Brains Over Beauty: A Look at Two New Picture Books

Books about smart girls are sweeping the picture-book industry, and rightly so; saccharine stories about ditzy dumbos are a dime a dozen, and girls need industrious, adventurous role-models to admire. Merryn’s Journey (Brian Hastings, illustrated by Tony Mora and Alexis Seabrook; Sterling Children’s Books, $14.95, 40 pages, ages 4-7, October 4, 2016) hopes to join the girl power pantheon, but it doesn’t quite make the cut. In video game developer Brian Hasting’s first children’s book, Merryn is a faithful, hardworking young girl whose fisherman father goes missing. A vivid dream convinces her to craft a submersible and retrieve him. Along the way, the intrepid Merryn meets a giant sea spider, baby sea serpent, mermaids, and other creatures. Though well-intentioned, the story falls flat–it should sing, but rather, it focuses too much on providing a female character who is admired for her skill instead of her beauty. Admirable for its goals, this narrative feels forced and formulaic. Sometimes, stories can be saved by great art, but Tony Mora and Alexis Seabrook’s illustrations are proasic, surprising given that the book is a companion to the Song of the Deep video game starring Merryn and her subaquatic consorts–the illustrations should be dynamic. 


Images used with permission from Sterling Books. Text 

© 2016 Brian Hastings Images 

© Tony Mora and Alexis Seabrook

Parents looking for a truly superb picture book celebrating young girls and their talents would do well with the recently published Cleonardo: The Little Inventor (Arthur A. Levine Books, 48 pages, $18.99, ages 4-8, August 2016), by Caldecott Honor winner Mary Grandpré. Here too, is a celebration of brains over beauty–little Cleonardo is the granddaughter of master inventor Leonardo da Vinci (here charmingly referred to as “Grandpa Leo”). Cleonardo’s dad Geonardo is a tinkerer, with plans to enter the town’s Grand Festival of Inventions. Cleo wants to help, but Geonardo pushes her away. Determined to impress her father and show that she’s equally capable of inventing, Cleonardo enlists the help of Grandpa Leo to enter her own creation in the fair. Will father and daughter realize that two heads are better than one? An outstanding ode to the value of collaboration, determination, and ingenuity,

Grandpré’s paper collages and acrylics bathe the characters in that famous Italian luminescence, each page richly in textured and full of nuance, just like family dynamics.


Images from Cleonardo, The Little Inventor written and illustrated by Mary GrandPré. Used with permission from Arthur A. Levine Books/Scholastic.

Birth Day

@nancypaulsen @penguinrandomhouse

This Is Our Baby, Born Today, by Varsha Bajaj; illustrated by Eliza Wheeler; Nancy Paulsen Books, $16.99, 32 pages, ages 1-4.


What do you get for the newborns who, unbeknownst to them, have everything awaiting their arrival? Rather than saddle expectant parents with another swaddling blanket or fancy doodad, consider a charming picture book like This Is Our Baby, Born Today. Varsha Bajaj’s poetic ode to new beginnings chronicles the arrival of a baby elephant while celebrating the joy of life and the importance of family and friends. This pint-sized pachyderm is cuddled and caressed by its doting mama and a menagerie of exotic visitors. (The baby’s gender isn’t offered, and it doesn’t matter whether we’re reading about a boy or a girl, the point is the same–babies are gifts, to be treasured and nurtured and loved.) Older readers may recognize Bajaj’s name; her debut effort was the critically-acclaimed middle-grade novel Abby Spencer Goes to Bollywood. Lush, full watercolors by New York Times bestselling illustrator Eliza Wheeler bathe the characters in a warm jungle glow, no doubt infused with the love that surrounds and embraces this happy elephant family.


(images copyright 2016 Eliza Wheeler, text copyright 2016 Varsha Bajaj. Reproduced with permission from Nancy Paulsen Books.)

Imagining the ABCs


An Artist’s Alphabet, by Norman Messenger; Candlewick Press, $17.99, 48 pages, all ages. 

Alphabet books are especially popular this time of year, and one particular standout is Norman Messenger’s latest offering, An Artist’s Alphabet. Each letter is illustrated by an irreverent illustration. At first glance, the artwork may be confusing–why are cats standing in at the letter D? It’s the shapes the felines make with their oversize bodies that illustrate the letter at hand. Watercolor and pencil renderings of gryphons, boots, and three-headed dragons all pitch in to teach the ABCs to pre-literate and emerging readers, but readers of all ages will delight in this special presentation.

Remembering 9/11

 @911day @peachtreepublishers @peachtreepub

Seven and a Half Tons of Steel, by Janet Nolan, illustrated by Thomas Gonzalez; Peachtree Publishers, $17.95, 36 pages, ages 6-10.

There’s been plenty of debate on the best way to discuss 9/11 with youngsters, and even after fifteen years it’s still difficult for many adults to process it, let alone talk about it with children. Full disclosure: I am not ready to have that conversation with my seven-year-old, and probably won’t be for some time. Still, those looking for a sensitive yet compelling picture book highlighting one way Americans found strength in the face of adversity, Seven and a Half Tons of Steel would be my pick.

Janet Nolan’s narration is simple and driven mostly by Thomas Gonzalez’s (Toad Weather; 14 Crows for America) dramatic artwork. The story starts on the endpapers, where a young schoolboy gazes up at a plane careening through a robin’s-egg-blue sky, headed for the World Trade Center jutting out of horizon. It’s a different perspective than one might expect–the boy is in the foreground, the plane barely painted onto the top of the picture, and the buildings almost an afterthought. It’s a section easily skipped, because at first glance the image is almost serene: a boy holding his baseball glove and books, heading to school. And then we all know what happens next.

After the towers collapse, Nolan traces the retrieval of a steel beam from the wreckage, which is then shipped to a New Orleans shipyard to be turned into the bow of the USS New York. There’s no smooth sailing for this journey; Hurricane Katrina slowed down the work considerably, but eventually the beam becomes a bow, the entire endeavor illustrating how men and women of this country united to heal by turning remnants of a disaster into a symbol of strength.

Strength forged through sacrifice. Never forget.