It’s time for one of our most favorite annual events at The Carle: Susan Bloom’s picks for best picture books of 2011. Children’s book expert Susan Bloom, Professor Emeritus at Simmons College and reviewer for The Horn Book Magazine, comes each year to The Carle to share her selections for the best picture books of the year. While not all of her selected books are eligible for the Caldecott Medal, her presentations are always followed by friendly debate over what she and the audience thinks just might win. Her lists are always spot on (and I’ve noticed the year’s Caldecott always seems to make the list) and you can look at past year’s lists in PDF form here and read my recap of the 2010 and 2009 lectures. In need of recommendations for holiday gifts? Look no further than these 2011 gems.
Hide & Seek: Picture Books of Distinction in 2011
Susan says that 2011 is the year for play. Hide and seek, that wonderful game of discovery, suspense and delight, seems to permeate her choices.
Where’s Walrus by Stephen Savage (Scholastic)
This wordless romp has stylistic vintage illustrations that has the reader seeking out Walrus in his many, hilarious disguises as he evades his pursuing zookeeper. Clean white pages and crisp outlines in colorful digital art will remind readers of the art of Esphyr Slobodkina, especially in Margaret Wise Brown’s THE LITTLE FIREMAN.
I Want My Hat Back by Jon Klassen (Candlewick)
This book harks back to a simple time with its muted brown endpapers and retro book style. Bloom described is as looking “like some of the best of the Golden Books.” Meticulously and subtlety designed with droll text that consists of dialogue only, a bear seeks out his missing hat among the other animals, until he finally realizes just where he last saw his hat. Children and adults alike will love the humor.
The House Baba Built: An Artist’s Childhood in China by Ed Young, as told to Libby Koponen (Little, Brown)
In possibly Ed Young’s best work to date, Young honors his engineer father who engineered their family’s safety and well-being during the war. Young brings all of his artistic skill to render his family and the house that saved them with sensuous handcut display type and textured feathery paper collage. The illustrations perfectly capture the sharpness and patchy quality of childhood memory.
Drawing from Memory by Allen Say (Scholastic)
Another story of an artist seeking to commune with his self and his past. This richly illustrated memoir is a tribute to Allen Say’s mentor, Japanese cartoonist Noro Shimpei. Say blends many art styles, such as comic paneling, cluttered scrapbook pages and line drawings as he explores memories that bind him in some ways and release him in others to become the artist we know today.
The Artist Who Painted a Blue Horse by Eric Carle (Philomel)
Eric Carle also pays homage to an influential artist; the expressionist Franz Marc, as well as honoring all artists who know that true art does not lie in the imitation of real life. Carle’s trademark collage builds animal figures out of bits and pieces of multicolor paper against stark white backgrounds. The fullness and strength of these animals comes from the fact that a “blue horse” is created out of many colors, many different shades of blue paper. These bold, non-representational colored animals, such as a blue horse and orange elephant, culminates with a wild multicolor polka dot donkey.
Migrant by Maxine Trottier, illustrated by Isabelle Arsenaut (Groundwood Books)
A poignant story about migrant workers with gorgeous mixed media artwork. Quiet Anna longs to stay in one place and in imaginative exploration, relates herself to other animals and creatures. She feels like a goose, migrating north and south with the harvests, but wonders what it would be like to be rooted like a tree in one place. This book evokes childlike whimsy and deep longing using language rich with childlike analogies.
A New Year’s Reunion by Yu Li Qiong, illustrated by Zhu Cheng-Lian (Candlewick)
Another story featuring migrant workers, A NEW YEAR’S REUNION, has a migrant father who returns to his family only once a year at holiday time. Exuberant drawings capture the joy of this reunion and the intimacy between father and daughter at this time, as well as the feeling of loss and emotional truth. Deceptively simple pictures cement the love the girl feels for her absent father.
Orani: My Father’s Village by Claire A. Nivola (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)
Another emotional tribute to family, ORANI highlights a girl’s love for her ancestor’s Sardinian village through gorgeous and impressionistic watercolors. Comfort and simplicity of the village, shown through sweeping landscapes and smaller vignettes contrast sharply with New York City skyscrapers, when the girl returns home to the United States.
