The Bear and the Piano

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by David Litchfield (Clarion Books, 2016)

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I don’t want to get too far ahead of myself, but make sure you check the bottom of this post for the closing endpapers. A beautiful before and after of a beautiful story. And while we’re talking endpapers, check out this delightful new Instagram feed featuring notable endpapers.

Endies, right?

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So let me back up a bit. I suppose since it’s the middle-ish of July I can start boldly proclaiming what my favorites of 2016 are, right?

Well. This bear. This piano. His first fans. Paws down.

It’s a book that made me sigh and cry and open it again immediately after closing. It’s a book I photographed so I can swipe through it on my phone when I’m away from my bookshelf.

I’ve never done that before.

But I’ve never read a book like this before.

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There they are: bear and piano. A curious cub and a mysterious machine. Four seasons of growth, both in the bear’s size and his musical talent.

It’s pacing that is subtle and epic at once. One page turn and a lifetime of ambition.

And talent. And happiness.

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The piano made space for bigger dreams. The people made space in their boat. His bear friends in the forest watched him go. And the bear headed for the city, for fame and fortune, to applause and ovations.

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Except.

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Bears belong together. And friendship is more valuable than fame. It’s a homecoming with a jaw-dropper of a page turn. You’ll see.

And hear.

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This trailer features its UK cover at the end, and what a sweet look at the bear and his piano.

And for more on this stunning story, art from the book, and its inspiration from a song by The White Stripes, check out this post from Jules at Seven Impossible Things.

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Ooko

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by Esmé Shapiro (Tundra Books, 2016 [out today!])

One of the best things about being in so many overlapping circles of the kids’ book community is that I often get a look at a book early. And this is one that has caused me to watch the calendar day after day after day after day to make sure I don’t miss telling the rest of the world when it’s ready. And people, it’s ready.

Meet Ooko.

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Oh, how his face changes from happy to hope. Hope mixed up with some sadness, that is. Look how he’s got a fierce grip on those things he loves–his stick, his leaf, his rock. But look at where his eyes land–on happy hedgehogs, two by two.

While that might be the look of despair, let’s not forget his fierce grip. Ooko goes friend-hunting.

There’s a hole, a tree, and a moose. But no friends.

Until:

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A page prior, Ooko spotted this Debbie playing with a funny-looking fox. The kind of fox you might have at home. The kind that starts as a puppy.

But then again, Ooko is the kind of fox that looked for a friend under a moose, and Ooko is stumped.

But then again again, Ooko is resolute. Adamant. Single-minded. Debbie-minded.

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Debbie-minded enough to stick cotton candy on her head. Easy-peasy.

And it’s dear and sweet and heartbreaking to watch Ooko try so hard. And then, thanks to some smeared or shattered glasses, Ooko turns into Ruthie. A funny-looking fox, fit for a Debbie.

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(Side note: best leg hair in a picture book this year? Or ever? Not to mention that sock bun.)

It doesn’t take Ooko long to get completely over this Debbie’s games.

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This picture–OOOF. Right? Prim and proper and blow-dried and dressed up and despite wanting to be loved, this was not the kind he was looking for. According to the hairy-legged-lady’s gallery wall, Ruthie was all of those things that a fox is not.

And isn’t that the best news?

Because maybe, maybe, when you hightail it from the house that fits you wrong, you run into someone on the outside. Someone who likes sticks. Someone who wants to play.

Oh my crickets, this book. Be a Debbie and track it down, will you?

For more Ooko fun, click here for an Ooko Storytime Kit.

And don’t miss the grunts and squeals of our hero in his very own book trailer.

For friends who took a while. For Debbies who turn out to not be.

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Thank you to Tundra Books for the images in this post. Be sure to click to enlarge!

Life Without Nico

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by Andrea Maturana, illustrated by Francisco Javier Olea (Kids Can Press, 2016)

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If you’ve ever had a very best friend, this scene sums it all up. Looking away from each other, but always to one another. Navigating a trip to the stars.

Until a different trip steamrolls in.

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If a moment can be simultaneously sweet and bitter, this is the very time. These kids who want the whole world, now separated by it.

