By Jarrett J. Krosoczka
Knopf, 40 pp., ages 4-9, $15.95
Brothers in Hope: The Story of the Lost Boys of Sudan
Written by Mary Williams
Illustrated by R. Gregory Christie
Lee & Low, 40 pp., ages 7-12, $17.95
The Secret to Freedom
Written by Marcia Vaughan
Illustrated by Larry Johnson
Lee & Low, 32 pp., ages 7-10, paperback, $7.95
Jose! Born to Dance
Written by Susanna Reich
Illustrated by Raul Colon
Simon & Schuster, 32 pp., ages 6 and up, $16.95
The best picture books are like a dance -- they move, change, surprise, and fluctuate, all within a contained form, as this month's selections prove. ''Punk Farm," by Bostonian Jarrett J. Krosoczka, takes the old song ''Old MacDonald Had a Farm" to new decibels. On the farm, hidden in the barn, is a punk band composed of cow (on drums), goat (bass), pig (guitar), chicken (keyboard), and sheep (vocals). The book is fearless in conception and execution, a jazzy comic bit of thievery and transformation. It does not look or sound or behave like your father's old picture book -- the lyrics slam and slide across each boldly bright page, and the crowd ''goes crazy," dancing to their favorite tune. No wonder at dawn each day, the animals are snoozing in the barn. Fans can even log on to www.punkfarm.com to ''download their barn-burning single."
''Brothers in Hope" stretches the boundaries of the standard picture book, fictionalizing the true story of thousands of boys who survived deadly attacks in Sudan and walked in organized bands across borders, braving every imaginable hardship and danger. Yet it is a tender story of hope, help, and courage, which author Mary Williams, founder of the Lost Boys Foundation, tells with economy and grace. She uses the voice of a fictional narrator named Gareng, who brings his 35 boys to safety, remembering his father's injunction: ''Gareng, be brave. Your heart and mind are strong. There is nothing you cannot do."
R. Gregory Christie takes on the challenge of this powerful story in art that is unsentimental, elemental, character-driven, and bold, in earth tones and dynamic black strokes, the heads of the children supernaturally large, as if to brand the image of their faces on the reader's heart. The Lost Boys are based on real boys of Sudan. There are too many such true stories. To treat such a subject with moments of lightness and sweetness is a great and worthy task.
So, too, with Marcia Vaughan's ''The Secret to Freedom," newly available in paperback. No book has ever more clearly brought home the simple, horrifying truth of African-American slavery in this country. Great-Aunt Lucy and her great-niece, ''chitchatting like a pair of summer sparrows," relive the dramatic story of a small patchwork scrap that hangs on Lucy's wall. In slave time, story quilts served as codes to help slaves escape along the Underground Railway, the monkey-wrench pattern telling them to ready their tools, the bear's-paw pattern directing them north through the mountains. It's also about how Lucy and her brother find the courage to help others no matter the cost to themselves, when ''folks' lives be depending on you." Vaughan uses detail and voice to masterful effect. Artist Larry Johnson is equally adept in conveying mood, character, terror, and joy. His supersaturated color shows up fiercely against the slaves' bare necessities, echoed in the rich blue skies, green grass, and handmade quilts they claimed for their own.
''Jose! Born to Dance" celebrates the life of dancer Jose Limon in words and images that tiptoe, skitter, leap, and soar. Susanna Reich's text begins: ''In 1908 a baby boy was born in Culiacan, Mexico, kicking like a roped steer. BAM! BAM! BAM! His name was Jose Limon." While small children may focus on the sounds that formed Jose's first knowledge of the world -- the ''TRILLIA-WEET!" of his grandmother's canary; the calls of the dancers in the theater ''where Papa worked as a musician"; the march of soldiers and cry of the bullfighters -- older children, especially any young person entranced by dance, will be touched by the story of one young man's journey toward his genius.
Like many such journeys, Jose's was full of twists and turns. His mother died when he was still a young man, the eldest of 11 children. ''He went to work in a factory. All day long he took tiles from one wheelbarrow and loaded them into another." His life was dreary, yet he ''waited, and brooded, and argued with himself. Finally, after a year, he made up his mind. 'Papa,' he announced, 'I'm going.' Adios, Jose. Farewell." Such economy of language is tantamount to poetry, and Raul Colon's delicate watercolors and pen-and-ink work provide poetry in motion. Colon uses every inch of space; even his backgrounds -- walls, floorboards, skylines -- are richly textured and animated. Light and shadow play against each other: A splash of lemon yellow suggests burning stage lights, a rich red carpet gives life to his childhood room, purples shine in the sky, while gray-blues reflect Jose's first sense of New York City -- ''a cemetery. A jungle in stone."
''Jose! Born to Dance" is ideal for the budding young dancer or choreographer, but would be welcome by any lover of modern dance, of any age. It artfully celebrates a life in art.
Liz Rosenberg teaches literature and creative writing at the State University of New York at Binghamton.