Neville by Norton Juster, illustrated by G. Brian Karas (RandomHouse)
This story of moving shows the insecurities a child feels in a new home. Karas sets the sombre tone with greys and blues, until giving way to colorful hand-lettered type of Neville’s name as he and his new found friends shout the name. A spare and poignant text stresses a sense of importance for finding community.
Stars by Mary Lyn Ray, illustrated by Marla Frazee (Simon & Schuster)
A book that pays homage to Ruth Kraus and Maurice Sendak’s A HOLE IS TO DIG, offering definitions and explanations to all the things a star can be. Rich, playful and full of possibilities. Frazee’s illustrations capture the awe, miracle and marvel of stars while also highlighting a sense of warm community.
Grin and Bear It by Leo Landry (Charlesbridge)
This early reader gets humor just right for new readers in both text and in the watercolor illustrations. The reader sympathizes with bear’s emotional seesawing as he pursues his dream of writing jokes.
A Ball for Daisy by Chris Raschka (Schwartz & Wade)
This wordless book proves once again that Chris Raschka is a master of minimalism. Dobs of watercolor bring to life another emotional journey, as Daisy loves, loses and finds again her beloved ball.
Balloons Over Broadway: The True Story of the Puppeteer of Macy’s Parade by Melissa Sweet (Houghton)
In this nonfiction story of Tony Sarg, renowned puppeteer, Melissa Sweet plays with materials in her mixed media illustrations. Sweet uses Sarg’s creativity and inventiveness to inspire her own creativity, using all materials at her disposal — cut out letters, pages of Sarg’s own book, toys and miscellanea. The book is filled with openhearted humor and ingenuity, making it a triumph of design.
Swirl by Swirl: Spirals in Nature by Joyce Sidman, illustrated by Beth Krommes (Houghton)
SWIRL BY SWIRL’s examination of spirals in nature is rich in coiled symmetry, both in perfectly chosen text and stylized illustration. Striking scratchboard illustrations create strong compositions while watercolor washes add warmth and brilliance and bring a visual richness for Sidman’s text. A book full of uniqueness and ubiquity.
Along a Long Road by Frank Viva (Little, Brown)
Another circular, spiral book, ALONG A LONG ROAD is a continuous loop. In appealing retro illustrations, the book pays vintage tribute to cycling. Viva has created the artwork in one long frieze (which is currently on view stretching the full length of The Carle’s auditorium) as the cyclist travels along a long road throughout city and countryside. The road connects each page, through the endpapers and onto the front and back covers, ending exactly where it began.
The High Street by Alice Melvin (Tate Publishing)
Here’s another book that takes the reader on a journey through town. Sally has a list of items she needs to get at various stores and sets out on Main Street to complete her tasks. Each stop at a new store contains a delightful gatefold where the reader is allowed a glimpse into the detailed store. This vertical book accommodates the 2nd floor of each shop. The list shortens with each stop, until in an unexpected ending, Sally has found everything she was looking for.
Edwin Speaks Up by April Stevens, illustrated by Sophie Blackall (Schwartz & Wade)
Mayhem ensues in this delightful book in both the text and pictures. Baby Edwin is communicating in his own way, but no one is paying him any attention. Edwin uses a hilarious mixture of nonsense words and very recognizable ones, so that the reader knows what he’s trying to say, even when the other characters do not. In the end, Edwin must save the day. A funny story that will be familiar to many family households.
The Money We’ll Save by Brock Cole (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)
Mayhem ensues in this book too, when Pa, who is much like Jack from Jack and the Beanstalk, returns from the market with something not on his list. Hilarious pen and ink drawings burst with Quentin Blake-like abandon, as readers follow the daily problems of a family who try to hide a turkey in their New York City tenement housing.
Underground: Finding the Light to Freedom by Shane W. Evans (Roaring Brook)
A much more serious look at hiding, UNDERGROUND shows that hiding can be the matter of life and death, freedom and slavery in this story of the Underground Railroad. The terseness of text mimics the intensity of the experience and powerful mixed media art bleeds off every page. Dark indigo blue and chalk charcoal lines dominate as gradually yellow creeps onto the canvas, representing desperate hope for freedom. Final pages are suffused with a bright light that overwhelms the darkness.
