There’s a new kid at school, and the title of Patrick Jennings’s new book Odd, Weird and Little describes him perfectly. Toulouse is certainly odd — he dresses in a full suit and tie; he writes everything with a quill and ink, which is definitely weird; and he’s undeniably little: “kindergartner short,” according to our protagonist, Woodrow. Woodrow takes a liking to him anyway, and the two slowly become friends. Woodrow, often the subject of ridicule for many bullies himself, stands up for Toulouse despite his weirdness. However, even Woodrow can’t deny that Toulouse is not quite normal, perhaps even not quite human. For instance, he refuses to take off his gloves or hat. He rarely speaks, though when he does he has a musical, “flutey”-sounding voice. And he can climb higher on trees and ladders than any other 10-year-old kid should be able to. But Toulouse doesn’t say a word about being different, and Woodrow is too polite to ask.
Although Woodrow recognizes that Toulouse is a little odd, he empathizes with Toulouse rather than ostracizing him, understanding that he, too, can sometimes be a little odd. This book is a humorous, light read for children in grades 4 to 6, with traditional-yet-always-relevant messages about bullying: that it’s okay to make friends with the kid everyone is teasing, it’s okay to stand up for him and it’s okay to be a little different yourself.
If you’ve read every rendition of The Night Before Christmas and you know every line of How the Grinch Stole Christmas and The Polar Express, you might be looking for something different this holiday season. Here are just a few new picture books featuring some familiar characters.
In his third adventure, The Gingerbread Man Loose at Christmas written by Laura Murray and illustrated by Mike Lowery, the Gingerbread Man and his classmates prepare songs, cards and treats to show their appreciation for their neighbors and community helpers. Drama ensues during the delivery of gifts when the weather suddenly turns windy and snowy and the class returns to school…without the Gingerbread Man! With his icing dripping and his legs doughy, will he still be able to deliver his Christmas gift to a very special person?
In The Not Very Merry Pout-Pout Fish written by Deborah Diesen and illustrated by Dan Hanna, the pout-pout fish is gloomy because he has procrastinated his holiday shopping, and still needs to find gifts for all his friends. The gifts must be perfect in every way— big, bright and meaningful, with a little bit of bling. First, he is overwhelmed by choices, and then all the stores close, leaving Mr. Fish wondering how he will find all his just-right gifts before the Christmas party. This holiday-under-the-sea is a beautifully illustrated variation of the typical White Christmas setting.
When Santa Claus arrives at the castle with presents on Christmas Eve, three knights mistake him for an intruder and are determined to keep him out in The Knights Before Christmas written by Joan Holub and illustrated by Scott Magoon. Santa Claus is just as determined to reward the knights for their chivalrous deeds, and launches their goodies over the castle wall using a Christmas tree as a catapult. This book is a fresh and enjoyable take on the original poem, and the detailed illustrations filled with speech bubbles and puns will require several re-reads to appreciate all the humor.
Publishers seem to be making a real effort to create informative books for kids that are beautifully crafted and truly spark imagination. Wide Eyed Editions are among the best, and they have recently released two atlases that are great for aspiring explorers.
Rachel Williams’ Atlas of Adventures takes readers around the world to experience different places, cultures and events. Giant illustrations done by Lucy Letherland invite readers to dive into exotic locales while interesting captions give facts and short descriptions of each unique experience. Every full-page spread offers a tantalizing peek into another culture. Choose from pages such as “Go to sleep under the Northern Lights”, “Learn to steer a gondola in Venice,” “River raft down the Grand Canyon” or “Set the world aglow at Hong Kong’s Lantern Festival.” The editors have captured some of the most fascinating events around the globe and made them wonderfully accessible. The adventures are organized by continent, and each section begins with a map of the continent showing important places as well as each adventurous destination. Readers can leisurely explore one continent at a time or jump from Paris to the Great Pyramids with a flip of the page. At the end, there is a collection of things and people to go back and search for in the illustrations.
The 50 States by Gabrielle Balkan is another wonderful atlas for children from the same publisher. This book shows children “the story” of each state and is fascinating even for readers who aren’t usually drawn to history or geography. It is a perfect balance of fun and fundamental kinds of facts accompanied by eye-catching illustrations. Maps include geographic information like borders and bodies of water, but they also include inspiring people, landmarks, “regional spotlights” for things you just don’t find anywhere else and historical moments that made each state what it is today. The book inspires an interest in the natural world by highlighting state parks, battlefields, reservations and national forests. It is easily accessible but still manages to give readers an idea of the personality of each state.
