It’s official. Should I happen to leave New York City for any reason (I’ve been saying I would for years, but it’s gotta happen someday) and I work for a publisher I want to work for Chronicle Books. No, really. I don’t what it is about them, but I get a really good vibe off of that company. Maybe it’s the fact that they’re one of the few West Coast publishers you’ll find in the continental United States. They have that easy breezy San Francisco feel to them. Or maybe it’s just the tone of their books. Or the fact that they have been luring New Yorkers to their microclimates for years (hi, Tamra Tuller!). Whatever the case, it’s alluring. And so, this season, are their books.
Skipping entirely past their adult section (where in 2014 you’ll encounter titles like “50 Ways to Wear a Scarf” and “The Cheesemonger’s Seasons”) as well as their YA titles, we dive into the children’s books where they bob and glint like so many pretty little jewels.
First up! Middle grade! Chronicle hasn’t done much with MG novels in the past, but they aim to change all that. This is middle grade with a cover unlike any other out there (with the possible exception of Jenni Holm’s Middle School Is Worse Than Meatloaf). In The Meaning of Maggie by debut author and “award-winning copywriter” Megan Jean Sovern, the book follows Maggie herself. Self-described future President of the United Sates, Maggie Mayfield keeps a memoir of her life during the course of a year. Like Harriet the Spy without the guile, she’s an overweight heroine where that is not the point of the book in the least (name me five middle grade books where you can say the same . . . it can be done but it’s tricky). Unlike Harriet, Maggie sports a fun family, including a dad that loves Black Sabbath and family friends that are bikers. The crux of the novel lies in the fact that Maggie’s dad is diagnosed with m.s., and in fact a portion of the proceeds of this novel are to be donated to the National Multiple Sclerosis Society. Ms. Sovern’s own father had m.s. and passed away a couple of years ago. The book already has blubs from Kathi Appelt, Wendy Mass, and Walter M. Mayes. Always a good sign.
Here is what all middle grade novels about Hurricane Katrina tend to have in common: They are some of the only books out there to have relatively contemporary African-American characters in them… and the ALL have dogs. Seriously. With the exception of You Survived Hurricane Katrina (which is a series anyway), this has been true of St. Louis Armstrong Beach, Buddy and Ninth Ward. Now we’ve a new book entering the fray and it’s Upside Down in the Middle of Nowhere by Julie T. Lamana. Starring Armani Curtis (a girl), it follows her from the happy days of turning ten to the horrors of the Katrina. It may be the only book in which the hero actually enters The Superdome, and she is indeed separated from her family for a time. This is a debut for Ms. Lamana, who was a reading and writing instructor in the Ninth Ward when Katrina hit. And yes, there is a dog, but it’s not a major part of the plot. Still there, though. There’s just something about Katrina and canines . . .
Now we turn our attention to picture books, and this one appears to be a collaboration between an Italian and a Frenchman. I know Davide Cali best for this year’s really delightful graphic novel 10 Little Insects, and in a recent Children’s Literary Salon featuring Carin Berger and Marc Boutavant, Mssr. Boutavant name checked Cali. Well, Cali has been paired with Benjamin Chaud, the fellow behind The Bear’s Song, which was entirely delightful. Together, they’ve created I Didn’t Do My Homework Because . . . which features a boy with amazing hair and sideburns that Elvis himself would envy. Impeccably dressed in a grey suit with matching red socks and tie, our young hero goes through an extraordinary number of excuses, one after another, to explain why his homework remains unfinished. Someone at one point said it reminded them of the book What Do You Say, Dear? by Sesyle Joslin of yore. Could at that.
Author Germano Zullo isn’t exactly a household name here in the States, but that’s not for lack of trying on the small press’s parts. Whether it’s Chronicle or Enchanted Lion bringing his stories over, he’s here. His latest, and perhaps most accessible, book to date is Jumping Jack, illustrated once again by fellow Swiss (and one-namer) Albertine. In this book a show-jumping horse has difficulty following through, so to speak. Fortunately he has a sympathetic jockey who is convinced he can get to the bottom of the problem.
Now here’s a cause for celebration: Aaron Reynolds and Jeremy Tankard are doing a book together! Mr. Reynolds, as you’ll recall, is responsible for the recent Caldecott Honor winner Creepy Carrots (amongst another bazillion gazillion books) and Jeremy Tankard is a genius who does not do enough books. Seriously, someone should just force the man to crank out the product. We deserve more Tankard, consarn it! Well, for now we’ll be happy with Here Comes Destructosaurus! (how can you not just love that title?) which features a raging monster. Only thing is, the narrator is talking directly to the monster, taking him to task for his mess. It doesn’t take much effort to see the monster/toddler parallels at work here. And naturally the ending is great. I should say that I actually laughed out loud when reading this, and I don’t always do that. Awesome.
Those who know me will know why, personally, I was very happy to see a new series coming out of author/illustrator Micah Player called Lately Lily: The Adventures of a Traveling Girl. Player, remember, was the one behind Chloe, Instead and has even been doing the odd Hilary McKay book jacket on the side. With Lately Lily we meet the daughter of journalists that travel all around the world. The media tie-ins are already in the works, including Travel Flash Cards and a little yellow suitcase that’s full of luggage tags, activity cards, sticker sheets, games & doodle ideas, etc. Though Lily will travel to different books in the series, these aren’t really excuses just to see the cities. Rather, the books concentrate on just how awesome travel itself is. An alternative to some of those flight picture books we’ve seen coming out lately, then.
