The Farmer and the Clown by Marla Frazee
In a wordless picture book, Frazee captures what happens when a young clown falls off of a circus train and is rescued by a lonely farmer. The desolate and flat landscape is unbroken until the bright circus train passes. The farmer is clearly reluctant to take in the bright little smiling clown, but he does anyway, taking him by the hand back to his tiny house. There, the two of them sit together, share a meal and eventually wash up and the clown washes off his face paint. Now it is the little clown who is worried and sad, his smile removed with the water. The farmer sits with him as he tries to fall asleep. Along with the light of dawn, the farmer starts to cheer up the little clown with silly faces and antics. Soon the two are living a mix of their two lives: eggs are gathered and juggled, hard work is shared, and the two head out on a picnic together. While on the picnic, they hear a train coming and it is the circus train filled with clowns. But somehow, the ending is not sad as the little clown returns to his family and the farmer returns to his farm, both changed forever.
I’m not sure how Frazee manages to convey so much in a wordless format. She uses symbolism, like the face paint for removing barriers, the connection of the characters through held hands, and their very different hats being removed and shared and eventually exchanged. It’s lovely and heartfelt and very special.
I’ve seen this book on a lot of people’s top book lists for the year, and I completely agree. It’s a gem of a book that has such depths to explore. The wordless format might imply a simple story, but here readers will find subtlety about friendship, caring for others, and building connections.
A masterpiece of wordless storytelling, this is a radiant picture book made to be shared. Appropriate for ages 2-6.
Reviewed from copy received from Beach Lane Books.
Wednesday by Anne Bertier
Little Round and Big Square are the best of friends. Every week on Wednesday, they get together to play their favorite game: one of them says a word and they both transform into it. Big Square starts with “butterfly” and the two of them change into butterflies, Big Square with sharp angles and Little Round with half circles. They go through “flower” and “mushroom” until Big Square gets carried away and starts naming lots of different things all at once, things that Little Round can’t shift into. Soon the friends are arguing, but just like with any friendship there are rough patches and they both have to figure out how to fix it.
Done in just two colors, the dot and the square and the many shapes they make pop on the page, the blue and orange contrasting vibrantly on the white background. It is the illustrations that tell the story here, and the strong style they are done in is striking. Children will immediately relate to both the square and the circle. They may not have faces, but they convey emotions clearly on the page from anger to exuberance to friendship.
Strong and vibrant, this picture book translated from the French, is a great pick for units on friendship or shapes. Appropriate for ages 3-5.
Reviewed from copy received from Enchanted Lion Books.
The Lion and the Bird by Marianne Dubuc
One day a lion discovers a hurt bird in his garden. He bandages the bird’s damaged wing, but then the rest of the bird’s flock flies away, migrating for the winter. So the lion takes the bird into his home. Throughout the winter, the bird and the lion spend each day together doing all sorts of things. And the lion notices that the winter doesn’t seem as cold with a friend along with him. Then spring arrives and the bird’s wing has mended, so the bird heads off to join its flock as they return for the warm weather. Lion is once again alone and now he misses his friend. Lion spends all summer alone, tending his garden. Then autumn comes again and Lion hopes to see his friend return, but will he?
Dubuc is a Canadian author who is internationally known. She has a decidedly European vibe to her work with its quietness and the message of larger things written in the small world she creates on the page. She cleverly shows the passing of the seasons using pages of white that allow space for the time to pass for the reader. The book is also a lovely riff on The Lion and the Mouse, except in this book the lion is the one doing the kindness for another creature and the payback of the kindness is more delicate in the form of friendship.
Dubuc’s art is exceptional. Her fine lines show both close-ups of the friends together and also vistas of the world they live in. There is a feeling of smallness, closeness and a limited world that Lion lives in. That contrasts with the bird leaving on migration and exiting this close world.
A noteworthy picture book, this new title by Dubuc is charming and warm. Appropriate for ages 3-5.
Reviewed from copy received from Enchanted Lion Books.
The Adventures of Beekle: The Unimaginary Friend by Dan Santat
Join Beekle, an imaginary friend, who is so special that no child seems to be able to even imagine him. He waits and waits along with the other imaginary creatures, but he is never dreamed of by a child. So Beekle does what no other imaginary friend has ever done, he heads out to find his child in the real world. He finds himself in a big city, filled with grey people and lots of adults. Luckily, he spots a bright familiar color and shape and follows it to a playground where he thinks he can find his special friend. But they don’t come. Beekle climbs a tree to see if he can spot his friend, but still no one comes. Beekle climbs down, then a small girls gestures for him to get her paper out of the tree. And on that page… Well, you will just have to imagine it for yourself or get this charmer of a book to read and find out what happens next.
Santat has created a book that reads like a modern classic. He has combined so many wonderful moments and positive feelings here that it’s like drinking a cup of cocoa for the spirit. Beekle himself is perfection, a round and friendly little soul whose crown is made of construction paper and tape and who is unwilling to sit lonely when he could do something about his situation. His positive reaction to a dismal situation is a great model for children.
