Fish Girl, by David Wiesner and Donna Jo Napoli; Clarion Books, $25.00, 185 pages, ages 7-10.
On a lonely stretch of seaside boardwalk stands a modest three-story building hiding a big secret: inside resides the mysterious Fish Girl, watched over by King Neptune. For a small fee, visitors are welcome to glimpse the girl for themselves. Fish Girl feels protected by Neptune and believes his stories–that she is the last of her kind, that this building full of exotic fish is the last refuge of his realm–until she befriends a neighborhood girl, Livia. Now, the mermaid (soon to be renamed Mira) wants to enjoy life on land, but an inability to talk and lack of legs hampers the process. Slowly, with steady determination, a little yoga, and some magic, Mira’s lonely life changes forever.
Three time Caldecott Medalist David Wiesner (Mr. Wuffles!) and Donna Jo Napoli (Albert) debut their first graphic novel with an exploration of trust, betrayal, and bravery–Mira is kept in what amounts to a water-filled cage, lied to about her family, and forced to perform tricks for money. Adults will no doubt make comparisons to children and young women conscripted into all sorts of unsavory labor around the world, but the mermaid element keeps this story squarely rooted in fantasy and will not spook young readers. Interestingly, the protagonist is mute–most of Wiesner’s best-loved books are wordless, relying on visual storytelling. That’s not to say Mira doesn’t share her thoughts–somehow, she communicates with her underwater and oxygen-breathing friends, and cultivates a language of friendship with Livia. Deft interplay of myth and contemporary folklore make this splashy story hard to resist.
Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Fox? by Benjamin Renner; First Second Books, $15.99, 188 pages, ages 5-8.
Can’t a fox get a break? Apparently, no–not even the fluffy egg-laying hens are afraid in Benjamin Renner’s mapcap graphic novel making it’s English-language debut next month. Originally published last year in French as Le Grand Méchant Renard, the book chronicles the woes of a wannabe terror, a hungry fox whose antics only provoke the ire of his intended victims. Even under the tutelage of the old master of fairy-tale disaster, the wolf, this fox “as ferocious as a geriatric tortoise,” appears destined to nosh on berries and twigs for the rest of his days. At least, until the wolf hatches a plan to steal some eggs. The fox succeeds, but can he bring himself to eat these fluffballs? And what happens when he develops an attachment to his brood–who soon enough believe themselves to be baby foxes? Will the new family escape the clutches of the scheming wolf? Will the hens have pity on a poor fox seeking redemption? Renner’s slapstick, subversive, and sly saga will keep readers of all ages clucking with joy. While the artwork certainly has the feel of a cartoon strip, there’s a freshness and sophistication here that reveals a master at work. Pre-order this finely executed graphic novel to ensure hours of summer reading enchantment.
First Words; Lonely Planet Kids, $12.99, 208 pages, ages 4-8.
Lonely Planet Kids has expanded its product line-up in recent years with an intense focus on the pre-k to third grade demographic with interactive travel journals, guidebooks, and now, phrasebooks. In the age of Google translate (which is no substitute for learning a second language, but that’s another topic altogether), it’s reassuring to see publishing houses recognize that language acquisition is a skill best learned young. The First Words series enters the market with three languages–Spanish, French, and English–and each volume introduces the same 100 words. Each book uses the same images, so there’s continuity across the series if not cultural diversity. (But really, a gato is a chat is a cat, right? Sometimes it’s best not to overthink these things.) Every page is devoted to one word with a pronunciation guide, and Lonely Planet’s website offers free audio clips spoken by a native language-speaking child, for all 100 words. (Check it out here.)
The First Words series is a cute introduction to second language acquisition, and Lonely Planet plans to add Italian, Mandarin, and Japanese to the lineup in the near future. The trick now is for Lonely Planet to follow up with an equally engaging series that takes readers to the next level of language acquisition, because it’s at this secondary stage that many companies falter, and kids lose interest. Here’s hoping Lonely Planet will change the trend.
A Song About Myself, by John Keats, illustrated by Chris Raschka; Candlewick Press, $17.99, 40 pages, ages 7-9.
British poet John Keats (1795-1821) published fifty-four poems during his brief life, yet those pieces secured his place among the “second generation” of Romantic poets like Lord Byron and Percy Bysshe. Keats wrote the three-part A Song About Myself while traveling through Scotland and included it in a letter to his fifteen-year old younger sister, Fanny. The whimsical, cheeky verses about Keats as a naughty boy wandering the world are a departure from the poet’s better-known odes and sonnets. Keats describes the world outside of London and reveals that no matter where he is, some things remain the same.
