Robin Smith

I love the careful, almost photographic style of illustrator (and now writer) Kadir Nelson and was thrilled to hear that he was working on a history of Negro League baseball for young readers. We Are the Ship: The Story of Negro League Baseball was well worth the wait. Everything about this book is beautiful, even the copyright and dedication pages, which are lightly printed with quotations from Negro League greats such as Satchel Paige and Buck O'Neil. In my town, there was a baseball card store where former Negro League players used to sit around and tell stories over coffee, while adoring fans looked on. This book has the feel of a grandfather telling stories from way-back-when, during Jim Crow. And what stories they are! In nine chapters, called innings, of course, the stories flow with the cadence of the spoken word . . . and some of the bravado that often goes along with oral storytelling. "Some of those guys would spike their mother if she were blocking home plate." Can't you picture the old guys nodding their heads in agreement?

Though the stories flow in We Are the Ship, it's the artwork that is absolutely stunning. Nelson frames most of the illustrations from a perspective slightly below the level of the subject, as sports photographers often do. That allows the players to appear larger than life, towering over the reader. With its fascinating details about life as a black person in America, from Jim Crow through the current baseball era, this book will appeal to anyone interested in the history of baseball, African Americans and race. With all the talk of steroids and drugs in baseball this year, Nelson reminds us of another time, a time when players played for the love of the game.

A FAITHFUL COMPANION
Night Running: How James Escaped with the Help of His Faithful Dog, written by Elisa Carbone and illustrated by E.B. Lewis, is a true story that Carbone found while researching her young adult novel, Stealing Freedom. It tells the story of James and his dog, Zeus, who eventually make it across the Ohio River to freedom. James worries that Zeus will be a burden on the long trip, but it turns out that Zeus is one special dog one who will sniff out slave catchers, fight off other dogs and even pull his boy out of a river. Another gripping story brought to life with the watercolors of the incomparable E.B. Lewis, who knows how to sniff out a fantastic manuscript himself.

PLAYING WITH PASSION
Biographies are an important part of the books available for young history readers. Piano Starts Here: The Young Art Tatum, by Robert Andrew Parker, tells the story of someone I am embarrassed to say I had never heard of. But that is the magic of the story—I was drawn in from the first page and found myself thinking about Art Tatum for weeks. I went to websites to explore his music and was completely amazed that this jazz pianist, mostly self-taught and nearly blind since birth, found the prominence he did. Written in the first person and illustrated in Parker's familiar filmy watercolors outlined with pen, this biography reveals the author's obvious admiration for his subject. From the time Tatum started playing in clubs in 1926 at the age of 16, his short life spanned the heyday of the Jazz Age through the mid-1950s. Parker's telling makes it all so alive that it is hard not to want to know more. Children often ignore the end matter that is so important in books, but I hope they will read about the author and Tatum in the fascinating endnotes. For the child or adult who has a passion, whether musical or not, and is inspired by others who follow their passions, this would be a welcome gift.

REVISITING A TRAILBLAZER
Most children learn about George Washington Carver in school and are able to connect him with the words "peanut" and "sweet potato." Tonya Bolden explores Carver more seriously in George Washington Carver, a book to accompany a traveling exhibit on Carver from the Field Museum in Chicago. Filled with archival photographs, artifacts and Carver's own scientific drawings, this is a book to slowly savor. Maybe it's because Carver working in his lab reminds me so much of my own grandfather working in his pharmacy, but Carver has always been a hero to me. His dedication to the earth and his reverence for nature will surely resound with ecologically aware students today. I particularly enjoyed the tidbits that Bolden sprinkles into her narrative—Carver saving everything, even string; Carver knitting and doing embroidery; and, my favorite, a photo of Carver taking his early morning walk, specimen case in one hand, a branch in the other, and a flower tucked in his lapel. Reading about the research he completed with the most basic tools renews my admiration for him. Bolden's straight-shooting afterword addresses Carver's detractors (he did not publicly oppose segregation, which put him at odds with some in the Civil Rights movement) and brings him back into the fold of famous scientists. Now, I just have to hope that the traveling exhibit comes to my city (check fieldmuseum.org to see if it's coming to yours).