Readers who enjoy these will like other Wide Eyed Editions, such as Maps by Aleksandra Mizielinska or This Is the World: A Global Treasury by Mirosalv Sasek.
A Year in the Life of a Complete and Total Genius by Stacey Matson is the story of aspiring writer Arthur Bean. If you had to pick just one word to describe our young hero, that word would NOT be “humble.” Told largely through school writing assignments, journal entries, and emails, many of the laughs come from Arthur’s pompous and defiant attitude.
Arthur has no doubt that he will handily win this year’s short story competition — in addition to writing for the school newspaper, starring in the school play, and just generally being a seventh grader. His attention is further diverted by his crush on his writing partner Kennedy, and being forced to tutor his nemesis Robbie. On top of all that, his mother died recently, his father isn’t handling it well, and Arthur feels isolated from their extended family. It’s certainly not an easy time to be Arthur Bean. And it’s not surprising that he develops a crippling case of writer’s block.
Arthur’s confidence doesn’t waver despite never writing a single word of his short story. When he makes a choice that is even more duplicitous than usual, readers will wonder how he will justify his actions and get himself out of this tricky situation.
Fans of Gordon Korman’s Swindle and Jeff Kinney’s Diary of a Wimpy Kid series will enjoy Arthur’s antics. A sequel has already been published in the author’s native Canada.
I sat down with British illustrator and comic artist Luke Pearson while he was in town for the Small Press Expo to discuss his recent work and his ongoing graphic novel series, Hilda.
Between the Covers: How has Soft Spot [the animation you’ve been collaborating on with fellow comic artist Phillippa Rice] been going?
Luke Pearson: Phillippa is the driving force behind Soft Spot. All the stop motion stuff is entirely her. I’ve been doing smaller bits within those episodes. We haven’t collaborated that much before, so it’s nice to have something that’s actually both of us. We’re both just kind of experimenting and playing around.
BTC: You’ve also joined the pantheon of people working for Adventure Time doing some storyboarding.
LP: I’ve boarded four episodes overall and I’m hoping I can do more at some point. They’re very time consuming because I’ve always done it freelance with quite big gaps in between. It’s quite hard to get back in that mindset.
BTC: You’ve spoken before about how you’re inspired by Scandinavian myth in the creation of your own series, Hilda, but I see a lot of original world building and myth making.
LP: The Scandinavian folklore is like a jumping off point really. So much fantasy in general comes from those same stories and people just twist them and reinvent them in their own way. What I was trying to do with that was portray them in a way that is closer to how they are in the oral tales, rather than sticking a grand mythology onto them. There’s tons of stuff in Hilda which is just made up as well. I think as it goes on, it’s evolving into its own thing and the place she lives in has less of a point of reference with a real world place.
BTC: Hilda exploring the world seems like a central theme. Are you also figuring out what the rules for that reality are as you go along, or is it building on something you already know?
LP: It’s not really building towards something I already know. There are certain things that I have had locked down in my head from the start, I’m not totally winging it. But I don’t have a big bible that I wrote beforehand with all the stuff in there. I think that would feel counterproductive. As time goes on my tastes and interests change, when I draw each book I want to feel like I can change my mind about things. I’d rather do that than be a slave to this thing I made up five, six years ago that maybe I don’t agree with anymore.
BTC: Do you consider your audience as you’re working? Do you censor yourself because you know you need to appeal to kids?
LP: I don’t censor myself because I know they’re not for really little kids. It wouldn’t cross my mind to do a super dark Hilda story. What’s the point? I would just do a different comic. I want it to be a little bit scary and weird. I think kids can handle more than some people can give them credit for. If there’s a scary thing in the story, I want them to actually be scared of it. I don’t want to just put some big, goofy monster in that everyone is acting afraid of but isn’t actually scary. I always aim to resolve things in a way that is comforting.
BTC: Your next book, Hilda and the Stone Forest, is going to be coming out next year. Is there anything you can share about that project?
LP: It’s a bit different to previous ones in that it’s the first one where I feel like you probably do need to have read at least one of the other ones to get it. I’ve always been reluctant to do that in previous books, I wanted each one to be a standalone thing, but as I get deeper into the series it makes less and less sense. I feel like people enjoy the way the world is growing and it feels like a shame to gloss over all the other things. The start of the book will be the kind of things Hilda’s been getting up to. Hilda has so many magical-ish friends and tricky ways that her mom is getting slightly irate. She’s off on adventures all the time, possibly covering up how dangerous they may or may not be. It will be the first story where Hilda and her mum actually go on an adventure together.
