Today’s picture books function not so much as story-tellers as idea-generators.
Each is meant to be taken at a bit of a slower pace. New ways of thinking and looking at the world offer themselves to those willing to pause, ponder, chat about the notions on tap.
That means that kids who prefer short-and-snappy, active reads may not gravitate to these selections, but there are other kids — and you know just who they are — who will eat these up, mulling the ideas over and coming back to them in conversation in days to come.
These kids vary widely in age. Some 2- or 3-year-olds process the world this way, yet the ideas here will tickle the minds of kids many years older than that as well.
So today — no age recommendations from me.
I simply hope my reviews help you match the right reader to these outstanding books.
Is Was, written and illustrated by Deborah Freedman
published in 2021 by Atheneum Books for Young Readers
Freedman’s brilliant meditation on change, on the transitory nature of our world, focuses on bits and pieces of nature familiar to us all. That’s a wonderfully concrete, welcoming, relatable approach to quite an abstract concept.
A sky is blue one minute; then clouds roll in and the sky was blue, but now is raining. A drop of rain that was spilling down, now is a puddle. (And when you think of it, that rain once was, perhaps, a puddle before it evaporated and became rain.)
Bird song, bees, sunshine and shadow, quietness and sound, the back and forth of a child on a swing, the colors of sunset that continuously morph — changes both subtle and extravagant fill our days. Freedman’s minimal text demands that we observe and interpret the illustrations, connecting what we see to the theme of is and was.
Yet some things stay constant, and Freedman comes full circle, concluding her book with a snug, stabilizing thought. A truly lovely call to observe and appreciate the fleeting moments of beauty around us.
Time is a Flower, written and illustrated by Julie Morstad
published in 2021 by Tundra Books
Along similar lines, Julie Morstad explores time by considering numerous concrete ways we observe time passing.
Time shows itself as a seed sprouts, becomes a dazzling flower, droops, drops its petals.
Time is evident in the growth of a tree. The passage of time is seen in a butterfly’s transformation and in the eons of time represented in a worn-smooth pebble. We can watch time pass as shadows shift across the walls of our house, or as bread dough puffs and rises in the bowl.
Morstad’s conversational text readily welcomes children into these manifold, wide-ranging considerations while her ever-lovely artwork makes each page a gorgeous, elegant treat.
This book is slightly more concrete than Freedman’s. It’s a supremely inviting piece of art from one of my favorite book-makers.
The Happiness of a Dog with a Ball in Its Mouth, written by Bruce Handy, illustrated by Hyewon Yum
published in 2021 by Enchanted Lion Books
Moving along to emotion — this delightful book explores happiness, all the many ways it looks and feels, and once again uses marvelously concrete moments to capture the flavor of this delicious aspect of life. I mean, what a title! A dog trotting along with a ball in its mouth truly is the definition of happiness!
Each metaphor — whether happiness is a new day, or sharing some cotton candy, or wrapping up in a snuggly warm towel after a bath — gains substantial meaning by its paired contrast. That contrast might be to slowness, nervousness, boredom, even to loss; registering that feeling first makes the shift to happiness fairly burst in our chest as the scene changes.
Hyewon Yum was handed these brief phrases and has masterfully interpreted them for us with her warm, brilliantly-composed, and perfectly happy illustration work. What a feat!
Emphasizing child-friendly, primary colors, and gentle, curving line,
even the scenes depicting opposites-of-happiness contain a sense of safety.
Each page of this book is deeply satisfying and the whole is like a warm hug.
Three, written and illustrated by Stephen Michael King
first published in Australia; published in the U.S. in 2021 by Neal Porter Books, Holiday House
This is the one book on today’s list that actually features a plotline. To start things off we meet a sweet, stray pup named Three. At least, that is how Three has named himself, for he’s got exactly three legs, and Three identifies all the various creatures in his world by this leg-accounting.
As Three contentedly meanders about snatching food where he can and casually looking for a home, we discover the world through his lens. Three meets and cares for a six legs and an eight legs; he observes a long legs and some very stiff four legs. There are so many different folks with their various appendages!
At last Three encounters Fern — “a two leg pretending to be a three leg, just like him” — who loves little Three with her whole heart and Three makes Fern’s family a perfect four.
Such a clever and warm-hearted story! I think kids will be delighted with Three’s use of numbers to name his companions and can well imagine some will eagerly figure out how to alternatively name the animate and inanimate items in their own sphere as well.
King’s scruffy line perfectly communicates the mutt-ishness of Three and the free-wheeling, generous nature of Fern.
The Museum of Everything, written and illustrated by Lynne Rae Perkins
published in 2021 by Greenwillow Books
Finally, this salute to the wonder of everything, a beckoning to a slower, more careful, appreciative, curious approach to the juicy ingredients in the world which are so easily unnoticed, blurring into the background of busy, jaded eyes.
The child in this book has a way of coping with her world’s onslaught of noise and rush — tuning in to the details around her, picking out the glories in everyday wonders, and setting them in a sort of museum in her mind which she could call “the Museum of Things I Wonder About.”
As her thoughts chew on these wonderings, more ideas are sparked, entirely new museums of the mind emerge. She wonders “if anyone has ever made a skirt that looks like a bush in springtime,” and from there her thoughts drift to what fantastical entries might go into a Museum of Bushes.
Likewise she muses on hiding places, the peculiarity of shadows, the transient qualities of the sky, and the tiny things one finds in the world that feel like free souvenirs. Each of these might be collected in a unique museum.
A huge part of the appeal in this book is Perkins’ illustration work which is in part comprised of collages and 3D scenes. They aren’t sophisticated, polished-looking creations, though. Instead they evoke a childlike, homemade, quality. They look like displays and dioramas a creative kid might concoct herself. I love the way this invites children to do just that, to curate collections, create mini-museums of their own imaginative wonderings. Perkins says she wrote this book for kids who “like to be in a quiet place sometimes (even if it’s only in your mind), or if there is a lot you wonder about, or if you like to make things.” A sterling purpose and superlatively well-met.
I hope these books facilitate copious wondering, imagining, creating, and out-of-the-box thinking
for young and old.
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