Julie Danielson

The best picture books tap honestly and unpatronizingly into children's emotions. These two books remind children that being human means appreciating the complex emotions we all experience. 

Sometimes I Grumblesquinch

“I'm a really nice kid,” declares protagonist Katie Honors on the first page of author Rachel Vail and illustrator Hyewon Yum’s Sometimes I Grumblesquinch, a tale about the pitfalls of trying to tame emotions. Katie tries to be on her best behavior at all times. She's “a good sport” when she loses a soccer match: “‘Good game,’ I say. . . . I hardly frown.” Katie’s mom declares that her daughter is “such a pleasure,” and Katie takes pride in knowing that her parents are proud of her. But readers, privy to Katie's inner thoughts, know that she contains multitudes.

Katie's little brother, Chuck, annoys her, and she routinely bottles up how he makes her feel. “Sometimes I grumblesquinch,” Katie confesses. When this happens, her “insides tighten” and she has “mean thoughts,” such as wishing that she had “a trampoline or a tree house or a giraffe instead of a brother.” Vail captures Katie's feelings with an unequivocal, refreshing candor that's deeply respectful toward Katie's complicated interior life: “I wish I could pop [Chuck] like a balloon. . . . I wish he would disappear.” When Katie finally snaps, Yum's soft color palette and smooth linework are transformed: Intense colors and ragged, angular lines embody Katie's acute fear that her parents “won't think I am such a pleasure anymore.” 

But Katie's mother gently validates Katie's feelings, telling her daughter that she understands how a person can hold both frustration and love for someone. A shocked Katie nods and tells readers, “This nod is true.” These four words convey so much about how children—especially girls—are encouraged to suppress their feelings and minimize their emotions. When Katie acknowledges that her nod is “true,” she's also suggesting that some of her smiles have been insincere, even forced. 

It's moving to watch Katie begin to understand that attempting to ignore healthy but negative emotions, all in the name of being likable, still causes harm. Even after failing to grumblesquinch all her feelings, Katie still receives a loving hug from her mom, who has space for “the whole me” in her arms.

What Feelings Do When No One's Looking    

Polish author Tina Oziewicz offers readers a whole host of emotions in What Feelings Do When No One's Looking, translated from the Polish by Jennifer Croft. (Kudos to Oziewicz’s American publisher, Elsewhere Editions, for placing the translator's name prominently on the cover.) 

Because the book's title tells readers precisely what to expect, the first spread dives right in, introducing Curiosity, a creature with large ears who sits atop a tall chimney, eager to see what's beyond the horizon. Curiosity is followed by Joy, Gratitude, Calm, Envy, Insecurities, Shame, Courage, Bliss and more, each depicted on its own spread. 

Illustrator Aleksandra Zając (making her picture book debut) introduces an endearing cast of characters, conveying these emotions as furry, amicable creatures who move about on clean, uncluttered backgrounds. Her crisp, fine lines and gray-tone palette (with subtle touches of coral, sky blue and sage) ensure that even the more volatile emotions, such as Anger, won't frighten the youngest readers.

This is a picture book filled with surprises. There are unexpected personifications (“Jitters sit in a rusty can in a dark corner under a wardrobe.” “Nostalgia sniffs a scarf.”), but Oziewicz also has a startlingly succinct and evocative way of capturing these feelings. “Anxiety juggles,” for one. These two words float amid ample white space next to an unhappy-looking creature atop a unicycle trying to keep five balls in the air, its mouth a thin, wavy line. A full-bleed illustration shows a wide-eyed creature attempting to blend in with patterned floral wallpaper: “Fear pretends it isn't there.” And what else would Hope do but pack “a sandwich for the road”? 

Oziewicz and Zając link two spreads in an especially meaningful way: Readers learn that Hate “chews through links and cables. Can't connect! Can't connect!” But in the book's final spread, Love, who is an electrician, holds an oversize lightbulb aglow with amber hues. The bulb seems to run from the same rose-colored cable Hate tried so vehemently to destroy. 

What Feelings Do When No One's Looking will prompt thoughtful conversations about the wide range of feelings a person can experience. It's exactly the sort of book that Katie Honors—and all children—need. 

These children’s books put some of our most complex emotions into words (and pictures!).

Hakim, a donkey, heads out to visit his friend Daisy, who lives on the top of a mountain, so that he can give her the sweater he knitted. The mountain is covered in a thick fog and said to be riddled with monsters. “You're doomed!” yells a goat as Hakim begins his journey, establishing a comically eerie tone to the whole affair.

When Hakim sees a strange figure in the fog, he wonders if the old goat was right. From a distance, the outline of the figure is enveloped in mist, and it appears to be a robot-esque monstrosity. But when Hakim and the figure draw closer, the “monster” turns out to be a dog carrying a pallet of bricks on her head. The friendly dog joins Hakim on his journey up the mountain.