At the same time, this is a testament to imagination. Both a warm embrace of imaginary friends and their positive role in children’s lives. But also a celebration of Santat’s own imagination. The world he creates is filled with the grey of adulthood, but childhood and imagination make that world shine in new colors.
A delight of a picture book, this is one to share cuddled up in bed and to cheer aloud with the story. Appropriate for ages 4-6.
Reviewed from library copy.
Winston & George by John Miller, illustrated by Giuliano Cucco
Released March 21, 2014.
Winston is a crocodile and George is a crocodile bird, the kind of bird that cleans a crocodile’s skin. The two of them would fish together in the river with George calling out when he saw a fish and Winston diving into the water to catch it. Then they would share the meal together on shore. But George had the bad habit of playing pranks on all of the crocodiles as well as on Winston. The other crocodiles tell Winston to just eat George to end the problem, but Winston can’t eat his friend. Then George takes a prank too far and puts Winston’s life in danger. He has to convince the other crocodiles and animals to help, but at what price?
Written and illustrated 50 years ago, this picture book is finally being published. Unfortunately, the illustrator died in 2006, so he did not live to see this work finally come to the public. Happily though, the book is fresh and vibrant with a wonderful vintage feel that makes it feel like an immediate classic. Miller’s words are simple and drive the story forward at a fast pace. The ending is immensely satisfying and sharing it aloud one can expect cheers of joy and relief.
Cucco’s illustrations are superb. They have a wonderful grace of line combined with bright tropical colors that pop on the page. The dramatic moments of the book are captured with plenty of motion and action. Best of all, the humor of the text translates directly into humor of image.
A humorous and dramatic look at an unusual friendship, one only wishes that Winston & George could go on more adventures together. Appropriate for ages 4-6.
Reviewed from copy received from Enchanted Lion Books.
A Snicker of Magic by Natalie Lloyd
Felicity’s mother loves to move to new places, so Felicity has lived all over the country. But when her mother returns to the small town of Midnight Gulch, Felicity quickly realizes she has never lived in any place quite like this one. Midnight Gulch had once been full of magic of all sorts, but then a curse took the magic away and drove two brothers apart as well. But there is magic left in town, if you know where to look. It’s not big magic, just little pieces that were left behind. Felicity has one of those pieces of magic herself, she can see words everywhere, words spoken aloud and words thought silently. She is a word collector keeping a list of the words she finds. Others in town have some magic too, including Jonah, a mysterious boy who calls himself the Beedle and does good deeds around town. Then there’s also the ice cream factory that makes a flavor that evokes memories both sweet and sour. Felicity loves Midnight Gulch, but can she figure out a way to keep her mother from moving on to new places again?
This book was such fun. Lloyd has created an entire town that is filled with a wonderful mix of magic and history. Throughout the book, we learn about what first made Midnight Gulch so magical and then how it was taken away. Then little by little in tantalizing ways readers see the magic that is left and are offered clues about how it may return someday. It’s a book that is surprising and very readable.
Felicity is a great protagonist as she struggles to keep her family in one place. As she finds out more about her own family history and discovers members of her family and community she never knew before, she finds herself less lonely in a way that she never though possible. Perhaps the most delightful piece of all is that Felicity does not need her magic to solve her family’s issues, rather it is about piecing together a mystery and solving a riddle.
Glowing with magic, this novel is a shining read that should be savored just like an ice cream cone on a hot day. Appropriate for ages 9-12.
Reviewed from ARC received from Scholastic.
Half a Chance by Cynthia Lord
Lucy and her family have moved often, following her father’s love of new places to photograph. So when they move to New Hampshire and a house on a lake, the moving process is nothing new. On her first day at the lake, Lucy meets Nate, a boy who summers on the lake with his family and grandmother. Nate invites her along to help document the loons that live on the lake and soon Lucy is out on the lake every day. Lucy longs to be a great photographer like her father, who has left for the entire summer on a photography shoot. So she decides to enter a photo contest for youth, the only problem is that her father is the judge. As Lucy sets out to prove her own skill at taking photos, she finds herself on a different parallel journey, one that will reveal new friends, expose difficult truths, and one that is far more important than winning any contest.
Lord has written another exceptional book for middle graders. Lord excels at creating seemingly simple books that open with a premise and then blossom into something far more complex by the end. Here she explores several themes that center on families. There is the deteriorating grandmother who is aware of what is happening but unable to stop it. There is Lucy’s own family that is fractured at times but remains strong. There is a search for approval that Lucy undergoes as well as her own harsh criticism of her work. Through it all, honesty is overarching, an unflinching sense of reality and truth that makes it impossible to look away.
Beautifully written, the entire book is memorable. Lucy is a great character, a strong heroine who has self-confidence issues but is also talented, friendly and warm. She is a rare young character who moves often with her family and yet the book is not about her scars from that transient life. Rather it is about so many other things that that is just a small factor in a rich tapestry of her world.
Brilliant, soaring and honest, this book is another great read from one of the best. Appropriate for ages 9-12.
Reviewed from digital galley received from NetGalley and Scholastic.