New & Notable Picture Books: 2012


In Sky Color, Peter H. Reynolds continues to explore a theme he’s taken up in both The Dot and Ish:  art is enriched by those who aren’t worried about what “should” be.  Marisol volunteers to paint the sky in her class’ mural, but she can’t find any blue paint.  Probably best for ages 3 and up, but to be honest, any toddler who’s used paint or thought about colours and the sky will be interested.

Poor Ralph must suffer through the exuberance of his classmates as they gleefully write stories and read them to each other whilst sitting around the Reading Rug.  His teacher is no help, waltzing around the classroom declaring “Stories are everywhere!” and hanging a banner that reads “Stories happen to those who tell them.”  But Ralph’s page remains blank, and that annoying Daisy just wrote a thirteen pager!  Argh!  Ralph Tells a Story by Abby Hanlon seems simple, but in fact it’s about the writing process and two things that often help a writer get the job done:  being forced into a deadline, and bouncing ideas off other writers.  Delightfully wonky, original illustrations.  Ages 3 and up.



The first time I read Extra Yarn I went a bit nuts.  “IF YOU DON’T SHARE LOVE, IT RUNS OUT!WHEN YOU SHARE LOVE YOU HAVE AN UNLIMITED SUPPLY!  THE YARN IS A METAPHOR!”  I’m not sure my husband and kids were as thrilled as I was, but there’s something about Mac Barnett’s story about a magical box of yarn that feels folk-mythie.  Is that a thing?  Folk-myth?    The story is about how a grey little community is changed when a girl finds a box of yarn and keeps knitting for others, always finding that no matter how much she knits, the box always has extra.  My kids are particularly fond of the dastardly fellow who tries to steal the box:  he has a long black moustache so I decided, naturally, that his lines should be read in a very bad Italian accent.  For younger children, it’s great fun to spot all the different things wearing sweaters, from dogs to trees to mail boxes. Jon Klassen’s illustrations are perfection — I’m fascinated by the simple genius of what appear to be knitted watercolours.


The first time I read A Hen For Izzy Pippik, I got the same sudden rush of appreciation as I did the first time I read Extra Yarn.  A little girl, Shaina, finds a chicken and figures out that it belongs to someone named Izzy Pippik, but who is he?  Despite the fact that her village has fallen on hard times, she keeps the hen and her eggs out from being eaten, determined to save Mr. Pippik’s property until he comes back.  Several months later, the village is completely transformed.  There are so many things to admire here: First, the vocabularly is strong:  “Mama stormed to the cupboard and snatched a broom.  ‘This is not a henhouse!’ she hollered.”  Stormed!  Snatched!  Hollered!  Yes!  Second, the artwork is singular, expressive and appealing; the way Shaina and the hen are drawn to communicate their bond is particularly accomplished.  Third, the story resonates on several levels, demonstrating the bounty kindness and honour can yield. Coincidentally, I read this book a few days after watching a documentary on conservation initiatives in Africa that teach people how leaving animals alone — rhinos, elephants, and gorillas in particular — and encouraging safari tourism creates greater revenue for the community as a whole than poaching.  Essentially, this initiative is A Hen For Izzy Pippik writ large.

Virginia Wolf is a bit of a puzzle to me.  It’s about two sisters, Virginia and Vanessa, based on the author Virginia Woolf and her sister Vanessa.  Virginia is feelish “wolfish,” moaning and growling and generally making people miserable, then retreating to her bed.  Vanessa tries her best to coax Virginia out of her dark mood — treats, music, jokes, questions — but nothing works until Vanessa decides to try and paint Virginia’s perfect place, named “Bloomsberry.”  This book is, quite simply, gorgeous.  Kyo Maclear’s words work with Isabelle Arsenault’s illustration so that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.  The darkness of Viginia’s wolfishness claws its way across the pages, until Vanessa’s paints bloom into a garden bursting with flowers and berries and other luscious confections, with a rabbit hopping by, and with birds flitting across the pages.  Virginia is drawn out of her doldrums and, no longer drawn as a black wolf, invites her sister out to play, her wolf ears now the twin points of a perky, upright bow perched on her head.  So, what is Maclear saying?  When you invoke the identities of Virginia and Vanessa, how do you not also invoke their sexual abuse?  The early deaths of their parents?   Virginia’s nervous breakdowns, depression, and suicide?  Are these things now just a spot of wolfishness that can be mended with a sister’s love and a gorgeous mural?   There is a very appealing and valuable story, here — when people we love are feeling wolfish, isn’t it our duty to help them out of it?  Don’t we rely on each other for this?  And don’t we also rely on dreams and art and stories to take us out of ourselves and the doldrums of life?  And shouldn’t we acknowledge that having ugly awful moods is part of being human?  All very good questions and themes to consider, and easy to present to children as young as 3, I should think.  But to use Virginia and Vanessa as the templates — why?  Surely Maclear is talking to the adults reading the book, but if we get the reference, won’t we also get the sense that what Virginia and Vanessa went through is being trivialized somehow?  Ultimately, I think it works tremendously well as a children’s book for children, if not entirely for grown-ups.



256I’m not sure why, but babies and toddlers seem to love feet and toes.  When diaper-changes turn ugly, all I have to do is ask “Where are your toes?!” and up spring the feet.  “Toes in your nose?!”  And in they go.  Giggle giggle giggle, etc.  Kiyomi Konagaya, with illustrator Masamitsu Saito, has created the ultimate celebration of baby feet with Beach Feet.  This book is so evocative of a trip to the beach, and my youngest children couldn’t resist putting their feet up on the pages, toes to toes with the book’s protagonist as she cavorts in the bubbly surf and pads over the wet sand.  The text is done in very spare, descriptive language in the voice of a child; absolutely lovely.255