Twice more, the fog tricks the travelers into thinking that they see monsters on the path ahead, but each time, they're proven wrong and a new companion joins the party. Ultimately, the group realizes that “everything looks like a monster in the fog. . . . But the closer you get, the less scary it becomes.”

Understated humor has never been so laugh-out-loud funny as in Ali Bahrampour's Monsters in the Fog. The moderate absurdity of a dog carrying a pile of bricks on her head is one thing, but the final “monster” tops them all. In the fog, it appears as a massive skull until the page turn reveals the gloriously ridiculous truth: It's a bear on a tricycle, careening down the mountain on her way to a repair shop to get the brakes fixed. Even better is the way she manages to stop long enough to meet the group: “A rock helped her out,” we read as the tricycle is wedged into a large stone, sending the bear flying through the air.

Bahrampour presents this perfectly paced, playful tale in muted watercolors and a lively cartoon style that's reminiscent of the work of Jon Agee and William Steig. The reveals steal the show, but readers will also love Hakim's sweet devotion to Daisy, who is responsible for her own surprising reveal at the book's close. It may be difficult for a donkey to knit a sweater, but Hakim knows that his struggles with knitting needles and monsters alike are worth it for a friend.

Understated humor has never been so laugh-out-loud funny as in Ali Bahrampour’s perfectly paced, playful picture book.

Yoshi and the Ocean: A Sea Turtle’s Incredible Journey Home, Lindsay Moore’s account of the incredible intercontinental journey of a loggerhead sea turtle, opens with two spreads that precede its title page. Readers meet Yoshi inside an egg, “before she had a name.” Folded within a shell, the little turtle waits until “the voice of the waves” calls her to hatch and enter the world.

As Moore’s story begins, Yoshi is “small and broken,” wounded in the water and rescued by fishermen who name her Yoshitaro. She finds a new home and heals at an aquarium in Cape Town, South Africa, much to the delight of the aquarium’s visitors. But after some time, Yoshi knows that she needs to return to the ocean: “She is from away from here, and that is where she needs to go.”

The scientists who brought Yoshi back to health attach a tracking device to her shell and release her into the ocean. The rest of Moore’s book tracks Yoshi’s extraordinary three-year journey up the eastern coast of Africa, as far north as Angola, then back around the southern tip of the continent and all the way across the Indian Ocean to waters off the northwestern coast of Australia—a distance of 25,000 miles!

Moore gives this remarkable true story an appealing structure. The refrain “This is Yoshi . . .” grounds readers in each new location along the turtle’s journey. As Yoshi sets out on her trip, the story’s brisk pace keeps readers turning pages. Each time Yoshi surfaces above the waves, allowing her tracker to send a signal to a satellite, we read in a looping cursive font: “Hello from Yoshi. I am here.” The narrative pacing slows as the turtle nears Australia, where she transmits one final, emotionally satisfying message, displayed in large letters that span the entire spread: “Hello from Yoshi. I am home.”

Moore illustrates this tale in sweeping full-bleed views of the worlds above and below the waves. Readers discover these worlds along with Yoshi as she takes in all the wonders of ocean life. Moore’s language is precise but also lyrical as she notes the “shape of a wave, the shift of the wind, the push of a current.” The book’s detailed back matter, which includes a photograph of Yoshi, will inspire readers to revisit the turtle’s story, equipped with the context to fully appreciate her astonishing voyage.

With vivid emotion, Lindsay Moore tells the astonishing story of a loggerhead turtle who traveled more than 25,000 miles from South Africa to Australia.

When a new boy moves to the neighborhood, Dot introduces herself and asks if he wants to play. The boy, slump-shouldered and sad, declines. Dot wonders whether he’s sad because he didn’t want to move. 

That night, the boy writes down a wish on a star—to “fly far far away and maybe never have to come back”—and ties the note to the string of a golden balloon, which lands outside Dot’s bedroom window. Dot reads the note, which also reveals that the boy’s name is Albert. Endeavoring to make Albert happy, Dot builds him a kite and, after finding another balloon note in which Albert wishes for a dog, gives him her favorite plush puppy. Albert brightens, but only momentarily.

Albert’s next note wishes that his dad “was here again” and “could come back.” Dot imagines what it would be like if her own father weren’t around. Her empathy makes her realize that her job isn’t to make Albert happy: “Sometimes, it's okay to be sad. Sometimes, it's the only thing we can do.” She decides to sit with Albert on a porch swing in his backyard, even amid long silences, until he’s ready to open up. 

Author-illustrator Jonathan D. Voss employs a painterly style in The Wishing Balloons, an emotionally charged tale. His remarkably thick and textured brushstrokes, fuzzy forms and highly saturated colors give his artwork the appearance of memories or dreams: Specifics are blurry and emotions dominate. In the absence of sharp lines and distinct facial expressions, the characters’ body language conveys their feelings—particularly Albert’s overwhelming sadness.

