The Skunk

The Skunk by Mac Barnett and Patrick McDonnell

by Mac Barnett and Patrick McDonnell (Roaring Brook Press, 2015)

The Skunk is a book I’ve been wanting for ages but I had no idea that I was.

I’m going to spoil this podcast interview for you, and you should still listen to it anyway, but when asked where he got the idea for this book, Mac said it was a writing prompt on an old poster in a school library:

A skunk won’t stop following you.

A fun thing is knowing Mac, and hearing his booming and contagious laugh, and picturing his long, lean self hunched over a desk with eight-year-olds hunched over their desks, writing about a skunk who won’t stop following you. I think Mac would love that too, because there’s a thing that resonates in all of his work for kids, which is a true and uncanny understanding of kid-ness, and a willingness to give them stories that grownups can’t observe in their own natural habitats.

(Sidenote: I wrote a whole thing about this recently, about honesty as a necessary thing in picture book writing and a necessary part of understanding the audience. Check it out here!)

I’m also going to spoil a big design piece of this book, so if you like to read things untainted, unspoiled, and fresh, bow out now. You’ve been warned!

But: the skunk and his man. A story you didn’t know you were dying for.

Mac Barnett and Patrick McDonnell didn’t collaborate on this book; rather, in publishing’s traditional sense, Mac did words and Patrick did pictures, and they didn’t speak of it until it was finished. In that same podcast, you’ll hear them speak of what an honor it was to work with lumps of clay the other had thrown down.

That, of course, is the very nature of a picture book. The text is incomplete without pictures; both parts are needed for the dance. 100

Here’s how I read a book.

First the endpapers.

The Skunk by Mac Barnett and Patrick McDonnell Then the case cover. (Have I told you how angry my students get when a book does not have a secret underneath?! Also, see Travis Jonker’s latest post on this for more. A treat for sure.)

The Skunk by Mac Barnett and Patrick McDonnell And the title page.

The Skunk by Mac Barnett and Patrick McDonnell This is so interesting to me, this differently styled skunk here. His etched-ness gives me pause, and is a little bit dizzying. Because here’s the thing: this small moment gives the whole story true plausibility. This skunk, this real skunk, did all of the things in this book. But I’m seeing it through an artist’s lens who might have represented it in a way that I can understand, that I can see.

Curious.

The Skunk by Mac Barnett and Patrick McDonnell The Skunk by Mac Barnett and Patrick McDonnell The color palette here is a smart choice. It maintains this noir experience, but also serves to connect the duo physically: the skunk’s red nose, the man’s red bowtie. The skunk’s black and white tail, the man’s tuxedo tails. (Both of those with a flip and a flourish.)

There is no other color, save for a muted peach, a brightness in the shadows.

Soon, the man understands what’s really happening. His eyes speak fear.

The Skunk by Mac Barnett and Patrick McDonnell The Skunk by Mac Barnett and Patrick McDonnell This standoff is one of my favorite parts. The offerings here–an apple, a saucer of milk, a pocket watch–are of no interest to a skunk. But it’s a moment of connection, the first time the man has turned to face his follower. That’s some bravery.

The Skunk by Mac Barnett and Patrick McDonnell Then things get dire and the pace quickens, and if you haven’t felt it by now, we’re talking some serious Twilight Zone stuff.

This man moves to a different part of the city, buys new things, and perhaps breathes a bit easier.

The Skunk by Mac Barnett and Patrick McDonnell The Skunk by Mac Barnett and Patrick McDonnell The man misses the skunk, because things like that worm and weasel and skunk their way into your routine, and all of a sudden, the missing it part is very real.

And here’s what else you probably noticed. The color!

Without the skunk, in a new house, with new things, the man is different. Transformed? Suddenly aware? What’s happening?

The Skunk by Mac Barnett and Patrick McDonnell

As he searches for his skunk, the colors mute. The world returns to whatever that normal was before.

My skunk.

And the endpapers again. Bookends, that duo.

The Skunk by Mac Barnett and Patrick McDonnell

There’s a thing that happens with books when your eyebrow wrinkles and you’re not quite sure where you are anymore. Those are the best kinds of stories–the honest and the daring ones and the ones that make you look at your own world with a mix of wonder and skepticism.

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Thanks to Mary Van Akin at Macmillan for the images!

A Lion in Paris

A Lion in Paris by Beatrice Alemagna by Beatrice Alemagna (Tate, 2014)

A Lion in Paris by Beatrice Alemagna

First of all. This book opens the wrong way. I mean, it’s completely right, but it is unusual in all of the most wonderful ways.

Also, it’s huge. It’s the size of a cookie sheet or a throw pillow, which is also unusual in all of the most wonderful ways.

After all, how else can you contain a lion?

