#IMWAYR: Picture Book Pandemonium, Part 2!

Hello everyone! Before we get started, I wanted to follow up on some of the Disney/Pixar movie stuff I was talking about a few weeks ago. We tried to watch Pixar's latest movie Luca and found it so uninteresting that we decided not to even finish it—the plot just wasn't compelling, and it looked like it was veering off in a clichéd and irritating direction. And the animation honestly wasn't impressive when compared to Soul or Raya and the Last Dragon. On the brighter side of things, there's new teaser trailers for the next Disney animated movie, Encanto, and the next Pixar animated movie, Turning Red, and both of them look super-fun! I linked the trailers with the movie names, and they're definitely worth watching!

Moving on, it's time for another round of Picture Book Pandemonium, in which I'll be rounding up a selection of picture books I've read and enjoyed recently! I was going to keep this post at just 4 books instead of 5, since my last post in this format was a bit lengthy—but then I read one more picture book that was so amazing that I couldn't wait to tell you about it! So, sorry for the long length—let's jump right in!

Watercress
Written by Andrea Wang
Illustrated by Jason Chin

(Weirdly, Amazon doesn't have any illustration previews of this book for me to share—sorry!)

        I've seen a lot of people enjoying this story lately, including Beth Shaum at A Foodie Bibliophile in Wanderlust, Linda Baie at TeacherDance, and Ricki Ginsberg at Unleashing Readers! It took me a while to get to it because the e-book copy on Libby was already taken by someone else, so I had to place a hold for it—but I finally received my copy and have my review to share!

        This book is hard to summarize without giving everything away, so I'll keep it short! When the parents of an unnamed young girl and her brother pull their old red Pontiac to the side of the road so that the family can start collecting the watercress growing there, the young girl feels mortified and ashamed to be standing in the mud, snipping off leaves for the night's dinner. At dinner, she refuses to eat the watercress out of frustration, but when her mother finally starts to open up about her life as a child in China, the young girl starts to look at her parents and the watercress in a new light.

        That might have been an utterly terrible summary, since I feel like I missed all of the nuance and beauty in this story—but then again, my job isn't to regurgitate the entire book for you, so go pick up a copy yourself and see what I mean! Watercress really is a lovely story. In poetic and concise first-person narration from the young girl's perspective, Andrea Wang weaves a wonderful tale and tackles themes such as the experiences of immigrants in their home countries, the problems that result from being hesitant to share one's stories, and the conflicting pressures on children to both fit in with a hostile world and respect and admire their family's unique traditions. And she really does all of this in a way that young readers can understand—so many authors in the genres I normally read (particularly MG) could learn a thing or two from picture books about making complex topics manageable for younger readers! Jason Chin's watercolor art is just beautiful, with muted yet radiant colors, beautiful landscapes (like the cornfields on the cover), and meaningful symbolism that matches perfectly with the text. Watercress is a beautifully executed story with valuable themes for readers to learn from and relate to, and I highly recommend you pick up a copy and see what all the fuss is about!

Leave Me Alone!
Written and illustrated by Vera Brosgol

        I've always been a big fan of Vera Brosgol—she has published two wonderful graphic novels, Anya's Ghost and Be Prepared, that combine a keen look at middle-school experiences, energetic monochrome art, and a great sense of humor and wit! Brosgol has since published three picture books, Leave Me Alone!, The Little Guys, and Memory Jars. I've seen several bloggers recently reading Memory Jars (her newest) and enjoying it, but at first, my penny-pinching ways meant that the only one of her picture books I could read was Leave Me Alone! (which I got for free through the Libby app). But after finding that this delightful story, a Caldecott Honor book, was such utter fun, I chose to cough up the money for her other two books! (And a keepsake copy of this one, I might add.)

        Leave Me Alone!'s protagonist is an old woman who just wants to get her knitting done. But in her chaotic household with dozens of grandchildren (who enjoy playing with or attempting to eat her balls of yarn), her knitting is not going to happen. So she embarks on a trek, trying to find a place where she will be left alone and can get her knitting done. She travels to the forest, up the mountains, and even onto the Moon, but despite her clearly-worded yells of frustration (as depicted on the cover), she can't find a place where she isn't distracted. Will our protagonist get her knitting finished? But more importantly, will being alone really make our protagonist happy?

