Collage Creativity: Two Picture Books

Cindy: From the bright work of painted tissue paper from Eric Carle in the Very Hungry Caterpillar to the complex creations of Melissa Sweet, children (and adults) are mesmerized by books illustrated with collage. We have two picture books to highlight in this post by other award winning illustrators of this delightful medium. 

Dream Street by Tricia Elam WalkerFirst up is Dream Street (Random/Anne Schwartz, 2021) by Tricia Elam Walker and illustrated by Ekua Holmes. This inspiring story is based on memories of cousin creators, Tricia and Ekua, who did their own dreaming on the streets of Roxbury, Massachusetts. 

Each two page spread introduces someone from the Dream Street neighborhood.. There’s retired mail carrier, Mr. Sidney, reading the paper on his front stoop dressed “to the nines” happy to be free from his uniform who encourages everyone to not “…wait to have a great day. Create one!” Belle dreams of being a lepidopterist, a scientist who studies butterflies, as she catches and releases those she observes. Azaria’s dream is go win a jump rope trophy. Ms. Sarah has “stories between the lines of her face that she’ll share when you come close.” She listens to the dreams as she watches the children grow. Two little girls read and draw and dream of creating a book about the people they know on Dream Street.  The collage art is created from comic strips, newspapers, fabrics, stamps, maps, and many more curated bits. Art teachers might use this with students to create their own portrait, neighborhood scene, or personal dream.  Some dreams do come true, and Tricia and Ekua’s is manifested in a hopeful, colorful, moving tribute to the power of believing in yourself, and in having others believe in you and your dreams. 

Lynn: everybody in the red brick buildingOur second wonderful collage book is Everybody in the Red Brick Building (Harper/Balzer+Bray, 2021). It is by Anne Wynter and illustrated by the gifted Oge Mora. This cumulative tale is perfect for a bedtime book, building up energetically at first and then slowing down in pace and tone to a delightfully sleepy ending.

“Everybody in the red brick building was asleep,” the story begins, “UNTIL Baby Izzie sat up in her crib and howled. WAAAAAAH!” The baby wakes up a boy and his parrot, a girl who decides to set off her toy rocket, which terrifies a cat who leaps onto a car, which sets off the alarm WEEEYOOOOWEEWYOOO….. You get the fun sequence of events, each one accompanied by terrific kid-pleasing sound effects. Before long, the whole building is awake. Then in a double page spread filled with sweet vignettes, sleepy parents intervene, the lights go out and the story slows, the sounds are quiet shhhhs, ting tings, and the pah-pum’s of a mother’s heart cradling Baby Izzy. Soon everybody in the building is asleep and little readers will be too.

Oge Mora’s gorgeous collages are wonderfully rich with glowing colors and cleverly chosen textures. This is a glorious book to read aloud while reveling in the masterful illustrations.

Hurricane – Weathering a Storm with a Picture Book

Lynn:Hurricane As he has done in other books, Rocco tells a story of a large event affecting a child and a community. Like Blackout (Disney/Hyperion, 2011) and Blizzard (Disney/Hyperion, 2014) these events are largely unexpected and out of a child’s ability to control them. And, like the previous books, the events result in a community coming together. This latest picture book, Hurricane (Little, Brown, 2021) begins calmly like the weather before a storm. Told in first person, a young boy confides to the reader that his favorite place is the neighborhood dock. “It’s old and splintery, ” he says, and the double-page spread that follows shows a delightful depiction of the many joys the old dock provides.

But when he walks home through the peaceful night, the boy notices that something feels different. Everyone is acting strangely, including his father. A hurricane is coming and the neighborhood is boarding up windows and getting ready. The scary storm roars through in the night and in the morning the little boy grabs his gear and rushes outside to discover that his neighborhood looks like “a giant angry monster stomped through it.” Worst of all in the boy’s view is that his beloved dock has been destroyed. Looking for help to fix it, the boy asks his father and the neighbors but they are all too busy with their own repairs so the little boy pitches in to help them first. As the neighborhood returns to normal, he decides to fix the dock himself  but the results are disastrous. Happily the neighborhood rallies around and in a lovely series of scenes, they not only repair the dock, but improve it, making it a neighborhood gathering place.

I am always charmed by the hopeful encouraging perspective that Rocco brings to his stories of big issues. He sees a bright side to events when those involved unite to make that happen. It is a story arc that never fails to inspire and delight. I love Rocco’s slightly nostalgic illustrations too but I’ll leave those to Cindy. This is another winner from Rocco and guaranteed to enchant his many fans.