So, how does an early nineteenth-century poem hold up in 2017? Not bad–the rhyming pattern is easy to follow (“There was a naughty Boy/ A naughty boy was he,/ He would not stop at home, / He could not quiet be –“), simple verses that quickly build into a playful ramble through the land to the north of London. Some words, like pother (a fuss) and rivetted (hold close) might trip up readers, but most of it is straightforward enough–this is a poem written by a feisty young man intent on making his reader laugh. Two-time Caldecott Medal winner Chris Raschka’s watercolors flow unencumbered through the pages, abstract yet thoroughly engaging, and expertly match this bizarre little road trip. (Don’t miss the end papers where a condensed map of New York and the British Isles begs close examination.)
A Song About Myself is a wonderful introduction to Keats and proving that some things just don’t go out of style.
BE QUIET! by Ryan T. Higgins; Disney-Hyperion; $17.99, 40 pages, ages 3-8.
Rupert the mouse has a dream: to craft a beautiful, wordless picture book. His ideas are grand, but when his friends hear about the project, they interject. A lot. And come up with all sorts of ideas. Unfortunately, brainstorming requires…talking, and poor Rupert quickly loses his cool, while his credibility as an artistic know-it-all slowly loses its veneer in perfectly paced slapstick. Clearly, this is not going to be a wordless picture book, but Rupert’s going to give it everything he’s got–even at the expense of his lofty sensibilities. The book is sure to be a hit with preschoolers, but offer BE QUIET! to a first- or second-grader to read aloud, and watch the hilarity ensue. The creator of Mother Bruceknocks it out of the park once again with another wacky menagerie of characters while also cleverly engaging adults with definitions of onomatopoeia, visual stimulation, and most importantly, irony.
The White Rabbit is always busy. This book explores how his wife manages a rambunctious household in the heart of Wonderland.
Mrs. White Rabbit, by Gilles Bachelet; Eerdmans, $17.00, 32 pages, ages 6-10.
Mrs White Rabbit has her paws full: caring for a household overrun with a warren of rambunctious bunnies, tending to the needs of her time-strapped husband, the White Rabbit, and entertaining the oddball visits of a size-shifting girl named Alice has left the family matriarch feeling sullen, stressed, and neglected. It turns out today is her birthday, and her distracted husband has forgotten all about it. Mrs. White Rabbit vents her daily drama in diary format, giving readers a behind-the-scenes look at life in Wonderland for the White Rabbit’s better half. Gilles Bachelet’s humorous look at leporidine domesticity is accompanied by his equally witty illustrations of bunnies at play, and causing mischief, all under the perennially peeved gaze of Mrs. White Rabbit. Could any family expect tranquility when taking up residence in Wonderland? Besides, it seems all Mrs. W. really wants is a little R-E-S-P-E-C-T, and who can’t relate to that?
Originally published in French as Madame le Lapin Blanc, this cheeky twist on Lewis Carroll’s classic is a quirky reminder that it takes a village to raise a family, and though everyone is busy these days–replace the White Rabbit’s clock with a cell phone and he’d blend in perfectly with any number of daily commuters–we’ve got to make time for our loved ones, too.
@BoxerBook Jane Ray explores greed in The Elephant’s Garden
The Elephant’s Garden, by Jane Ray; Boxer Books, $14.95, 32 pages, ages 2-6.
Many cultures have their version of the garden thief story–Russian folklore tells of Tsarevitch Ivan whose golden apples are stolen by the mythical Firebird, and food theft leads to a most unhappy ending in Nankichi Niimi’s powerful Gon, the Little Fox (1932). And of course, there’s the biblical tale of the snake tempting Eve with a forbidden apple in the garden of Eden. These aren’t those effortlessly cheerful happily ever after tales–these are stories of greed, failure, and attempts at redemption, with varying degrees of success, and Jane Ray’s retelling of a traditional Indian folktale follows in that tradition.
Here, a little girl named Jasmine discovers a brightly festooned elephant stealing from her garden, and once confronted, the elephant explains that the fruit in his garden is inedible. To prove it, he whisks the astounded child to his faraway cloud garden, where massive kiwis, strawberries, and peaches fill every corner, but sadly, they’re only precious jewels and of no use to a hungry elephant. Upon returning home, Jasmine tells her family about the magnificent sky garden and though she begs them not to tell anyone, the whole village finds out about the elephant’s treasures. What follows is a surprisingly elegant exploration of greed and selfishness. Ray’s vibrant, jewel-toned, collages evoke a lush Indian fantasy world, and the double-page spread of Jasmine grasping the tail of the elephant recall’s a similar nocturnal flight in Joanne Ryder and Amy Schwartz’s Night Flight or any of Henri Rousseau’s jungle scenes.
A worthy addition to any folktale collection, The Elephant’s Garden subtly invokes Ghandi’s summation on avarice: “Earth provides enough to satisfy every man’s needs, but not every man’s greed.”