We seem to be sliding down down into the youngest of ages, but that’s okay with me. In Taro Gomi’s The Great Day the man behind Everyone Poops shows us “a little boy just having an awesome day”. It’s simple, talks with simple sentences just showing the basics of a day, and has a kiddo in it that isn’t white. So, basically, the combination of brown-skinned kiddo and Gomi the genius is enough to sell it to me right there.
And for fans of the epitome of all board books Peek-a Who? we have an honest-to-goodness sequel on our hands. Peek-a Zoo! is also by Nina Laden and though she took a bit of a hiatus for a while, she’s back, baby. I know my kiddo was a big ole fan of Peek-a Who? when she was a little ‘un, so it’s nice to see more along those lines. Similarly, Laden will also be coming out with the madcap Daddy Wrong Legs (good title) where you have to pair legs to torsos of everything from frogs and gorillas to skeletons and humans.
If 2014 is notable for nothing else it will be notable for the huge SWATH of Coraline designers and creators who have suddenly all decided to go into the world of children’s books. Here at Chronicle, author Sue-Ganz Schmitt and illustrator Shane Prigmore (who was the character designer of Coraline) are coming out with Planet Kindergarten. The first day of school is like any good holiday in that it doesn’t matter how many books already exist on the topic. There can always be more. In this fun take, Kindergarten is equated with space travel to another planet. Your teacher is the commander, your fellow students are aliens, it all makes sense. Ultimately our space-trotting boyo comes to have a great day, so that’s nice.
Okay. So I’ve been enjoying Britta Teckentrup’s books for years, particularly Animal 123 and Animal Spots and Stripes. In Chronicle’s catalog mention of her latest book Busy Bunny Days: In the Town, On the Farm, & At the Port they include two readalikes at the bottom of the page. One of these is Rotraut Berner’s In the Town All Year Round and the other is Around the World with Mouk by Marc Boutavant. Those are pretty accurate comparisons to what Teckentrup is working with here. Chock full of details, like a slightly more European Richard Scarry, what sets the book apart is that each of the three settings keep the exact same view of their town (or farm or port) but at different times of the day. Turn the page and it’s 7 a.m. Turn another and now it’s 10 a.m. Another and it’s 3 p.m. Add in a naughty badger who’s hidden (and up to no good) on every page and you have yourself a heckuva lot of fun. So cute!
Remember “Walter Was Worried” by Laura Vaccaro Seeger? That was the book where words turned into characters’ faces, expressing various emotions in the process. I haven’t really seen anyone else do something similar in a while, but that was before I saw Cat Says Meow: And Other Animalopoeia by Michael Arndt. Basically the book takes words that make up animal sounds and turns them into animals. It’s sort of hopelessly clever.
Following up on the success of Round Is a Tortilla, author Rosane Greenfield Thong and illustrator John Parra tackle a different concept. Where Tortilla was all about the shapes, Green Is a Chile Pepper is a colors book from start to finish. Like Tortilla it rhymes (“Green is a chile pepper, spicy and hot. / Green is cilantro inside our pot.”) this is yet another very rare picture book featuring Latino kiddos. Lovely on the eye. Rhymes to boot.
While I wouldn’t actually go so far as to call it narrative nonfiction per say, At the Same Moment Around the World will act as a nice accompaniment to nonfiction units. Since it shows off the notion of time zones (but not with real kids – hence the fact that it’s not really straight nonfiction), the book follows the everyday activities of children around the globe. Each section begins with the very nice “At the same moment” and then goes on to say what time it is for that particular part of the world. What it ultimately reminded me of, more than anything else, was When It’s 6 o’Clock in San Francisco.
Then we get a little French. The Ultimate Book of Vehicles promises much with a title like that. Created by Anne-Sophie Baumann and Didier Balicevic, the book is part of a new Chronicle imprint for preschoolers called Twirl Books. Twirl describes itself as, “Straight from Paris, curated with legendary French flair.” I kind of love that. Just as I kind of love that this book is the first I’ve ever seen for kids that includes a breathalizer test in one of the spreads. I sort of think that makes for an ideal teachable moment. The interactive elements to the book are lovely, but to my mind it’s the rocket taking off in one of the spreads that makes the whole book worthwhile.
But the most innovative of the books we saw had to be, without any doubt, Presto Chang-o!: A Book of Animals Magic by Edouard Manceau. I might have a little trouble describing exactly what this book is. You see, little flaps (that are also parts of the picture) can be manipulated and moved in such a way as to make a raccoon into a cauldron, a lion into a flower, or a clock into an owl, etc. You’ll have to play with it for a while yourself before you quite understand what I’m saying. It’s not exactly a flap book. More a . . . twisty turney pieces book (no no. . . that doesn’t work either). Whatever you call it, it’s cool and entirely unlike any other book you’ve seen.
And that’s the long and short of it! Many thanks to the good folks at Chronicle for showing us their wares. 2014 is shaping up to be a heckuva year.