Cindy: To learn about the illustrations in this moving book, I’d recommend going straight to the source, John Rocco. Victoria Stapleton interviewed Rocco for the release of Hurricane, and his answers and accompanying slide show is fascinating. Watch the interview here, and learn about Rocco’s use of shapes and color to help tell a story of destruction and rebuilding. A story of hope. Not shown in the video are the fabulous end papers. The opening papers show the science and movement behind how a hurricane forms. The final end papers illustrate the parts of a dock and the installation of pilings. Another treat is John’s 1973 note left for his parents in his six-year-old handwriting. Hope applies to young fishermen as well. Don’t miss this one!

John Rocco fishing note

Let Me Fix You a Plate – a Picture Book of Love, Family and Food

Let Me Fix You a Plate by Elizabeth LillyLynn: The holiday season is beginning and many families are preparing to journey to family celebrations. No matter the culture, families will share food and love—the heart of any gathering. Elizabeth Lilly’s new picture book, Let Me Fix You a Plate: a Tale of Two Kitchens (Holiday, 2021) chronicles the experience of so many of us whose families are a mix of cultures.

A young girl tells the story of her family rising early and driving “hours and hours” to arrive in the mountains of West Virginia. Her Mawmaw opens the door and says, “Let me fix you a plate.” The warm scenes that follow are full of sharing, food, and love. In the bright kitchen, the family enjoys blackberry jam on toast and banana pudding. The child notices that her father and grandfather drink their coffee in just the same way. Then the family piles back in the car, traveling on to Florida where they are greeted by their Abuela inviting them to “come and eat.” Here the delights are tostones, flan, and arepas with queso blanco. The cultures may be different but the sharing of love through food is the same.

At the end of the week the young family journeys home again, arriving late and tired—and hungry! Following their own tradition, the family celebrates home with waffles before drifting off to sleep.

Lilly’s evocative book wonderfully depicts the way so many families share their love—through food. Her charming illustrations are warm and bright and enhance the text beautifully, helping with terms that may be unfamiliar. It is impossible not to smile while reading the book. An added pleasure are the end pages which show the sights and objects found in each of the kitchens that the family visits.

This brought back so many childhood memories for me although my family visits involved kuchen, rindsrouladen and spatzel, then matzoh ball soup, latkes and brisket.  Whatever your culture, food is love and this lovely story tells that so well.

This Very Tree – a story of hope and resilience following 9/11

Lynn: This Very TreeLike so many adults, the memory of that day in September 2001 is harshly strong. And like many of us, I find it difficult to talk about the enormity of the experience to children. I’ve approached the growing number of picture books on the subject with mixed feelings. Sean Rubin’s new picture book. This Very Tree: A Story of 9/11, Resilience and Regrowth (Henry Holt, 2021) doesn’t try to explain the event. Instead he takes the event as a given and focuses instead on the strength, determination and resilience of the people of New York City and America to restore their city.

He does so by using the voice and perspective of the very real Callery Pear tree that stood by itself in the World Trade Center Plaza. Planted in the 1970’s the tree heralded spring each year with early blossoms and provided welcoming shade. Rubin addresses the issue of the attack with these simple sentences, “It was an ordinary morning. Until it wasn’t.” The peaceful green scene is replaced by a series of dark and angular panels that gradually lighten with a view up to light and firefighter faces looking down. No explanations are used here but the sense of something dark and catastrophic is clear.

The tree itself was seriously injured, with broken limbs, roots snapped, and branches burned. The tree relates how it was transplanted and gradually began to regrow. The New York Dept. of Parks tended the tree carefully for 9 years before it was finally returned to the Memorial Plaza where it now thrives among over 300 other trees. Called the Survivor Tree, the pages chronicling the healing and regrowth of the tree itself and the city are full of green life and a hopeful spirit. And I dare you to read them without tearing up! Yes, this is a story of 9/11 but it is also a story of resilience and hope and coming together and perhaps this is what we all need right now.

Cindy: Trauma and recovery are serious subjects for picture books, but so many children have experienced big and little traumas that even if they are too young to understand the world-changing event that was the terrorist attacks of 9/11, there is a healing story here that may help them. There is plenty for adults here, too, including the opening poem by E.B. White from Here is New York, that ends with the titular line, “This very tree.” Rubin’s art illustrates not only the storyline but the emotional path from trauma to recovery and hope. Along the way are lots of details of city life, construction equipment, and pockets of nature for young readers to explore. 

An author’s note explains how Rubin came to tackle this difficult story with its survivor tree, and a double page spread gives a brief history of  the World Trade Center, 9/11, and the Survivor Tree for older readers. Many tiny details (such as using the same typefaces as those used on the cornerstone of the One World Trade Center) make this a lovely tribute to New York City, its people, and to hope.

