#IMWAYR: Picture Book Pandemonium, Part 11!
This past Sunday, I was visiting a friend who's an artist, and she was saying that she was going to give one of her paintings to Goodwill, so I asked her if I could have it instead—and the result is that I now have a hauntingly beautiful, perfectly moody painting by a friend hanging on my bedroom wall! Pro tip: art is way easier to appreciate when you know the person who made it! But seriously, I'm very grateful.
Now for the books! I've got 4 picture books to tell you all about, so let's dive in!
What book is it? Off-Limits by Helen Yoon
What does the publisher say? "Dad's office is off-limits--which only makes it more intriguing to his curious young daughter. As soon as she sees an opening, she sneaks in to have a look around. After all, there's no harm in just looking, right? What she discovers is a magical wonderland of sticky tape, paper clips that make glorious strands, and a kaleidoscopic array of sticky notes. Who could possibly resist playing with those? In a joyful ode to office supplies, Helen Yoon leads a celebration of just-for-once breaking the rules--and offers a final, funny nod to adults who harbor a similar urge."
What stood out to me? This is a quick story, but it's a fun story—kids and adults will be laughing out loud! (I know I snickered a few times—and also clapped, because even I was caught off guard by the delightful surprise ending.)
I never realized office supplies could be so much fun, and I love the sheer extravagance captured in the illustrations—I remember having such grand ideas that never quite came to fruition, so seeing this child turning sticky notes and binder clips into a practical art installation is delightful!
And I love Helen Yoon's concise writing—in very few words, she captures the child's voice so well, and adds even more humor to the story than would come through in the illustrations! (I love when she makes a discovery at one point in the story and just says, "Hello!")
What's my verdict? Irresistibly fun—and who couldn't use more fun?!
What book is it? Three Ways to Be Brave: A Trio of Stories, written by Karla Clark and illustrated by Jeff Östberg
What does the publisher say? "Told in gentle, rhyming couplets, this collection of stories presents relatable moments of unease and the strength found in conquering fears. A roaring nighttime thunderstorm, the first day of preschool, and a doctor's visit, in turn, encourage young readers to forge their own paths of strength in times of distress. Illustrated in rich, emotional scenes that depict vignettes of daily life, this book provides comfort and empowerment for resilience and resolution."
What stood out to me? I had mixed feelings about this book, and I have to say that I kept getting distracted as I read because I was busy formulating my strongly felt opinions!
The thing is, the illustrations are stunning. I mean, just look at the cover! The flat style, vivid colors that change for each story, and varied layouts (especially the creative angles that reflect a child's perspective) make for such an incredible experience as a reader, especially with the hardcover I got from the library (they made the right choice using matte pages instead of the usual glossy picture book pages, because it makes everything feel slightly muted and peaceful—it's so good). The illustrations bring the emotions of the story to life.
And then there's the writing. Which is...not ideal. The problem is, the "gentle, rhyming couplets" mentioned in the publisher's description are enormously distracting—not necessarily because they rhyme, but because (a) they lack a consistent rhythm, and (b) the words seem to be chosen solely because they rhyme, and not because they actually reflect the plot or emotions of the story. (I was just reading an essay in my poetry workshop about rhyme, so I'm especially set off by this.) Also, the style is very simplistic (4 or 5 words per couplet), and the result is couplets like "Tear in eye, / Just might cry!" (They're not all that bad...but that one alone nearly made me yell audibly. And yes, the exclamation point is original to the text, which is even worse.)
The thing is, I can kind of see how simple writing would be valuable to young readers—I personally wished for a wordless picture book so the gorgeous art could just stand on its own, but I imagine that words on the page would give the youngest readers some context with which to better understand the story. And I do like that the writing is so short, even kids who are just starting to read will be able to get through most of it on their own! But the ways in which the writing conflicts with the stories themselves are absolutely an issue, regardless of the age range.
As for the actual stories, they're actually pretty good, barring the writing style! We see three kids grappling with stressful situations—a thunderstorm, the first day of school, and a doctor's visit—and whether it's caring for siblings, nervous breakfasts before school, or the strangely omnipresent aquariums at doctor's offices, this story captures some meaningful details in the (again, truly gorgeous) illustrations. I will say, the writing style really prevents the story from capturing the solemnity of the stressful moments—I don't necessarily want to stress kids out more, but I also want them to feel like their anxieties are being respected and not demeaned, and I think the illustrations do that but the words don't always. But there are still some profound points—I especially appreciated the message at the end that you're still brave even if you're scared!
(And one note on diversity—two of the three story protagonists are Black, and I also appreciated that in the doctor's visit story, the doctor is a Black woman and the nurse is a White man, which is a perfect reversal of problematic expectations!)
What's my verdict? Read it for the illustrations, and let me know if you have a better perspective on how the target audience will respond to the writing style!