BTC: I really like the way you’ve been portraying their dynamic. They’re obviously parent and child but they get along and it’s not stereotypical, you convey a more complex relationship.
LP: I’ve just naturally become more interested in exploring the mom character. She was just there in the first couple of books to explain how Hilda exists in the world, because she can’t live on her own. That character’s just been evolving to the point where, in this one, they’re co-leads. It’s tricky to do but I want the child reader to slowly pick up on the fact that she’s not just a mom, she is a person. It seems like in a lot of children’s fiction the parent is just a source of comfort or a source of antagonism and that’s it. They’re like a caricature. I like the idea of a kid empathizing and relating to the mom in a personal way rather than relating their idea of their mom. It’s hard to see your own parents like that until you get older.
BTC: Are you finding any of your own childhood emerging when you’re writing?
LP: I had a pretty comfortable, pleasant childhood but stuff does kind of come through. The last book all the stuff where she joins the Sparrow Scouts, that was kind of based on my experience as a scout.
BTC: Did you enjoy scouts?
LP: Yes and no, which I think I was trying to get across for Hilda. I like the idea of it and I did have fun at times, but I also didn’t enjoy it that much for not quite the same reasons as Hilda. I was just always very shy. I liked messing around but I always felt like I wasn’t very good at actual, legitimate scout stuff. As a kid I basically only enjoyed sitting and drawing and making stuff up.
BTC: What are you reading right now?
LP: I’m actually reading the Earthsea series for the first time. It’s really good. I’ve only read the first book so far but it’s incredible. I’ve had this boxed set since I was a kid, I think they were my mom’s. I’ve been carrying them around forever.
The next Hilda book, Hilda and the Stone Forest, is due to be released in Spring of 2016.
Just in time for Native American Heritage Month are two narratives of famous Indians by famous Indians for children. In response to the misrepresentation in Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's poem “The Song of Hiawatha,” Hiawatha and the Peacemaker sets the record straight on the legend of two Indians who united the warring tribes of the Eastern Great Lakes region to form the Haudenosaunee — what would become of the Six Nations Iroquois Confederacy and the oldest participatory democracy in the world (formed well before the American Revolution). This epic tale is written by Robbie Robertson of The Band fame (who was immortalized in a biography of his own last year), with page-popping illustrations by Caldecott winner David Shannon. Sitting Bull is the latest biography in a series of Lakota histories written and illustrated by S. D. Nelson, who uses the famous chief's life story to contextualize the conflicts making up the American Indian Wars. The book begins with a first-person account of the major events in Sitting Bull's life, dotted throughout with direct quotations and photographs from the time period, followed up by a detailed timeline and concluding with an author's note discussing Nelson's thoughts as a member of the Sioux.
Despite the fact that they represent different tribes and different time periods of Native American history, both stories tell of how Indians have borne the brunt of adaptation in the face of great adversity and conflict. What is most interesting about this pair of stories is how they have incorporated mediums characteristic of the Indian arts. Hiawatha and the Peacemaker includes a CD, not of an exact reading of the text but of Robertson's musical performance of the legend that parents and kids will both enjoy listening to. Nelson has formatted his work in the form of Ledger Book Art: palimpsests that evolved as interred Indians repurposed the accounting cast offs from the U.S. government, examples of which can be seen at the National Museum of the American Indian.
During that lull between the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade and football games, before your home fills up with family and you fill your bellies with food, here are a few new Thanksgiving-themed picture books to share with the kids.
Sharing the Bread: An Old-Fashioned Thanksgiving Story by Pat Zietlow Miller and Jill McElmurry depicts a 19th century family preparing their Thanksgiving feast. Everyone has their own special job — Daddy tends the fire, Grandma bakes her pumpkin pie, the baby sleeps as quietly as a mouse. Short, simple rhymes make for an enjoyable read aloud about the love, hard work and synergy that go into a holiday meal.
In Little Critter: Just a Special Thanksgiving by Mercer Mayer, Little Critter enjoys the Thanksgiving holiday with his family in typical Little Critter fashion — from forgetting his lines during the school play and singing an impromptu song instead, to hitching a ride on a parade float when he’s tired of walking. The illustrations are what make the book so special, adding an additional layer to the narrative by filling in the details that he neglects to mention or showing how his version of events diverges slightly from reality.
