Late last year an article in the New York Times caused the book world to shiver and shake and ask itself, “Is the picture book dead?” The death of various entities has been proclaimed fairly often but reports are usually exaggerated–the picture book seems to be getting by just fine off life support. They’re more expensive to produce than text or line drawings, which may mean less of them. But of course they won’t die: picture books are an art form unto themselves, a mating of art and text that has burrowed its way into childhood itself. Poor is the memory that has no favorite picture book in it. And though they may not admit it, children’s editors love them. It’s usually the editor who matches writer to illustrator (who never confer over the project and often never even meet); thus the editor gets to play alchemist and blend two disparate talents into literary gold. Some pairings don’t quite measure up; others surpass expectation. And even though I thought I was going to review only middle-grade and YA books for this blog, since we started in February I managed to come up with a boxful of favorite picture books.
Who was Naamah? According to Hebrew tradition, she was Noah’s wife. Her name, as explained by the author in an afterward, means “great singer,” and that becomes the woman’s calling. Noah and his family were not cooped up with all those animals for a mere forty days and forty nights; altogether it was almost a year from the time the first raindrops fell to the great day when enough dry land emerged to walk upon. Even under God’s protection, the inhabitants of the ark were only human, and we can readily imagine how our stellar families might behave after weeks on end with a floating zoo in a big wooden box. Naamah rises to her role as a nurturer and “keeper at home,” and fills out every aspect of her name. Night after night, she sings: As thunder crashes the seams of night,/ As Noah tosses in dreams of night,/ As restless animals prowl at night,/ As they pace and roar and growl at night,/ Naamah sings all through the night.
Since every line ends with “night,” the couplet rhyme scheme depends on penultimate words. This is a unique pattern called ghazal, an Arabic form dating from the seventh century. It captures the monotony of a world of water and combs it to a soothing rhythm that calms the troubled hearts of man and beast. And may just put your own little monkeys to sleep. Those who stay awake will love repeating the final phrase after you, and watching each animal yawn and close its eyes under a starry sky.
And speaking of Noah’s Ark, I’ve never found a better book on the subject than Peter Spier’s nearly wordless one, a Caldecott medal winner from 1978. Spier captures not only the drama of the flood (we see the waters rising over the plains, the hills, the mountains) but also the tedium of waiting for the earth to dry up (shoveling out animal pens, tick marks on the wall). Because the time is so long, baby animals start to make their appearance. The sequence of events after the dove brings back a single olive branch is both joyous and poignant, as Noah gives the animals a chance to sniff and lick and finally eat it, and he and his wife share an embrace of profound relief.
UPDATE: Grandpa Green was selected as a 2012 Caldecott silver medal winner by the American Library Association. An honor well deserved!
“He was born a really long time ago/ before computers or cell phones or television./ He grew up on a farm with pigs and corn and carrots/ and eggs.”
Author/illustrator Lane Smith (see our review of It’s a Book) uses very few words to fill out a single long, unspectacular, honorable life. The subject is the narrator’s great-grandfather, but we don’t necessarily know that at the beginning. Grandpa Green is well-named, for his special gift is gardening. The events of his life are shown in a series of topiary creations: green is the color, splashed with red and pink, lines and swirls provide the continuity and a little gardening wagon makes its appearance on almost every page.
Grandpa Green grows up, wants to study horticulture at the university but has to go to war instead. The upside of that was meeting his future wife in France. “They had many happy years together and never ever fought./ At least to hear him tell it./ They had kids, way more grandkids, and a great-grandkid: me.” We come to understand that green is the color of Grandpa’s memory, giving way to autumn reds and browns and golds. In the next-to-last pages, a shower of leaves fall from a magnificent tree with gnarled trunk and sweeping branches. The last page is a double-foldout spread that recapitulates his life in topiary, and explains the last line in the book. Which I won’t tell because you should read it for yourself.
Little children won’t be able to grasp the “ages of man” theme and they’re not likely to choke up at the end (like adults might) but they’ll enjoy watching the shrubs and hedges take shape and tracking the little wagon from one page to another. And they might just get a glimmer of respect for the years of experience packed into their favorite Grandma or Grandpa Green.
HMH has pulled together eight of its best-loved picture books (most from the eighties and nineties), interleaved with poems from favorite poetry collections, and bound them in one cover: eight books for less than the price of one! It’s one-stop-shopping for a new family or a nice addition to a Christmas basket going to a needy family with young kids. Familiar classics like Curious George and the Firefighters share space with bedtime favorites like 5 Little Monkeys and laff riots like Sheep In a Jeep. The poems are a nifty addition; I especially liked “Robert’s Four At-Bats,” a concrete baseball poem by John Grandits. And even if they turn up their nose at poetry, little boys will love “The Sphinx Ain’t All That,” which lays out the problems attending a fifty-foot cat who regards the Valley of the Kings as her personal sandbox. The other picture books are Lyle Walks the Dogs (a great counting book), Martha Speaks, The Great Doughnut Parade, Tacky the Penguin, and Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel.
If you’re still in a shopping mood after all this, here are my favorite picture books from the past year:
Brother Sun, Sister Moon – A song of St. Francis, adapted by Katherine Paterson and illustrated by the paper cuts of Pamela Dalton.
The Fantastic 5- and 10-Cent Store – A fun rebus adventure
Dust Devil – Further adventures of Angelica Longrider, the Paul Bunyon-esque “Swamp Angel” of lore.
Queen of the Falls – The Amazing true story of Annie Edson Taylor, first person to go over Niagra Falls in a barrel. Illustrated by the equally amazing Chris Van Allburg.
Am I done? No way! Check back later in the week for gift ideas in middle-grade and YA books.