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And then what creeps in is the hole where Nico once was. It’s in the faraway sky that she can’t quite reach. It covers her heart even though all you see on her shirt is a star. And it’s in the way of making a new friend.

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Except, it’s not really. Because the hole someone leaves when they are left behind is sometimes space to let someone new in. And it doesn’t mean that the hole is gone. It just scoots over a chair.

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This tale is a look at love and loss and love again in a way that never lessens that hole. An important thing for both kids and those of us that are a little older.

A keeper. A whole world in a book.

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Thank you to Kids Can Press for the images in this post. Click them to enlarge, the tiny details are worth a closer look.

Jill & Dragon

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by Lesley Barnes (Tate, 2015)

You’ve got to see this book. And you’ve got to stick around for some extras from Lesley Barnes, its author and illustrator.

It begins on the endpapers.

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Once upon a time there lived a terrible dragon.

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And then on the title page, we can guess that we’ve just seen a snippet of this girl’s book. You can tell she’s a book lover by that throne of books she’s sitting atop. (Keep an eye on Dog throughout the pages. He’s not too sure about all of this.)

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By the time the story starts, we’re already in the middle of it.

We’re already sympathetic to this big, pink, dragon who’s dripping with knights and the letters from his story. But Jill, sweet Jill, with patterned pants equally as eye-catching as Dragon’s, ropes him up and invites him out of his story and into hers.

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It’s the tea party that changes everything.

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It’s that tea party that makes room for an exquisite gatefold and a happy ending.

It’s a meta tale that’s dazzling and dreamy and unexpected and just plain wonderful. What Lesley Barnes accomplishes with this color palette and style is nothing short of design time travel.

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(The previous three pictures provided by Lesley. Many thanks!)

I asked Lesley about her inspirations for this story, and she’s graciously given us this sneak peek behind the scenes.

As for what inspired her style for this book? These.

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Even better, these guys.

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That’s Frank and Pumpkin, Lesley’s dogs. On the left is Frank, who inspired Dragon’s look, and Pumpkin, who inspired Dog’s. Jill & Dragon is even dedicated to this duo!

One of my favorite things about books is when other art is inspired by its own. Like this fabulous Dog brooch, exquisitely crafted by Lesley’s friend, Jennifer Loiselle. 

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And how about this creation by the Felt Mistress herself, Louise Evans? Incredible.

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Untame your inspiration along with this trio. Use your talents wisely.

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A Morning With Grandpa

by Sylvia Liu and Christina Forshay (Lee & Low, 2016)

Here’s a book I have been looking forward to for a long time, thanks to the close knit and dear friendships the book community creates online. It has been such fun to sneak peeks behind the scenes of both Sylvia and Christina’s work, and I am so happy to have them both on the blog today.

Christina’s color palette of dreamy pastels in the ground and sky meets the brightly hued flowers in the same way that Sylvia’s calm and serene Grandpa meets the bouncy energy of Mei Mei herself. The text and the art is gently and joyously matched, and it’s a beautiful story that spans generations and their peaceful mornings.

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First up, some questions for Sylvia:

Tell us a little about the story behind A MORNING WITH GRANDPA. Where did the idea come from and how did it evolve?

I got the idea when I was in Vermont on a family vacation watching my dad do qi gong and tai chi and teaching my daughters breathing techniques.

In my first draft, Gong Gong taught Mei Mei qi gong and tai chi, and she taught him how to make lemonade. My critique group gave me some great suggestions. Elaine Kiely Kearns suggested that Mei Mei teach him yoga instead. Reneé LaTulippe encouraged me to develop the lyrical language. I also got a professional critique from an agent through a Writer’s Digest course, and she suggested omitting the qi gong part to streamline the story.

After the story was accepted by Lee & Low, my editor Jessica Echeverría and I polished the manuscript for several months. We swapped out different poses, word-smithed every line, and went through about eleven drafts.

How does it feel to see your words gain another life with pictures?