INSPIRING PORTRAITS
If you're looking for a new reference book on civil rights history for young children, David Adler's newest offering is a good place to start. Heroes for Civil Rights, illustrated by Bill Farnsworth, discusses eight men, two women and three groups of people who fought for civil rights. The heroes are arranged alphabetically, from Ralph Abernathy to Earl Warren. I especially enjoyed revisiting the stories of Fannie Lou Hamer and Fred Shuttlesworth, two lesser-known heroes. Adler includes Lyndon Baines Johnson and Earl Warren to remind children that some white people, too, fought for civil rights. Farnsworth's oil paintings remind me of the formal portraits we often see hung in businesses or schools to honor past presidents and principals. Sepia tones add to the serious presentation. It's hard to look in the eyes of murdered civil rights workers Goodman, Schwerner and Chaney without thinking about their ages—early 20s—the ages of my own children. Simple, spare and easy to navigate, this is a great resource for children who love history.

WHAT LIES BENEATH
Though the horrors of slavery are acknowledged in Jean Ferris' fine young adult novel, Underground, set in the Mammoth Cave region of Kentucky in 1839, they are mostly a thing of the past for Charlotte Brown and her beau, the brilliant cave explorer Stephen Bishop (a real-life figure). Their new owner treats them well, even allowing Stephen to explore and map caves on his own for days at a time. When Stephen brings Charlotte into Mammoth Cave for privacy as he teaches her to read, Charlotte finds a safe place to hide runaway slaves from the slave catchers and their dogs. She also discovers that she loves Stephen and that she has the inner resources it takes to lie in order to protect the runaways.

Though Charlotte and Stephen are the main characters of this novel, Mammoth Cave itself also figures prominently in the story. A beautiful but peculiar place, filled with blind fish, white crickets and sounds that resemble the voices of spirits, the cave seems to have a life of its own. Ferris weaves interesting details about the daily life of slaves into her fast-paced story. Historical information about the Underground Railroad is also seamlessly included in this suspenseful page-turner, as is an overall sense of respect for the cave itself.

I love the careful, almost photographic style of illustrator (and now writer) Kadir Nelson and was thrilled to hear that he was working on a history of Negro League baseball for young readers. We Are the Ship: The Story of Negro League Baseball was well worth the wait. Everything about this book is beautiful, even […]

New readers and listeners love the cadence and predictability of rhymed poems and J. Patrick Lewis is a master of the form. In the hyperbolically titled The World's Greatest Poems, illustrated by Keith Graves he offers an amusing and inventive ride into the world of superlatives. From the kookiest hat to the tallest roller coaster to the highest air on a skateboard and every other nutty record in between, Lewis delights readers with his verbal acrobatics and clever poetic forms. The bouncy rhymes are illustrated with droll acrylic-and-pencil drawings that poke fun at the records that people keep. Here is Lewis' limerick to the world's largest potato: "There once was a tater named spud / Who said to his tater tot, 'Bud, / Remember the size is / What takes Tater Prizes, / So don't be a stick-in-the-mud!' " I can imagine young readers dragging out almanacs and record books to write other record-breaking poetry.

Just for laughs
Oops! by Alan Katz, illustrated by New Yorker cartoonist Edward Koren, indulges in silly rhymes. Katz recently scored a hit with Take Me Out of the Bathtub and this collection promises to appeal to the same audience. Sometimes treading on the edge of what adults would call good taste, Katz proves once again that poetry can be very funny indeed. "Hair? Where?" is told from a mischievous boy's point of view: "Dad says, 'You're giving me gray hair!' / At my behavior / he's often appalled. / But I don't see much / gray hair was up there . . . / looks more like I'm making him / bald!" Katz is all about groan-producing puns and plays on words that will have kids rolling their eyes. When he makes sly references to bodily functions, the surprised reader will laugh out loud. Perfect for sharing with boys.

