Emily’s Blue Period by Cathleen Daly, illustrated by Lisa Brown
An intriguing mix of subjects, this picture book combines art with divorce and it works gorgeously. Emily really likes the work of Picasso and the way that he put body parts in odd places in his cubist work. It reflects the way that Emily feels about her own family life, with her father now living in a different home than the rest of them. Emily tries to help her father pick out furniture for his new home, but it’s not easy and her little brother quickly becomes problematic at the store and has to be carried out. Even art becomes less fun for Emily. She feels blue a lot of the time and not like using any other colors. Then her art teacher shows her about collage, and Emily finds a way to express her feelings through her art and depict her family in their own unique style.
Told in short chapters, this picture book is just right for elementary students. The unique combination of subjects works particularly well, each supporting the other and allowing them to be explored in more depth. Daly manages to use art to show the emotions of children experiencing a divorce and the divorce to show the importance of art in expressing yourself when you can’t find the words.
Brown’s art is light-handed and friendly. She captures Picasso’s art with that same light touch and creates Emily’s blue time with plenty of blue but no darkness. The result is a book that is filled with light, despite it’s more somber subjects. It keeps the book from being too serious and allows the emotions to surface nicely.
A striking combination of art and real life, this picture book truly shows the power of art in one’s life. Appropriate for ages 5-8.
Reviewed from library copy.
Absolutely Almost by Lisa Graff
The author of A Tangle of Knots returns with a brilliant new protagonist in her new novel. Albie doesn’t get good grades, in fact he was asked to leave his private school and is going to be starting public school instead. Albie isn’t the best artist. He isn’t the best at anything at all. Except maybe at eating doughnuts for breakfast. But when he changes schools, things start to change for Albie. It could be the great new babysitter he gets, since his parents are very busy. Calista is an artist and she thinks it’s OK that Albie reads Captain Underpants books even though he’s in 5th grade and that he sometimes needs a break from school. It could be math club, that starts each day with a joke and sneaks math in when Albie isn’t paying attention. It could be a new best friend, Betsy, someone he can talk to and joke with and who doesn’t get mad when Albie gets confused. But things aren’t all great. Albie’s other best friend is appearing on a reality TV show and suddenly Albie gets popular at school, risking his friendship with Betsy. Albie has a lot to figure out before he knows exactly what he’s good at.
Graff’s writing here is stellar. She writes with an ease that makes for a breezy read, yet it deals with deep issues along the way. Thanks to her light touch, the book reads quickly, never bogging down into the issues for too long before lightening again. Still, it is the presence of those deep issues that make this such a compelling read. The fact that the book deals with so much yet never feels overwhelmed by any of them is a wonder and a feat.
Throughout the entire book the real hero is Albie. He is a character that is ordinary, every-day and yet is still a delight to read about. His perspective is down to earth, often confused, and he walks right into every social trap there is. He is a character you simply have to root for, a regular boy who is also a hero. He shows that simply making it through each day being yourself is heroic, and a win. The world is filled with Albies and this book shows why they should be celebrated. He’s a delight.
A book with at least four starred reviews, this is a standout novel this year. Get your hands on it and share it with kids. It’s a unique and surprising read, just like Albie himself. Appropriate for ages 8-11.
Reviewed from library copy.
Rules of Summer by Shaun Tan
Enter the surreal world of two brothers with a picture told in few words and many pictures. The book takes place in the previous summer and explains what one of the brothers learned that summer. The lessons are strange, but the images are even wilder. The first lesson is “Never leave a red sock on the clothesline.” It is accompanied by a wonderful and magnificently creepy image of a huge rabbit the size of a house with a red eye staring over the wall as the two brothers cower on the other side. As the pages turn, the world gets odder and odder, forming a cohesive world but one that surprises, horrifies and delights.
As Tan blends humor with his frightening images, one starts to see a world that is beyond our own and yet strangely parallel. These brothers live in a different world, one with its own rules and laws but one that is hauntingly familiar to our own. Perhaps my favorite series of images is the series of pictures for “Never wait for an apology” where the younger brother is padlocked in a small steam engine with smoke pouring from the smokestack. Black birds fly past. Since all of the other images were done as single picture, I didn’t expect to turn the page and see the image continue from farther away. It all evoked so brilliantly the loneliness, the trapped feeling, the isolation of waiting for an apology.
