Fresh starts for a new year
How lovely to begin a new year with a fresh batch of children’s books, including a baby’s concept book, a brand new love story, and four classics newly gathered together under one snowy roof.
“My First Memories: An Early Album’’ makes it possible to start baby’s new year with pictures both fictional and real. It’s such a radical, yet simple idea - but so it often goes with concept books. On one page we see an imaginary illustrated creature, i.e. “Baby polar bear likes to be held.” Facing it is a photograph of a mother lifting her baby: “I like being held, too!” The real ingenuity of “My First Memories’’ is that the photos can all be removed and replaced with your own shots of your baby showing “I go for walks, too,” and so on. This means the book works both as an interplay of imaginary and real images and as baby’s very first photo album. It’s hard to get much cleverer than that.
Love stories are not easy, and they don’t get any easier when written for children. The recipe for such tales resembles something like baking: requiring sweetness, lightness, a touch of flavor, and a sense of humor. Peter McCarty’s “Henry in Love’’ succeeds on all fronts, making it a perfect Valentine’s Day read and a fine picture book about love and friendship the rest of the year.
The relationship between Henry and his classmate Chloe begins slowly and delicately. Henry’s a fast runner, so is Chloe. Henry shows off his best somersault; Chloe executes “a perfect cartwheel. Henry was impressed.” In fact, “[h]e thought she was the loveliest girl in his class.” All day long Henry has been hanging onto his special snack from home - a fresh blueberry muffin of the deepest, richest blue. When his seat is moved next to Chloe his love is put to the test. Will he trade that miraculous blue muffin for Chloe’s carrot?
McCarty’s “Hondo & Fabian” was a 2003 Caldecott Honor Book and New York Times Best Illustrated Book. It’s easy to see why. McCarty uses the blank spaces of his cream-colored pages with assured artistry, allowing time to pause or stop completely, allowing silence to speak as clearly as words or pictures. These open spaces frame each image, as if cherishing each moment: eating a sandwich; calling at a friend’s door; heading downstairs to the kitchen; playing tag on the playground.
“Henry in Love’’ affects the reader like a fine Japanese print. McCarty utilizes rich, simple colors - deep blue, rosy reds. He provides a marvelous blend of the mundane (Henry using the toilet, “getting ready for the day”); the dream-like (Henry’s crush, Chloe, is perpetually surrounded by flower petals,) and the ornate: playground trees rendered with hundreds of tiny drawn leaves.
“Henry in Love’’ not only illuminates the freshness of a burgeoning friendship in the elementary school set, McCarty’s light-handedness evidences an even deeper love for the ordinary world.
Jan Brett’s “Snowy Treasure’’ could easily become the snowbound child’s bible. It’s only surprising that these four snow stories have never been together before. Handsome from the get-go, this picture-book treasury features a royal blue cover replete with images from Brett’s popular wintry books: “Gingerbread Baby”; “The Mitten”; “The Hat”; and “The Three Snow Bears.”
All display the old-fashioned European settings, style, and retellings that have made Brett’s work so beloved. “Gingerbread Baby” retells the famous gingerbread boy story, but stars a young boy named Matti who unwisely ignores baking directions: “Bake a full eight minutes. No more. No less. DO NOT PEEK.” After five minutes, Matti can stand it no more. He opens the oven door and out pops the escaping gingerbread baby, as cocky as ever. While he races through town, wreaking havoc, Matti returns to the recipe book to see whether it offers any suggestions for how he might recapture the half-baked boy. Unlike most versions, this one ends happily, with a lift-the-flap gingerbread house providing a secret home for the tired but unrepentant Gingerbread Baby.
“The Mitten” is a Ukrainian folk tale about a boy who gets some new white mittens and loses one in the snow, which ends up serving as home for all sorts and sizes of winter woodland creatures - at least temporarily. “The Hat” is a similar story in which a stocking blows off the laundry, becomes an “embarrassing” hat for the “ridiculous little hedgehog” and an inspiration to the other hatless farm animals.
“The Three Snow Bears” is an Arctic recasting of “Goldilocks and the Three Bears’’ in which a little Inuit girl named Aloo-ki comes upon “the biggest igloo she had ever seen.” She tastes the polar bears’ breakfast, tries on their fur-lined boots, and naps on the bears’ “sleeping bench.” Meanwhile, the three bears spot Aloo-ki’s sled dogs out in danger on an ice floe and save the day. Brett’s genius not only renders classic tales anew without become sugary, but utilizes every inch of space - with colorful side panels, minor characters, little off-stage dramas everywhere. It makes for the richest kind of reading and re-reading in the new year - a treasury of snowy treasures indeed.
Liz Rosenberg teaches English at the State University of New York at Binghamton. Her most recent books are the novel ”Home Repair” and the forthcoming picture book ”Nobody.”