        In case you can't tell from the excellent cover, this story is both a delightfully entertaining one that young readers (and older ones) will gobble right up...and a skillfully written, adorably illustrated book with a sweet message to appreciate! Brosgol's sense of humor really comes into play in this story—our protagonist's grandchildren get caught up in all sorts of entertaining mischief, and there are some strategically placed visual gags that play off the writing in really fun ways! And of course, the grandmother's trek to find a quiet place to work is hampered in all sorts of similarly-entertaining ways, as might be evident from the alien on the cover of the book. (I'll say no more than that—read for yourself and find out what happens!) The grandmother's trek falls into a rhythm, in both writing style and the actual page designs, that emphasizes her continued attempts and failures to settle down and get her knitting done. But what makes this story more than just a silly read is two things. One: the overall theme of the story is a sweet and meaningful one that reminds us that, as much as we all need time for ourselves, sometimes, a bit of lovable chaos is a good thing to have! And two: Brosgol's illustrations are just utterly fantastic. Some of the illustrations are on white backgrounds, allowing the commotion and colorful outfits of the characters to take center stage. And some of the illustrations are full-page spreads filled with solid, vivid colors in a slightly-warm palette—I've only ever seen Brosgol's art as monochrome in her graphic novels,  but she clearly has a truly excellent grasp on color as well! It's the full-page spreads in particular that really hammer home how this book won a Caldecott Honor, but even ignoring those, what's not to love about Leave Me Alone!? Child-friendly antics that adults will laugh at as well, a meaningful overall theme, and wonderful art all cement this book's status as well worth your time!

The Little Guys
Written and illustrated by Vera Brosgol

        So after reading Leave Me Alone!, I went ahead and bought copies of Brosgol's other two picture books! I decided to read them in chronological order, which meant that The Little Guys was next.

        The Little Guys are small, but when they work together, they are able to make a great life for themselves in the forest, tracking down all kinds of resources and food to eat. It's an impressive feat for such small creatures, and they are definitely proud of it as they narrate this story. But if you look past their narration and peer at the illustrations, the Little Guys just won't stop gathering food—and as their greed grows and grows, the other animals in the forest are starting to be harmed. Will the Little Guys learn that taking everything they can isn't the best way to live their lives? Or will their greed leave the forest community in disrepair?

        Although this story skewed a bit young for my taste (and I preferred Brosgol's other two picture books), it is still a fun story with a lot of merit! Unlike Leave Me Alone!, this book is mostly comprised of full-page spreads, full of forest wildlife and the Little Guys' antics. While Brosgol's excellent sense of color seemed hampered slightly by the fact that the forest is, well, pretty much always the same colors, there is no denying that her illustrations are well-executed, and that the creatures in the story (especially the Little Guys) are adorable! As I mention in the synopsis, the narration (in which the font size progressively enlarges along with the Little Guys' greed) contrasts excellently with the illustrations, which show the true story—young readers will get a kick out of discovering the "hidden secrets" in the pictures only! And the message is a great one too—it's so easy to get caught up in one's own capabilities (just as humanity has done in its quest to overtake the Earth) that you forget to sometimes calm down and preserve what already exists for those who need it. There's a slightly environmentalist message here, but in general, there's just a nice summary of both how greed can form even when you aren't looking and how, even when things look tough, it can still be defeated. I think my one main criticism of this book is that I didn't find the Little Guys' adventures that fun—the message at the end was nice, but the build-up wasn't as enjoyable. But young readers may feel differently, and I think many will appreciate the mix of meaning and whimsy in this story!

Memory Jars
Written and illustrated by Vera Brosgol

        So this is the Vera Brosgol book that just came out last month two months ago and that I've seen bloggers enjoying lately a while ago (namely Ricki Ginsberg at Unleashing Readers and Michele Knott at Mrs. Knott's Book Nook)! Seeing the praise for this book is what prompted me to try out all of Brosgol's books, and I can safely say that this one is an absolute delight, with a meaningful message and plenty of entertainment!

        Brosgol says on Twitter that this book is about "canning and death," and while I love that hilariously oversimplified summary, I'll try to provide you with a bit more detail here. Our protagonist, Freda, is spending time with her Gran picking blueberries. Freda is sad that she can't snack on all of the blueberries they've picked, but her Gran reminds her that they can put the blueberries into jars and make blueberry jam, just like her late Grandpa used to love—and then they'll last for much longer. Freda wonders what other things she loves can be put into jars, and soon, she's preserving everything from new crayons to best friends in her jars to keep them around. But as Freda starts to suck the joy out of the world with her jar experiment, she realizes that trying to keep things around forever doesn't let her enjoy them anymore, and maybe letting things become memories at some point is okay.

