Category Archives: Picture Books

Summer Sanity Savers

Otherwise known as activity books! You know, the books with doodling pages, stickers, word scrambles, puzzles and other old-fashioned distractions? These things used to feel like throwaways, printed on the cheapest paper. But now publishers are putting out some very sophisticated, beautifully designed activity books, some of which are tempting enough to get kids to put down their iPads.

I corralled a bunch of local kids to figure out which were the best.  Here’s my roundup in the NYT Book Review.

 

A Book About a Hapa Baby? I’m In!

I was VERY excited to come across this book, and not just because it’s by Patricia MacLachlan (of Sarah, Plain and Tall fame). It’s just that you don’t often come across a book for kids featuring a mixed-race white and Asian family. Which seems nuts when you think about it because there are so damn many of us these days, and, well, we love books.

Of course, You Were the First  isn’t explicitly about being a multiracial child of Asian or Pacific Islander descent (feel free to use the term hapa). The book, with lovely illustrations by Stephanie Graegin, is a prose poem that parents of any color can read aloud to help prepare their toddler for a baby on the way. It reminds the kid that they were the first to crawl, the first to sing, the “first to lift your head, to look at the trees and flowers and sky.” Underlying message: “Be nice to the new baby! She’s got nothin on you!”

There’s no plot here. It’s one of those sweet, sing-songy, soothing books that don’t need a plot. I love that it exists. Even if the publisher missed out on titling the book “You’re No Second Banana.”  Ha ha.

The grandmother in this illustration is secretly debating whether the baby looks white or Asian. The mother in the picture knows exactly what her mother is thinking.

I’ve recently started a new project on Instagram devoted to hapa culture. Feel free to check it out @generationhapa

 

Jean Jullien, Genius!

Jean Jullien. Portrait by Daniel Arnold.

French illustrator Jean Jullien’s drawings are simple, friendly and naive in style. His lines are loose, his colors are bold and his people have U-shaped noses. Everything he draws has the effortless appeal of a perfect chocolate chip cookie.

But Jullien, who lives in London and contributes to The New Yorker and The New York Times, really trades in ideas. He’s a creative prankster who transforms familiar scenarios into a witty commentary on contemporary life. Sometimes his observations are gentle and funny, like this one: 

Sometimes his images are unapologetically political. There was this powerful illustration following the violence in Ferguson, MO. And Jullien found himself the unexpected object of media attention after he Instagrammed his simple, powerful image of the Eiffel Tower crossed with the peace symbol right after the 2015 Paris terrorist attacks. (The drawing went viral. More about it here.)

Last year, Jullien published his first children’s book, the brilliant This is Not a Book, which played with the simple physicality of a rectangular board book. With each spread, Jullien transformed the book into a series of whimsical objects: a laptop, a monster’s mouth, a tightrope, a naked rear end. Now, Phaidon has published his second book, Before & After, and it’s (dare I say it?) even better.

The concept is simple — showing toddlers the meaning of “before” and “after.”  Before: a dirty cat is licking its paw. After: the cat is clean.

But naturally, the artist doesn’t leave it at that. Jullien plays with the predictability of the pairings, delivering narratives that are by turns funny, surprising and even thought provoking. It’s not all as straightforward as simple cause and effect. There’s often a missing piece to his scenarios— a beat of the story that’s implied but not spelled out. Sometimes it’s psychological. Sometimes it’s existential.

In short, it’s a delight. Each glossy page exhibits a beautiful economy of words and lines, everything meaningful, nothing superfluous. This is a board book that a two-year-old can enjoy, an eight-year-old will giggle over and a fully-grown lover of modern design will marvel at.

PS This short video about Jullien is totally worth watching. Show it to your kids, too!

 

 

 

Jenny Slate is my Children’s Books Guru

There are so many reasons to love Jenny Slate. The 35-year-old comedian-actress is funny, sexy, fiercely feminist, and just goofy enough that you feel like she could be someone you know. I loved her in Obvious Child (the 2014 indie film that flaunted both her ingenue radiance and raunchy potty mouth) and to this day I cannot order a sandwich without thinking about Catherine, her bizarre 12-part web series that is either totally unwatchable or the best thing you’ve ever seen on YouTube. (I guess you could call it normcore. Please try it!) Of course, Slate is also co-creator of the genius Marcel the Shell web series (and children’s books).

