Kids Books Quick Picks

Fall always heralds the arrival of great children’s books, and this year’s crop doesn’t disappoint. Behold a few of our favorites of the season:

Fall always heralds the arrival of great children’s books, and this year’s crop doesn’t disappoint. Behold a few of our favorites of the season:

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Stanley’s School, by William Bee, (Peachtree; $14.95, 32 pages, ages 2-5) is the latest in a series starring a charming hamster. As the title suggests, Stanley is running things at school and leads his furry charges through a typical day: from arrival to read-aloud, lunch, and dismissal, these pint-size creatures demonstrate the inner workings of pre-k and elementary school. Bee’s large, cheerful illustrations invite young readers to revel in heading to class. The padded covers invite little hands to fully explore while also signaling the transition from board books to picture books.

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In another rodent-driven narrative, Martin Jenkins’s The Squirrels’ Busy Year (illustrated by Richard Jones, Candlewick; $16.99, 32 pages, ages 3-6), introduces changing seasons and weather patterns by following a year in the lives of two inquisitive squirrels. Foraging for acorns and dodging owls are a few of the daily adventures these busy critters face, depending on the season. Straightforward and uncomplicated prose is accompanied by front matter offering specifics in case adults get peppered with a few “why” questions after a read-through. An index with follow-up questions meand to encourage further inquiry roud out this smart volume, while Richard Jones’s mixed-media renderings of the natural world are textured and comforting.

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National Book Award Finalist Sy Montgomery’s How to Be A Good Creature: A Memoir in Thirteen Animals (illustrated by Rebecca Green, HMH; $20.00, 208 pages, ages 7-up), examines a life spent in the company of animals and how those relationships taught her compassion, love, and forgiveness. From a family pig named Christopher Hogwood to a giant Pacific octopus named Octavia, each vignette imparts life lessons that only a non-human can provide. “Other species, when we are allowed to know and care about them, give us a chance expand our moral universe,” says the author. “We learn to embrace the Other. We have a lot in common with our fellow animals–we share about 90% of our DNA with fellow mammals, and animals from clams to elephants share our same neurotransmitters, responsible for perceptions and emotions.” Montgomery’s poetic text proves her ability to write for readers of all ages. Accompanied by author photos and Rebecca Green’s whimsical, folk-art inspired sketches, How to Be a Good Creature affirms what many of us already know: that human-animal bonds are not just real, they are powerful agents of change, acceptance, renewal. Consider reading this in tandem with your child–there’s plenty here to encourage a robust dialogue on many of life’s big questions.

Cover image: “Compulsory Education,” by Charles Burton Barber. 1890. Public Domain.

Abby and Jack Review Two New Children’s Books

Abigail is back, this time with her friend Jack to review two new children’s picture books. Jack tackles Zachariah Ohora’s latest fuzzy caper involving a pair of apartment-dwelling felines, while Abby looks at a canine compare-and-contrast board book by French illustrator Élo. Both are great choices for early readers to enjoy during the dog (and cat) days of summer.

Niblet & Ralph, by Zachariah Ohora, Dial Books for Young Readers; $17.99, 32 pages, ages 2-6. 

Niblet and Ralph is about two cats and their kid owners. The four of them live in the same building, but only two of them know it. A tragic mystery happens that brings the humans together–be sure to read the book to find out! The cover shows a cat wearing headphones–how adorable!

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Images reproduced with permission from Dial Books.

Contrary Dogs, by Élo, Candlewick Studio; $12.00, 20 pages, ages 0-6. 

Contrary Dogs is a funny book about all different types of dogs–opposites, really. For example, one has spots, another doesn’t. Plus, it’s a book where you can lift the tabs–who doesn’t like those? Your child will love exploring the tabs and reading all about these amazing dogs!

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CONTRARY DOGS. Copyright © 2016 by Éditions Sarbacane. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA on behalf of Walker Books, London.

Children’s Books Holiday Round-Up

Here’s a few of our favorite new books to give to your loved ones this holiday season:

The Hundred and One Dalmatians, by Dodie Smith, Folio Society; $59.95, 208 pages, all ages.

