I Don’t Know What To Call My Cat by Simon Philip, illustrated by Ella Bailey. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016. 9780544971431.
A grey cat shows up on a little girl’s doorstep. She’s thrilled when it decides to stay, but she can’t decide what to call it! Kitty isn’t specific enough, and Princess High-and-Mighty doesn’t fit after the cat rejects being dressed in a ballgown. Then it disappears and the little girl is left to play with her rambunctious replacement pet, a gorilla, until it reappears with a surprising new identity.
The illustrations are cute, bright, and full of eye-catching detail: the little girl’s room is crammed with cat-themed everything, the grey cat shows up at her door wearing a red scarf and carrying a fish-shaped purse and tiny violin case, and the vet discovers that the cat is a boy when he checks that box on a survey clipboard. Kids in cat-owning families will laugh at the girl’s attempts at loud and physical play with her new pet. This is worth reading again and again.
Mac & Cheese by James Proimos. Henry Holt and Company, 2016. 9780805091564.
A macaroni noodle in a tie and glasses and a cube of cheese in an ear-flap hat are best friends despite their differences. They have three adventures together: they discuss tricky questions, have a disagreement about the artistic depiction of oranges, and go for a walk under the stars. Along the way they run into other pairs of friends: PB and Jay, Salt and Salt, and Oil and Water (who argue a lot).
This is a tremendously silly and sweet tribute to those classics on kid friendship like Frog and Toad Are Friends and George and Martha. (In fact the book is dedicated to authors Arnold Lobel and James Marshall.) Mac and Cheese sport delightful goofy expressions and stick arms. Their adventures have a lot of kid-appeal, even if kids don’t get the nods to earlier writers: Proimos has a knack for that well-structured and deceptively simple storytelling that made Lobel and Marshall legends.
I moderated a panel on diversity at Seattle’s Emerald City Comic Con last month (my strategy: stay quiet and out of the way), and I wanted to check out the work of the writers and artists on the panel, so I put these on hold at my local library.
Before I Leave by Jessixa Bagley. 9781626720404. Roaring Brook Press, 2016.
This is a sad little book (with an uplifting ending, don’t worry) about Zelda, a hedgehog whose family is moving, and who is going to miss her best friend, an aardvark named Aaron. There are great moments, like when Aaron tries to fit himself in Zelda’s suitcase, and when he’s sticking his tongue waaaaaaaay out at Zelda for the last time. The drawings have a very hand-done quality and have both amazing textures and expressive characters — the latter is especially good because there are so few words. My favorite thing about the book is the way the characters’ names have to be discovered in the pictures — they’re never mentioned in the text.
Laundry Day by Jessixa Bagley. 9781626723177. Roaring Brook Press, 2017.
This book features Tic and Tac, bored badger siblings whose mother gets them to help hanging up laundry. When she leaves them to finish the chore, they have a great time — so good, in fact, that they don’t want to stop hanging things on the clothesline when they run out of freshly washed clothes. (Spoiler: they pretty much empty the house.)
The drawings in this book have the same hand-colored feel, but they look more crisp. Possibly because the black lines here were inked while in the other book they were penciled? That’s my best guess. They’re just as brilliant, and I think a comparison of the two books would give young artists something to think about.
The Wildest Race Ever: The Story of the 1904 Olympic Marathon by Meghan McCarthy. Simon & Schuster/Paula Wiseman Books, 2016. 9781481406390.
I know some people don’t like the big round eyes and simple faces on McCarthy’s painted character illustrations, but I love them: they make historical figures cute and charming. In her book on the first Olympic Marathon in the US, I found out there’s something even more adorable: the bushy mustache on Cuban runner Felix Carvajal, who showed up to the race in his street clothes and made stops along the route to practice English with bystanders. He. Is. So. Cute. Someone please start making Hello Kitty-like merchandise about historical figures. I want a Felix Carvajal pencil case.
