Quote of the Month

When love and skill work together, expect a miracle. John Ruskin

Saturday, November 9, 2019

Considering Questions

Curious children question . . . everything.  This is the very act which makes them so amazing. Being near their inquiry is invigorating.  It's wonderful to see curious children continue to be curious teens, curious young adults and curious adults.  I can still recall, as I have mentioned previously, sitting in church thirty years ago, listening to the first female minister in any church I attended utter the words, "When you're through learning, you're through."

There will never come a time when our fascinating minds are filled to capacity; there is simply too much wonder in the world.  Two publications in the final third of the year address this compelling need to know; this lively speculation about all sorts of things.  Just Because (Candlewick Press, September 10, 2019) written by Mac Barnett with illustrations by Isabelle Arsenault follows a bedtime conversation between a child and their father.

Why is the ocean blue?

Surprisingly enough, the father elaborates with story instead of science.  According to him, the fish play guitars and sing sad songs once the child is asleep.  They then sob tears of blue.

Now accelerating the inquiries, the child asks about rain.  The father replies with a mixture of fact and fantasy.  His explanation as to why leaves change color makes perfect sense if you forget about the dryness of leaves and trees in general.  He attaches the next answer to the previous answer with astute cleverness.

When the child asks about the disappearance of dinosaurs and goes on to ask about black holes, her father gives two of my favorite interpretations tying them together.  When a barrage of questions fills the bedtime conversation, the father has a kindly request.  This, as you might expect, prompts another query.  With the special gift fathers are known to have, his response is loving, wise and truthful.

In the manner storytellers have of inviting listeners into their tale, Mac Barnett starts with one of the classic questions children are known to ask.  With the father's reply to this first question and the subsequent ones, he gives readers a gift every single time, the gift of thinking outside what is expected or accepted.  The cadence we have come to appreciate and respect in picture books of excellence is supplied when the answers to questions one and two, three and four and five and six become splendid pairs.  Here is a part of one of Mac Barnett's father's answers.

Millions of years ago,
thousands of asteroids
fell on the earth.

But the dinosaurs
had planned for this.
They fastened themselves . . .

In looking at the open dust jacket you initially notice a blend of geometric with whimsical.  This look is a pictorial representation of the verbal approach taken by the father in answering his child's questions.  The dots on the child's bedding are enlarged to hold text.  The text is placed within circles throughout the book.  The colors shown in the artwork above the text are depicted in question and answer sets.

To the left, on the back, the first question, is placed in a large circle.  Three smaller circles hold leaves, a seashell and an automobile.  In a fourth circle, white, is the ISBN.  The book case is a stunning contrast to the jacket.  On matte-finished paper is a light cream shade.  A pattern is fashioned from leaves and flowers found on land and below in the sea, and there are sea creatures.  Lavender, hues of blue and green, purple and a reddish orange are given to these elements.  It's a depiction of all the wonder waiting to be found.

On the black opening and closing endpapers are dots of various colors and sizes.  Isabelle Arsenault rendered these illustrations

in gouache, pencil, and watercolor and assembled digitally.

On the title page is the nightstand in the child's room with their jar of marbles and some of them scattered on the floor.  A two-page picture is devoted to the first question with the text in a large circle on the left and a picture of the child in her bed in her room with her father standing in the doorway on the right.  The colors are shades of black, gray, white, cream and blue for the circle.  For the answer we are taken under the sea, with a brighter focus in the play of light and shadow.  The blue is featured.  The father's answer is in white circles.

For each question and answer the father, child and the child's dog change their position and expressions.  Readers need to carefully watch.  Whatever color appears in the circle will become prevalent in the following image. For the illustration after the two pages depicting multiple questions in multiple circles, we see a larger perspective of the child's room.  Many of the items in the room are incorporated in the questions and answers.

One of my many favorite illustrations is for the answer as to why birds fly south in the winter.  For the background on the right showcasing two flying swallows, each carrying leaves in their beaks, Isabelle Arsenault selects a pale mint green.  On the left is a collage of greenery, leaves and stems in all shapes and sizes in shades of black and gray with the same pale mint green.  It's a breathtaking array.  Tucked among this collection is a small insect with two arms raised in praise.

Just Because written by Mac Barnett with art by Isabelle Arsenault is a conversational masterpiece.  It allows us to see inside the bond between a loving parent and an inquisitive child.  This book was recently selected at one of The 2019 New York Times/New York Public Library Best Illustrated Children's Books.  I can't imagine a professional or personal collection without this title on the shelves.