I am humbled that Christina spent so much time bringing the story to life so beautifully. Before I saw her illustrations, I imagined the story could be illustrated in any number of ways, from a soft watercolor look to a bright, lively style. I’m so glad Lee & Low picked Christina, who really captured the essence of the story. Now I can’t imagine the story any other way. I am thrilled and in love with the pictures.

Who are some of your story heroes?

Those who do that magical thing with words and images that transport me to a different place like Shaun Tan (THE LOST THING, RULES OF SUMMER, and THE ARRIVAL are favorites), Neil Gaiman (SANDMAN series), and Diana Wynne Jones (HOWL’S MOVING CASTLE). Those who teach me something I didn’t know in a surprising visual way like Gene Luen Yang (BOXERS & SAINTS) and Max Brooks/Canaan White (THE HARLEM HELLFIGHTERS).

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And next up, Christina:

One thing that’s so interesting about your illustrations is their dynamic compositions. Can you talk a little about that and if you have any influences in film or TV? 

Yes, film and tv have a huge influence on me and my work! I’ve always been interested in how lighting, camera angle and staging creates drama and intrigue in a composition. As I got into high school, I took a film class and learned about how the composition of a scene can be symbolic and help evoke emotion in the viewer. I actually wrote a super long 15 page paper on the symbolism and drama Steven Spielberg and cinematographer Janusz Kaminski created in Schindler’s List. I was super into it!

Then in college while studying illustration, I took more film classes and a few storyboarding classes where I really learned about and practiced the art of composing dramatic scenes for television and film. I try to infuse what I learned in those classes in my illustrations as well.

What were your initial ideas for the art after you read the text, and how much did they evolve over the course of making the book?

When I read the manuscript for the first time, I remember being excited about Mei Mei’s spunky character. I knew she was going to be the driving force for keeping the compositions active. I had to figure out a way to balance her energetic spirit with Gong Gong’s calm and tranquil personality. I think one of the main themes of the story is how opposing energies can be symbiotic, so I knew I had to create scenes that showed the strengths of each of their personalities and how they mesh together.

When I was in the final stages of the art, I noticed most spreads actually stayed pretty similar to the initial sketches I turned in. There was a lot of refining of the look of characters over the course of the book, but in terms of staging and composition, the final art stayed very close to my original ideas. You can compare these images to see how the original small-scale thumbnail sketch evolved into the final art.

The very first thumbnail sketch (about 1″x 2″)  I turned in for one of the spreads along with the final image.

GG And here is one of the first thumbnail sketches I turned in for the cover. See above for the final cover image.

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Who are some of your story heroes?

My story heroes come from all forms of art: from music to art to writing. Bruce Springsteen is one of my favorite storytellers. All of his songs are stories and always contain a cast of characters. Also Brad Bird is an amazing storyteller. He wrote a short animation called “The Family Dog” which blew my mind when I was 10. It still blows my mind actually! From the kidlit world, there are so many storytellers whose work I admire: Jon Klassen, Adam Rex, Lizbeth Zwerger, Laurie Halse Anderson, and Jon Scieszka are a few from my long list of heroes. I am constantly looking for inspiration in new places!

A big thank you to Sylvia and Christina!

For more about this beautiful book and its creators, be sure to check out the rest of the stops on this blog tour. You can find all of the celebration here. cs

Sylvia Liu is an environmental lawyer turned children’s author and illustrator. A MORNING WITH GRANDPA is her debut picture book as an author. She is inspired by oceans, aliens, cephalopods, and more. She lives in Virginia Beach, Virginia, with her husband and their two daughters. Visit her online at enjoyingplanetearth.com.

Christina Forshay was born and raised in sunny California, where she lives with her amazing husband and the two cutest kids in the world! Of course, as a child she could be found drawing, coloring, and admiring her grand collection of crayons. Christina graduated from California State University Long Beach with a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in Illustration in 2002. Since then, she has been proudly working as an illustrator for the children’s market. Seriously, what could be more fun?!?

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Apples and Robins

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by Lucie Félix (Chronicle Books, 2016)

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Here’s a book that is also a puzzle, an optical illusion, and a little bit toy-like all at once. Here’s what I mean.

So, then, a birdhouse: one small circle, two parallelograms, and a die-cut triangle.