        This book was wonderful! First of all, the message of this story is enormously deep. People who fear change (i.e. everyone) will appreciate the point that change and endings are necessary for us to actually enjoy things in life. You could extrapolate the idea that human beings have to be sad sometimes in order to be happy (a message quite a few people on social media or in popular culture still need to learn), or the idea that things can be recalled as memories without being kept physically (note to the potential hoarders in the room, such as myself), or even the idea that even the end of another person's life (such as Freda's grandfather) doesn't end their impact on the world or on the people they knew. There's so many wonderful ideas in here! Brosgol does a wonderful job balancing the silliness and antics in this story (which are prevalent) with the depth, and she never takes her ideas too seriously, as is apparent from the ending. Freda is an immediately likable protagonist, and the things she attempts to capture in jars—the things that bring her joy—are immensely creative on Brosgol's part. Brosgol's writing style is a bit different here—the book is more reliant on words to tell a story, which I appreciated. And her art is fantastic—there are many large-scale illustrations, filled with vivid colors of all kinds that contrast with frequent white backgrounds. (There's one page in particular, the Freda's-emotional-breakthrough page, that is just lovely!) All in all, Memory Jars is a worthy follow-up to Brosgol's other two picture books, with perhaps the most emotional depth of all, but also plenty of childlike whimsy and wonder to be enjoyed!

Outside, Inside
Written and illustrated by LeUyen Pham

        Between Cheriee Weichel at Library Matters, Clare Landrigan, and Myra Garces-Bacsal at Gathering Books, it seems like everyone has been enjoying this book lately! I didn't realize that I'm about 6 months late to the party, but it's better late then never to be getting to this spectacularly powerful story.

        Outside, Inside, which seems to have been written between March and June 2020 and was published this past January, is a snapshot of life during the COVID-19 pandemic. Outside, our world was deserted as we began distancing, leaving a strange hollow shell that nevertheless bloomed and flourished with the plant and animal life that stayed there. And inside, we felt the whole gamut of emotions as we tried to live our lives the best we could, separated from each other but united by fear, and love, and hope for a better future.

        This book is unbelievably, indescribably beautiful. I am absolutely blown away by this story for so many reasons. If you are a person (and except for the occasional cat-in-lap, I suspect most of my readers are), you've probably felt like the COVID-19 pandemic has been, oh, I don't know, HORRIBLE. And even when you feel like it's not bothering you that much, there's always that little voice in the back of your head, panicking and being sorrowful about the whole thing. Outside, Inside is the closure all of us—every last human being—needs for this horrendous period in our world's history. LeUyen Pham writes this story in kind, gentle, and concise language, leaving the illustrations to do most of the talking—and boy, do they talk. There is so much detail that you have to savor, not skim this book—there's the cat that makes its travels throughout each spread in the book, there's the way Pham depicts diversity and acceptance from building styles to BLM signs, and there's even a spread of essential healthcare workers in countless situations going above and beyond in spite of the horrors they are seeing (I literally teared up looking at that spread, and the author's note explains that some of the depictions are true stories, which only makes it even more impactful). The design of the inside spreads, with people divided up into countless little settings but still co-existing together on the page, feels particularly true to our situation right now. Another thing: toward the end of the book, there's a two-page spread that is lovely, but somewhat forgettable—but then you turn the page, and the next spread references but alters the first spread in the most ridiculously brilliant way you can imagine, and I felt like that was a fitting ending to this beautiful book. BUT THEN, I turned the page, and the book wasn't done! Oh no, that was just LeUyen Pham's regular everyday brilliance, as opposed to her ending-the-book brilliance. So then I got to the actual ending of the book, which is so utterly spectacular that I want to scream from the rooftops—all I will say is that, to be frank, you need a physical copy of the book, and not an e-book, to experience that ending the way it is meant to be experienced. (Perhaps that's why my library didn't have the book on Libby.) You cannot miss this book, because I promise you, it will reframe the way you think about this pandemic in such a powerful, awe-inspiring, and comforting way.

With that, I think we'll finally call this post done! I hope you enjoy these wonderful stories as much as I did, and I appreciate you sitting through my lengthy ramblings about them!

My favorite book of the week: Outside, Inside
My second-favorite book of the week: Leave Me Alone!

Comments

  1. I don't read picture books anymore but these sound good, especially Memory Jars.

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    1. Memory Jars was super-good—it was going to be my second-favorite of the week behind Leave Me Alone! until I read Outside, Inside, which bumped everything down a slot. And it might be worth getting back into picture books—I was insistent that I would never read them, and then I finally caved, and it was such a good decision because so many of them are so good! Thanks so much for stopping by and commenting!

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  2. I absolutely loved Leave Me Alone. I didn't know that she had also written graphic novels. I just checked and my library has copies of all of them, so we'll be checking those out soon. Thanks!

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    1. Of course! Anya's Ghost is a little dark and has some very slightly objectionable kinds of things, but it is super-fun and witty and well-written! And Be Prepared is a fun read as well. Thanks so much for stopping by and commenting!