A Lion in Paris by Beatrice Alemagna

He was a big lion. A young, curious and lonely lion. He was bored at home on the grasslands, and so one day he set off to find a job, love and a future.

This is such a perfect picture book setup. We meet our leading man and instantly understand what’s he like and what he wants. Succint, confident, and interesting in both visuals and voice.

A Lion in Paris by Beatrice Alemagna Something about the massive white space for the text and the intricate illustrations on opposing sides of the gutter. It’s cinematic almost–reminiscient of that silent movie era where a title card precedes the action. The frame on each side of the gutter even approximates the golden rectangle of today’s high definition aspect ratio.

They are pleasing boundaries for storytelling. The pictures don’t need to leave physical layout space for the text, and the text gets a chance to stand alone and confident as well.

A Lion in Paris by Beatrice Alemagna A Lion in Paris by Beatrice Alemagna

The people were hurrying around with a strange kind of sword under their arms, but nobody thought of attacking him. That surprised him.

A Lion in Paris by Beatrice Alemagna A Lion in Paris by Beatrice Alemagna

When he went out into the street, it started to rain. That made him think of his lovely sunny grasslands and he felt sad. He turned all grey and shiny like the roofs around him.

So off course, things will get strange and sad for our gentle giant before his journey is through. But isn’t that true of many lionhearted luminaries?

This is a book for anyone who wrinkles a forehead and grins a little at smart design. It’s also a book for anyone who feels a little lost, a little rainy, a little roar-y.

It’s for anyone who is looking for that perfect place to be still and happy.

A Lion in Paris by Beatrice Alemagna

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PS: Tate is a British publisher, not to be confused with the notorious scam-ish publisher in America of the same name.

Once Upon a Cloud

Once Upon a Cloud by Claire Keane

by Claire Keane (Dial Books, 2015)

Here’s one to hand to any kid that still can’t get enough of Frozen. And when you do, give them a little wink-nudge that this book’s creator worked on what Elsa and Anna’s world looked like. And she worked on Tangled. And then they will see the lush purple cover anyway, and sometimes that’s all it takes.

Once Upon a Cloud by Claire Keane

(click to enlarge)

Meet Celeste. She wants the perfect gift for her mom. Big eyes. Big dreams. (Sweet bear expression. And do you see those little shoes she’s kicked off? Even sweeter.)

Celeste is stumped. When she’s about to fall asleep, the Wind carries her away.

She sparkles with the Stars and then meets the Moon and the Sun.

Once Upon a Cloud by Claire Keane Once Upon a Cloud by Claire Keane (click to enlarge)

There’s something musical about the pace of the pictures here. Sweeping and epic and enchanting. The colors wash over Celeste’s celestial quest, slowly spinning one into another.

And then, she’s home again. But her heart is new and her eyes are fresh, and the same things that have always been there shine a bit more than they did before once upon a cloud.

Simple in story. Arresting in art.

Once Upon a Cloud by Claire Keane

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Review copy sent by the publisher. 

Enormous Smallness

 

Enormous Smallness

by Matthew Burgess and Kris Di Giacomo (Enchanted Lion, 2015)

This book is the author’s debut picture book, and as a poet and creative writing teacher he found a perfect venue for these words. And here’s a great look at the illustrator’s work over at This Picture Book Life. (If you haven’t seen Brief Thief, RUN to the library. Now.)

Then there’s Enchanted Lion. Smart, beautiful, well-crafted books. This small Brooklyn publisher is fresh off a huge and deserved recognition in Bologna.

So. Let’s take a look.

Enormous Smallness

Layers of letters and piles of words make up some of the best endpapers I’ve seen this year.

Before I flip another page, I’m keenly aware of this texture. What an exceptional way to visualize the poetry of E.E. Cummings. It makes perfect sense. A jumble of words and sounds and feelings are the foundation for E.E.’s work.

Words as art themselves.

Enormous Smallness Enormous Smallness

Here’s a simple sentence, spare but lovely, stating facts and straightening out his family tree. Understated, but lively is for sure in that ensemble. Can you see rambunctious Uncle George there, turning a cartwheel or just plain standing on his hands?

The handwritten labels, the cattywampus text layout, the warm texture. All so inviting.

Enormous Smallness

A happy home for spilling words.

Enormous Smallness

A poet, catching words like a bunny through a hoop.

An author, echoing exactly what young E.E. loved.

Estlin looked around

as if his eyes were on tiptoes

and when his heart jumped,

he said another poem.

Enormous Smallness Enormous Smallness

An illustrator, wrapping it all up in carefully crafted texture that smacks a bit of haphazard beauty.

It’s pretty. It’s intentional. It’s rich and wonder and a treat to take in.

Enormous Smallness Enormous Smallness

A remarkable slew of back matter includes a timeline, additional poetry, a fascinating author’s note, and another really great elephant illustration.