If you’re just looking for a quick refresher on the holiday’s roots and customers, Sally Lee delivers A Short History of Thanksgiving. The simple text, illustrated with both drawings and photographs, is perfect for beginning readers and includes details on the tradition of fall festivals, the meaning of thankfulness and also touches on modern ways of celebrating the holiday.
Sometimes the best way to tell a story is with no words at all, as Daniel Miyares has done with the picture book Float. This book uses imaginative panels to tell the story of a young boy, a paper boat and rainy day. We follow the boy and his boat on a grand adventure. Each seemingly simple picture perfectly captures the stormy weather and the boy’s thoughts and movements. Readers and aspiring readers will love this lovely little book, which includes instructions for making paper boats to occupy other adventurous souls on rainy afternoons.
A cardboard box is another fantastic vessel for great adventures, and this is where we begin in Sara O’Leary’s This Is Sadie. Sadie sails around the world before breakfast, but quietly “because old people need a lot of sleep.” She knows that adventure can be found in a book and has lived at the bottom of the sea and been the hero of every fairy tale. While she loves playing with friends in the pool, she is equally content chatting with birds at the top of a good climbing tree. This sweet story is accompanied by Julie Morstad’s charming illustrations which invite readers into Sadie’s enchanted world.
Nino has a dog that dives into the deepest water, climbs trees and dares to jump into the lap of a formidable great-grandmother, though he doesn’t really have a dog. The Dog That Nino Didn’t Have by Edward van de Vendel is a story about a boy who imagines a dog to keep him company while his dad is away traveling the world as a pilot. Nino’s dog tromps through woods next to him and comforts him when he misses his father. One day, a package arrives and Nino gets an actual dog. Though it isn’t quite the same as his imaginary dog, he learns to love his real dog. He also realizes he can still have his imaginary dog and dream up any kind of imaginary pet he wants. With that sort of menagerie it is hard to be lonely. This story is told in a wonderfully original voice, and the stunning illustrations invite you to step directly into the book.
Writer Kate Schatz and artist Miriam Klein Stahl pair up to make their wonderfully colorful and informative book Rad American Women A-Z. Each woman gets a two-page spread with a graphic illustrated portrait and a few easy-to-read paragraphs. There are a myriad of different women including actresses, artists, scientists and activists. In addition to showing a variety of careers, Schatz and Stahl feature women with different socioeconomic backgrounds, races, ages, gender identifications and disabilities. Notable features include Kate Bornstein, a transgender writer and performance artist, “who reminds us to bravely claim our true identity,” and Temple Grandin, an autistic animal science professor, “who shows us the power of a brilliant mind.” Although the text is written at a fifth-grade level, the women featured can be shared with any age group, from kindergartners to adults.
A to Z Great Modern Artists, drawn by Andy Tuohy and with text by Christopher Masters, is the kind of aesthetically pleasing book to have on your coffee table for when you want to get absorbed into something interesting but don’t quite feel like engaging yourself in a novel or magazine. Each featured artist has a portrait drawn by Andy Tuohy that replicates the style of that artist—Piet Mondrian’s portrait is drawn in the signature geometric style of his artwork, while Andy Warhol’s portrait is done in his famous pop-art style. In addition to Tuohy’s creative portraits, each letter of the alphabet feels like its own exhibit and includes notable works of art from the featured artists. You’ll want to move through the book slowly, like you would when walking through an art museum, in order to fully appreciate all of the nuances of Tuohy’s creative design.
My Cousin Momo is Zachariah OHora’s latest lovable picture book about a flying squirrel named Momo who is visiting relatives. His cousins have been anxiously awaiting his arrival, but he isn’t quite what they expected. In fact, Momo is a little weird. He doesn’t fly, his favorite superhero is Muffin Man, and he doesn’t even know how to play the simplest games, like Acorn-Pong! However, he manages to show them that being weird is cool and doing things differently is actually pretty awesome. Kids will relate to this delightful, simple story which encourages readers of all ages to look at the world a little differently. The quirky, fun illustrations are a big bonus as well.
In Aaron Reynolds new picture book, Nerdy Birdy doesn’t feel like he fits in anywhere. With his giant glasses and odd allergies, he just isn’t cool enough to hang with Eagle, Robin and Cardinal. Just when he thinks he’s doomed to be friendless forever, he meets a group of birds just as nerdy as him. They even like to play World of Wormcraft! When a different kind of outsider wants to join their flock, Nerdy Birdy needs to persuade his new friends to accept misfits of all sorts. This is a great book about making friends and welcoming everyone. Reynolds manages to make this sometimes difficult topic truly giggle-worthy.