like cayenne in dark chocolate: unusual ingredients in picture books…a list of five

There are quantities of fabulous picture books that address somewhat similar ideas: Don’t be mean. Share. Try again. Go to sleep.

Today’s books all struck me by their unusual subject matter. If you’re looking for something a bit unexpected, dive right in.

the secret subway cover imageThe Secret Subway, by Shana Corey, illustrated by Red Nose Studio
published in 2016 by Schwartz & Wade Books

Not only is the story in this book astonishing, the illustration work is outstanding and inventive! This is creative-nonfiction storytelling at the Grand-Prize Purple-Ribbon level.

First off, it’s a bit like discovering there was a secret panel in your kitchen wall you never knew existed. Because it’s the story of an actual, honest-to-goodness, functional, but secretive subway in New York City. I refuse to spoil the story any more by giving you the details. I was flabbergasted. You will be, too.

the secret subway illustration red nose studio

Then, Chris Sickles, whose illustrator name ( I love this) is Red Nose Studio, has painstakingly created clay figures and intricate dioramas of the scenes, then photographed them in atmospheric lighting. Oh. My. Word. 

the secret subway illustration2 red nose studio

If you buy your own copy, you can take the dust jacket off and he has written a little tutorial of just how he does this. There is, as Anne Shirley would say, so much scope for the imagination here.

Highly recommended for ages 5 and up. For more oohs and ahs, take a gander at Red Nose Studio’s website here.

mabrook cover imageMabrook!: A World of Muslim Weddings, by Na’ima B Robert, illustrated by Shirin Adl
published in 2016 by Frances Lincoln Children’s Books

Mabrook means congratulations! Travel to Pakistan, Morocco, Somalia, and Britain to congratulate these Muslim couples on their festive wedding days.

Discover fascinating traditions unique to each homeland. Intricate henna patterns. Mounds of couscous and roasted lamb. Drumming and dancing. A mix of kilts and hijabs when two cultures come together.

mabrook interior2 robert and adl

And discover the similarities uniting all of them because of their Muslim faith. Simply written and most-colorfully, happily illustrated, this is a joyful glimpse into another culture, a lovely bridge towards appreciating diverse peoples. Ages 3 and up.

the dead bird cover imageThe Dead Bird, by Margaret Wise Brown, illustrated by Christian Robinson
text written in 1938; reissued with new illustrations in 2016 by Harper

The text of this book was written in 1938 by Margaret Wise Brown, author of such classics as Goodnight Moon and Runaway Bunny, and published 20 years later with artwork by Remy Charlip.

Almost 60 years later, Christian Robinson, whose art I am smitten with, has braved the challenge of illustrating it anew. He has done an extraordinary job, bringing it straight into the present, adding diversity to the cast, and including some instinctively-childlike touches that I love.

the dead bird interior brown and robinson

For instance, I love the role of the dog Robinson has added.

A dead bird might seem like a morbid and morose topic for a children’s book. And, thus, its inclusion on today’s list! But Brown’s straightforward, uncomplicated approach to her topic actually succeeds in stripping away the hushed, out-of-bounds, shrouded feel that might surround, confuse, even frighten children about death. She seems to take them by the hand and acknowledge what they are thinking anyway, simply, honestly.

This little flock of children, out for a play in the park, come across a little bird that has just died. And so, as children will do, they proceed to have a wee funeral for it, digging a tiny grave in the woods, wrapping the tiny bird in grapevine leaves, lining the hollow with ferns and violets, and singing an invented song.

the dead bird interior2 brown and robinson

Any child who has experienced the death of a pet or a wild animal will relate to the profound, unromanticized thoughts and emotions of these children and the bond they share in this small moment. Robinson’s work both acknowledges the seriousness of the children, and the bright world they live in. Ages 3 and up.

swatch the girl who loved color cover imageSwatch: The Girl Who Loved Color, written and illustrated by Julia Denos
published in 2016 by Balzer & Bray

This is a book about a girl who lassos color.


She is a color tamer. A color collector. Her room is lined with jarfuls of the wildest, most pandemonious colors you can think of, all shrewdly, patiently, vigorously collected by the intrepid Swatch.

One day Swatch encounters the wildest, most obstinate, roaringest color of all. Instead of capturing it, it seems Swatch has met her match. But stranger things yet are in store.

swatch the girl who loved color interior julia danos

It’s like a waterfall of imagination, a fizzing soda fountain of color and zest. Left me shaking my head and smiling. If that sounds like a day-brightener for you, then grab this one for ages 4 and up.

when god made you cover imageWhen God Made You, by Jane G. Meyer, illustrated by Megan Elizabeth Gilbert
published in 2015 by Ancient Faith Publishing

Finally, this little book presents an unusual perspective on the ingredients that make people unique.

Have you ever played a game with your children — If Sophie was an animal, what would she be? If Caleb was a flavor, what would he be?

The author of this book takes this sort of poetic approach, listing some unusual elements God might have stirred in the pot to make a diverse collection of children. Fireworks. Candlelight. A skein of orange wool. The range of materials is imaginatively-wide.

when god made you illustration2 megan elizabeth gilbert

Then these children are sent into the world to plant, build, paint, pray, depending on what’s at their core. It’s an affirming viewpoint, enticing readers to mull over what their own lists of ingredients might be.

when god made you illustration megan elizabeth gilbert

This book was given to me by the publisher, Ancient Faith, and I’d love to pass it along. If you have a U.S. shipping address and would like to be in a drawing for it, just comment on my blog before Wednesday, May 18.