Tan continues to surprise and delight in this new picture book. While not for everyone, there are some children who will adore this skewed world that speaks to our own. Appropriate for ages 6-10.
Reviewed from copy received from Arthur A. Levine Books.
The Dumbest Idea Ever! by Jimmy Gownley
This graphic novel memoir focuses on one idiotic idea that changes comic-creator Gownley’s life forever. At 13, Gownley was on top of the world. He was popular, getting great grades, and was top-scorer on the school basketball team. Then he got chicken pox and he had to miss the championship game. But that wasn’t the end of his bad luck, he followed the chicken pox with a bout of pneumonia and missed more school. Soon Jimmy wasn’t a basketball star and his grades were getting bad. Jimmy did have one thing going for him though, the dumbest idea ever! It was an idea that would make him money, get him popular again, find him a girlfriend, and even impress a very stern nun. And let me tell you, it takes one amazingly stupid idea to accomplish all that!
Gownley reveals how he became a cartoonist in this graphic novel. It is cleverly done with a strong story arc that keeps the entire book sturdily structured. Gownley has a wonderful self-deprecating humor that works particularly well in comic format. His humor is smart and very funny, often conveyed with ironic twists of eyebrows or sarcastic facial expressions. The book is a quick read thanks to the format but also to the fast pacing that will have readers happily turning page after page.
Get this into the hands of Smile! fans who will appreciate the humor, the honesty and the art. Appropriate for ages 10-13.
Reviewed from library copy.
The Noisy Paint Box by Barb Rosenstock, illustrated by Mary GrandPre
Enter the amazing world of abstract art with this picture book biography of Kandinsky. Vasya Kandinsky was raised to be a very proper young Russian boy. Then his Auntie gave him a box of paints and he started to hear colors as sounds. No one else could hear the sounds, but to Vasya they were a symphony that he could paint. Vasya grew up and stopped painting. He still heard the colors around him, but he was going to be a lawyer. When he attended the opera one evening, Vasya saw the colors emerge from the music and was never quite the same again. He became a painter and tried to meet everyone’s expectations, but to be happy he had to paint in his own way, an abstract one.
Rosenstock’s biography is very successful, focusing on Kandinsky as a child and younger man. She doesn’t speak down to children at all here, instead bringing them up to her level and demonstrating what abstract art is, showing the struggle of an artist trapped in the wrong life, and finally beautifully displaying what a life well-lived looks like. She celebrates the transformation from lawyer to artist, from conventional to unique. This book joyfully exposes how we are all different from one another and how those differences can be incredible if allowed to sing.
GrandPre’s art is glorious. She shows what Kandinsky must have seen when hearing the opera and what he heard when the colors spoke to him. The music of the paint box and the noises that emerged for him are shown in flourishes of sound, bringing Kandinsky’s synthethesia vividly to the page. Her art is filled with motion when Kandinsky’s art is being expressed and then dims down to the staid and quiet when he is trying to conform.
Beautiful and choice, this picture book biography is one of the best. Get this for elementary art classes, museum visits, and young artists. Appropriate for ages 5-7.
Reviewed from copy received from Random House Children’s Books.
The River by Alessandro Sanna
Travel through four seasons along the Po River in this breathtakingly beautiful book. Made almost entirely of watercolor images shown as either full-page or a series of panels, this book asks readers to pay close attention to the images and discover the story told there. Each season starts with a brief paragraph that offers clues to what is going to happen. Autumn is a season of floods. Winter is described as warm, which will surprise many young readers as will the newborn calf. Spring is music and white clouds. Summer is dry and hot. Each of those seasons is brought to life with the watercolor images with palettes that change through the seasons, purples in autumn, blues in winter, gold in summer. Each more beautiful than the last, so that you just want to begin it again when it ends.
This is the first book by Sanna to be printed in the United States, but he is well known in his native Italy. He has created a book here that is artistic and wildly lovely. Told primarily through his art, the storylines are consistently seasonal, intense and surprising. The use of the river as a symbol for the passage of time works perfectly here. The changing colors also serve to remind readers that time is passing, change is constant and the world is gorgeous.