Smith’s 1957 classic children’s story gets the Folio treatment in this lavish update, complete with a black and white spotted slipcover. Illustrated by award-winning Sara Ogilvie and introduced by National Book Award winner Jacqueline Woodson, share this special edition with someone with a soft spot for canine capers. NOTE: Order by December 14th to ensure Christmas delivery.

Read the Book, Lemmings! by Ame Dyckman, illustrated by Zacharia OHora, Little, Brown & Company; $17.99, 40 pages, ages 3-6.

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While sailing in freezing waters, First Mate Foxy reads that lemmings don’t jump off cliffs, only to finding his furry shipmates doing exactly that. “Guess they didn’t read the book,” he muses. As they keep leaping into the icy drink, Foxy takes it upon himself to solve the mystery of these jumping lemmings. Dyckman’s on-point humor is perfectly matched by OHora’s retro-inspired artwork. A warm and funny look at compassion and patience that’s perfect for all ages.

The Little Reindeer, by Nicola Killen, Simon & Schuster; $15.99, 32 pages, ages 2-5.

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Just as Ollie snuggles under the covers on Christmas Eve, she’s jolted awake by the sounds of jingle bells. Away she slides on her sleigh into the snowy night, where she meets a reindeer who sweeps her up on a magical journey. The black and white palette, punctuated by pops of red and metallic silver ink, makes for a most enchanting tale about the magic of the season.

Red Again, by Barbara Lehman, HMH Book for Young Readers; $16.99, 32 pages, ages 3-7. 

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A boy discovers a red book on the side of the road. Inside it is another book where another child finds a similar book, and two worlds collide in this wordless examination of loneliness, adventure, and the never ending pleasures of storytelling. Lehman’s sequel to her 2005 Caldecott Honor winning The Red Book is sure to delight fans both old and new.

The Nutcracker Mice, by Kristin Kladstrup, illustrated by Brett Helquist, Candlewick Press; $17.99, 336 pages, ages 8-11.

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A family of mice live in Saint Petersbourg’s famous Mariinsky theater, and the little critters adore the ballet performed by both the humans and their furry cohorts, but a new ballet called the Nutcracker features mice as villains, sending the mice into distress. Meanwhile, among the humans, nine-year old Irinia, the daughter of a mouse exterminator, believes the mice she’s seen hidden at the theater may be more than just four-legged pests. Can Irina help save the Mariinsky mice from certain annihilation? Will the dancing mice make it in the ultra-competitive Russian Mouse Ballet Company? Veteran YA author Kristin Kladstrup gives The Nutcracker a delightfully whimsical origin story, and Brett Helquist’s full-page illustrations provide just the right touch of magic.

 Countdown to Christmas: A Story a Day, Disney Press; $10.99, 64 pages, ages 3-8.

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This compendium of twenty-five stories includes characters from the wide world of Disney characters, from Bambi, the Aristocats, Wall-E, and the 101 Dalmatians. Serious Disney fans may notice some stories are repeats from the Five Minute Christmas Stories, but this update will surely please fans of the Mouse on your holiday list.

She Persisted

She Persisted: 13 American Women Who Changed the World, by Chelsea Clinton, illustrated by Alexandra Boiger, Philomel; $17.99 32 pages, ages 4-7.

“I wrote this book for everyone who’s ever wanted to speak up but has been told to quiet down–for everyone who’s ever been made to feel less than,” said Chelsea Clinton about her children’s book, She Persisted. Certainly, the goal is laudable: profile thirteen American women whose strength and perserverance helped change the world for the better. Harriet Tubman, Hellen Keller, Virginia Apgar, and even Oprah Winfrey appear as pint-size activists. In each vignette, Clinton presents the challenges each woman faced and repeats the current feminist rallying-call, “She persisted.” The book joins a fleet of recently published girl-power volumes like Feminist Baby and Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls

Each woman is presented chronologically, but there are no dates to pinpoint the progression across time. Luckily, Alexandra Boiger’s marvelous double-page illustrations help to fill the gap. Perceptive readers will have questions about these women, such as when they lived, how they made history, and who helped them. For example, Anne Sullivan appears in an image of Hellen Keller, but isn’t mentioned by name. Yet, there are no endnotes or bibliography to help answer those questions. That aside, the text itself feels forced–read aloud, the words are halting, hesitating, and, unfortunately, boring, which these women certainly were not. The presentation is less a celebration than a suggestion that women, simply by virtue of being women, will always face a stacked deck, and those who succeed do so alone.