Not Your Ordinary Summer Vacation!

Sunrise SummerLynn: A bright cheerful cover of a new book on display at the public library recently caught my attention. Even with summer fading fast, the cover of Sunrise Summer (Imprint, 2021) by Matthew Swanson made me smile and I grabbed it thinking I was in for one last trip to the beach via picture book. Well, I was but this is not like any summer beach vacation picture book I have ever read! What surprise this book was to me and it is one I’m eager for kids and adults to be amazed by too.

The opening pages reinforced my first estimation of the content. A young girl tells us that summer, her favorite time of year, is here and her family is packing for their vacation. Here is where I began to wonder as this family was packing onions, potatoes, batteries, and spark plugs! This young family is headed to Alaska, specifically a place called Coffee Point in Egegik far far to the north. They own a property there where they go to commercially fish sockeye salmon each summer and this year our young narrator gets to join the fishing crew. She describes the process and that first summer of hard work and excitement, setting the nets and pulling in the salmon. Told with a joyful buoyancy, the story is immensely interesting and full of sensory descriptions that will fascinate kids. The sense of the hard work comes through clearly but so does the excitement, and sheer joy of this very unusual summer experience.

Cindy: I’m going to appreciate my salmon dinners much more after having read this story that clearly shows all the hard work that goes into catching those fish. The mixed media art is colorful and vibrant, but dark when the fishing happens in the wee hours of the morning or during storms. This is not a summer vacation for anyone but the hardy! The artist, Robbi Behr, has been summering in Alaska since she was 2 years old when her family decided to buy property at Coffee Point and have summer “adventures.” She now carries on the tradition with her husband, who wrote the text, and their four children. The final two spreads of the book include family photos, and illustrations, diagrams, and text to further explain the Alaskan salmon fishing industry and the indiginous history and current traditions. What a great catch, Lynn.

A Saucy Read: Tomatoes for Neela

Tomatoes for Neela by Padma LakshmiCindy: My husband rarely gets credit for his support of Bookends Blog or his suggestions for my to-read list. He saw an interview with the host of Top Chef and Taste the Nation, Padma Lakshmi, on this Today Show segment about her new picture book, Tomatoes for Neela (Viking, 2021) and told me he wanted to read it and that I should consider it for the blog. Now, I’m not a fan of “celebrity author” childrens books, but this one, illustrated by Caldecott Honor Winner Juana Martinez-Neal is an exception. I am a fan of any food books that encourage healthy eating and that promote families spending time cooking together. Lynn found the book at the public library and read it and then handed it off to me the day I had spent the morning canning tomatoes and tomato sauce! Perfect timing.

IMG-2622Young Neela loves to cook with her amma (mother) and copies their recipes in her own notebook just like her amma and her paati (grandmother) have always done. To Neela, these books seem magical, like a wizard’s spell book. A trip to the green market that day is highlighted by a stunning display of tomatoes in all sizes, shapes, and colors. I could hang that spread on my tomato red  kitchen wall and never tire of looking at it. The acrylic and colored pencil illustrations beautifully showcase the the fruit and the love between Neela and her amma and their joy in purchasing such treasures in season.

In addition to the lessons on making the sauce and dishes using the sauce (recipes included), the story is infused with family tradition, Indian culture, and information about tomatoes and the farmworkers who bring those fruits to market. The backmatter includes more information including a list of books for children about Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta.

I wish I’d read this gorgeous book before canning this year, as I didn’t fry my garlic before adding it to the sauce, nor did I know to cut x’s in the bottom of my tomatoes before boiling them to loosen the skins, but I will try both next year. I learned to can tomatoes from my mother but it became a tradition my father and I did together every August while my mother was selling antiques on the weekends. 

It is one I continue with my husband as I spend the day thinking of my father and enjoying the satisfaction of putting away a bit of summer to enjoy in the cold days of winter. 

IMG-5359

Grief and Loss for the Youngest Readers

Lynn and Cindy: Grief and loss is a sad part of the natural cycle of life even for our youngest readers. This past year’s events have made that experience much more widespread. Difficult even for mature individuals, the struggle to understand loss can be particularly challenging for young children. We have reviewed other helpful books in the past and we have recently found more sensitively written picture books that are a wonderful addition to the list. Books cannot cure grief but they can help children understand that what they feel is normal and begin to heal.

My Nana’s Gardenmy nana's garden (Candlewick/Templar, 2020) by Dawn Casey.