In combat
Lee Bennett Hopkins, one of the most prolific poets and anthologists in the world, compiles powerful poems about centuries of conflict in America at War, illustrated by Stephen Alcorn. Tracing American history from the Revolutionary War to the current war in Iraq, Hopkins chooses poems from familiar voices like Sandburg and Whitman, Levertov and cummings, but also introduces the gut-wrenching poignancy of poems by Iraqi veterans. Part history book, part art book and all poetry, this volume will be as comfortable in a classroom as on a coffee table. These poems get at the heart of what it means to fight in a war, serve in the military and be affected by war.

Abuzz about bees
Naomi Shihab Nye's new collection, Honeybee is a response, in poems and essays, to the recent news of the honeybee's decline. It seems Nye has always been interested in the language of bees and the news that the bees were ailing inspired this volume. Nye's unique voice for peace and justice, coupled with her unwavering wonder, make her one of my favorite poets. Whether she is writing about the variety of humans at an airport or the return of the frogs' song, Nye seems alive in a way that ordinary people can only imagine. Nye's perspective is the prism of hope and the trust that people can live together in peace. I keep coming back to this phrase from "Missing Thomas Jefferson," "I am looking for the human who admits his flaws / Who shocks the adversary / By being kinder and not stronger / What would that be like? / We don't even know." If you are a newcomer to Nye, start here; then, like a honeybee, dip into the nectar of her many other collections.

New readers and listeners love the cadence and predictability of rhymed poems and J. Patrick Lewis is a master of the form. In the hyperbolically titled The World's Greatest Poems, illustrated by Keith Graves he offers an amusing and inventive ride into the world of superlatives. From the kookiest hat to the tallest roller coaster to […]

While reading about scary things under the bed might not make the fears go away, Joe Fenton's newest, What's Under the Bed?, will give little scaredy-cats something to laugh at. When bespectacled Fred climbs into his bed with Ted, his stuffed bear, it's time to begin his nightly wonderings. "What's that noise? What's that sound? Is there something on the ground?" The black-and-white illustrations, at times punctuated with the imagined monster's colors, are oversized to the point of hilarity – especially the very big head, complete with little hairs. When Fred discovers the object of his fears, he can finally go to sleep . . . or maybe not.

Emily Gravett's new picture book, Little Mouse's Big Book of Fears, is a new twist on the genre. This humorous book is actually about the author's fears, and the pencil-carrying mouse "writing" the story is simply a foil. Starting with arachnophobia and moving to aichmophobia (knives, the kind the farmer's wife used), our little friend faces many fears, common and esoteric. Using found objects, chewed paper edges (thanks to Gravett's pet rat), a muted gray, red and beige palette, and an array of fabulous foldouts, Gravett's portrait of what would frighten a mouse (and a person) is just what the psychiatrist ordered. On each page, she encourages readers to record their own fears. The big reveal at the end will provide a welcome relief and spontaneous laughter.

Silhouettes, coupled with adorable pink-cheeked ghosties, tell Belgian Emmanuelle Eeckhout's amusing tale of misplaced fears with a cheeky touch in There's No Such Thing as Ghosts!. Armed with a butterfly net, a little child (nicely androgynous), ignores Mother's request to stay out of the house down the street because it's rumored to be haunted. "Haunted? There's no such thing as ghosts! But if there is . . . I'm going to catch one!" Our brave Everychild enters the house and finds nothing, but the young reader will see what the ghost chaser is missing on every page. Not scary at all, this little book (the smaller size is very appealing) allows the reader to look carefully at the illustrations, rich in white space and droll details, and discover all manner of hidden things. My favorite was seeing a lineup of ghosts waiting for the bathroom. Yellow, black and pink give the artwork a retro feel, but the story line is timeless.