A Nation’s Hope: The Story of Boxing Legend Joe Louis by Matt de la Peña, illustrated by Kadir Nelson
This book’s pounding text pulsates with rhythmic energy. Nelson’s stunning oil paintings, executed on wood instead of canvas, offer portraits and dazzling perspectives from the ring. Both text and art offer fearless close-ups of the action, so that the reader can really feel it. In a boxing match between an American and a German during World War II, American spectators are able to put aside race battles over black and white to cheer on Joe Louis. De la Peña and Nelson create a story of humanity and dignity.
Heart and Soul: The Story of America and African Americans by Kadir Nelson (HarperCollins)
Kadir Nelson opens his canvas to the broad history of African Americans and shows that there is no hiding from the ugliness and cruelty in America’s story. Nelson submerges his own voice as the book is narrated by an old African American woman with dignity and pride, but also with sass and verve. Through varying points of view, sweeping landscapes and close-up portraits, Nelson proves he is an artist of passion and conviction.
Grandpa Green by Lane Smith (Roaring Brook)
Hidden in an oeuvre that has seemed zany and quirky, Lane Smith brings us a touchingly emotional book. A boy tells not his own story but that of his gardening great-grandfather. Topiary characters in the illustrations fill in the story and the reader follows the boy through the garden, picking up items forgetful Grandpa has left behind. A double gatefold at the end retraces the memories of Grandpa’s life captured in topiary. But Smith stresses that memories also exist in the imagination of Grandpa’s progeny. The final image of the book shows that the boy is now in control of the passage of time and is creating his own memories.
Me…Jane: Young Jane Goodall by Patrick McDonnell (Little, Brown)
McDonnell using astonishing juxtapositions of photographs, documents and respectful, whimsical watercolors of Jane Goodall as a young girl. As Jane dreams of Africa, illustrations are shown as vignettes with watery borders adding to the dreaminess. Reminiscent of William Steig, this book perfectly blends the real and the imagined.
The Iron Giant by Ted Hughes, illustrated by Laura Carlin (Knopf)
Originally written in 1968, Laura Carlin brings this story to a new generation with her mixed media artwork. She emphasizes the giant’s innate otherness and her use of collage hints at the constructed nature of the automaton. The fearsome oversize creature challenges humanity until he is challenged himself.
Naamah and the Ark at Night by Susan Campbell Bartoletti, illustrated by Holly Meade (Canldewick)
Bartoletti pondered the absence of females in the Noah’s Ark story, which inspired her retelling in NAAMAH AND THE ARK AT NIGHT. The lilting pacing of the text reads like a lullaby as the animals and humans on the ark are in need of soothing. Meade’s collage illustrations alternates between delightful pairs of colorful animals and dramatic nighttime silhouettes.
Jonathan and the Big Blue Boat by Philip Stead (MacMillan)
Seeking out Frederick, his stuffed bear, a boy goes off on an adventurous journey on a big blue boat, gathering friends to help him along the way. The responsive unframed illustrations are filled with squiggly ink lines, washes of saturated color and collage newsprint, creating a seeming homage to Ezra Jack Keats. There is joy in the repetition of the text and this celebration of friendship is deeply satisfying. Timeless and contemporary, this book is not showy or overdone.
Press Here by Hervé Tullet (Chronicle)
No intricacies or gimmicks here. Readers do not have to seek to find pleasure; just follow the prompts. Tullet puts the reader at the controls. This book proves that one’s imagination truly needs only the most basic prompts and instruments.
Susan also added three books that didn’t make her list, simply because she hadn’t seen them before that day, but when she picked them up in The Carle’s bookstore, felt that they were worthy of mentioning:
Little Owl’s Night by Divya Srinivasan
Bandits by Johanna Wright
Blue Chicken by Deborah Freedman
The Man in the Moon by William Joyce
The best part of playing hide and seek? Starting over and playing again. Can’t wait to see what 2012 will bring! 2011 was a very good year for picture books.