But what really sealed my fandom is that Jenny Slate is a vintage children’s book nerd. How did I learn this? Instagram.

Here’s her shout-out to the Dorrie the Little Witch series by Patricia Coombs. Which I only vaguely remembered and immediately ordered from the library because most of them are out of print:

Here’s a post with her childhood copy of Elmer and the Dragon:

Here, with Tomi Ungerer

A page from Sarah, Plain and Tall:

I have no idea what book this little mouse is from, so if anybody knows, please tell me in the comments:

Ok, I am clearly obsessed. I also did some Googling.

In a recent interview with New York magazine, she says she loves the 1980 book Emma by Wendy Kesselman so much she has it on display in her house where she can see it when she wakes up. (I still have to get my hands on a copy):

“It’s about an old woman who doesn’t love how she’s alone, and then learns to make herself not alone through art, and draws people into her life through art. It’s the fucking best thing.”

She told Jezebel she loves Ox-Cart Man and Miss Rumphius, both also illustrated by Barbara Cooney (I’ve written about Ox-Cart Man here).


And also a book called I’m Telling You Now, illustrated by Lillian Hoban (of Bread and Jam for Frances fame):

She describes it as “this beautiful watercolor book about this boy who did all these things that he wasn’t supposed to do … but he was only curious.”

She kind of sums it all up in this interview with Vogue:

“I always wanted to be a children’s author and I have a really big library of children’s books. All the ones from when I was little, they are just so beautiful. I read kids’ books and they calm me down … I love all the Lyle the Crocodile books. I like Robert McCloskey’s books—One Morning in Maine, Blueberries for Sal, Make Way for Ducklings. I like Sylvester and the Magic Pebble, all the Barbara Cooney books, like Miss Rumphius and The Ox-Cart Man are really good. And I like Chris Van Allsburg, those books like Just a Dream and The Polar Express. I like the classics. They’re classics for a reason.”

In short, friends, she’s one of us.

Even if Your Kid Has Never Heard of Gefilte Fish: The Carp in the Bathroom

I’m Korean, but I grew up in Great Neck and I was obsessed with the All-of-a-Kind Family books by Sydney Taylor (I’ve written about them here and here). So I have a soft spot for any book set in old-time New York where the characters have names like Zipporah and Moishe and eat noodle kugel.

Each year when Passover rolls around, my husband’s family gets together for a raucous and extremely secularized seder. I’m not sure the kids have any idea what the holiday is actually about because they are too busy stuffing themselves with chocolate-covered matzoh and playing with the felt finger puppets representing the ten plagues. But I’ve developed my own Passover tradition, which is to break out the 1972 classic The Carp in the Bathtub by Barbara Cohen and force my children to appreciate its charms.

It’s about a nine-year-old girl and her little brother who live with their parents in a tenement in Brooklyn. It looks like the 1940s or thereabouts. Their mother is a wonderful cook who makes an especially mean gefilte fish. To make sure she has the fattest, freshest fish every year for their seder, she always buys a live carp a week early and lets it swim in the family’s bathtub until it’s butchering time.

Love this illustration of the mom, walking so purposefully in her polka-dot dress:

The family’s tub carp is a beloved annual ritual. The kids don’t have to bathe for a whole week and it’s the closest they ever get to having a pet.

“Every time Harry or I had to go to the toilet, we would grab a crust of bread or a rusty lettuce leaf from the kitchen. While we sat on the toilet, we fed the bread or the lettuce leaf to the carp. This made going to the bathroom really fun, instead of just a waste of time.” 

Hands down, the most memorable picture in the book: The brother on the toilet.

One year they get especially attached to their carp. His eyes are brighter and he seems “unusually playful and intelligent.”

“There was something about his mouth that made him seem to be smiling at us.”

So the kids hatch a plan to save their friend’s life by sneaking him out in a bucket and begging their downstairs neighbor, the recently widowed Mrs. Ginzburg, to keep him in her tub.

“A few drops of water dripped onto the oriental rug Mrs. Ginzburg had bought at Abraham and Straus with Mr. Ginzburg’s Christmas bonus two years before.” (Love this!!!)