Magic.

Lots to see and learn and celebrate here.

Out today.

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I received a copy from the publisher, but opinions are my own.

In

In by Nikki McClure

by Nikki McClure (Abrams, 2015)

In by Nikki McClure

This is one of those books where the cover convinces you that you’ll love it. It’s both bright and cozy. Spare and warm.

A teensy giraffe peeks out of this boy’s hiding spot and you can see its smiling face, but only eager anticipation in this boy’s eyes.

Open.

In by Nikki McClure In by Nikki McClure

This is my kind of kid. It looks like a grownup is over his shoulder, offering an open door and a pair of shoes. But he’s got a tower of bricks, a colander kingdom, and the very best pair of pajamas.

In is best.

Until out is.

In by Nikki McClure In by Nikki McClure

In by Nikki McClure

And when out is cold and wet, in you go.

In by Nikki McClure

Nikki McClure’s paper cuts are intricate and exquisite, but they are also all-embracing. Not common artwork, but a reminder of the universal comforts of childhood and play and home.

A stark black and vibrant yellow are perfect patches of color to explore these opposing wishes. They balance, they tug, and they leave enough room for us to journey with him. By day and until nightfall.

In and out.

A perfect choice to celebrate curiosity, imagination, and the way we explore our world.

Another Nikki McClure favorite is here!

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There’s This Thing

There's This Thing by Connah Brecon

 

by Connah Brecon (Philomel, 2014)

I fell hard for this book. Heart-itching, squeal-worthy, big time bulging-eyeballs-love.

The title is perfect, right? An ode to the impossibility of putting all of the teensy intricacies of a crush into words.

There's This Thing by Connah Brecon

A girl. A hunt. But she doesn’t really know how to grasp this thing.

Because it’s all . . . 

and . . .

Picture sparkles streaming out of a bottle and a warm kitty snuggle. Impossible for words. Only colorful bursts of feeling.

There's This Thing by Connah Brecon (click to enlarge)

I love her green dress/red hair combo. Strong complementary colors for a stronger girl. She says she’s not brave, but she’s doing just the opposite.

She leaves a trail of crumbs. Sets a trap. And waits.

It doesn’t work.

There's This Thing by Connah Brecon (click to enlarge)

There's This Thing by Connah Brecon (click to enlarge)

Good question, little girl. (I love that her love parade is marching down Hope Street.)

So when the rain drips down the sign and the marching band has marched on, she is sad. So sad.

I really want to share my heart but I just can’t find the right way to open it.

The thing is, she had. She did. This whole time. And that’s worth a bang-up ending. You’ll see.

Here’s a fun look at Connah and his creative process, and if you haven’t given the Let’s Get Busy podcast yet, start here.

This is a perfect thing for any Valentine of your very own.

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Just One Apple

Just One Apple by Janosch

by Janosch (NorthSouth, 2014; originally published 1965 in Switzerland as Das Apfelmänchenn.)

I love a good pen name, and Janosch has one. His real name is Horst Eckert, and he is one of Germany’s most beloved children’s book authors and illustrators. He was new to me until NorthSouth revived this classic in late 2014. I’m so glad they did.

This is Walter’s story. He was the poorest man in the entire kingdom and he only had one single apple tree. A strong and beautiful tree, a nice home for a solitary cardinal. But no fruit. No blossoms. No bending branches.

Walter wishes for an apple. Just one. And when you wish with all your might, things change.

And his wishes came true, as wishes sometimes do.

Just One Apple by Janosch

(click to enlarge)

The art is loose and fiery. Full of motion and an eery calm.

But I love how this book breathes.

A page of art, a page of text. A page of text, a page of art. The contrast between Walter’s colorful (and worrisome) world and the spare white space of the words sets a comforting rhythm to a familiar story.

And the apple grows. So Walter goes to the market.

Just One Apple by Janosch

(click to enlarge)

The very worst feeling in the whole world is when other people don’t believe in your wishes.

Walter loses interest in his apple and in his wishes and in his life.

Until the dragon comes to town.

Just One Apple by Janosch

(click to enlarge)

Here’s where the breathing hitches and the white space/art space tempo gives way to one glorious spread of Walter’s wish saving the kingdom. It’s startling and ridiculous and wonderful.

And after that, Walter was careful what he wished for.

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Wonderment: The Lisbeth Zwerger Collection

Wonderment: The Lisbeth Zwerger Collection

by Lisbeth Zwerger (NorthSouth, 2014)

Happy New Year, book people! I went dark over the holidays to rewrite a draft of a novel, one I hope to be able to tell you about soon! I missed this little patch of space on the internet, and I’m excited about some new things for this blog in the coming year. But to start us off, here’s a look at a beautiful anthology published late in 2014 by one of my favorite small publishers, NorthSouth.

