Here’s another stack of picture books — poetry, goofy numbers, a big fish story, books within books, and a gorgeous tale about a boy who just wanted to draw. From board books for tiny kids to a longer non-fiction book disguised as a picture book, there are some real gems in this stack.
Drawing From Memory – Allen Say
We’ll start with this one, perhaps my favorite in this stack. Allen Say is a wonderful illustrator who won a Caldecott Medal for Grandfather’s Journey in 1991, and has illustrated many other books, often based on his childhood experiences in Japan. Drawing From Memory retraces his path to become an artist. Instead of a typical picture book, this one is text-heavy, with lots of smaller illustrations, photographs, and sketches.
Say’s love for drawing was not appreciated by his parents, particularly his father, who saw artists as “lazy and scruffy.” So he drew in secret, studying hard only so that he could move to his own apartment when he started middle school. But when his hero, the great cartoonist Noro Shinpei, agrees to take him on as an apprentice, Say is in paradise.
It’s an inspiring story, and the combination of photos and Say’s illustrations makes Drawing From Memory an intimate journey. It’s not just an autobiography, but also a portrait of Shinpei, who made room in his life for a young boy with a dream. Whether or not you’re a fan of Say’s picture books, I’d highly recommend Drawing From Memory, particularly if you have children who have shown an interest in drawing. It shows that success depends on perseverance and practice (and some good fortune) as well as on innate talent.
Jangles: A Big Fish Story by David Shannon
David Shannon is another well-known illustrator: you’ve probably seen his books No, David! or David Gets in Trouble. His scrawly, colorful paintings are perfect for capturing the perspective of a young child. In Jangles: A Big Fish Story, the lines are a tighter and the palette a little more refined, but it’s still a whopper of a tale and Shannon’s illustrations are vivid and exuberant. Jangles is the biggest fish anyone’s ever seen: “so big, he ate eagles from the trees that hung out over the lake and full-grown beavers that strayed too far from home.”
Every fisherman wants to catch Jangles, but nobody ever succeeds. One night, a young boy is out fishing after dark, when he has a close encounter with Jangles. What happens next is … well, that would be telling. Jangles is a great catch for anyone who’s fond of tall tales.
Count the Monkeys – written by Mac Barnett, illustrated by Kevin Cornell
When my daughter was younger, she enjoyed shows like Dora the Explorer, because she thought Dora was actually listening to her when she shouted out answers to the questions. But when she realized that Dora would say “Fantastico!” to just about anything, she gleefully gave wrong answers and giggled when Dora agreed.
Count the Monkeys is a counting picture book made for kids like her — kids who might still be exposed to shows and books because of their younger siblings but already know their ABCs and 123s. It is, in fact, a monkey counting book in which you don’t actually get to count monkeys. First, 1 king cobra scares them off, and then 2 mongooses scare off the king cobra … and although the narrator keeps hoping that the monkeys will be back for counting by the next page, it never seems to happen.
It’s written by Mac Barnett (of the Brixton Brothers series, among other things), so you can count on it to be full of laughs (if not monkeys). Kevin Cornell’s illustrations are a great fit, making every page a fun surprise. Unfortunately, you’ll have to wait until June for this one, but at least you know your kids won’t have outgrown it by then.
Edgar Allan Poe’s Pie – written by J. Patrick Lewis, illustrated by Michael Slack
And for those math-whiz kids, you can follow up with this one, a collection of parodies of classic poems with math puzzles in them. (And, of course, the answers are printed upside down at the bottom of each page.) From Emily Dickinson to Robert Frost to Ogden Nash, the inspirations for these poems will be familiar to you and may inspire your kids to look up the originals. My favorite math-based picture book is still Math Curse, but the advantage of Edgar Allan Poe’s Pie is that all of these are actual math puzzles.
Leave Your Sleep by Natalie Merchant & Barbara McClintock
Speaking of poetry, here’s a collection that is beautiful to look at and listen to. Natalie Merchant’s Leave Your Sleep album set classic children’s poems to music; this book takes a selection of those and adds Barbara McClintock’s illustrations. The full-length CD includes all nineteen of the poems in the book; the book and CD can be enjoyed together or independently. If your kids haven’t experienced the joys of poetry, this is a great way for you to dip your toes into the water with some old favorites. (And for you Natalie Merchant fans, the double album has seven additional songs not included in this version.)
Follow Follow – written by Marilyn Singer, illustrated by Josée Masse
This companion to Mirror Mirror by Singer and Masse (due out in two weeks) includes fourteen new “reversos”: poems which can be read in two different directions. Each poem is repeated but with the lines in reverse order (and some punctuation changes), and presents a new perspective. For instance, one poem reads as the voice of the Big Bad Wolf, out to catch a fat little pig — reversed, it’s about the pig celebrating the end of the Big Bad Wolf. The illustrations are also split in the middle, showing both sides of the poem. Genius!
Open This Little Book – written by Jesse Klausmeier, illustrated by Suzy Lee
Open This Little Book is a picture book that’ll teach your geeklets about recursion if they’re not ready for Godel, Escher, Bach just yet. When you open the book, you’re greeted by the sight of a smaller purple book inside. Opening that reveals a smaller red book, about a ladybug who opens an even smaller green book, and so on, until you get to the center, where there’s a nested story that eventually leads back out of all of the books. It’s a very fun idea, and the physical “books” inside the book are delightful. Kids will start to see the pattern after the first two or three, but they won’t know what to expect when they get to the middle.
Each “book” except for the very last one in the middle is simply one sheet of paper, but all of them together tell a little tale about, well, reading books.
For the board-book set, here are some more books-within-books. The two You Are My Baby books (one set on the farm, one in the jungle) feature colorful, simple illustrations of various grown-up animals, with the baby animals appearing on the smaller book nestled in the corner. The pages of the large book and the small book turn independently, so you can play a matching game with your kids or be silly and mismatch them.
Another series for tiny tots is Les Petits Fairytales, which takes classic fairytales and abbreviates them. Cinderella, for instance, starts with “Girl. Chores. Mean Stepsisters. Fairy Godmother. Magic Wand.” With a simple string of words and cute illustrations, these board books put a new perspective on the familiar stories. Even my older daughter, who is well past board books, thought these were clever. A few other fairy tales, such as Beauty and the Beast or The Little Mermaid, are on their way in May but can be preordered now.
Disclosure: GeekDad received review copies or advance proofs of the books reviewed in this post.