Patrick Loehr's book about disgusting food, Mucumber McGee and Lunch Lady's Liver, is an amusing ode to unrecognizable cafeteria food. When Mucumber arrives late to lunch, he is treated to a "very special recipe" of Liver Cake. Told in rhymes, the story follows Mucumber, decked out in a suit with a bow tie, as he takes a bite of the cake that he fears might end his life. But, never fear, we learn that, "it won't taste as bad as it looks / Because lunch ladies are usually . . . very good cooks." A dark purple and black creepy tone adds to the fun. Serve it up the next time you are reading aloud to a group of children. They will get the joke, and might even try some new food the next time they go through the lunch line.

Finally, Emily Jenkins looks at a different kind of fear in The Little Bit Scary People. Part bibliotherapy and part kid's-eye-view, this offering will be welcomed by teachers and parents of children who are afraid of the people they meet every day: the skateboarder with an unusual haircut, the principal, the impatient music teacher, a classmate who talks to herself, and even the policeman. Using comforting first person, a redhead with a shy, observant temperament is able to conquer her fears by imagining all these "scary" people at home, with their children and loved ones, living their regular non – scary lives. Jenkins' book provides a nice introduction to the idea of empathy and imagination.

While reading about scary things under the bed might not make the fears go away, Joe Fenton's newest, What's Under the Bed?, will give little scaredy-cats something to laugh at. When bespectacled Fred climbs into his bed with Ted, his stuffed bear, it's time to begin his nightly wonderings. "What's that noise? What's that sound? Is […]

Children and their parents are drawn to the silver and gold stickers on picture books. The most important of these stickers designate the Caldecott Medal-winning books. Have you ever wondered where that sticker came from? The Huntington Library Press answers this question with a new offering, Randolph Caldecott's Picture Books. Nineteenth-century British illustrator Caldecott is credited with being the father of the modern picture book, and these reproductions of his published works from the Huntington's ample art collection shows that the credit is well-deserved. Turning the pages of this rich volume is to return to another era, one filled with nursery rhymes and wordplay, fairy tales and poetry. Today's readers have gotten used to seeing saturated colors in picture books, but the technology of earlier times produced subdued but beautiful etchings and watercolors. This delightful collection would be a lovely addition to any family's library.

INTO THE GARDEN
W.W. Norton, creator of many critical editions for high school and college students, brings us the gorgeous The Annotated Secret Garden edited with an introduction and notes by Gretchen Holbrook Gerzina. Her well-researched commentary will add to any reader's knowledge of this classic children's book and its author, Frances Hodgson Burnett. Gerzina is an expert on all things Burnett, having written both a biography of her and the Norton Critical Edition of The Secret Garden. Readers interested in the life of Burnett will devour the introduction, a biography that recounts the soap-opera life that Burnett lived. Her early reading material was mostly penny dreadfuls and the popular magazines of the British household servants Gothic tales and romances. As she matured, moved to Tennessee and began writing short stories for mainstream magazines, her reading preferences and style changed.

The annotated story itself is sprinkled generously with illustrations by the many artists who have interpreted the beloved story of Mary and Colin, the redemptive power of nature, and the ability of a broken spirit to heal and prosper. The annotations themselves, in green type in the side margins, are child-friendly. No three-page treatises on the state of colonial India here just explications of vocabulary and insights into the times. It's hard to reread The Secret Garden without having that familiar lump in my throat when Colin and his father are reunited and Colin, at last, walks on his own two legs to Misselthwaite Manor. Pass the tissues.

FOLLOWING A DREAM
My very favorite book of the season, and one I have already tucked away for a few special friends, is Artist to Artist: 23 Major Illustrators Talk to Children about Their Art. Part advice book, part art book and part peek into the lives of 23 of the most beloved children's book illustrators, this is a volume for all ages. A wonderfully diverse crowd it is, too, from Mitsumasa Anno, Quentin Blake and Ashley Bryan through the alphabet to Jerry Pinkney and finally to Paul O. Zelinsky. Each page contains a self-portrait, a letter from the artist to children who dream of being artists and, behind a deft foldout page, examples of the artist's work.