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Or walls and a roof and a string, of course. Isn’t that what shapes are? Real, living, breathing things?

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But then wind blows and the sky rumbles, and . . .

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This book isn’t only clever cuts and shapes transforming into magic. It’s also a gentle arc of a pulsing spring. An apple, a reach, a bite, a worm.

A robin, a song, a home, a storm.

A mess, a basket, a watch, a wait.

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A winter, a spring.

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Tough Guys + an interview with Keith Negley

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by Keith Negley (Flying Eye Books, 2015)

Heads up, email subscribers: my blog took a bit of a tumble so I’m reposting what was lost in the shuffle. Apologies, and thank you for reading!

The kind folks at Flying Eye sent over a preview of this book, thinking it was right up my alley.

It’s right up my alley.

The theme: yes. The design: yes. The snappy, bold, in-your-face look at tough guys plus the snappy, bold, in-your-face look at feelings: yes.

I chatted with Keith Negley, and learned a lot about this debut effort. I hope there’s more from him, and I hope you enjoy this peek into the brain of a picture book creator.

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Hi Keith! Can you talk about where this story came from? And what the process was like for its creation?

It all started when my son Parker who was 6 at the time stole a soccer ball from a friend during soccer practice and his friend got upset and they fought over it. Parker was angry at first, but then felt embarrassed and ashamed because he knew he did something wrong. I could tell he was struggling with how to handle all these new emotions that were happening to him at the same time. He walked away from the group and sat down to be by himself because he didn’t want anyone to see him cry. Later that night, I explained to him that it was totally natural to cry and that everybody does it. I told him sometimes even I cried, and he looked up at me and asked, “grown ups cry too?

It blew his mind that even adults cried because he thought it was something only kids did. I wished I had a book I could read to him that let him know that frustration and crying is a natural thing not to be ashamed of. The next day the idea for the book popped into my head.

You’ve done a lot of editorial illustration, but this is your first children’s book. Can you tell us the how and why you got into books?

I always liked the idea of making picture books for children, but it wasn’t until I became a parent and started reading a ton of picture books to my son did I realize there was a lack of the kind of books we enjoyed. Honestly the books I’ve been working on were born out of necessity because I wanted to read them and no one else had made them yet.

Your tumblr tag line is spectacular: part man, part negative space. Can you explain where that came from and why it represents you so well?

Ha, I find tragedy to be the greatest muse. The subjects I enjoy working with the most are the ones that break my heart. It’s cathartic somehow, and I feel like I really get to put a piece of me into the work. What ends up happening is I have a portfolio of rather depressing subject matter. But I’m always striving to create beautiful images with it. That juxtaposition is challenging and rewarding for me.

Add to that I tend to utilize negative space as a compositional tool fairly often and so I thought it tied the content in with the image making nature of the blog.

toughguys-9 Who are some of your story heroes?

I’ve been a huge fan of Lane Smith for years and years. Jon Scieszka is another one. Ezra Jack Keats. Jack Kent’s Socks For Supper is one of my all time favorites as a kid and it still holds up today.

What do you remember about picture books from your childhood?

I remember my mom reading them to me and how she would make different voices for all the characters. I try to do that for Parker but he’s not into it at all unfortunately.

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What is your favorite piece of art hanging in your home or studio?

Not sure if this counts, but I like to make music in my spare time and I’m a huge nerd for vintage synthesizers. I currently have a 1979 Korg 770 sitting in my studio and just looking at it makes me very happy. I consider them works of art.

What’s next for you?

Trying to schedule some reading events for the fall/winter and I’m in the middle of working on my second book for Flying Eye which should be out in time for Father’s Day next year!

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Thank you, Keith! And vintage synthesizers totally count as works of art.

PS: Congratulations to the winner of the The Story of Diva and Flea giveaway, Ashley! And thanks to Flying Eye for the images used in this post.

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Young Charlotte, Filmmaker

Young Charlotte, Filmmaker by Frank Viiva

by Frank Viva (MoMA Publications, 2015)

So this is a super cool book. It’s part MoMA history, part this funky young visionary’s story. Look at her camera perched by her side! Her confident gaze directly into the reader’s eye! A nearly animated cover where the bittiest blocks of color almost blink!

