What’s Up, You Cool Baby?

Esquivel! Space-age Sound Artist by Susan Wood, illustrated by Duncan Tonatiuh. Charlesbridge, 2016. 9781580896733.

esquivelThe 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.

cosmobiographyThe 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.

Dinosaurs Are Go!

Dad and the Dinosaur by Gennifer Choldenko, illustrated by Dan Santat. G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2017. 9780399243530.

dad-and-the-dinosaurI’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-and-the-rockCharlotte 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.

Ah Gee

I fell in love with Jon Agee’s picture books when I read and reread and rereread…. Terrific to my daughter. It was one of her favorite picture books (probably because I loved doing the grumpy protagonist’s voice — he’s unhappy no matter how well things work out for him). It was his drawings that really got me — they’re absolutely brilliant cartooning. Not a line is wasted and they perfectly convey action and character. (Maybe it’s time for me to cosplay the old man in the brown overcoat.)

I was looking at Terrific and Nothing the other day, getting ready for a talk I’m going to give on picture books that use the tools of cartooning, and decided to order all of the Jon Agree books at the Seattle Public Library that I’d never read. These were my favorites.

Orangutan Tongs: Poems to Tangle Your Tongue by Jon Agee. Disney-Hyperion, 2009. 9781423103158.

orangutan-tongsHands are hard to draw. Hands using chopsticks, even harder. The title page of this book features 10 orangutans using chopsticks. It’s a signal that Agree is going to show off throughout the book, both in terms of the funny poems and in the variety of things he draws: a newsstand, the Purple-Paper People Club’s meeting, two moose, embers, a carnival, three-toed tree toads tying shoes, two hotels, dodos, more orangutans, and a crowd scene on a New York City subway.

(If you guessed that the tongue twister “Two Tree Toads” is my favorite poem in the book, you were right. But it was a close race.)

Little Santa by Jon Agree. Dial Books for Young Readers, 2013. 9780803739062.

little-santaI’m as surprised as you that there’s a Christmas book on this list. Not my holiday. The last time I enjoyed anything overtly Christmasy was the Finnish horror film Rare Exports.  Agree’s young Santa dresses in a red hooded onesie that makes him look like he’s trying to sneak into Gabbaland unnoticed. He lives with his family at the North Pole where they are all miserable (he’s the only one who loves it). They decide to relocate to Florida, but their house is buried in a snow drift. They send Santa up the chimney to get help leading to…Christmas. When his family is finally rescued, Santa stays behind, but you probably already knew that.

Stone Cold Foxes

How To Find A Fox by Nilah Magruder. Feiwel and Friends, 2016. 9781250086563.

how-to-find-a-foxA determined-looking little girl tries to follow directions on how to find a fox so that she can take photos of it. Unnoticed, the fox has already found her, and follows her throughout. The best bit: when she takes a picture of a family of raccoons, the fox photobombs it after applying a bit of makeup.

After things don’t go according to plan, she wants to give up and go home. But she sticks with it. There are great “photos” of her and the fox at the end.

Pandora by Victoria Turnbull. Clarion Books, 2017. 9780544947337.

pandoraThat circle of blue-grey things around the fox on the cover? It’s garbage — I see a shoe, a joystick, a fast food container, and even a grenade in there — but at the spine it morphs into the strange vegetation that covers the back of the book.

Pandora lives alone, in a house on stilts in a garbage dump that stretches as far as the eye can see. She has an amazing home full of things she salvages and repairs, but no friends. Then one day a bird falls from the sky. She nurses it back to health.

Is this a post apocalyptic picture book? I think so, despite the lack of lonely robots, war boys, and deadly gameshows. And at the end (warning: minor spoiler) it offers hope as Pandora’s world transforms with friendship and an accompanying burst of color that wipes away the grey.

Go Go Gravel Books

Two friends independently told me about Elise Gravel’s nonfiction picture book series Disgusting Creatures. The Slug! The Fly! The Rat! More! I saw them in a bookstore recently, and wondered what else Gravel had been writing. The answer: great comics for very little kids (and adults with great taste).

The Great Antonio by Elise Gravel. (Easy-To-Read comics Level Two) Toon Books, 2016. 9781943145089.

great-antonioInside the front cover, there’s a photo of a giant bearded strongman (Antonio Barichievich, 1925 – 2003). Is he about to pull those three elephants sideways?

This is his story. He was a big baby from Europe. There’s a drawing of him hauling a tree around with no hands when he was 12. Antonio was even more enormous when he moved to Canada at 20. There he became a famous wrestler who not only fought ten people at a time, he once fought a bear.

After a relationship ended badly, he lived on the streets outside a donut shop in Montreal (Gravel’s hometown). Apparently everyone knew and loved Antonio and his crazy stories about his life, many of which turned out to be true.

This is an amazing book, and my favorite of the three

I Want a Monster by Elise Gravel. Katherine Tegen Books, 2016. 9780062415332.

i-want-a-monsterWinnie wants a pet monster like her friends. She talks her dad into it by convincing him she’s willing to do all the hard work involved and they head to the Monsterium to choose one of the weird creatures. Things are great after they bring Gus home, but there are also some issues, particularly after he grows a bit.

I’m a huge fan of kids’ graphic novels full of simply-drawn weird creatures. (This is marketed as a picture book, but it’s also just a big hardcover comic.) This is one of my favorites — it’s right up there with Trondheim’s A.I.L.E.E.E.N. And it’s extra cool because it looks like it’s drawn on blue-lined graph paper.

A Day in the Office of Doctor Bugspit (Balloon Toons) by Elise Gravel. Blue Apple Books, 2011. 9781609050924.

doctor-bugspitDr. Bugspit wants everyone to believe he is the galaxy’s best doctor. (He’s not.) Aliens come from all over to get help with their crazy problems. (Ms. Picklepus is growing toes everywhere!) His fix-it-up syrup’s disgusting ingredients are secret, but I can tell you it includes both ear wax and dead flies.

The best things about this one: it’s general zany tone, plus it appears to have been drawn on lined paper like kids use at school.

More Informative Than Another Ark Story

Grandmother Fish: A Child’s First Book of Evolution by Jonathan Tweet, illustrated by Karen Lewis. Feiwel and Friends, 2015. 9781250113238.

grandmotherfishWhat appears at first to be a sweet picture book about creatures in humans’ evolutionary tree, complete with actions and noises for a children to imitate (chomp like grandmother fish, squeak like grandmother mammal), is actually an incredibly well-made and researched introduction to evolution for kids. (The chomping represents the development of hinged jaws, the squeaking is making vocalizations with the throat.  These and other ideas are explained in more detail at the back of the book.)

This was the result of 15 years of work and a Kickstarter campaign inspired by the author’s need for a book to explain evolution to his daughter. His care and effort shows.

Look, Under There! (I Just Made You Say Underwear)

Vegetables in Underwear by Jared Chapman. Abrams, 2015. 9781419714641.

vegetablesinunderwearI grabbed this book based on the adorable broccoli stalk on the cover — it’s putting on red underpants! The book just kept piling on the charm, adding a variety of vegetables, drawn in a way that reminded me of Ed Emberley’s thumbprint art, dressed in a variety of underwear: old, new, big, little, dirty, and clean.

My library has a new way of categorizing picture books, this one was in the Life Issues section because there’s an important message about how only big kids get to wear underwear while little babies wear diapers. This book is a hilarious way to welcome someone into the brotherhood and sisterhood of underwear wearing, but it can be enjoyed by even the most seasoned underpants-sporters.