Especially compelling are the carefully saved bits of art and photographs from the artists' childhoods. Who knew that kindergarten Jane's crayon drawing of Eskimos would lead to the familiar illustrations of Jane Dyer? But perhaps the best gifts contained here are the moving letters of the artists themselves. Never condescending, their words seem directed at the fledgling artist in all of us.

As Maurice Sendak puts it, "it's not that I draw particularly better than other people I've never fooled myself about that. Rather it's that I remember things other people don't recall: the sounds and feelings and images the emotional quality of particular moments of childhood."

The artists encourage young people to create stories and to stick with art, no matter what adults might tell them. Barry Moser puts it best: "So, my young friend, never let anyone tell you that you cannot do something. You can. All it takes and this is a lot is the desire to do it, the persistence to learn how to do it well, the courage to stand strong when people around you are discouraging your dreams." Indeed.

Children and their parents are drawn to the silver and gold stickers on picture books. The most important of these stickers designate the Caldecott Medal-winning books. Have you ever wondered where that sticker came from? The Huntington Library Press answers this question with a new offering, Randolph Caldecott's Picture Books. Nineteenth-century British illustrator Caldecott is […]

Adèle and Simon hit the road again! They previously explored America and Paris, but they are now headed to China to visit their photographer uncle, Sidney. This is the China of more than a century ago, allowing today’s children a trip of their own.

First stop is Hong Kong, where Sidney takes the two youngsters on a shopping spree. Simon gets a hat, a jacket, a knapsack, a flute and many other items while Adèle opts for one large gift: a camera so she can record her journey just like her uncle. Readers familiar with this series knows what is to come: Adèle will write postcards home to “Dear Mama” and Simon will lose an object at each stop. At the Shanghai silk farm, he loses the yellow scarf. Careful readers will pore over each detailed, colorful pen-and-ink illustration to find the missing object. Older eyes will undoubtedly have to search longer and harder than young eyes, but no matter the age of the searcher, it’s great fun to finally locate the missing item. (This time the scarf is in the mouth of a dog.) On each page, the search is made more challenging by the artist’s color choices; the missing yellow scarf is exactly the color that most of the people are wearing in this spread. Searching for the red abacus on the following scene means discerning it from the many sticks of candied apples that are the same red. Thankfully, McClintock provides a dandy picture of the items in Adèle’s early letter to Mama, and readers can flip back and forth to help remember what the objects look like. When Adèle develops her photos after the trip, she sees a record of each missing item.

McClintock also includes tiny thumbprint pictures with fascinating factual information of each spread in the backmatter, further adding to the fun for older readers and adults. Many children learn Chinese at school these days, and it’s easy to see teachers using this picture book in class, even with much older students. The historical information, maps and thumbnail guide to this enormous country will certainly fascinate any child with an interest in China. While comparisons to Where’s Waldo? are inevitable, Adelé and Simon’s journeys are much more interesting, encouraging readers of all ages time to slow down and read the detailed pictures. Repeated visits will reveal more and more details—eye candy at its very best! 

Adèle and Simon hit the road again! They previously explored America and Paris, but they are now headed to China to visit their photographer uncle, Sidney. This is the China of more than a century ago, allowing today’s children a trip of their own.

Though I have my own favorite illustrators, it is always exciting to see new artists find their way into children's books—and it is a treat to find young illustrators who feel like old friends.