What book is it? Windows, written by Julia Denos and illustrated by E. B. Goodale
Who recommended it? Linda Browne at Bookcase Bizarro!
What does the publisher say? "Before your city goes to sleep, you might head out for a walk, your dog at your side as you go out the door and into the almost-night. Anything can happen on such a walk: you might pass a cat, or a friend, or even an early raccoon. And as you go down your street and around the corner, the windows around you light up one by one until you are walking through a maze of paper lanterns, each one granting you a brief, glowing snapshot of your neighbors as families come together and folks settle in for the night. With a setting that feels both specific and universal and a story full of homages to The Snowy Day, Julia Denos and E. B. Goodale have created a singular book — at once about the idea of home and the magic of curiosity, but also about how a sense of safety and belonging is something to which every child is entitled."
What stood out to me? As I read this book, I became aware of just how much I miss out on living in the suburbs, never interacting with my neighbors (as a result of norms or of choices), never really forming a sense of community. Watching our protagonist and their dog wander by an entire world of people, linked through their open windows even if they are not communicating, sharing the beauty of the world with one another even as they move through their own separate lives...seeing all this unfold made me wistful for such a thing in the real world, but grateful that I had the chance to experience it in a story like this one. There's something lovely about how many picture books emphasize community and neighbors (A Map into the World, Outside, Inside, Kiyoshi's Walk, Last Stop on Market Street, The Cot in the Living Room, etc.), and it makes me hopeful that future generations will find solace in each other's proximity and presence, as long as we get over our constant affliction of social anxiety (or as long as I get over my constant affliction of social anxiety).
Beyond all that, this book really is beautifully executed. Julia Denos's writing has a gentle touch but gives this story rhythm and impact. And E. B. Goodale's illustrations feature a unique style—in a somewhat similar vein to The Elephants Come Home, gently merging watercolors and slightly-shaky line art coexist, but rather than being overlaid on top of one another, they coexist and take different spaces in each spread. The spreads themselves are filled with the beautiful colors of sunsets, night, and lit windows, and every window or other nook and cranny is filled with a meaningful detail—young readers who like to pore over pages looking for little Easter eggs (Richard Scarry's books comes to mind) will find much to love in this one. And the gentle messages of familial love that start and end the story are the finishing touch to this memorably lovely story!
(A quick note: I actually drew a little bit from this story to write a poem for my poetry class today, so if you need proof that it has a lasting effect, here it is!)
What's my verdict? Beautiful, soothing, and thought-provoking—don't miss this one!
What's the book? Saturday at the Food Pantry, written by Diane O'Neill and illustrated by Brizida Magro
What does the publisher say? "Molly and her mom don't always have enough food, so one Saturday they visit their local food pantry. Molly's happy to get food to eat until she sees her classmate Caitlin, who's embarrassed to be at the food pantry. Can Molly help Caitlin realize that everyone needs help sometimes?"
What stood out to me? This isn't the most perfect picture book I've ever seen, but it fills a really important void in explaining the nuances of an issue that is so often co-opted by...well, let's just say by people I don't agree with at all. (The kind of people who brandish Antiracist Baby like a weapon [see photo] during Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson's confirmation hearing. Why is my personal hobby getting so weirdly adjacent to politics these days? Oh, that's right, because my personal hobby is about spreading ideas of empathy and goodness, and empathy and goodness have apparently always been controversial.)
Anyway, I really appreciate the details of this book's message and how we always see them from Molly's child point of view—we see how the bodily sensation of hunger creeps its way into people's daily lives, and we see how food brings people together and is surprisingly essential in social situations. We also see the shame that comes with asking for help in our society—we don't see who creates that shame, but I suppose keeping that element quiet prevents this book from being brandished like a weapon during a confirmation hearing, so there's that. And most importantly, we see the pressure on people who are asking for help to take literally the bare minimum and to never ever give themselves the privilege of having a treat—which is just another way of keeping people who need help in a subjugated role, where their needs are fulfilled but their wants never are. The book obviously isn't nearly as grim about all this, it's just infuriating to think about—but you don't have to worry about coming away from the book as depressed as you're coming away from this paragraph!
The illustrations are bright and stylish, but I do wish Molly's mother wasn't smiling in literally every single frame—she struggles too in the writing, but that gets glossed over visually. Also, I didn't love that the "less important" characters have simpler eyes than Molly, Caitlin, and their guardians—it seems demeaning in some way. But neither of those are major issues!
I also really appreciated the letter on the last page of the book from Kate Maehr of the Greater Chicago Food Depository that explains food insecurity in more detail and provides resources for anyone personally struggling with it!
What's my verdict? A sweet story with a valuable message—I hope kids remember this one when they start to think critically about the world!
That's what I've got for this week! I hope you all found something new to try—I'll see you next week for more reviews!
My favorite book of the week: Windows