Some lines of text as well as some illustrations are depicted as if on separate sheets of paper affixed to the page with torn pieces of tape. This technique, along with a textured, handwriting-style font, lends The Wishing Balloons the feel of a scrapbook of memories. 

A story of loss and healing, The Wishing Balloons pulses with tenderness. It’s sure to prompt readers to consider extending their hand to anyone in need and to reflect on what true friendship really looks like. 

In Jonathan D. Voss’ The Wishing Balloons, Dot wonders why the new boy doesn’t want to play—until she finds a note tied to a balloon outside her bedroom window.

“Not everyone loves a train,” begins Kate Hoefler and Jessixa Bagley’s Courage Hats. Mae, carrying a small yellow suitcase, and Bear, with an old-fashioned knapsack across his shoulder, are both feeling anxious as they board a high-speed train. They don’t know each other yet, but they will.

Because she will be traveling “deep into bear places,” Mae has made a paper-bag headpiece to help her look more like a bear, with round ears and a brown nose. And because Bear will be venturing “deep into people places,” he has crafted a similar human-esque paper-bag hat. Each headpiece has a large hole that reveals Mae’s and Bear’s true faces, but to themselves and each other, they are utterly transformed.

Wearing their hats, Mae and Bear find seats next to each other on the train. Mae’s suitcase turns out to contain a tea set, while Bear’s polka-dotted knapsack holds sandwiches, crackers and cookies. Together, they enjoy a cozy spread as the train carries them on to a destination revealed on the book’s final page.

Bagley (Before I Leave) creatively extends Hoefler’s narrative, using eye-catching perspectives and presenting a world in which anthropomorphized woodland creatures and humans share spaces. The journey, not the destination, is the point of this rewarding story about finding courage via the gifts of friendship and abundant imagination.

Readers will especially appreciate Hoefler’s poetic and nuanced observations once Mae and Bear’s journey gets underway. There’s “a lot to notice” out the window of a train, Hoefler writes, such as “how a train carries the sky on its back.” Bagley illustrates this by depicting the new friends from behind as they take in the marvelous view of a golden meadow flanked by distant mountains. 

There’s gentle humor in Courage Hats as well, rooted in the contradictions between Hoefler’s text and Bagley’s images. When Mae first meets Bear, Hoefler (Real Cowboys) tells us that Mae has “found a big grown-up to sit with,” while Bagley depicts Bear (in his person hat) sitting next to the window of the train’s bench seat, arms crossed in his lap. Similarly, Bear is relieved to have “found a small cub to sit with.” Later, as Mae and Bear find comfort in each other’s presence, they both reflect that, if not for their newfound friendship, they “might have missed what was right next” to them.

Courage Hats is a satisfying story about facing your fears. After all, if you can’t find your courage, “you can wear it on your head at first.”

In Kate Hoefler and Jessixa Bagley’s imaginative Courage Hats, Mae and Bear discover unexpected bravery and friendship on a long train journey.

Expect the giggles to begin from the opening endpapers of Chester van Chime Who Forgot How to Rhyme. They feature small drawings, and each illustration is accompanied by a pair of rhyming words. For example, a depiction of a green slug smiling on a fluffy green rug says “Slug Rug.”

The book itself is about poor Chester van Chime, who awakens one morning to discover that he has lost the ability to rhyme. Scattered across his bedroom are objects that evoke rhymes: The same slug from the endpapers smiles happily from a green rug next to Chester’s bed, and we see two toy ducks inside a blue toy truck. Despite all these visual clues, Chester simply can't “match up two sounds.”

Author Avery Monsen presents a text filled with rhyming couplets that fall flat on their poetic faces. “He tried not to panic. He played it real cool / and picked up his backpack and walked to his . . . / . . . learning place with teachers and stuff.” Adults, welcome to your next Best Storytime Book.

Abby Hanlon, illustrator of the side-splittingly funny Dory Fantasmagory chapter book series, brings her playful sensibilities to these vivid tableaux. Her spreads teem with rhyming pairs. Owls decorate Chester's bathroom towel; a pup smiles from the cup on his sink; a fox steals a sock while Chester’s getting dressed; and can you guess what winged mammal appears on his doormat? As Chester's frustrations over his failures escalate, so do the visuals. Chester's classroom devolves into chaos as his classmates try to resuscitate his rhyming acumen.

Chester walks home from school in despair, but he soon realizes that everyone has off days and no one can be perfect all the time. Besides, by day’s end, Chester can rhyme again—for the most part. And remember those winning opening endpapers? The book’s closing endpapers feature an entirely new but equally delightful set of drawings.

It’s a must-read, a hit, a guaranteed good time. If only more books were like Chester van . . . what was his name again?

Poor Chester van Chime may have lost the ability to rhyme, but young readers will lose themselves to giggles at this book’s delightfully unsuccessful couplets.

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