Every spring, publishers, authors, and agents display their latest and upcoming books for booksellers and librarians in the huge industry show Book Expo America. This year, as I wandered the vast book fields of the Javits Center, my attention was particularly arrested by the range of excellent picture books on offer, from the smallest independent publishers to the largest established ones. I gathered samples of picture books in every available stage of completion: galleys, advanced reader copies of uncorrected proofs, “F&Gs” that are merely folded and gathered, and finished, jacketed hardback books.
Here are my four favorites from what I collected.
One Fox: A Counting Book Thriller
Pan Macmillan in the UK; Peachtree in the U.S.
One Fox has very few words per page since it is a counting book presenting the numbers one through ten, intended to be read aloud to the youngest of toddlers. The focus is on the gorgeous artwork, which is extremely reminiscent of Eric Carle’s technique of painting paper with rich textures and then using it in a collage. The pictures and words together tell the story of one hungry fox sneaking around for a nighttime snack, with unexpected complications. Each page spread is thoughtfully composed both for beauty in illustration and for utility as a read-aloud counting book. For instance, the spread which illustrates “7 knocks at the door” not only offers the sound effect “TAP!” seven times, but also has seven countable stars in the sky. As a parent, I can guarantee that adult readers to kids appreciate all the depth possible in any seemingly simplistic book, since we know we’ll be scrutinizing it roughly eighteen thousand times.
The Lions at Night
Jessica M. Boehman
The Roadrunner Press
The Lions at Night was my favorite picture book of the show. In this beautiful “wordless” picture book, the lions Patience and Fortitude come alive at night, leaving their stations in front of the New York Public Library to interact cheerfully with other New Yorkers and have fun at Coney Island before needing to get home in time to start their day as stone. Note that while the book does not have read-aloud text, there are lots of words presented diegetically, such as the word “Subway” on the Subway sign. These words were satisfying for my kid, who recognized many of them by their context.
Boehman, who based this book on a comic she wrote a few years ago, uses color impeccably. Most of her city is softly shaded pencil with rounded edges that at first reminded me of Chris Van Allsburg’s immersive style. She has splashes of color, however, as a book in a character’s pocket or the outfit of an observant child draws the reader’s eye. The color use highlights the way her drawing style is unique.
As the lions come alive, they turn taxi golden, and smile engagingly through meeting dogs, riding the Cyclone, and cuddling with each other and their librarian friend. There’s a lot to appreciate about this book, especially for someone who loves libraries and New York City as much as my kid and I do, but I think my absolute favorite pages are the scenes of the lions on the F train. The golden lions glow like beacons from the train windows.
Ona Judge Outwits the Washingtons: An Enslaved Woman Fights for Freedom
Written by Gwendolyn Hooks, illustrated by Simone Agoussoye
Hooks tells the gripping true story of Ona Judge, an enslaved woman raised in George and Martha Washington’s household who escapes as an adult and stays free. The pacing and delivery will keep adult readers enthralled, as the clarity of language and engaging childlike illustrations invite children to empathize with the main character and understand her situation.
Even with the promise of the title that Ona Judge “outwits” the Washingtons, I was still on edge reading this book, hoping desperately for her to escape and then, once she escaped, for her to evade recapture. The extent to which Judge had to worry and watch out for slave catchers the entirety of her adult life is clearly and necessarily conveyed by Hooks.
Agoussoye, generally a portrait painter, chose a flat style reminiscent of Outsider Art for the illustrations in this book, which look like something a child reader might produce themself. This makes the illustrations feel immediate in much the same way Maira Kalman’s illustrations do, which is well-suited to the subject matter.
Orchard Books, Scholastic
In RIVER, a lone boater makes her way down the Hudson over several days, camping at night, dealing with unquiet water and weather, and seeing the natural sights and small towns the region has to offer her. As one might expect, the writing is lyrical and fits the pace of oars splashing in and out of the water on an unhurried journey, taken for the journey’s own sake.
The illustrations are cool watercolors, calm and evocative as well as informative. I have a view of the Hudson out my bedroom window and I love Cooper’s pictures and descriptions of it in RIVER. I also like the way the traveler keeps going despite setbacks. She loses her hat on the first day and proceeds anyhow! The hat isn’t even mentioned again, nor is the lack thereof. Imagine the unmentioned sunburn her face is getting.
The things I like about this book, however, are things I like as a grown-up. This is a book about a solo adult doing a slow thing, and the pictures and writing work well for that. It is difficult to imagine a lot of kids being enthralled by the unnamed adult protagonist whose face is never depicted close-up, however. RIVER is a book I might give to my dad for his birthday (he likes boats) but it is also a book to which my kid said “no thank you,” when I offered it as a bedtime option.