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One of the things that I always look for in books for kids are stories that honor their realness. Their hopes and dreams and fears and feelings that sometimes grownups have forgotten all about. Charlotte always carries that slim smile, even when the nun tells her none of that. I’d imagine this isn’t the only place she’s heard that she might be a bit unusual.

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That’s because Charlotte prefers black and white to color, and when kids have a preference, it’s usually a pretty strong one. Kids don’t generally go around only sort of caring about something.

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And here’s a beautiful example of that. Charlotte’s safe world is black and white, a stark contrast to that of her parents. To the left of the gutter, a home, and to the right, something unfamiliar and loud.

But her parents know this and they understand.

On Friday nights they take her to see black and white movies. And Charlotte is happy.

And on Sundays, they go to the Museum of Modern Art. And Charlotte is happy.

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That’s where Charlotte meets Scarlett, an aficionado of black and white too, and how it clears away the clutter. And that’s where Charlotte’s smile returns.

Here’s a kid, wholly in love with something that might seem unconventional. But she has parents who get it, a trip to an art museum that seals it, and a cat who is always willing to play a part.

So that’s what Charlotte does: makes a film in black and white. Scarlet calls it dazzling and genius, but the colorful people?

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Only that was their reaction at the beginning, before Young Charlotte, Filmmaker had finished telling her story.

Be sure to check out Young Frank, Architect as well. These two are a perfect pair.

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PS: Over on Instagram, a bunch of us teamed up to share one book on a particular theme each month. This was Michelle‘s brilliant idea, and we’d love it if you followed along. Check out #littlelitbookseries! Janssen of Everyday Reading shared another favorite Frank Viva book as part of that series, which is the same one that I wrote about once upon a time for Design Mom!

And thanks to Frank Viva for the images in this post!

Edmund Unravels

Edmund Unravels by Andrew Kolb

by Andrew Kolb (Nancy Paulsen Books, an imprint of Penguin, 2015)

A book cover nodding to old travel postcards feels like a good place to end up, right? Also, study that thing closely as you read, because I’m pretty sure you’ll find each of those locations in the letters inside the book.

There’s a moment in this book where Edmund’s parents reel him in and roll him up, and I relate so much to this right now. I’m about to bounce over to the other coast, from vacation and back to school, and I feel like my tangles are going to take a lot of reeling and rolling.

But like this book says, the end is actually a beginning, and like Edmund, I’ll try my best to keep it together.

This little ball of joy, Edmund, is yarn. And when Edmund grow bigger, he can sally forth to farther spots.

(click any images in this post to see them larger.)

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This book’s shape is expertly constructed in order to explore what happens when the edge of Edmund is far from where his heart is, and a rectangle is perfect to fit so much of that journey. Note all the horizontal lines and the compositions that highlight that stretch.

And the shapes within that shape are simple, but tell such story. The cats are particular favorites of mine, how the slightest line adjustment for eyebrows soaks story into those black circles. Do you see?

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A tomato pincushion! A bust! An unfolded map and some modern art, all made up of shapes.

This book is bouncy and cheery and playful and brave, but it’s tender and bittersweet too. There are two sides to adventures: the one who leaves and the one who’s left behind.

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Edmund Unravels by Andrew Kolb And here, even the endpapers make us feel that. On my first read, I thought, “Oh, Edmund is heading into this book, into the pictures.” And at the end, he’s going back towards the book, back towards his travels. Perhaps this is what the team behind this story intended, but isn’t it also about going forward and returning home? There’s something especially beautiful here about the tug of home pulling you back.

Heading off to college soon? Get this for your parents. They might unravel a little at the sight of it.

This is Andrew Kolb’s first picture book. I hope he makes more.

PS: Speaking of yarn, have you heard about The Yarn, a new podcast from Travis Jonker and Colby Sharp? They are in the middle of an 8-episode season right now, investigating Sunny Side Up from the many hands who made it possible. Check it out!

And thanks to Penguin and Andrew Kolb for the images in this post!

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?

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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.

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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!