#IMWAYR: Picture Book Pandemonium, Part 4!
I now have one week of in-person college under my belt, and I'm feeling pretty good! Thankfully, almost everyone is masked (even over their nose—imagine that!), and I'm of course armed with a KN95 mask and Clorox wipes for the desks, so I haven't worried too much about COVID-19 exposure. And my classes seem like they will be a lot of work, but quite interesting too—if I can just find the balance between working enough to actually learn something but not working so much that I can't finish any of my assignments, it will be a good semester!
Moving along, it's time for another round of Picture Book Pandemonium! I've pretty much resigned myself to the fact that my underfunded public library just doesn't have the latest and greatest picture books on Libby, so I picked out a lot of books that I hadn't seen bloggers recommend just because Libby had them. And I couldn't help myself, so we have 5 picture books today instead of 4—let's get started!
Written and illustrated by Cori Doerrfeld
This was a random pick suggested on Amazon that I also saw recommended by Sierra Dertinger at Books. Iced Lattes. Blessed, and it was super-good! Our protagonist, Taylor, builds an impressive tower of blocks—that then gets completely destroyed. Taylor is crushed, and animals come, one by one, to tell Taylor to talk about it, get angry, laugh it off, and more. None of the animals' advice helps—until the rabbit arrives, with no advice, but two big ears with which to listen. And that might just be what Taylor needs to move on.
This was actually such a sweet story! The moral is something so many older kids and adults need to have practically jammed into their heads—I know, for me, I sometimes start to try to fix people's problems instead of just listening to their frustrations. This book makes it clear that, no matter how helpful your strategies are (and Taylor uses many of them later on), if you only want to tell someone else how to feel and don't want to listen to how they actually feel, you aren't helping them! So isn't that profound? For such a complex message, the book itself is startlingly simple. The art, while ridiculously adorable, is as minimalist as it is on the cover—Taylor, the animals, and occasional objects here and there are all that you see against the white (or occasionally purplish) backgrounds. And Cori Doerrfeld's writing is short and sweet—I especially loved how the animals' advice makes sense for the animals themselves (even the rabbit listening, it finally clicked a few sentences ago, is maybe because the rabbit has two giant ears!). I will say, some of the animals speak in animal-onomatopoeia voices, which kids will love, but which I found irritating. One interesting detail about the book is that I do not believe Taylor's pronouns are ever mentioned. Overall, if you're looking for a sweet book that can be read aloud again and again but that also includes some surprisingly deep yet accessible messages, The Rabbit Listened is the book for you!
Written by Lupita Nyong'o
Illustrated by Vashti Harrison
I remember seeing bloggers recommending this book a while back, but only now am I getting to it! Written by pretty-darn-famous actress Lupita Nyong'o and illustrated by Vashti Harrison (who also illustrated Hair Love from my last picture book post), Sulwe's eponymous protagonist is ashamed of her dark skin, which the book says is the "color of midnight." Her sister Mich, with skin the "color of dawn," is popular at school, but Sulwe gets called mean nicknames and ends up sitting by herself most of the time. Sulwe's mother tries to convince her that she is beautiful the way she is, but it takes Sulwe learning the story of Day and Night for her to truly understand that her skin color is as beautiful as anyone else's—and, furthermore, that true beauty comes from inside.