I love how gigantic all the adults are in the illustrations. They suit the story’s point of view perfectly: the adults are firmly in charge, but they’re not intimidating. They’re more like gentle, oversized, somewhat inscrutable giants. The storytelling has a sweet, gentle humor and even though the stakes aren’t super high, Cohen gives the plot some genuine drama.

But warning: Any child reading this book is going to beg you to let them keep a giant fish in the bathtub.

Christmas carp, c.1971 (photo courtesy of ČTK / Czech News Agency)

Today, when I was poking around the web I learned that keeping a fish in a bathtub for a couple of days is actually a well-established Christmas tradition in Slovakia, Poland and the Czech Republic. The idea is not only that this keeps the fish fresh, but that a few days living in clean water helps to flush mud from the fish’s digestive tract. (Carp are bottom feeders.) And it’s just as common for the kids to get attached to their pet fish and mourn them when the big day arrives.

 

 

 

 

Still My Favorite Baby Gift: A Teeny Tiny Baby

When friends have babies, I love to give books. I buy the same ones again and again:  Amos & BorisI am a Bunny, The Best NestWhen I Have a Little Girl , When You Were Small, Thank You, Bear, and Max Makes a Million, to name a few. The key is the book can’t be so super well-known that I have to worry that my friend already has a copy. (I was annoyed by the time I got my third copy of The Very Hungry Caterpillar — bratty, I know.)  But lately, I’ve been stymied. One of my longtime favorite titles to give is out of print: A Teeny Tiny Baby by Amy Schwartz.

When it came out in 1994, I was in my 20s and years away from contemplating motherhood. My boss and his wife had just had their first baby and someone must have given them the book as a gift. When I saw it, I was charmed from the get-go. I remember looking at the illustrations of the scruffily bearded dads with babies strapped to their chests and realizing the author-illustrator had perfectly nailed that new kind of Upper West Sidey-Brooklyn parent I’d kinda sorta noticed on my way to drink cosmos or catch the new Janeane Garofalo movie.

The story is told from the perspective of an infant in Brooklyn in his first few weeks of life. He reports his experiences at the center of the household —everybody cooing and fussing over him — in the most matter-of-fact way.

The illustrations, meanwhile, give us the other side of the story. There’s his parents’ undignified struggle with the stroller down the steps to the cleaners and the big night out at a restaurant where the family is seated (with stroller) at at an outdoor table … in an alleyway … next to a trash can. It’s all very subtle and subversive about the beleaguered/besotted emotional state of new parents, which is why it makes such a good gift for new moms. Not to mention that the illustrations are totally charming, from the cosy interiors (Thonet rocker!) to the characters’ outfits (Marimekko?).

After the Teeny Tiny Baby hardcovers disappeared from Amazon, I noticed you could still find board book versions of the book. So I bought a few and gave those as gifts. But these days I can only find secondhand copies of this incredible book for sale. Heartbreaking!

I might have to buy some used copies as gifts. I know this might gross out some new moms so maybe I’ll also include a bottle of Purell.

Freakiest Author Photo Ever: Sue Denim aka…

I had never heard of the Dumb Bunnies books by Sue Denim, but yesterday I saw these at the library and they looked promising. They were published in the mid 90s and the illustrations are by the great Dav Pilkey, of Captain Underpants fame. dumbbunnies The four-book series is centered around a family of, yep, dumb bunnies who cheerfully go through life underestimating danger, misinterpreting signage and wearing their underwear over their pants. With their punny wordplay, the books remind me a lot of the Amelia Bedelia books (except using references that kids today can actually understand) as well as James Marshall’s marvelous The Stupids.

But what really got me was the back flap. Check it out:

sue denim

Who was this mysterious Sue Denim? What was up with her tranny-looking photo? Where could I find this “best-selling science book” for kids called Fun with Matches? Also, wasn’t Dav Pilkey a white guy?

