Thank You for Being a Friend: Abby Reviews Two Picture Books for Kids and Adults

Abby looks at two titles today: a new picture book for grown-ups set to the lyrics of Andrew Gold’s theme song for The Golden Girls, and Castle of Books, Alessandro Sanna’s  joyous introduction to the worlds waiting to be unlocked by the gift of reading. Both are uplifting celebrations of friendships and a reminder that we’ve all got each other’s back, even when going gets a little dark. Brighter days ahead–


Lucy, by Randy Cecil

LUCY. Copyright 2016 by Randy Cecil. Reproduced by permission of Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA. 

Lucy, by Randy Cecil; Candlewick Press, $19.99, 144 pages, ages 4-8.

Lucy is a homeless dog living on the streets of Bloomville, and every morning she trots to an apartment building where she waits on the stoop for little Eleanor to drop a piece of string from her window to play with the pup. Meanwhile, Eleanor’s father, a juggler, heads off to work, where he never makes it to the end of a show without a hook prematurely pulling him under the curtains. And so the stage is set for this charming tale in four acts that chronicles how the lives of these three characters intersect. Each “act” reveals slight derivations in the narrative’s internal repetition, encouraging readers to be diligent about noticing details. Randy Cecil’s round black and while oil illustrations give the impression of watching an old-time film through a lens. Weighing in at a surprising 144 pages, this picture book targets five to eight year olds; a group often recently weaned from big-format children’s picture books and anxious to move into short chapter books and graphic novels–in short, a demographic that doesn’t want baby books but still enjoys full-page illustration.

Cecil’s smart, sensitively crafted picture book hits all the right marks. 

Make Monday Bright

@HMHCo @huffpostbooks @bwon1

Hooray for Hat, by Brian Won; Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $26.99, 40 pages, ages 2-6. (Available June 26, 2016)

The Huffington Post dubbed Brian Won’s picture book debut it’s overall pick for best read-aloud of 2014. Now, the story of a crabby elephant whose jaunty topper brings joy to his fellow jungle creatures is available in Big Book format. Clutches of young readers can gather around Won’s delightful illustrations of pouting giraffes, sour turtles, petulant owls, and a wonderful assortment of hats sure to brighten any gloomy day. Chapeau to this adorable update ideal for libraries and nursery-school classrooms, or anyone facing an oversize case of the grumps.

The Hero Two Doors Down


The Hero Two Doors Down, by Sharon Robinson; Scholastic Press, $16.99, 208 pages, ages 9-13.

Eight-year old baseball fanatic Stephen Satlow lives for his beloved Brooklyn Dodgers, and one day the boy’s hero, Jackie Robinson, moves into his mostly Jewish neighborhood. The baseball giant befriends Stephen while teaching the boy about respect and courage in the face of adversity. Written by Sharon Robinson, Jackie Robinson’s daughter, The Hero Two Doors Down is based on interviews Sharon conducted with the real Stephen Satlow. Though a wonderful premise, sections of the story are weighed down by overly didactic passages, and some dialogue exchanges are clunky. Still, young sports fans and reluctant readers may find the book enjoyable or be inspired to seek out further reading about this most remarkable person.


Hector and Hummingbird, by Nicholas John Frith; Arthur A. Levine, $17.99, 32 pages, ages 3-6. (March 2016) 

Nestled somewhere in the wilds of Peru live Hector the bear and his best friend, Hummingbird. Lately, Hummingbird has been more of an albatross than buddy, and his constant chattering finally pushes Hector to the limit. The bear heads deep into the forest in search of peace and quiet, only to realize he and Hummingbird are birds of a feather. British author Nicholas John Frith’s debut picture book is a catchy readaloud, and the bright, bold illustrations done in flamingo pink, turquoise, and astroturf green have a delightfully retro appeal. Fifteen Peruvian animals are hidden in the backgrounds (there’s a guide on the endpages), a fun bonus activity for when the reading is done.

Frith’s innate ability to combine words and text for the picture-book crowd make him an author to keep on your radar. It’s hard to believe that this is his debut. Perfect pace, great art, fun story. I think (and hope) we’ll see more from him in the future. 

Musical Bears

The Bear and The Piano, by David Litchfield; Clarion Books, 32 pages, $16.99, ages 4-7.

If a bear plays a piano in the woods, does he make music? In David Litchfield’s debut picture book, the answer is a roaring ‘yes.’ In it, a precocious bear stumbles upon a bramble-covered piano that has somehow been miraculously deposited in a forest glen. The creature is instantly drawn to the instrument, and despite initial disappointment with his efforts, the bear keeps practicing, until he is serenading great gatherings of grizzlies. When discovered by humans, the bear dons a tuxedo and hits the road, finding fame tickling the ivories. What happens when he misses home and how his friends greet the bear upon his return is a touching testament to hometown pride and everlasting friendship. Litchfield’s mixed-media illustrations are full and lush, captivating with glimmering detail. Readers of all ages eagerly await the author’s encore performance.

