There are few things more miraculous to me than a really good picture book. It must be economical in prose and relatively bold in picture, but immediately suggest a whole world and character, or cast of characters. It has to have details that mark it as a unique thing, but carry a universal message so it can be quickly resonant to its readers. Comfort and novelty in a well-designed, beautiful package.
I just read a slew of good, short books. Some are picture books, some are books with pictures. But they all share a talent for attention-catching. Here are my morsels:
I was tipped off to this title by super-librarian Betsy Bird’s Fuse No. 8 review on SLJ. As usual, her review covers all the bases illuminatingly, but I’ll add my personal likes. The basic plot is that Herman and Rosie love similar things (Herman: “potted plants, playing the oboe, wild boysenberry yogurt, the smell of hot dogs in the winter, and watching films about the ocean” Rosie: “pancakes, listening to old jazz records, the summertime subway breeze, toffees that stuck to her teeth, singing on the fire escape. . . and watching films about the ocean.”), and live near each other. They both are sustained by their music and their routines despite feeling sort of lonely. . .until things fall apart. Will they find each other?
I’m not a NYC-fetishiser, but I do enjoy a city-in-the-winter, lonely-in-a-crowd vibe, and this captures it. Gordon’s palette ranges from bright blue piercingly sunny winter days to muted brown snowy nights. Nothing’s ever too bright; he brings the duality of neon and worn down floorboards of ajazz club to the picture book. He plays around with the page, repeating formats occasionally, but not over and over. Because the story is about 2 characters who are experiencing similar life journeys (and who obviously must meet by the book’s end!) there’s a lot of mirroring going on, in a seamless fashion. The art itself is full of collage and faux-scribbly elements, with a base of watercolory wash.
Koyama Press and I both described this as “a feast for the eyes” . . . independently! Actually, I said “visual feast” and they said “feast for the eyes and mind”. Potato potahto. The day after I read this I looked up what Fata Morgana means, and listen to this: according to the Oxford Dictionary of Weather, 2nd ed. (by STORM DUNLOP!!), Fata morgana is a specific type of mirage, “in which the image of the actual surface appears in the form of a wall. The effect occurs when the temperature profile has an inflection, but is also relatively gentle. The atmosphere exhibits lensing properties but these are astigmatic, resulting in a redistribution of brightness within the image, often creating the effect of light and dark arches, and distant buildings.” and, according ot the Oxford Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, 2nd ed., comes from “a mirage seen in the Strait of Messina between Italy and Sicily and attributed to Morgan le Fey, whose legend and reputation were carried to Sicily by Norman settlers.” And if you don’t know, now you know.
Jon Vermilyea‘s Fata Morgana is a wordless, mostly plotless book of not-quite-psychadelic fever dreamscapes. So I’d say the title is apropos. Vermilyea’s cartooning suggests the weight of its characters. It has a real density to it, and he covers every landscape with intertwining details that push to the forefront of the page, forming a wall of round, drippy lines forming trunks and faces and bridges and who knows what. The coloring is bright, mixing pastels with bold, almost neon tones. It’s disorienting at times, and my only wish is that it were a series of fold-out posters so the gutter hadn’t gotten in the way.
Fun fact: It turns out that Lee Nordling was the comic strip editor for Nickelodeon’s Rugrats comic. It’s not apparent right away, but after knowing that, I can see the influence of the Rugrats in the human characters of The Bramble. But the kids in this story skew more towards older picture books. They could exist anywhere from the 70s to now, and that’s what I like about them, with their skinny limbs, bulbous noses, and giant heads.
The Bramble is printed in blues and browns, and concerns a boy, Cameron, who bravely tries to make friends by crashing a game of tag, but is obliquely muscled out of his notions of friendship by the other boys refusing to play along with him. Instead, they just shout “You’re It!” over and over. Dehumanizing, no? Funnily enough, there’s a giant bramble patch right at the edge of the park. A creature is spying on the failed tag game, and Cameron catches a peek of it. In its haste to hide itself, it leaves its necklace behind. So Cameron follows it into the Bramble to return the necklace.
Thus follows a not-so-vaguely Wild Things type adventure. Cameron ends up defeating a weird sentient blob/tongue/wave thing by using the same bullying Tag tactics that were used by him, which endears the creatures of the Bramble to him and makes him more confident and able to leave the Bramble and befriend the bullies.
Clearly I have issues with that part of the story. What resonated with me was the wordless sequences where Cameron opened himself up to rejection, was rejected, entered a new, strange situation, and this time found acceptance. The emotional tone was spot on there, and it’s worth taking a look at the book just for that. I’m excited to see more picture books take a darker tone at times, since the shelves can sometimes feel glutted with pastel bunny love fests (they have their place, for sure, but shouldn’t be the only thing out there.)
“The Hole has simple, expressive drawings created by pen and computer, and there’s a hole punched right through the book, so it exists in real life, even if it can’t be explained.” – Enchanted Lion Books description
So, apparently Enchanted Lion Books has been around since 2003 and I’m just learning about it via The Hole. Now I have a whole backlist to discover!
The guy in The Hole has moved into an apartment. It has a hole, and the hole keeps moving. Of course, the hole is not moving, the drawings are moving. But the drawings are reality, if the reader accepts it, so the hole is moving. We see the dude realize what’s happening, call someone about it, capture the hole, and take it somewhere (I won’t spoil it, ha ha.) The one simple conceit is magical in and of itself, and Torseter’s simple lines and open spaces make it more charming, like you’re watching someone drawing the story for you (very Harold and the Purple Crayon!) There are some good photos of the art at the Brain Pickings review.
5. Hilda and the Troll by Luke Pearson
Hilda’s been around a while. This is the Flying Eye Books edition of Nobrow’s Hildafolk. Luke Pearson also wrote and illustrated Hilda and the Bird Parade and Hilda and the Midnight Giant, the former I’ve read and really liked, the latter of which I am looking forward to reading. He says that The Midnight Giant is “a follow up to Hildafolk, my 24-pager of one year ago, but it’s more of a reboot than a sequel and is hopefully the first of a series of albums exploring the same world.”
I had no trouble reading them out of “order” – Hilda is a self-assured girl and goes about her world so matter of factly that I couldn’t help but folow with a sympathetic attitude. (As in, my brain tuned into her vibes or something).
In this adventure, Hilda goes out to draw rocks, finds a troll rock (a troll that is in rock form), puts a bell on its nose for safety, and falls asleep instead of getting back to her house. The troll wakes up, and Hilda has to find her way home and also find a way to make things right with the troll. Trolls hate bells and she has set it up for eternal torment, because its arms can’t reach the bell on its nose to remove it.
The magical Scandinavian world here is a delight. It’s our modern world, but a more tuned into things like trolls and horned foxes and tree men. I love Hilda -she’s serious about her self and her interests, and still realistically a kid. She learns to see a bit more about her assumptions in this book, and her carelessness, and in the Bird Parade this learning continues. And she knows the value of being cosy in a rainy tent:
I hope all of you have something nice to read while sitting on a couch or in a tent, watching the snow fall or the rain drizzle or the breeze blow things around.