Nightlights by Lorena Alvarez. Nobrow, 2017. 9781910620137. 56pp.
Right from the title page it’s clear this book is going to be amazing. It and the facing dedications page have a few transparent bulbs that are home to cute cute and colorful plant creatures. The pictures seem to glow. Turn the page and there’s the girl, Sandy, drawing them and other creatures on her floor as her mother tells her to go to bed. There’s a ton of white space so that Alvarez controls exactly what we’re paying attention to. Turn the page again and it’s a beautifully colored graphic novel. Sandy’s mother doesn’t get her — she’s too busy worrying about her daughter’s homework to appreciate her drawings. Bedtime is time for her to float along with the creatures she imagines. And the next morning at Catholic school (complete with a scary nun) Sandy meets a new purple haired girl named Morphie, who loves her drawings. But Morphie is a ghost with a nasty plan for Sandy’s artistic talents.
The ghostly parts don’t go on too long, and they’re so beautifully drawn they won’t be too scary for most kids transitioning up and out of picture books. Anyone with a love of art or comics is going to love this one, too.
Agatha Christie by Maria Isabel Sánchez Vegara, illustrated by Elisa Munsó, translated by Raquel Plitt. Frances Lincoln Children’s Books, 2017. 9781847809605. In the series Little People, Big Dreams.
I’ll admit that I was confused by the series name Little People, Big Dreams. Are all the biographees short? No, turns out they are all about women who had some aspiration in childhood that led to their achievements as adults. In Agatha Christie’s case, she thought up better endings for the books her mother read aloud to her. She grew up to learn about poisons as a nurse in WWI, and later created the legendary detectives Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple. She wrote mystery novels that became famous all over the globe. (The afterword notes that her books have been translated into more than a hundred languages and that her book And Then There Were None is one of the ten most-read books in the world.) This book is both an accessible biography for kids who won’t be reading Christie’s novels until they’re older, and an encouragement to explore their interests.
I wish I had Gene’s eye and vocabulary for illustration so I could say something more informative than “I really liked it!” The pictures are black and white pen drawings full of detailed patterns and swooping lines. Each page has an accent in red, and the faces are simple and appealing.
Pen Pals by Alexandra Pichard. Aladdin Books, 2017. 9781481472470.
A tale of the friendship that develops between Oscar (an ant) and Bill (an octopus), told through their letters. Oscar has a dog named Loopy, takes judo, and sends Bill mittens that his mother knitted (only six, unfortunately, but Bill loves them). Bill has a pet goldfish, likes video games, and sends Oscar a seashell (Oscar wears it like a hat). They both like to play with modeling clay. Oscar hopes his class will get to visit Bill’s school at the end of the year.
Bill and Oscar (always shown writing at their desks) are drawn with simple shapes and lines that are still sweetly expressive. The gifts that are sent back and forth show up at their desks. The things that they write about really brought back how simple and honest little kid friendships are, no matter how different kids appear to be. I hope this book can introduce a child to how magical it can feel to get a letter written just to you.
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.