Coralie Bickford-Smith is the design mastermind behind many of the stunning covers of Penguin’s clothbound Hardcover Classics series. Now, she has written and illustrated her own book, The Fox and The Star (Penguin Books Hardcover Original; $20.00, published November 10), a timeless tale of an unlikely friendship and courage in the face of hardship.

The book’s production values are exquisite–printed in Italy on creamy, uncoated, Munken Pure Rough paper and bound with bright orange thread, Bickford-Smith’s intricate designs recall the work of English textile designer William Morris. The Fox and The Star has all the trappings of a modern classic, the result of Bickford-Smith’s unrelenting quest for perfection. It is a delight to behold and to read. 

Bickford-Smith spoke with me recently about writing and illustrating her own story, and how the process of putting the book together was as important as the words that fill the pages.

How did you come up with the story?

The story had been in my mind’s eye for a number years and the dream was always to make it into a book when the time was right. I wanted to distil my own experiences of life, lessons that I have learnt, into a simple story. I like the idea of turning life’s tough times into beauty.

Could you talk about the design process for The Fox and The Star?
(I imagine foil-stamping on cloth boards posed its own set of challenges.)

After the basic storyline had been agreed on, I had to get it to fit into the required amount of pages, decide how to illustrate it to create tension and pace as the book was read. Then it was about drawing and sketching out ideas for page layouts and creating dummies of the book. The process was a constant back and forth to see what should be improved, words were changed right up until the last minute before printing. As I did all my own design and art working it was an immensely involved process. The cover foiling was perfectly reproduced, we worked with the most amazing printer and this was the one area in which I knew I could be certain of producing well. My biggest battle was with my own self-confidence about whether I could produce something worth reading.

What was different (if anything) about designing and illustrating your own book?

It was a big departure for me to create an entire book instead of just visualizing and housing an author’s words, so everything felt different. I had never created a narrative visually or told a story through my illustration. For book covers I usually create symbolic elements and pattern to create a sense of the narrative contained within a book. The same skill set can seen see throughout pages of The Fox and The Star but I didn’t want to rely too heavily on this. A story needs to be told and narrated not just decorated. There was a lot to learn and consider. It was exciting to have a totally new challenge. I know that there is still much for me to learn about storytelling.

You studied Typography and Graphic Communication at Reading University. What drew you to the art of arranging type and the world of book design?

I had always been drawn to this area of creativity. Obsessed by books from a young age, constantly drawing my own type faces. It was not until I went to Reading University for my interview that I really felt that there was a place in the world for me to fit into. All my passions suddenly made sense and I was happy to be surrounded by like-minded people. It was instantly apparent that I absolutely had to study at Reading.

Your Penguin Hardcover Classic Clothbounds are considered by many to be modern collectibles. Where do you find your inspiration?

Much of my inspiration comes from looking backwards in history. Design rules are timeless. William Morris, William Blake, Rockwell Kent, Edmund Dulac and Audrey Beardsley are big influences, to name a few. This inspiration also naturally fed into The Fox and The Star. I was so eager to do an entire book from start to finish. I love the craftsmanship from the arts and crafts movement. Everything had meaning and was created with passion for the medium used. I feel that today we are becoming more and more separated from the process of creating. I want my work to be as lovingly considered as the words inside.

What was your medium for illustrating the interiors?

All my ideas come to me by drawing on paper. When something strikes me as exciting, I draw it to scale and use coloring pencils to create energy and excitement. I draw and draw until I get things right and then I take it into the computer so that it can be colored and made ready for press. I loved the fact that I controlled every aspect of the process. From writing to the drawing to the intricacies of file separation for the plates that go on to the printing press to print the right colors.

The paper stock is lovely – did you have a say in selecting it?

Yes, that paper is lovely. It is my favorite paper stock – Munken Pure Rough. I had a say in all the materials used to produce the book, right down to the orange thread that was used to sew the pages together. How the book was produced was as important to me as the story. I was lucky to be working with people that appreciate how important these elements of book design are to me.

What are you working on now?

After my time away from my Penguin day job, working on The Fox and The Star, I am once again knee-deep in Penguin classic fiction cover design. Its a bit of a treat to be back in my comfort zone again but I have a new story that is bouncing around my head so I really must start entering the zone of the unknown again.

The Baseball Player and the Walrus, by Ben Loory, illustrations by Alex Latimer; Penguin, $16.99, 32 pages, ages 5-8.

We’ve all heard the saying ‘money can’t buy happiness,’ and that phrase certainly rings true in this quirky tale of friendship and happiness. Here, a wildly successful baseball player feels unfulfilled and lonely, until the fateful day he decides to visit the zoo where he meets a belching, fish-eating walrus. Smitten, the baseball player wants to bring the creature home, and builds a state-of-the art walrus enclosure behind his home, where they spend many days playing catch and enjoying each other’s company. Soon, baseball season starts, and while on the road, the athlete discovers that he would rather be with his friend than sitting in faraway hotel rooms. So, he quits. Unfortunately, caring for walruses is expensive, and the bills start adding up. What will the ball player do when his companion is carted away? Debut picture book author Ben Loory explores unending devotion with words that even the youngest readers will understand, while Alex Latimer’s hand-drawn illustrations are spot-on.