One big question with this book is what age it is appropriate for. With its minimal words, it might be expected to be perfect for small children, but thanks to its artistic approach, I believe the audience is quite a bit older. Children who enjoy art will be able to appreciate it in elementary school. Yet the audience I see really loving this book are middle and high school teens who will delight in the watercolors, the surprises and a picture book that suits them well.
Beautiful, moving and vast, this nearly wordless picture book will be enjoyed by elementary aged children through adults.
Reviewed from copy received from Enchanted Lion Books.
Henri’s Scissors by Jeanette Winter
When Henri-Emile Matisse was a young boy, he longed to make art the way his mother did. So he drew as much as he could and then painted after receiving paints as a gift. But when he was on old man, he had to remain in bed or a wheelchair and didn’t have the energy or ability to paint. As he recovered, Matisse started to draw and then picked up a pair of scissors and started cutting paper. Matisse started a second phase of his art career with assistants who painted pages for him to cut from, dreams of the shapes to cut out, and surrounded by the bright colors of his art. He created a garden that he could visit right from his bed.
Winter starts with Matisse as a boy finding art and quickly moves the book to his paper cutting phase in the latter part of his life. For a picture book biography, the text is very simple yet conveys his great attachment and gift for creating art. It also speaks to the creative process and trying new things that fit with life’s limitations.
Winter fills her book with bright colors both in Matisse’s art itself but also as the backgrounds to her images. When Matisse is without art, the book becomes dark yet star-filled. As he returns to creating pieces, the book lightens and blossoms visually.
A very successful picture book biography, this book will be welcome in elementary and preschool art classes. Appropriate for ages 4-6.
Reviewed from copy received from Beach Lane Books.
Whale Shines: An Artistic Tale by Fiona Robinson
Published November 5, 2013.
Whale is a living billboard, swimming slowly through the ocean with a poster to advertise the upcoming art show. Along the way, he passes all sorts of sea creatures creating art. The hammerhead shark is working on sculptures from sea debris. Eel is forming lines in the sand. Octopus, cuttlefish and giant squid were scaring each other to collect their ink. Whale mutters to himself that he wishes he could make something too. That’s when the plankton around him tell him to try. But whale just can’t think of anything that he’d be able to do. After all, he doesn’t squirt ink, and he can’t slither in the sand. It’s going to take a lot of creativity and some risk for whale to even try creating art.
Robinson has created a simply gorgeous book here. Her writing is lovely, slow-paced and languid just like Whale floating by displaying his advertisement. Whale is a solitary figure in the story, lone and distant from the others. As he drifts past, he is separate from everyone else. Robinson successfully manages his transformation from wallflower to fully-engaged artist in a way that rings honest and doesn’t seem rushed.
Her art is lovely, filled with the deep colors of the ocean. It is green and blue hues that shine. Popping against those are the bright colors of the creatures and the coral in reds and yellows. The result is a picture book with stunning visuals that truly evoke life underwater.
A luminous picture book with glowing underwater scenes, this book will speak to all artists, even those reluctant to reveal themselves. Appropriate for ages 4-6.
Reviewed from copy received from Abrams Books for Young Readers.
The First Drawing by Mordicai Gerstein
This picture book tells the story of how drawing first started. Inspired by the the 30,000 year old paintings in caves in southern France, the story focuses on one boy who sees the world differently from everyone else. When he looks at the clouds, he sees animals. Everyone else just sees clouds. When the firelight flickers on the walls of the cave as they go to sleep, he sees herds of beasts. No one else does. So he gets the name “Child Who Sees What Isn’t There.” He tries to explain what and how he is seeing things, but it isn’t until he picks up a charcoal stick from the fire and actually draws the lines he is seeing that others can see it too.
Beautifully told, Gerstein weaves the story of these caves into an exploration of how artists see the world in a unique and powerful way. By choosing very tangible examples of how artists see, children reading the book will quickly realize that they are artists as well. It is also helped by the use of second person narrative, so that children are identified as the child who invented art. The author’s note explains more about the caves as well as why Gerstein was inspired to tell the story of a child drawing.
Gerstein’s art is bright and large. He shows large swathes of sky filled with clouds, lands filled with animals, and makes sure that readers see the inspiration for the later art. This contrasts with the tight closeness of the fire-lit cave that is all dancing flames and stone walls.
A virtuoso picture book, this is a wonderful melding of history, possibility, and art. Appropriate for ages 4-6.
Reviewed from library copy.