narration), and comic-like panels. Some pages are divided into panels and, on some, Rocky and Blossom run in, out and around those panels in their sneakiness.I liked her Monkey books an awful lot, but I like this book even more.

Spork (Kids Can Press; 2010)

I was initially attracted to this book by the mournful cover, in which a sad-looking spork regards his own reflection in the surface of a shiny toaster—given the title, I could even guess at the nature of Spork's conflict, and why he felt the way he did.

And guess, correctly, it turned out.

"Spork was neither spoon nor fork," writer Kyo Maclear's text tells us on the first pages, "but a bit of both."

It turns out that Spork was the result of a mixed marriage (his mom was a spoon and his dad was a fork), which means the book is an exploration of a rather bluntly stated extended metaphor for biracial children...and/or any kids torn between two different cultures or groups, that doesn't feel they really fit in with either.

Check it out:
In his kitchen, forks were forks and spoons were spoons. Cutlery customs were followed closely. Mixing was uncommon. Naturally, there were rule breakers: knives who loved chopsticks, tongs who married forks. But such families were unusual.

Those lines fall on the second half of a two-page spread, in which we see various anthropomorphic dinnerware strolling around contentedly, spoons with spoons and forks with forks, with a few oddballs, like a smiling tea cup and tea pot watching the passersby, and the aforementioned knife and chopstick couple. He is a butter knife, with tiny little lets and arms extending from his handle, the design of which resembles a pin-stripe suit, while his face is high up on the curve of the knife. His cheeks are rose, and he's looking up at his beloved, of whom we only see the bottom parts of her long, long legs, which end in tiny little high heel shoes, the ribbing on her sides resembling fishnet stockings. It's a rather provocative image; as a set of chopsticks, she is literally all legs, but with her tops disappearing off the top of the page, the knife seems to be looking up her skirt...if she had a skirt, or anything at all between where her "legs" terminate, instead of just empty space.The artwork is by Isabelle Arsenault, and she designs a rather remarkable community of silverware people, with a great variety of individual designs. No two spoons or forks look alike.

Don't feel too badly for poor Spork, though. As this is a picture book for children, things eventually work out okay. One day "a messy thing" arrived in the kitchen, and this horrible messy thing could use neither spoon nor fork properly, and it drove every member of each tribe away in terror (It is gradually revealed that the messy thing is a human baby).

The only utensil the baby can use properly is, as you've no doubt already guessed, Spork: "Just a bit round. Just a bit pointy. Just right."

The tale and the message are as charming as Arsenault's artwork, and I was rather unsurprised to reach the creators' biographies on the inside back flap and discover writer Maclear is "The daughter of a British father and a Japanese mother," and that "she conceived the story of this mixed utensil with her husband to commemorate the birth of their first son."


Akilles said...

Great post, once again. I just wish that I could read these too.

Anthony Strand said...

I always enjoy your children's book posts. I usually end up putting one or two things on hold at the public library. This time it was "I Want My Hat Back."