On a bright day in early autumn, I found myself sitting on the floor of my favorite bookstore with a pile of picture books two feet tall. The kids (and their parents) gave me several curious glances, but I was content. Anyone who thinks there are few worthy children’s books being produced these days just isn’t looking carefully. (On that afternoon alone, I found twenty books I would have been glad to take home.) As a matter of fact, we are seeing a bit of a renaissance in children’s literature. Both picture and chapter books of excellent style, wit, and beauty—books that delight and engage—are being published every year.
A new rendition of Aesop’s The Lion and the Mouse, for example, is worth seeing. The story is one of the most commonly adapted of Aesop’s fables, but illustrator Jerry Pinkney breathes new life into it in this wordless retelling. He deserves the Caldecott Medal for two pages alone—the spread in which we see the lion first regard the mouse. The lion’s face is curious, awed, and perplexed by this tiny, shivering, terrified thing. His mouth is ready to growl, but his giant paws are gently outstretched. In this magnificent watercolor, Pinkney captures the power of the lion’s decision better than any moral written at the end of the tale ever could.
Uri Shulevitz won my heart last year with his How I Learned Geography; this year’s When I Wore My Sailor Suit is equally captivating. Shulevitz was born in Warsaw, in 1935. His childhood was marked by hardship, but his stories reflect the treasures of an active mind and imagination. A common enough premise, perhaps—but Shulevitz always manages to capture a little something more than the flat children’s-book message, “the imagination is a wonderful thing.” He brings us into our young hero’s world to play, see, learn, and imagine alongside him as he ventures to the upstairs apartment to play with a sailboat, conquer pirates, and sail the wide seas. It is a journey I’ll gladly take, especially when it’s so cheerfully illustrated.
The Super Hungry Dinosaur, written by 1994 Hans Christian Andersen Award winner Martin Waddell and illustrated by Leonie Lord, is perhaps the silliest of the books I love this year. Hal and his dog Billy are playing in the backyard when a Super Hungry Dinosaur barrels in to eat Hal. When Hal objects (he’s small), the Super Hungry Dinosaur suggests alternatives. But Hal is the master of the situation. When the Super Hungry Dinosaur wrecks the backyard, Hal makes him clean it up. Then Hal’s mother makes the Super Hungry Dinosaur a big bowl of spaghetti, and the family tells him to come back anytime for dinner. That’s all there is to it. And it’s wonderful.
Chris Van Dusen is known mostly for his illustrations; in The Circus Ship he writes poetry as well. A circus ship carrying fifteen exotic animals is wrecked off the coast of Maine. The animals swim to shore, and, when the tiger rescues a young girl from a burning building, the townspeople decide to take them in. The mean circus master comes to gather his animals, but the townsfolk hide them. The two-page spread wherein the animals are hiding in plain sight is rich with comic detail. There is much to enjoy in this book—bold colors, hilarious caricatures, and silly rhymes. It is especially suited to beginning readers.
Picture books aren’t always devoted to silly themes, and Lois Lowry’s Crow Call is no exception. It is 1945, and Liz’s father is a stranger to her because he has been away at war. When he takes her hunting one day, it is the beginning of their renewed friendship. Not only does he buy her cherry pie and teach her how to use a crow call but he allows her to ask hard questions and gives her honest, caring answers:
“Daddy, were you scared during the war?”
“Yes, I was. . . . Of being alone. Of being hurt. Of hurting someone else.”
“Are you still?”
He glances down. “I don’t think so. Those kind of scares go away.”
“I’m scared sometimes,” I confide.
He nods, unsurprised. “I know.”
In any other hands, this story might be too sentimental, but Lowry’s treatment is gentle and moving. Bagram Ibatoulline’s illustrations are done in honor of Andrew Wyeth and mimic his restrained palette. Lowry wrote this story to reflect the universal theme of “parents and children groping to understand each other,” but I think its tender heart comes from the fact that it actually happened to her.