This lovely gentle picture book shows the story of the changing seasons in a garden and the relationship that flourishes there between a grandmother and young granddaughter. The delicate illustrations show the passing years as the child grows taller and the grandmother frailer as they share their joy in the natural world. Then, with a page turn, readers find a stark and wintry scene and the grandmother’s empty chair. The young girl stares out of the house at the snow covered garden. But the renewing cycle of life returns and the reassuring story reveals the following seasons of the enduring beautiful garden and the new generations that come to share in Nana’s garden. Quietly encouraging, this beautiful told tale reaffirms the love of a shared experience and the healing cycle of life.

Tears (Owlkids, 2021)tears by Sibylle Delacroix.

“Everyone cries,” begins this wonderful picture book that addresses an experience that is universal. For a young child, tears and crying are a fundamental part of their lives. But they may not have really thought about the complexity of what lies behind the tears or the variety of ways in which we cry. Delacroix uses simple sentences in this story for the youngest readers, with examples that they will easily understand. She reinforces each example with adorable illustrations created in soft aqua and white tones, often using teardrop shapes in the sketches. While this is not specifically a book about grief, it is a book that young children will find both interesting and comforting.

The Boy and the Gorilla (Candlewick, 2020) by Jackie Azúa Kramer.

Boy and the Gorilla by Jackie KramerThis gentle, spare picture book story will help many young children who have lost a parent. In the story, a gorilla follows a young boy home from his mother’s funeral. The boy asks the gorilla questions like “How do you know when someone has died?” Or “Will we all die?” The gorilla answers in short, truthful sentences, “Yes. We all do. But you have many more kites to fly.” The gorilla stays with the boy through the dark days as he and his father struggle to rise from their own grief to connect fully with each other. Eventually, the boy and his father find their way back to each other and that connection is wrapped in a big hug surrounded by a gorilla hug before he wanders off, perhaps to help the next child who needs him. Cindy Derby’s expressive watercolors highlight the moods and emotions with a mostly somber palette that lightens on the brighter days. Even in the darkest times, though, there are tiny sparks of color…a red cardinal, red and blue kites, bright crayons, hinting that while the dark is overwhelming, there is still joy to be found. This is simply a  beautiful book to share in hard times.

Ten Beautiful Things – A Picture Book Journey to Home

Ten beautiful thingsLynn: Something has happened in young Lily’s life. Molly Beth Griffin’s Ten Beautiful Things (Charlesbridge, 2021) opens with a scene showing a young girl in a car seat. She has an Iowa map open on her lap and a backpack and stuffed animal ride beside her. The scene on the next page widens to show a small car rolling through the dark night, an older woman at the wheel. “Let’s try to find ten beautiful things along the way,” says Gram. Griffin never reveals what has happened but Lily’s chest is “hollow” and her eyes and posture are sad. “There’s nothing beautiful here,” she says. “Lily felt the complaints starting in her belly again, coming up her throat and nearly out her mouth.” But one by one, slowly the world provides a different answer for Lily.

A golden sunrise across the fields, a red-winged blackbird, a swan shaped cloud and even the earthy rich smell of mud at a rest stop, unfold before Lily’s eyes as they travel. And at journey’s end, there is number 10—Gram’s reassuring hug as they stand before Lily’s new home. “We’re ten,” Gram said.

I dare you to read THAT line and the rest of the final text without a tear in your eye and a crack in your voice! This reassuring and moving story is a gift for every child feeling uprooted, sad, and facing a new life. I especially value that Griffin leaves Lily’s particular issues unknown, allowing each child to put themselves and their own situation into the story. The book, while acknowledging the difficult and the sad things that kids experience, is sweetly reassuring. The simple suggestion of looking for those ten beautiful things is concrete and doable even for young children and something that can help with those “hollow spots” within us at least for a while.

Maribel Lechug’s digital illustrations are warm and expressive and she takes full advantage of the extra wide format. The two-page spread of the dark clouds of a thunderstorm sweeping over the Iowa farmland is particularly effective. While the small vignettes scattered across a white page, showing Lily in her car seat, sadly curled into herself, tell readers volumes without a word needed.

This journey with Gram and Lily is not to be missed.

Someone Builds the Dream: A Tribute to the Trades

Cindy: Someone Builds the Dream by Lisa WheelerHardworking people in the trades are center stage in Someone Builds the Dream (Dial, 2021) by Lisa Wheeler and Loren Long. Architects, engineers, artists, scientists, amusement park designers, and even authors use their imagination, knowledge, and skills to dream up important and sometimes fun places, structures, or books, but the work doesn’t end there. It takes many hands to build the dream. For instance, and engineer designs a bridge but:

Someone works to mine the ore,
smelt the iron, pour the beam.
Someone needs to weld the steel.
Someone has to build the dream.

