Tag Archives: Picture book

Green – Laura Vaccaro Seeger

One of the most empowering gifts you can give to a child is the skill of paying attention, of noticing. A child’s context explodes when she notices the life around her deeply. Simple enjoyment of very small and enormously significant things multiplies exponentially. People who are aware are smarter, cope better, appreciate what is real and live richer lives. That’s why the paint box is better when it contains many hues, not just primary and secondary colors. Several shades of green, for instance.

Laura Vaccaro Seeger’s beautiful picture book Green is spare on language but overflowing with so many permutations of green that you will be fascinated and return to examine it again and again. Green contains 33 words (I counted) but you could spend hours lost in them, exploring the circumstances in each gorgeous picture that cause the green, that alter the shade, that contribute to the intensity. Green is characterized, embodied in a slow inch worm, incongruous on a zebra and wholly absent in the landscape around a snowman. Observation leads to discussion–which improves vocabulary, understanding of basic science, mastery of abstract concepts like fierce and faded, acknowledgement of complexity–how can green be khaki, which is almost brown, and lime, which is very yellow? There is a whole world in green–and in this book.

Clever cut-outs add to the magic by revealing butterflies and moths, inchworms,  a nightlight, a flower, and even adjectives made of reeds and splotches that, isolated in the cutout, form words. Give a kid something brilliant to contemplate and you honor the brilliance that is in that child. Green does that. It will wake up your half-dead imagination, too. I wish all books for children were this amazing and rewarding.

Green   Laura Vaccaro Seeger | Roaring Book Press   2012

Leaf Man – Lois Ehlert

It’s fall and a few leaves are turning in the park. I picked up a bright yellow maple the other day on the old bridle trail and stashed it in my bag. Today it was a crumpled brown mess. But Lois Ehlert figured out how to collect leaves that fade too soon. She color copies them as soon as she gets home–her copier must be amazing because the leaves that are the images in her picture book, Leaf Man, are brilliant and detailed. Leaf Man is charming and very educational. The book is crammed with points of interest and magical things to discover. It’s very large, for starters, and the pages are serrated at the top in graduated leaf edges. There are layers of color like piles of autumn leaves at the top of every page.

Leaf Man has grabbed a random wind out of the yard and is headed for places unknown. The figure, an arrangement of leaves and acorns that could be a man if you supply some imagination, comes undone and flies past the chickens. We begin a journey past all things autumn with Leaf Man. There are leaf ducks and geese in the marsh, leaf mice, pumpkins and squash in the fields, a leaf turkey, some leaf potatoes, carrots and cabbages, a leaf rabbit in the prairie meadows, a spotted cow or two, fish and turtles in the lake. Every double spread is vivid with leaf figures to puzzle out–absolutely captivating. You could engage a little kid for an hour with this book. (You would be engaged, too, of course, but you probably wouldn’t mind.)

At the end of the journey there is a mystery and a possibility. You should rush right out at that point and go on a leaf hunt of your own. But if the colors aren’t there yet, explore the author’s note about how she collected leaves to make this book and check out the wonderful identified leaves and “mystery” leaves, all labelled. Perfect book for autumn. And absolutely gorgeous. Leaf Man slows down the rush of changing seasons to a reflective, able-to-savor-it pace.

Leaf Man (Ala Notable Children’s Books. Younger Readers (Awards))   Lois Ehlert | Harcourt   2005

Beyond the Great Mountains – Ed Young

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Ed Young is a much-decorated Chinese-born artist and children’s book creator and Beyond the Great Mountains is a marvel of a picture book. Young uses ancient calligraphy to inspire and illustrate concepts–each double-spread features one or more “chops,” red symbols enclosed in seals. And each page displays one line of a poem that explains the evolution of the world and the physical wonders we know of it. The book opens sideways and reads like a calendar–the art covers both leaves. And it is gorgeous art. Young makes paper collages with rice paper and textures, vivid and rich colors, cut-out shapes for grasses and rivers and birds. It’s seductively beautiful.

Each line of the poem, a poem infused with Chinese sensibility and tradition, is written on the bottom of its two pages and the pages are graduated so that you can read the whole poem before unveiling the art by turning up each succeeding page. Young subtitles the book  A Visual Poem about China and explains that ideas in Chinese literature are not literal, the way they are in the West. The art and the words are evocative–the pictures capture a feeling rather than an example. The words hint at a larger story. “A precious stone embraced heaven and earth, jade” suggests a world of tradition. Jade had many qualities and associations, and was even used to protect the ancestors in their tombs.