A historic marathon might seem like a stretch for an exciting picture book, but the race was nuts. The route had to be totally redone a few days before it started, after rain washed out some roads. Huge clouds of dust kicked up by cars and bicycles choked the runners. There were only two water stops, and the water made competitors sick. A runner was chased off course by a dog. A car carrying a doctor for the runners plunged down a 30 foot embankment. Add to that the then-current practice of downing strychnine mixed with egg white instead of drinking water (check out this Sawbones episode for more on this crazy but true performance enhancer) and you have some drama. The additional information at the end is great — it’s clear McCarthy did some amazing primary-source research.
Both of these books have amazing covers.
Spurt by Chris Miles. Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, 2017. 9781481479721.
This tween novel is about a late bloomer (Jack) who fakes puberty. That’s all I know, and it’s enough!
Above the elastic underwear band where the book’s title is printed are three dots: one tan (a belly button), two pink (nipples), and the single hair Scotch taped between them. The cover’s genius is the spot gloss on the tape, which makes it feel like tape.
Extremely Cute Animals Operating Heavy Machinery by David Gordon. Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, 2016. 9781416924418.
The cover promises more heavy machinery than the interior delivers, though there is massive sandcastle construction, destruction, and even some welding. Still, this is number one for picture book cover and title of the year so far. And don’t worry, the same image is printed on the hardcover book so kids can still enjoy it after tearing the dust jacket to pieces.
Esquivel! Space-age Sound Artist by Susan Wood, illustrated by Duncan Tonatiuh. Charlesbridge, 2016. 9781580896733.
The story of the life of out-there pop composer and conductor Esquivel! (the exclamation point is a part of his stage name) illustrated with images in the style of the ancient Mexican Mixtec codex, with photographic textures as color.
The Cosmo-biography of Sun Ra: The Sound of Joy Is Enlightening by Chris Raschka. Candlewick Press, 2014. 9780763658069.
The story of the life of the legendary jazz composer and performer Sun Ra illustrated in paintings bursting with color and movement.
As much as writing about music is like dancing about architecture, is a child’s picture book about lesser-known musicians even more so? The stories are fine on their own (probably why they got into books in the first place) but there is no way to convey the power of the artists’ music, much less its impact. Best case scenario, a child will recognize the names from these books when they hear the music. I’m guessing it’s all a part of trying to give a child a cultured (or impressive, or quirky) taste in music. Not matter how interesting his life was, there probably won’t be a picture book biography of Lawrence Welk, he’s just not cool enough. (Though I will admit that Esquivel!’s is pretty close to lounge music, even if it is very experimental.) That said, I think Esquivel! and Sun Ra are good kid-music choices: fun, weird, and enjoyable even outside their cultural contexts.
Dad and the Dinosaur by Gennifer Choldenko, illustrated by Dan Santat. G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2017. 9780399243530.
I’ve met Santat a few times since Sidekicks was published, and the way his happiness and enthusiasm permeate his art makes every book he illustrates worth reading. The “glowing” quality of this book’s pictures make them look like something between paintings and art created for a tablet. They’re utterly beautiful.
Nicholas is afraid of the dark (and a lot of other things), but he has help being brave — he clutches his toy dinosaur and imagines a ferocious, gigantic companion that can easily deal with everything he fears. But one day, after a soccer game, his dinosaur is gone. Nicholas freaks out. Luckily his dad is there to help.
Charlotte and the Rock by Stephen W. Martin, illustrated by Samantha Cotterill. 2017. 9781101993897.
Charlotte wants a pet, and she doesn’t care what it is. Her parents buy her a big, round rock. They hang out a lot and do almost everything together, but the rock doesn’t love her. And then it hatches because (spoiler alert) it’s not really a rock. (You can probably guess what comes out from the title of this blog post.)
Cotterill’s drawings are very cartoony, and are notable for their use of patterns and textures, particularly on clothing and the surface of the Charlotte’s pet. It’s very fun.