Many publishing houses that focus on art and architecture have begun to reprint children’s books that fit their overall design aesthetic. Some of these books, like Piero Ventura’s The Book of Cities, first published in 1975, are real treasures. Ventura, an Italian designer and illustrator, was inspired to write a book about the cities of the world because he wished to see the world as a bird does. From the air, Ventura says in his opening note, cities and their inhabitants look “tinier and more curious.” On each two-page spread, Ventura presents characteristic scenes from different cities around the world, both familiar (New York’s subway and Rome’s Spanish Steps) and exotic (Hong Kong’s houseboats and a North African bazaar). Reading his book is like listening to a well-traveled grandfather tell stories of his life: The tone is warm, and he often mentions interesting facts about each city as if he just remembered them. The enforced bird’s-eye perspective curiously equalizes Ventura’s subjects. Whether they are treading through snow or basking in the sunshine, all city dwellers (and, by extension, all men) still work, play, eat, laugh, sleep, and sing.
There are more picture books about St. Francis of Assisi than any other religious figure, including Christ; Francis’ love of animals is rich fodder for an artist. Tomie dePaola, the most dependable of Christian authors, makes Francis’ “Canticle of Brother Sun and Sister Moon” his subject in The Song of Francis. A breathtaking development in style, it has all the classic dePaola motifs: folk-inspired shapes and decoration, brilliant colors, humble faces. But here, instead of relying on pen, ink, and watercolor, he uses cutouts to illustrate Francis’ joyful hymn of praise. The birds are so vibrant they seem to fly off the page. Through his illustrations, dePaola manages to convey Francis’ overwhelming love and gratitude for God and his creation. This exuberant book is, without question, my favorite of 2009.
If you are seeking a Christmas-themed book for someone on your gift list, let me recommend two lovely Christmas stories. The Gifts, by Regina Fackelmayer and Christa Unzner, is a German tale. Finished with her Christmas Eve shopping, Mia helps an old man with his bundles and gives a little boy her hat to keep warm. The little boy and the old man (whom the boy calls his “grandfather”) return with a Christmas tree all lit up and thank Mia for her generosity. When they disappear into the night, they leave no footprints in the snow. In this sweet and simple story, Mia’s kindness toward the old man and little boy (subtly hinted at as being St. Nick and the Christ child) demonstrates, without being moralistic or pedantic, the true spirit of Christmas giving.
The second excellent Christmas story is Leo Politi’s Pedro: The Angel of Olvera Street, a Caldecott Honor book. Politi is the author of the classic Song of the Swallows, about the swallows returning to Capistrano. The John Paul Getty Museum has recently republished many of his classic works, some long forgotten. In Pedro, Politi introduces us to a lovely story about a section of Los Angeles where—at least in 1946, when the book was written—they still have blacksmiths, candlemakers, and glassblowers. They also carry out the Mexican Christmas festival of the Posada. Every day the people process through the streets, carrying statues of the Holy Family, knocking on doors, and begging, reenacting that fateful night in Bethlehem. Politi includes traditional songs, with sheet music: We weary pilgrims / Come to your door / Shelter in your puesto / We beg, we implore. On the ninth night the doors open wide, and Christmas is celebrated with joyful song, a piñata for the children, food, and dancing. Pedro, a little boy who can sing like an angel, is responsible for this year’s decorations. His hard work is rewarded when he gets a beautiful music box from the piñata.
Finally, to top off your list of great gifts, both silly and serious, consider This Is the Way to the Moon, the fifteenth in the City series by Czech illustrator M. Sasek; Harry and Horsie by Katie Van Camp and Lincoln Agnew (a perfect bedtime story for boys); All in a Day, by Cynthia Rylant, with papercut illustrations by Niki McClure; Moon Man, by the clever Tomi Ungerer; and Erika-San, by Allen Say.
This year also marked the long-awaited republishing of one of America’s greatest picture books: Blueberries for Sal by Robert McCloskey. Young or old, if you buy only one book this year, let it be Blueberries for Sal.
Margaret Perry, an avid collector of children’s books, reviews books at www.LittleLambBooks.blogspot.com and works at the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, D.C.