Again, totally great book here! It's not as surprising that this book was excellent—not only was it totally acclaimed, but there's also a literal Coretta Scott King Honor medallion on the cover for Vashti Harrison's illustrations! But even so, I was blown away by this book. While not necessarily jaw-dropping, Lupita Nyong'o's writing is poetic and impactful, and it serves the story well. I really liked Nyong'o's plotting of the story—there's a spread where Sulwe attempts to lighten her skin that is horribly poignant but also deeply impactful, and I also appreciated that Sulwe's mother's attempt to make Sulwe feel better isn't the be-all-end-all solution for the story (as it probably wouldn't be for many kids). But what really makes this book work is Vashti Harrison's illustrations. In contrast to her illustrations in Hair Love (which are lovely but a bit too not-colorful/not-vibrant for my taste), her illustrations in Sulwe burst at the seams with rich, vivid colors and patterns. It's just page after page after page of gorgeous art (with inventive layouts too), and the illustrations in particular for the Day/Night story I mentioned earlier are just awe-inspiring—the two ethereal, luminescent goddesses in the story look even more ethereal and luminescent than you could possibly imagine. And that reminds me, I adored the Day/Night story in general, both for how it parallels Sulwe's own journey and for how unfortunately surprising it is to see two Black women who are also majestic, magical beings to be looked up to. Sulwe's powerful exploration of colorism is important and reminiscent of other impactful reads like Genesis Begins Again, and the gorgeous illustrations only serve to make this book even more of a must-read!
Written by Kyo Maclear
Illustrated by Isabelle Arsenault
As I mentioned in my last Picture Book Pandemonium post, after seeing many recommendations for picture books by Kyo Maclear (who wrote a graphic novel that I adored called Operatic), I'm going to try to take a look at some of Maclear's books over time, including this one, which I believe was actually her debut picture book. Illustrated by Isabelle Arsenault, Spork's eponymous protagonist lives with a selection of other cooking/dining utensils in a kitchen. Spork doesn't fit in—he is the child of a spoon and a fork, and utensils like him that aren't one or the other never get chosen when the table is being set. But when a chaotic situation arises, Spork's differences might just be the key to fixing things—and he might just be perfect the way he is.
This is such a delightful story! First, I want to mention that there's an underlying complexity to this book's themes that maybe isn't immediately apparent from the description—Maclear, who is mixed-race, describes this book as "A whimsical celebration of hybrid identities," likely drawing from a bit of her own experience to create a story that will resonate particularly with mixed-race readers. Like the protagonist of Sulwe, Spork tries to change himself to fit in, but he ultimately realizes that his differences are part of what makes him valuable. It's wonderful to see a book that contains these clear allegories for the experience of being mixed-race but also shapes them into a silly, clever, delightful story that is just as focused on having fun with its own entertaining premise! Part of how this book has fun is with Maclear's writing—I've noticed from her other books that she has an intriguing style that is simultaneously fitting for young children and quite artistic (sometimes to the point of being irritatingly pretentious or vague), but in Spork, any opacity or pretense is thrown out the window, leaving just Maclear's ability to take seriously a premise as amusing as a world of cutlery. Rather than being cryptic, it's just plain fun (I imagine trying to read some of these lines aloud with a straight face would be quite difficult), and it still has that artsy touch that is quite intriguing. Isabelle Arsenault's illustrations are also quite unique and stylistically intriguing—the grayscale-and-red color scheme and what Maclear describes as a "retro look" stand out from quite a few picture books, and amusing facial expressions and a collage-esque style to some illustrations further catch the eye. There was something about Spork that reminded me slightly of the Eloise books that I was an enormous fan of as a child, so if you're a fan of those, this book is worth a look! Overall, Spork combines surprising depth with an amusing story that young readers will enjoy again and again!
Written by Jacqueline Woodson
Illustrated by Rafael López
I remember a ton of people recommending this book a while back, but except for Sierra Dertinger at Books. Iced Lattes. Blessed, I can't remember who they were—I just know that when I found this on Libby, I figured I'd give it a shot! Written in second-person verse by Jacqueline Woodson, author extraordinaire of books like Brown Girl Dreaming and Before the Ever After (and former National Ambassador of Young People's Literature), The Day You Begin follows four kids who feel different from the others at school. Whether it's because of their skin or hair, the way they spent their summer, the lunches they packed, or something else, each of these kids is tired of the strange looks, the laughs, and the fear they have to face. But slowly, each of these kids begins to see the beauty in their own differences from others—and they learn that sharing their own stories might be the key to understanding others and being understood too.