After about two seconds on Wikipedia I unearthed the not-so-secret truth that Sue Denim was a pen name Dav Pilkey used for all his Dumb Bunnies books. (He introduced them three years before the first Captain Underpants.) According to the Scholastic website, the series is still available, but is now attributed solely to Pilkey. This certainly makes sense, considering how bankable Pilkey’s name has become. But you also gotta wonder if Scholastic would anyone publish such freaky faux author photos today. I’m guessing that’s Pilkey in both photos and I swear it looks like he’s wearing blackface makeup along with those creepy buck teeth.

My Summer of The Donald: Ox-Cart Man and More

Like everyone else, I’ve spent an appalling amount of time this year reading much too much about Donald Trump. But there’s another Donald I became obsessed with this summer: Donald Hall.

It all started with a magazine story I was writing about Jan and David Hoffman, a pair of furniture makers in rural Pennsylvania who live a life of staggering self-sufficiency. They make their own tools, save their seeds and grow much of their own food. Jan told me they believed in the saying “no string too short to save.” Intrigued by her phrase, I Googled it and found this book:

string too short to be savedString Too Short to be Saved is poet Donald Hall’s 1961 memoir of the summers he spent as a youth on his grandparents’ New Hampshire farm in the years leading up to World War II. From the description, it promised to be a sweet, nostalgic beach read that was right up my alley — a string of lyrical anecdotes about tending cows and watching the seasons change. (Basically, a grown-up version of Farmer Boy.) And that alone would have left me plenty satisfied. But the book turned out to be so much more. Hall’s stories about haying, blueberry picking, lost cows and his grandfather’s eccentric farm hand are funny and thrilling enough for kids. I read S & L the chapter called “The Left-Footed Thief,” about the time Donald’s grandfather and his brother hunted down a sheep thief who was wearing two left-footed boots, and they were fascinated.

At the same time, the memoir is also suffused with sadness. From the mysteriously abandoned farm shacks Donald passes on his daily walks with his grandfather to the haunting portraits of long-dead relatives in his grandmother’s hallway there is a pervasive sense of loss in String Too Short. The emotional resonance reminded me of a Donald Hall essay from a couple years ago in The New Yorker in which the former poet laureate showed that at 83, his intellect was still as well-honed and deadly as an axe. Old age, he explained in his growly, godly prose, turned people “invisible.” At one point he described how, at a family dinner, one of his grandchild’s friends placed her chair to sit with her back directly facing Hall, as if his presence was no more than another piece of furniture. I remember his recounting of that moment like a stab in the chest.

String too Short is not by any means intended for kids, but if your 7th or 8th grader doesn’t mind a leisurely read and loved the Little House books and Roald Dahl’s Boy, try it on them.

I was so taken with Hall’s tales of frugal farm life I also got this out of the library:

Ox-Cart Man - Donald Hall

Ox-Cart Man is Hall’s 1979 Caldecott-winning children’s book about a 19th century farmer bringing the goods from his family’s farm to market. It’s one of those slow, bucolic, nothing-really-happens picture books that can be either deadly dull, or, when done right, utterly mesmerizing.

The rhythm of the prose echoes the reassuring rhythm of the farmer’s routines. The farmer packs his ox-cart with brooms, apples and maple syrup; he sells everything (including the ox and the cart) at Portsmouth Market; he buys a needle, a knife, and some peppermint candy for his family; he journeys back home; he and his family start the cycle again. Revisiting the book in light of Hall’s memoir, it’s even more satisfying.

Ox-Cart Interior

Ox-Cart Man, illustrated by Barbara Cooney

Bonus: With any luck your children will subconsciously absorb the message that in the good old days, kids did their share of labor and were happy if they got a single piece of wintergreen peppermint candy as a treat.

Hall has told interviewers that the surprise success of this book allowed him to put in a new bathroom in the New Hampshire farmhouse he’s lived in since 1975 (it’s the same house where his grandparents lived). A bronze plaque over the bathroom’s doorway reads “Caldecott Room.”

Tomi Ungerer: The Menswear Collection

We were re-reading Tomi Ungerer’s The Three Robbers (1963) the other day. I never get tired of the story’s sinister fairytale feel; the color palette of black and midnight blue; or Ungerer’s use of the word “blunderbuss.”

p5But I realized something new this time around. Those voluminous cloaks and bell-shaped hats are very Yohji Yamamoto.

Yohji Yamamoto Fall-Winter 2012