I'm a fan of letterpress and block prints, so my eye was immediately drawn to Kazuno Kohara's stunning illustrations in Ghosts in the House!. With orange, black and white three-color illustrations, Kohara tells the just-right bedtime tale of the little girl in her new (haunted) house. Luckily she is no ordinary girl; she is a witch who knows how to catch ghosts. Young readers will be fascinated to see what the heroine does with the freshly –washed ghost and will snuggle down in their beds with this decidedly un-scary Halloween book that works for any time of year. The woodcuts, with smiling girl and ghosts, sometimes flying out of the frames, are a charming introduction to this special kind of printing. Especially interesting is the way the artist seems to lay tissue-paper ghosts over the illustrations, gently obscuring the amusing scene underneath. I imagine many children will want to try this technique in their own artwork. Let's hope for more from this talented young artist whose vision seems such a delicious throwback.

When I received a copy of Hyun Young Lee's Something for School, I was immediately taken with the round child on the cover, fore-finger lifted to lips as if keeping a secret. Yoon's first day of kindergarten is ruined when the teacher divides the class, "Boys come here, girls go over there." Yoon lines up with the girls, but her classmates, seeing her pants and short hair, push her into the boy group. Frustrated, she crumbles to the floor in tears and cries and cries and cries, all the way through the class picture. Happily, Yoon figures out a way to show she is a girl without compromising, and things turn out well for her and her classmates. The very round, short-legged Korean children fairly bounce through kindergarten. These new illustrations, reminiscent of Taro Gomi (Everyone Poops, etc.), seem just right for today's child. This is a perfect book for children who are starting school.

The School of Visual Arts in New York City has a long, influential line of graduates (Gregory Christie, Lauren Castillo and Jonathan Bean come to mind) who have made their mark on children's books. Three new artists from the school have their first books coming out this fall: Shadra Strickland, Hyewon Yum and Tao Nyeu. It's amazing to think that each of these illustrators did their graduate work at the same school at almost the same time.

Bird is the poignant story of one young boy who uses the power of art to cope with the realities of his beloved brother's drug addiction. Zetta Elliott's tender, understated story of Bird and his older brother Marcus is illustrated with grace by newcomer Shadra Strickland. Capturing the tragic story with her own nuanced paintings and the pencil sketches of the young Bird, Strickland strikes the right chord between serious and joyful. Many spreads have pictures of birds—flying and free—that remind the young Bird that his brother, while no longer on Earth, is flying in Heaven. For Bird's brother has died after a lengthy addiction to drugs. Bird has a grandfather and then an uncle who help him cope and understand the incomprehensible. This is a story that needs to be told, and telling it with illustrations makes it more accessible to younger readers.

At first, Hyewon Yum's remarkable illustrations in Last Night threaten to overwhelm the wordless story of a young girl who retreats to her bedroom where she spends time romping with her stuffed bear. I was so distracted by the beauty and technical pizzazz of the linoleum block prints that I needed to look through the pictures a few times to take in the depth of the story. We start with an angry-faced girl eating her vegetables, and move with her to bed and eventually to the dream world of running away with her bear. The details that Yum is able to wring out of a challenging form—right down to the peeking shadows of moonglow on trees—made me feel that I was in the hands of a master. This paean to Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are will amuse young readers familiar with the story line and allow them to narrate the story themselves. Parents will have a wonderful feeling watching the young girl hug her mother at the end—forgiveness is that sweet.

Gorgeously oversized Wonder Bear has the same dreamlike quality of many wordless picture books. Silkscreened illustrations colored with a bright palette of blues and oranges, straight from Tao Nyeu's M.F.A. thesis, tell the story of magic seeds, a special bear and one ordinary-looking blue and red hat. From this hat come all sorts of wonders: creatures, bubbles in the shape of lions, even flying porpoises! This childhood fantasy of adventure in an oversized format will amuse the young reader as she "reads" the story over and over and discovers new details each time. At times the art reminded me of Wanda Gag's work, with its back lines and graphic elements, and at other times the imaginary worlds of Dr. Seuss seemed to be Nyeu's inspiration. These illustrations, simple and complex at the same time, offer much for the reader who revisits its rich world.

Though I have my own favorite illustrators, it is always exciting to see new artists find their way into children's books—and it is a treat to find young illustrators who feel like old friends.

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