To learn more about Mac Barnett and Isabelle Arsenault and their other work, please follow the links attached to their names to access their websites.  Mac Barnett has an account on Instagram.  Isabelle Arsenault has accounts on Facebook and Instagram. At the publisher's website and at Penguin Random House you can view interior images.  At Art Of The Picture Book both Mac Barnett and Isabelle Arsenault are interviewed about this title.  At author, reviewer and blogger Julie Danielson's Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast this book and the artwork of Isabelle Arsenault are highlighted.  Enjoy the book trailer.

If you could take a few moments thinking extraordinary things about what we accept as true, you might find yourself reflecting as the children in this second title do.  I Wonder (Random House, October 1, 2019) with words by K. A. Holt and pictures by Kenard Pak is an exploration of the art and craft of questioning.  It's like having a list of inquiries you could spend a lifetime searching for answers.  Speculation has rarely been this . . . wonderful.

What if the sun is really a kite?

This first of a combination of twenty-six wondering and questioning phrases is the spark that ignites a fire of possibilities.  It also generates another series of questions.  If the sun is a kite, what are the planets?  Are they kites, too?  If they are all kites, who is holding the string? 

Children from all ethnic backgrounds ponder.  Our next focus is on food.  How does it feel to be consumed?  When you think of water bottles, how big can you go?  What realm could be found inside a bottle?

We are asked to wonder if inanimate objects get tired, lonely or sad?  Insects find a place in these musings. 

Does a grasshopper take hopping lessons?

If you believe in unicorns, it stands to reason you need to know where they are now.

Clocks and a question of time makes sense, but belly buttons and galaxies are a completely new pair.  Thoughts turn to how a form of air is created.  Have you ever studied your shadow and its expressions?  As one child of many is tucked into bed, one final thought is offered.  For this one, and this one alone, there is a reply.  And it is the truth!

In reading over this collection of contemplations, you become aware it might be difficult to definitively reply to most of them.  K. A. Holt inspires us to go beyond what is known and to brainstorm the potential for stories.  Each one of these twenty-six is the ticket to a new adventure.  Here are two more for you to celebrate and pour into your imagination.

Do bubbles tickle everything they touch?

I wonder if books read us, too.

One look at the open dust jacket and you know this book is no ordinary book.  Oh . . . no.  This book showcasing a whale carrying a house with a unicorn coming from the back with fish swimming nearby and a blue car floating along with a kite flying is the stuff of fantastic.  The subtle, muted shades of the main image stand in sharp contrast to the sun and the bright colors of the title text.  This initial image urges you in the best possible way to open this book. 

To the left, on the back, five colorful kites fly upward from the darker shades of green along the bottom.  A lone smaller kite of blue stretches from the center edge on the left.  These kites frame the words in a pastel setting.  The words read:

What do you wonder about
when you look at the world?

On the book case of pristine white three children from diverse backgrounds run beneath the title text.  On the back, to the left, a home in pencil with gray shading above it is beneath a full moon and a cluster of stars.  On the opening and closing endpapers is a repeating pattern of a tiny red car, a teddy bear, a sun, a kite, a ladybug, a faint blue planet and a bubble.  The title page is like a dream.  The text is in lower case, partially in pencil and partially erased from a pencil rubbing.  The pastoral scene beneath it is very faint, mystical.

On the jacket flap it states Kenard Pak

uses watercolor, pencil, collage, ink, and digital media

to create his art.  For this book he alternates between double-page pictures and full-page pictures.  Each one is a unique perspective.  We are outside looking inside, looking upward, up-close, from a bird's point of view or shown a combination of two on a single illustration.  By looking at the light and sky in the images, it appears as if Kenard Pak is taking us from sunrise to bedtime except for the final picture. 

He begins and ends with a form of the sun bringing his visuals full circle.  Careful readers will see items in one picture appear again.  Readers will also want to see if the same children are shown in more than one image.

One of my many favorite illustrations is for the words

I wonder if books read us, too.

The floor and walls of the room are etched and lighter as is the staircase in the background, mostly in shadow.  In the center and filling more than half the space is a light tan rug.  Seated on the rug in her pajamas is a little girl.  With her a dog is calmly sitting and a kitten is seated next to her.  In front of this trio is an open book with the words


on the front.  A talking yellow bird separates the two words.  Is the book reading the little girl and her furry friends?

Lighthearted, soulful and compassionate, I Wonder written by K. A. Holt with illustrations by Kenard Pak is a reflective selection of why we love what children think and have to say.  They are the reason as adults we strive to make the world better for them; so they can continue to wonder.  I highly recommend this title for your collections, professional and personal.

To discover more about K. A. Holt and Kenard Pak and their other work, please access their websites by following the links attached to their names.  K. A. Holt has an account on Twitter.  Kenard Pak has accounts on Instagram and Twitter. At the publisher's website you can view interior illustrations.  At author Cynthia Leitich Smith's website, Cynsations,  K. A. Holt is interviewed.

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