Clinton fans will no doubt flock to the book regardless, but those looking for more engaging accounts of brave American women would do better to look elsewhere–the recently published Motor Girls by Sue Macy, for example (National Geographic, $17.99, ages 11-14), is a fascinating account of women at the turn of the twentieth century who took to the open road despite much (male) protest. It’s thorough, engaging, and packed with primary source material, statistics, and lively anecdotes. Amy Ehrlich’s Willa, illustrated by Wendell Minor (Paula Wiseman, $16.99, 72 pages, ages 6-10) is an excellent picture-book biography of one of America’s most beloved writers.

Well-intentioned, She Persisted lacks joy, and despite its simplicity, manages to strike an unwelcome didactic tone. “Remember these women,” Clinton writes. “They persisted and so should you.” Rather than a lively, well-written, and informational account of great women, She Persisted offers platitudes that do little to inspire.

 

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Keats for Kids

A Song About Myself, by John Keats, illustrated by Chris Raschka; Candlewick Press, $17.99, 40 pages, ages 7-9. 

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A SONG ABOUT MYSELF. Illustrations copyright © 2017 by Chris Raschka. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA.

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.

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A SONG ABOUT MYSELF. Illustrations copyright © 2017 by Chris Raschka. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA.

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!

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 Bruce knocks 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.

Q&A with Jane Ray

@BoxerBooks Author-illustrator Jane Ray talks about creative influences, fairy tales, and offers advice to budding artists. #JaneRay #art

British author-illustrator Jane Ray has over seventy children’s books to her credit, filled with plucky mermaids, fairies, and ghosts, while clever illustrations have earned her a spot on the shortlist for the Kate Greenaway Award five times. Ray was recently nominated for the 2018 Hans Christian Andersen award,  an international prize often referred to as the “Little Nobel Prize.” Ray’s stories hail from all the corners of the world and are receptive to diverse creative influences. Her most recent book, The Elephant’s Garden (Boxer Books, $14.95), deals with hunger, greed, and temptation, but there’s no fire and brimstone here; Ray’s jewel-toned illustrations masterfully weave a beguiling tale set in a fantastical corner of India.

And that’s how it is with most of Ray’s books, wherein a deft master dazzles with lyric prose and illustrations to the point where the reader almost forgets that there’s a moral in there somewhere. Ray credits understanding parents and a lifelong love of reading and drawing for fueling her career. Ray kindly spoke with us via e-mail on March 22, 2017 about her early influences and artistic process, and extolled the virtues of toting sketchpads everywhere, because you never know when inspiration may strike.

You’ve written and illustrated over seventy children’s books, many of which focus on folk tales and fairy tales—your illustrations for Berlie Doherty’s Classic Fairy Tales put you on the shortlist for the Kate Greenaway Medal—what draws you to these stories?

RAY: I think it is the shape of traditional stories that I am attracted to. They are so familiar to us – you just start with “Once upon a time….” and we all know where we are! The archetypal scenarios of kings and princesses, three brothers or sisters, towers and palaces, poverty and wealth seem universal. I guess these stories relate to human concerns the world over – health, wealth, happiness, life and death.

What books did you read growing up? I understand yours was “a house full of books and music” and that you found school a distraction from your true calling. Did your parents encourage you to become an artist?

RAY: I was very lucky to have very encouraging parents – not to be underestimated. Important books were Alice in Wonderland, the Little House on the Prairie books, the Green Knowe Books by Lucy Boston, Tom’s Midnight Garden. I loved the illustrations of Beatrix Potter and Brian Wildsmith, Arthur Rackham and Jan Pienkowski. 

What pulled you to the story of The Elephant’s Garden? Where did you first encounter this story?

RAY: I found the story when I was researching an anthology that I put together for Boxer Books, called The Lion and the Unicorn and other Hairy Tales. It came from a collection of Indian folk tales in my local library. The original story was about an ox and a monk, but I felt an elephant had more appeal, and I wanted a child protagonist. That is the beauty of such stories – they belong to everyone and can be retold in any way, to fit your audience. Nothing is written in stone.