Truthfully, the first I heard of Lisbeth Zwerger was in this post from Brain Pickings earlier in the year. I’d barely scrolled down and was smitten with that White Rabbit’s cuffs and collar.

Wonderment: The Lisbeth Zwerger Collection

(from E.T.A. Hoffman’s The Nutcracker; click to enlarge)

This bunch represents stories from around the world, from anywhere a story for kids is revered and beloved.

There’s also a foreword by Peter Sís. He says this, which is so true and so lovely:

Her shapes and her colors are magic and inspiring. And it is so fluid. Tells so much of a story which one can only imagine.

Though not a true picture book, those words are the heart and soul of the form. And here, in these illustrated stories, you’ve probably never seen them in your heart so beautiful. It’s a fresh breath into timeless text.

Wonderment: The Lisbeth Zwerger Collection

(from Edith Nesbit’s The Deliverer’s of Their Country; click to enlarge)

Some of my favorite moments in this collection are the spot illustrations that open and close each story, anchored not by text but by the hope of some unfolding situation. The endpapers are a rich red, and the page that acts as a boundary between where one story ends and another begins is just as luxurious and saturated. The physical book is a work of art.

Wonderment: The Lisbeth Zwerger Collection (from Rudyard Kipling’s How the Camel Got His Hump; click to enlarge)

Those pages from How the Camel Got His Hump are the only places where she breaks the frame of her pictures, where she uses extra space for small works of art. Tiny snippets of story.

This is one to savor, to celebrate, and to remember. I might be a bit late to suggest her rendition of The Gift of the Magi, but it’s spectacular. Take a look.

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I Know a Lot of Things

I Know a Lot of Things by Ann and Paul Rand

by Ann and Paul Rand (Chronicle Books, 2009; originially published in 1956.)

I Know a Lot of Things by Ann and Paul Rand I Know a Lot of Things by Ann and Paul Rand

You might remember how much I love this pair’s Sparkle and Spin, and this one is just as playful and just as true. That case cover surprise is an a delight, and complementary-colored endpapers start this book with a bang.

I Know a Lot of Things by Ann and Paul Rand I Know a Lot of Things by Ann and Paul Rand I Know a Lot of Things by Ann and Paul Rand

Paul Rand’s graphic genius is so well-matched by the simple and spare words of his wife, Ann. The text and the pictures both glide through that magical reality of childhood. Things that might seem daunting to someone bested by time are small and accessible. Things that may seem obvious or forgettable are ripe for play and adventure.

I Know a Lot of Things by Ann and Paul Rand I Know a Lot of Things by Ann and Paul Rand

It’s a reminder to slow down, listen, and watch. The world is built of wonderful things. The big picture is as beautiful as the details.

I Know a Lot of Things by Ann and Paul Rand

Here, the sentiment is the whole of this person. I’m not sure there’s an ending more perfect, not for kids or their grownups. There’s so much more to know, but what you carry with you can stay.

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Snow

Snow by Isao Sasaki

by Isao Sasaki (Viking, 1982)

Snow by Isao Sasaki

I’m not too sure if this book is still in print or not, but I snagged it at a used bookstore in Seattle once upon a long time ago. It was the best six bucks I spent in the entire city. Maybe the best six bucks ever.

This book felt familiar, and I’m sure I’ve buried some memories of reading it as a kid somewhere deep inside my book-person-soul. Opening the pages again to a story both calm and busy was also the only way to experience any snow in these parts.

And so, Snow.

Snow by Isao Sasaki Snow by Isao Sasaki Snow by Isao Sasaki

The book itself is a square. It’s the soft gray of winter skies. Each illustration is framed within a border of a lighter shade of that barely gray. Maybe it’s its 1982-ness, but it also feels like looking at a slide. Remember those?

Because of this bit of framing, this story is told in snippets like snapshots—of a day, of a season, of a bustling platform, but it also feels like we’re watching from a distance, remembering something that was so simple and sweet. Snow by Isao Sasaki

And at the same time, Snow is intimate. All of the action happens in the foreground. That’s where the train rumbles and the station agent shovels.

Once upon another long time ago I wrote about the rule of thirds, and that’s beautifully at work here.

We’re looking in from the outside, thanks to the white space, but we’re right there with them, thanks to the foreground action. It’s a balance, a push and pull, and some inviting tension in the quietest of stories.

Snow by Isao Sasaki

Only one spread has an illustration that takes up the entire page. A wide rectangle becomes a perfect track for rolling in. (Or is it out? But does it matter?) A wide rectangle becomes the perfect break in the pace of this book.

Much like the snow, falling heavier at times, lighter at others. Much like the light of the day, changing from dawn to dark.

Snow by Isao Sasaki Snow by Isao Sasaki

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