Picture book roundup: Mice, gorillas and a trip to the basement

  • Article by: L.K. HANSON , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 25, 2013 - 9:15 AM

The latest crop of picture books is whimsical and sassy, spooky and intriguing. And colorful! Always colorful. Except when the crayons are on strike.

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From “How Martha Saved Her Parents From Green Beans,” by David LaRochelle, illustrated by Mark Fearing.

Photo: Penguin Young Readers Group,

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“How Martha Saved Her Parents From Green Beans”
By David LaRochelle; illustrations by Mark Fearing (Dial Books, $16.99)

Minnesota artist David LaRochelle turns writer and hands over illustration duties to Mark Fearing in this crazy tale of vegetables gone bad — and not stinky, back-of-the-fridge bad. Nope. In this case we’re talking vegetables gone really bad, which is good, because it makes for a perfectly hilarious story. Martha hates green beans, thinks they’re bad. She has no idea how bad until a gang of vengeful green beans kidnaps her unwitting parents. Martha launches a rescue mission and turns from bean hater to bean eater, at least momentarily. Justice prevails, and it’s corn on the cob and broccoli from here on out. It’s a zany romp on every page, thanks to these splendid talents. (To add to the fun, the visual reactions of Martha’s nameless pooch are an exercise in subtle show-stealing if ever there was one. Sublime delight.)

“Matilda and Hans”
By Yokococo (Templar, $16.99)

First off, how could you not like a book whose author is delightfully named Yokococo? It’s a great start to a fascinating tale of two cats, the good Matilda and the bad Hans. After a series of mischievous episodes, the naughty Hans, in a moment of particular super-badness, sets loose all the animals in the zoo. The ever helpful Matilda comes to the rescue and rats out the offender, wherein lies the crux of the story. Yokococo’s strong illustrations are perfect for her skillfully told story, a story that takes a turn that young readers and mystery fans are bound to find surprising and funny.

“One Gorilla: A Counting Book”
By Anthony Browne (Candlewick, $16.99)

If they’re going to count anything, kids could hardly go wrong with this gorgeous book, a kind of “parade of primates,” ranging from gorillas (1) to lemurs (10). Oh, and let’s not forget those humans — there’s a nice gallery of them at the very end.

Anthony Browne’s highly detailed primate portraits remind us on every page that these lovely animals are creatures with faces and with beautiful, expressive eyes, characteristics that link us to them in some deep, unspoken way. I can’t imagine a kid who won’t be entranced by these great pictures, eager to count them over and over again.

“The Dark”
By Lemony Snicket; illustrations by Jon Klassen (Little Brown, $16.99)

When young, dark-fearing (he sleeps with a flashlight, folks) Laszlo’s night light burns out, the Dark takes him on a trip to the basement. By making the Dark a communicating presence, Snicket and Klassen manage to turn a simple event into a big adventure that kids will find completely engaging. (This reminds me of the wonderful 1970s kids’ classic “The Stupids Die” by Harry Allard and James Marshall. The Stupids’ power goes out and, left in the dark, they think they’re dead. High jinks ensue.) Klassen’s illustrations are perfect, and Snicket’s story delivers a gentle, reassuring message about a universal childhood fear: You don’t have to be afraid of the Dark.

“Next Stop Grand Central”
By Maira Kalman (Penguin, $16.99)

Whether or not we’ve been there, most of us have used the expression “It was Grand Central Station!” to describe some mayhem or chaos in life. (And if you have been there, you indeed know of what you speak.) This year marks the 100th anniversary of the opening of Grand Central, the world’s busiest train terminal. And who better to commemorate and capture the delirious chaos and energy of the place than the wacky, wonderful Maira Kalman? With her charming illustrations and slightly off-kilter text, Kalman manages to convey the color, frenzy, faces and everything else imaginable found in this amazing space. Every page is jam-packed with crazy, delicious treats of all kinds, yummy as a bowl of chowder from the Oyster Bar, I’d say.

“A Splash of Red: The Life and Art of Horace Pippin”
By Jen Bryant; illustrations by Melissa Sweet (Knopf, $17.99)

Since all children are artists, most will likely be fascinated by Horace Pippin, the great African-American folk artist, whose story is told in this fine book that’s part biography and part art and cultural history. Born in 1888, Pippin showed artistic talent early on, but circumstances didn’t allow for an education in art, so he taught himself. He served in World War I and suffered a grievous injury to his arm, forcing him to learn to use his other hand. In midlife he was introduced to the artist N.C. Wyeth, who helped Pippin mount a gallery show. Fame followed, and today Horace Pippin’s works are found in museums and private collections around the world. The book is beautifully done, packed with information on every page. Melissa Sweet’s mixed-media art is notable, especially her use of collage and well-chosen, hand-lettered quotations from Pippin; Bryant’s text is engaging, never sentimental or maudlin. If you know a young artist, this is a wonderful, inspiring story to share.

“The Day the Crayons Quit”
By Drew Daywalt; illustrations by Oliver Jeffers (Philomel, $17.99)

There’s big trouble in Duncan’s crayon box. The colors, like disgruntled workers, have walked. It seems they’re not happy at all with the way they’re being used. Plus, there’s a big, nasty dispute between Orange and Red over what color the renderings of the sun should be. Yikes! Consequently, Duncan finds a packet of letters in his crayon box. The missives are the heart of this delightful, colorful (of course!) book. All of this might sound a bit lightweight in the plot department, but Daywalt and Jeffers manage to make it work in spades. The letters are hilarious, by turns whiny, obsequious, angry — you name it. Pink feels underappreciated; Blue has become short and stubby from overuse; Peach has lost its wrapper. Daywalt’s text is smart, sassy and funny; Jeffers has mastered that most difficult of artistic tasks: making adult work look childlike. A terrific effort all around.

“When Stravinsky Met Nijinsky”
By Lauren Stringer; (Harcourt, $16.99)

A pivotal moment in modernism’s history — the 1913 premiere of the landmark ballet “The Rite of Spring” — is the subject of this colorful, informative work from Minnesota writer/artist Lauren Stringer. Primary focus is on the collaboration between those great Russian creative powerhouses, choreographer Vaslav Nijinsky and composer Igor Stravinsky. This story wouldn’t be complete, of course, without an account of the famous (and infamous) near-riot that marked the Paris opening night of the “Rite,” which the author skillfully handles. Stringer has done her homework, filling her book with many visual references to the artistic greats of the early 20th century, like Picasso, Matisse and Léon Bakst. The big, juicy pages are overflowing with color and images as rich as the ballet itself. A terrific introduction to a 20th-century masterpiece.

“Inside Outside”
By Lizi Boyd (Chronicle, $15.99)

  • related content

  • "How Martha Saved her Parents from Green Beans," by David LaRochelle, illustrated by Mark Fearing.

  • "One Gorilla," by Anthony Browne.

  • "The Dark," by Lemony Snicket and illustrated by Jon Klassen

  • "A Splash of Red," by Jen Bryant, illustrated by Melissa Sweet

  • “Next Stop Grand Central,” by Maira Kalman

  • "The Day the Crayons Quit," by Drew Daywalt and illustrated by Oliver Jeffers.

  • "When Stravinsky Met Nijinsky," by Lauren Stringer

  • Matilda and Hans, by Yokococo

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