Written in jaunty rhyme, this book celebrates the many skilled laborers who often aren’t included in the ribbon-cutting ceremonies and photo opportunities for new structures and places. I expecially appreciated the inclusion of book-making as children have no idea about how a book comes to be as it isn’t something that happens out in the open like the building of homes that they might see. I’ll leave the illustrations for Lynn to rave about, but Loren Long, ahem, nailed it with these paintings. 

Lynn: I’ve long been a fan of Loren Long’s work, especially his Otis the Tractor books, but for me, this is his best work yet. There is a wonderful feeling of homage to the WPA murals of the 1930s that also celebrated the workers across the country. But there is a lot more here than just a tip of the hard hat to WPA art. Long’s extensive craftsmanship is beautifully at work in the skillful design and pacing. Each series begins with a “dreamer” at work, often alone in a quiet space and the text shown against a white background. The next spreads in contrast are busy, muscular, vividly-hued and pulsing with activity as the workers use their skills to bring each dream to life. Each scene is packed with details and demands readers to pause and explore. There is so much to look at! I love that the workers are of a wide diversity of races, are both men and women, and depicted as skillfully engaged in the work.  This is a partnership of text and illustration at its best!

Shape Shifters and Dragons for Middle Grade Readers

Cindy and Lynn: Sometimes with science fiction or fantasy, you just have to accept the concept and go with the flow of a fun or intriguing story that may be more out-of-this-world than you might even expect from these genres. We each recently read one of these.

Lynn: Trouble in the Stars by Sarah PrineasSarah Prineas’ new book, Trouble in the Stars (Penguin/Philomel, 2021) avoids the pitfalls that often beset middle grade SF by not dwelling on the mechanics of the world building. Instead she simply establishes the setting as a multi-world universe with interstellar travel as a given. But a major premise of the book, that the young protagonist is a shape-shifter created in a laboratory, is something readers need to accept as possible. That isn’t hard to do since the fast-paced plot ramps up right from the start. Readers are introduced to Trouble, floating in space as a sort of amorphous cloud of goo, realizes something dangerous is searching for him. In short order he squeezes into a space station, transforms into the form of an adorable puppy, and stows away on a battered ship heading out into space. When the puppy is discovered and “spaced,” Trouble shape shifts into a 10-year old human boy, wins a 3-week reprieve till the next destination, and is set to work as a cabin boy. The Hindsight has a wonderfully engaging alien crew and it is clear that they are not being completely open about what their mission actually is. Just as Trouble starts to win over the crew, they spot the StarLeague ship that is tracking them!

 This terrific story is a character driven tale of family, identity, and finding a home. The characters are all well drawn, intriguing. and decidedly distinct individuals. Trouble himself is instantly appealing and relatable— quite a feat for a clump of goo 😉 There’s plenty of humor as Prineas manages a conventional trope of “alien-figuring-out-human-behavior” in a way that young readers will greatly enjoy. The plot has plenty of suspense and just enough danger to keep reader’s interest high. This would make an ideal read aloud for a classroom, Chapters end with just enough suspense to make listeners beg for more and the story is packed with themes that would make great discussion topics. I’m hoping there will be more adventures for Trouble and the Hindsight

Cindy: Despite the opening pitch, my offering is less fantasy, really, and more a blend of historical fiction, adventure, survival, and environmental tale with the threatened species being…dragons! A Discovery of Dragons (Scholastic, July, 1, 2021) is a debut novel by science teacher, Lindsay Galvin. Young Discovery of Dragons by Lindsay GalvinSimon Covington is an assistant to Charles Darwin on the USS Beagle, playing fiddle and labeling specimens on the scientist’s famous voyage to the Gallapagos Islands. When he is lost at sea after helping to rescue Darwin, he winds up on an unexplored island with an active volcano. He soon learns that the volcano is not the only thing breathing fire on the island. With the help of his fiddle (from which Simon hears advice and sarcasm) and a lizard he names Farthing, Simon manages rescue and returns to London. There he continues to help Darwin with his specimens but also to deal with his own—a set of eggs he rescued and that are now starting to hatch! Simon’s character is based on a real boy of the same name who aided Darwin on this voyage and details of Darwin’s life and work are woven into the story, but it remains an adventure focused on what may be the last dragon eggs in the world. Might Darwin have found dragons in addition to finches and tortoises if he’d looked in the right place? We may never know. I was willing to let the story unfold as a possibility. Young fans of dragon stories and young naturalists are going to enjoy this science-based adventure. Maybe it’s not fantasy at all….if the dragons are/were real? Hmmmmm….