The endpapers are a key with ancient and contemporary characters for each word used in the poem pictures–the rounder shapes giving way to the more angular writing we are familiar with. Paper, of course, is a Chinese invention so using cut paper to illustrate the calligraphy closes the circle. Everything about this book is a pure pleasure, not least its evident intelligence. According to Ed Young, “There are things that words describe that pictures never can, and, likewise, there are images that words can never describe.” True. So get hold of a copy of  Beyond the Great Mountains and explore it yourself.    

Beyond the Great Mountains: A Visual Poem about China   Ed Young | Chronicle Books   2005

Verdi – Janell Cannon

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Verdi is a gentle primer on herpetology, growing up and remaining true to yourself. It’s the work of the author of Stella Luna, the wonderful story about a bat who thinks she’s a bird. Janell Cannon has an affinity for exotic creatures and the talent to invent lives for them and illustrate them in tremendously engaging picture books. The bright yellow baby python who is the hero of this tale is vivid, impulsive, reckless and dead set against turning fat, slow and green like the adult members of his tribe.

As the banana-colored snake scoots around the jungle full of nervous energy, he is desperate to retain his sunny, gorgeous skin. His exuberance sends him slithering up trees, sprinting across the rain forest floor, scrubbing off his encroaching green in the river, barely escaping the mouth of a large, hungry fish, and pitching himself from the top of the canopy. He forms swirls and figure eights and spirals in mid-air–he can almost fly. But he is, after all, a python, and his aerobatics end in a crumpled heap on a branch after a painful crash through the trees.

The fat, old, green snakes rescue Verdi and bind him to a tree with vines so his bruised body can heal.  He listens to them tell the stories of their own flights of fancy in the days when they gleamed as bright and unmissably golden as impetuous Verdi. Once he is well he becomes very still while he tries to process his greener and larger and slightly wiser self. Green is a camouflage so Verdi can drape over a branch and contemplate life nearly unnoticed. When a couple of new yellow pythons spot him and fidget around with disdain for the fat, green, motionless figure on the branch, Verdi reveals his true colors–time has changed the hue of his skin but not his adventurous heart.

Verdi is a beautiful book, easy to read aloud to a small child and challenging enough to fully engage a young reader. The art is marvelous–amazing colors. And there is even a brief introduction to herpetology at the end so, in every way, the story of Verdi is an education. 

Verdi   Janell Cannon | Harcourt Brace & Compnay  1997

The Tale of Hilda Louise – Olivier Dunrea

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I am reading a suspense that is a well-written pleasure and very dense. So I’m double-dipping—reading shorter books while I finish this one. Absolutely disastrous for productivity—the windows are not washed, the for-pay work is behind—but I just turn my back on it all and slip into a book. Or two. The back-up book is a children’s tale that is magical and probably useful as well.

The Tale of Hilda Louise is a beautiful picture book with painted pages, mellifluous language and wonderful art. Hilda Louise is an orphan in Paris. She lives in a kind orphanage where the little girls wear frocks with aprons and hats like Madeline. Madame Zanzibar, the orphanage matron, is attentive and nurturing and given to exclaiming things like “Mon Dieu!” when Hilda Louise begins gently floating just off the ground one day.

This new skill, which improves by leaps and bounds, is the envy of all the other orphans and extremely useful for rescuing escaped balloons, balls from trees and baby birds fallen from their nests. No one discourages her so Hilda Louise works it to get better at flying. One day, a puff of wind carries her over the orphanage wall and all of Paris.

Hilda Louise does a pretty fair bird’s-eye tour of the main landmarks, the Eiffel Tower, the Bois de Boulogne, Notre Dame, the Arc de Triomphe. But things get interesting when she floats through a window into the garret studio of an artist with the same red hair as her own. Olivier Dunrea’s story is charming. It’s a fairytale but one that is grounded in details that make it perfectly believable.

Fin de siècle Paris is picturesque and serves to remove the events from contemporary reality enough to make the book a safe read. I think the story would be particularly terrific for a kid who has been adopted. Hilda Louise is touched by magic but she is the agent of her own rescue. She parlays her ability and her adaptability to circumstance into a new story for herself. Happily ever after is still an excellent ending.

The Tale of Hilda Louise   Olivier Dunrea | Farrar Straus Giroux   1996