“Absurd,” “preposterous,” “slapstick.” Know any middle-grade readers who like their stories like that? Here are three new novels that fit the bill.
In Mr. and Mrs. Bunny — Detectives Extraordinaire!, Madeline, in the manner of many previous Polly Horvath heroines, has lost her parents. It turns out that they have been kidnapped, and capable Madeline engages the services of a couple of detectives. So much for sensible; bring on the absurd. The kidnappers are foxes; the detectives are rabbits; lovers of the zany will revel in this laugh-out-loud funny and highly original romp, illustrated with aplomb by Sophie Blackall. (9–12 years)
Adam Rex’s Cold Cereal takes place in the town of Goodborough, home to the Goodco cereal company, where new kid Scott is seeing things. Specifically, a rabbit-headed man, a unicat, and a leprechaun. When Scott discovers that he and his only friends, brainy twins Erno and Emily, are subjects in a dastardly Goodco experiment, the three set out to right some wrongs. Built on a happily preposterous edifice of a plot, this wacky adventure is consistently entertaining. (9–12 years)
In Andrew Norriss’s I Don’t Believe It, Archie!, ordinary kid Archie always seems to be in the middle of crazy happenings. For instance, his mother sends him out to mail a letter, but on the way he sees a piano racing down the street, then saves two people from being buried alive in gravel. Of course, he never mails the letter. Archie’s mother is unaware that anything exciting has ever happened; she is only exasperated that he hasn’t completed the errands. Each chapter ends with her frustrated “Honestly! I don’t believe it, Archie!” Hannah Shaw’s humorous black-and-white spot illustrations help move the action along in this benign slapstick comedy. (8–11 years)
As we (in the northeast, anyway) move from winter into “mud-luscious,” “puddle-wonderful” early spring, the outside becomes irresistible. Here are four new picture books celebrating nature and outdoor play to read after all that puddle-splashing.
A young bear explores his surroundings in Ashley Wolff’s Baby Bear Sees Blue. Baby Bear asks about the birdsong he hears, the fragrance he smells, the wings that tickle him. Each time, Mama gives him the answer, and Baby Bear stops to look at the corresponding color: blue jays, red strawberries, orange butterflies. Block print and watercolor illustrations capture both the natural world and the loving relationship between parent and child. (2–5 years)
In Anita Lobel’s 10 Hungry Rabbits: Counting & Color Concepts, Mama Rabbit plans to make vegetable soup for dinner, so her ten children — each wearing a different color — gather ten matching colorful ingredients: one purple cabbage, two white onions, three yellow peppers. Each ingredient appears in a large, realistic portrait with the corresponding color-coded number. Concept books don’t get much better than this. (3–6 years)
Audrey Wood’s Blue Sky presents a succession of double-page spreads showing skies, from “blue sky” to “sunset sky” to “moon sky.” The pastel illustrations feature a wordless story about a small boy and his family, who wait out a storm (“rain sky”) and then head to the beach, enjoying their day by the shore (“sun sky”) all the way through “star sky.” The progression through the day makes for a satisfying journey. (4–8 years)
In A Stick Is an Excellent Thing: Poems Celebrating Outdoor Play, Marilyn Singer explores different kinds of outdoor games, from simple to complex. Singer’s range of poetry styles and forms complements the varied kinds of creative outdoor play throughout the day. LeUyen Pham’s slightly retro-feeling illustrations feature a multicultural group of children enjoying nature and imagination together. (5–8 years)
Photo: Nicole Haley
After winning the 2011 Caldecott Medal for A Sick Day for Amos McGee, written by her husband, Philip, Erin E. Stead returns with a second picture book, this one about waiting and planning and hope. And Then It’s Spring (5–8 years) grows out of a long friendship; see below.
1. What about Julie Fogliano’s (glorious) text helped you decide to illustrate it?
Erin E. Stead: Julie is a friend of mine who, like me, is quite shy about her work. I met Julie almost ten years ago when we both worked in a bookstore in New York (she was my assistant manager). For the majority of those years, I knew Julie was a writer but never saw a thing she wrote. Since I was the same way, I never put any pressure on her. Then one day, out of the blue, she emailed me a poem. I loved it. I know her, so I knew it was her voice, but I also thought it had the lightness and the seriousness that I (or my six-year-old self) could relate to. She told me she had received some advice to push the text into a more traditional story. I suddenly felt very protective of the original poem. Obviously, the next step was to send it (without telling her) to my editor, Neal Porter.
Neal wrote: “This is lovely. Would you be interested in illustrating?”
So I did. I’ve been able to work with two writers (my husband, Philip, and Julie) with whom I am very close, which has really worked for me. They both give me plenty of say and plenty of space. Julie’s books (I am wrapping up the second book now) are so interesting to work on. The texts are abstract, which allows me to make a lot of decisions about how I’d like to pull the reader through the story. It’s a lot of freedom for an illustrator. Most of the time that is wonderful, but there are always moments where I am lying on the floor of my studio in despair. I want to do her delicate texts justice. It’s a great challenge.
2. What picture book text from the past do you most wish you could have illustrated?
EES: Tough question for an illustrator. There are many books I would love to have illustrated, but I wouldn’t be able to do as good a job as the illustrator whose name is already on the book. James Thurber’s Many Moons is probably one of my top picks, although I am no Louis Slobodkin — let alone Marc Simont.
3. My favorite spring song is “Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most.” What’s yours?
EES: I haven’t been able to think of anything that tops Mel Brooks’s “Springtime for Hitler.”
4. You’re a signatory to the Picture Book Proclamation. Which of its sixteen “We Believes?” means the most to you?
EES: Tough question #2. I am not positive my answer would be the same every time you asked me. Four out of five times though, I would probably answer: “We should know our history.”
I don’t necessarily mean the books that have become part of the canon (although that is an excellent place to start). A lot of good books ca