I realize that's a vague summary, but I don't want to give too much away, especially since this book is—no question—the best of this week's picks, and one of the best picture books I've ever read! I think a lot of different authors could have attempted a concept like this, but Jacqueline Woodson takes the whole book to the next level with her second-person verse narration, which is utterly gorgeous and, even without the illustrations, makes this book sing. Here's a quote that particularly resonated with me:
There will be times when the world feels like a place
that you're standing all the way
outside of . . .
And all that stands beside you is
your own brave self—
steady as steel and ready
even though you don't yet know
what you're ready for.
Beautiful, right? Just imagine that roughly multiplied by the number of pages in this book, and you can see why it stands out. The experiences depicted in The Day You Begin are diverse enough that practically every reader will connect with at least one, and I appreciated how this book celebrates diversity while still staying close to the experiences of kids in school, hinting at but never quite diving into broader real-world experiences—there's nothing wrong with other books that dive into those, of course, but I think this book's choice to stay within the confines of school is an intriguing stylistic choice. And I also appreciate that this book doesn't dwell on the kids who are cruel or mean—those kids are just seeking attention, but this book keeps all its attention for a joyous depiction of the protagonists and how they learn to support each other. Now, Woodson's narration is gorgeous on its own, but Rafael López's illustrations are some of the most beautiful I've seen in any picture book either! Vibrant, rich colors, watercolor-esque backgrounds, inventive layouts, and the larger-than-life motifs of plants and animals truly bring this story to life. Each spread is unique and beautiful in its own way, and although the illustrations truly could speak for themselves without the narration in the same way that the narration could speak for itself without the illustrations, it's the combination of both that leaves its mark on readers. I particularly loved the motif of rulers and measuring devices that is sort of hidden throughout the illustrations—it brings to mind that idea of "measuring up" that these four kids are struggling with. One small complaint: I felt somewhat aggravated that two of the four kids didn't really get much of a resolution for their own issues—the other two kids' ending seems like it is supposed to speak for everyone, which did slightly irritate me. But it's a small qualm for this one-of-a-kind picture book with lyrical verse, stunning illustrations, and a celebration of kids' differences that will be relatable to kids but still speaks to readers of all ages!
My Best Friend
Written by Julie Fogliano
Illustrated by Jillian Tamaki
I randomly found this book on Libby, and WOW—I was completely blown away by how good it was! My Best Friend has a simple story—our protagonist (in the green dress, with the red hair) becomes friends with another girl (in the pink dress, with the black hair), and they become the best of friends, spending the day drawing, laughing, and playing pretend, and inadvertently making mischief. Eventually, the two girls have to wrap things up for the day, but the protagonist knows that their friendship is strong enough for them to play again tomorrow.
This book is ridiculously gorgeous and sweet and lovely! Julie Fogliano's first-person, punctuation/capitalization-free narration from the red-haired girl's perspective is just lovely—it is completely, genuinely childlike, and it captures something so beautiful about the two girls' relationship and about the wonders of being a kid. Jillian Tamaki (who illustrated the incredible graphic novel This One Summer, written by her cousin Mariko Tamaki) has created the most utterly gorgeous illustrations for this book that it is just unbelievable—against a white background, the girls' detailed appearances and the realistic and sometimes-surreal scenery jumps off the page at readers. Tamaki has used a fascinating color scheme of only green and pink, and she mixes the two to create other colors—the best friend's black hair is mostly green with strands of pink, and the protagonist's red hair is mostly pink with strands of green. I've never seen someone intentionally limit their color use in this way, but it makes for the most incredible illustrations! You could seriously frame practically every page of this book. I don't want to say too much else for fear of giving away the whole book, but I will say that this book is soothing and joyous and childlike and wonderful, and although it may not sound like much, I encourage you all to pick up a copy if you can and see how truly wonderful this story is!
That's all for now! I hope you enjoyed hearing about my picture book adventures, and I hope some of these books appeal to you!
My favorite book of the week: The Day You Begin
My second-favorite book of the week: My Best Friend