The illustrations for The Elephant’s Garden remind me of various jungle scenes by Henri Rousseau—what influences did you draw upon for this book?

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Text and art copyright 2017 Jane Ray. Reproduced with permission from Boxer Books.

RAY: I had been experimenting with cut paper as a medium – there is a freshness and brightness to the technique which felt right for this story aimed at the very young. It is also a technique common to several different cultural traditions – Polish and Mexican to name but two….and Matisse of course!

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The Flamingoes by Henri Rousseau

 

What is your philosophy when it comes to creating a well-crafted children’s book? How do you know when the text and art are in perfect pitch?

RAY: When I’m illustrating my own text, it’s a constant backwards and forwards process of balancing text and image. I always find that the story can be pared down considerably once I start on the pictures – visual action reducing the need for explanation in the text. But you also don’t want to sacrifice the poetry and balance and rhythm of the words – hence the to-ing and fro-ing, trying to find the right balance.

What’s your creative process? Does it vary whether you’re collaborating with an author or working on your own project?

RAY: Yes, very much. When I’m working on someone else’s text I have a ready-made frame work which, by and large, I will adhere to. There can be, hopefully, some give and take between author and illustrator, the author willing to be flexible about issues that arise in the illustration of the text, but ultimately I am always very conscious that I am entrusted with someone’s “baby,” their precious story, and I want them to be happy with my interpretation.

When I am working on my own text, it is a much less defined process, a more organic process, with text and picture developing alongside each other, constantly responsive to each other.

What kind of research do you conduct for your projects?

I’ll do some basic research into historical or national costume, though I’m never too hidebound by this. Similarly, I’ll look at cultural and national ideas to provide background and some sense of the story I’m illustrating and/or writing about. Ideas for books come from so many different places – current events, dreams, ancient stories, poems, conversations with children, my work as Artist-in-Residence at a London center for refugees – and these circumstances all bring their own references and backgrounds which serve as source material for each projects.

How do you create your artwork? What kind of materials do you use?  I understand you used collage for The Elephant’s Garden.

RAY: Yes – I use a lot of collage. I love the variety of texture and pattern that it brings, and also the references – fragments of newsprint for example. I also use watercolor, water color pencils, inks, gouache, and I’ve done a series of books using scratchboard, which looks a bit like engraving. My work is multi-layered – I always have a struggle with providing roughs because so much goes into the actual making process that can’t be shown “in brief.”

I don’t use the computer at all – I just don’t have those skills. I also rather like the physical processes of putting paint on paper.

Could you talk about your work with the Foundling Museum? I read that you were recently working on a picture book for them.

This was a while ago now and was a part of another project, In The Picture, which aimed to get images of disability into children’s books. But the experiences I had at the Foundling Museum fed directly into the novel Heartsong, written by Kevin Crossley Holland, which I illustrated recently. It is set in 18th-century Venice and is about the foundling children at the Ospidale de la Pieta, where Vivaldi was priest and composer and taught promising young girls to sing and play music to astonishing standards.

 

Do you have any advice for budding artists? So many children enjoy art, then reach seven or eight years old and either love it or decide they’re no good and give it up.

My advice is to get the sketchbook habit – to get into the habit of looking and drawing, to note things down, to collect images and ideas, snippets and fragments that intrigue and delight, or even scare you…In a sketch book you can make mistakes and change your mind, you can turn the page and do it differently – it doesn’t have to be a masterpiece. There is room to discover who you are as an artist and what you like and what makes you tick.

Have there been any projects that didn’t turn out as planned? (For better or worse?)

I always have a vision of how a book is going to be – and it never turns out like that! But that’s half the fun!

How has your work changed over the years?

I have got much more disciplined about producing the art work. I used to let things go that, looking at them later, I regretted. I have got technically more dexterous I think, simply through experience and practice. I am always wary though, of losing freshness and spontaneity – one needs to keep a childlike, open quality in one’s work.

Do you visit schools? What is that like? What kind of questions do children ask?

I often visit schools and find it both stimulating and exhausting! Children ask all sorts of things – from, “How old are you?” to, “How do you think of stories?”

What are you working on now?

A story about a unicorn – a Scottish folk tale.