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  3. I love all the books you read this week. Vera Brosgol is an absolute treasure. And yes, Watercress is amazing. I'm putting it at the top of my list for the Caldecott medal this year.

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    1. She really is a treasure—I'm already waiting for her next book! And I appreciate you recommending Watercress—it could definitely garner the Caldecott Medal or at least an honor! Thanks so much for stopping by and commenting!

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  4. Well, I finally tracked down a copy of Watercress and now have a reserve on it. I am a huge fan of Vera Brosgol and have read all of these except Memory Jars. Be Prepared is also good. I'm so glad you enjoyed Outside, Inside! LeUyen Pham is brilliant.

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    1. That's awesome about Watercress—I hope you enjoy it! I'm glad you've enjoyed Vera Brosgol's books—if you can get ahold of Memory Jars, it is definitely worth a read! And thanks for recommending Outside, Inside—I definitely need to read more of LeUyen Pham's books! Thanks so much for stopping by and commenting!

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  5. I've read The Little Guys, but have to check out the other Vera Brosgol books you mentioned. Loved Outside, Inside.

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    1. Vera Brosgol's other books are definitely worth a read! And I'm so glad you enjoyed Outside, Inside as well—it was really spectacular. Thanks so much for stopping by and commenting!

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  6. These all sound really good, but I'm especially intrigued by Watercress and Leave me Alone! Is Brogsol Russian? The illustrations on the cover remind me of a Russian fairy tale. Thanks for branching out and sharing some wonderful PBs with us!

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    1. I'm glad those two intrigue you—they are both excellent! Yes, Brosgol was born in Russia but moved to the U.S. when she was five—her heritage comes into play a bit in her graphic novels, Anya's Ghost and Be Prepared, but I hadn't noticed that inspiration in the cover of Leave Me Alone! Thanks so much for stopping by and commenting!

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  7. I haven't read Memory Jars yet, but I loved all of the other books that you have shared here. Such a strong group of stories with amazing illustrations. I will be trying to get Memory Jars soon. Thanks for the shares.

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    1. I'm glad you've had the chance to read most of these—they really are all excellent! And Memory Jars is definitely worth a read, so I hope you are able to find a copy of it. Thanks so much for stopping by and commenting!

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  8. I had no idea VB did picture books -- I will look out for all these suggestions. Thanks for sharing!

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    1. I know—I was thrilled to read her picture books as well! And that means I've officially read all of Vera Brosgol's books now. Thanks so much for stopping by and commenting!

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  9. I have read Leave Me Alone and The Little Guys. I will have to check out Memory Jars. I have been so curious about Outside, Inside. Thanks for sharing! :) ~Jess

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    1. Memory Jars and Outside, Inside are both definitely worth tracking down! I hope you enjoy them, and thanks so much for stopping by and commenting!

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  10. I can't remember if I told you last week or not... Luca was cute, but it was almost like it had been put together by the second or third string team. Just not Pixar's typical level of excellence. Although I wasn't a huge fan of Soul either. But interesting that Raya was on the premium option and, in my opinion, was the best out of the three I mentioned.
    Leave Me Alone! was a favorite the year it published. It's still one I really enjoy reading out loud. And yes, Watercress.... so amazing!

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    1. I couldn't agree more about Luca! From the half that I saw, it seemed more like something that would have come out of DreamWorks or Illumination or Sony—not appallingly bad, but not interesting and inspired in the way that Disney/Pixar films usually are. There were parts of Soul that I found really impactful, but I have to agree, Raya and the Last Dragon was the best of the three! And I think they knew it too, since they sent Luca straight to Disney+ without a theatrical release, but Raya and the Last Dragon went to theaters and Disney+ simultaneously!

      Leave Me Alone! was seriously so much fun, and I can imagine it would be enormously fun to read aloud, even again and again! And Watercress was truly beautiful as well—I'm glad you enjoyed it too! Thanks so much for stopping by and commenting!

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  11. I absolutely loved Watercress! Such a beautiful story with a lot of layers! I keep seeing Memory Jars pop up and need to see if my library has a copy available.

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    1. I'm so glad you enjoyed Watercress too! And Memory Jars is definitely worth a read, if you're able to track down a copy. Thanks so much for stopping by and commenting!

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  12. I love LEAVE ME ALONE! It is such a delightful book!
    I haven't read Watercress yet, but I know that it is getting a ton of love. And Memory Jars looks great, too.

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    1. I'm so glad you like Leave Me Alone! as well—it is so much fun! And if you can get ahold of Watercress or Memory Jars, they are both definitely worth a read. Thanks so much for stopping by and commenting!

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