Children’s picture books have grown more and more sophisticated over the years, with illustrations that range from the whimsical to the truly gorgeous, and it gets more and more difficult to winnow a list of recommendations down to just 10. These books run the gamut, from sharks to poetry to life in the Great North Woods, and they are among the most stunning of the crop for this summer and early fall.
North Woods Girl
By Aimée Bissonette, illustrated by Claudia McGehee. (Minnesota Historical Society; $16.95, publication date Oct. 1.)
Over the course of this lovely book, a young girl pays seasonal visits to her grandma, a feisty, sweet and unconventional North Woods dweller. Thanks to Aimée Bissonette’s engaging narrative and Claudia McGehee’s dense, gorgeous scratchboard renderings of the natural world, we’re immersed in their wanderings and explorations in a way completely captivating. Another fine effort from the Minnesota Historical Society Press, where they’ve mastered the art of putting authors and illustrators together with great success.
Book launch: 10:30 a.m. Sat. Oct. 24, Red Balloon, 891 Grand Av., St. Paul.
Where Are My Books?
By Debbie Ridpath Ohi. (Simon and Schuster; $17.99.)
It is a well-known fact that Hell hath no fury like a book person who loses a book. Make that several books, and war is inevitable, although things don’t quite reach that stage for Spencer, our young hero, when his fave book, “Night-Night, Narwhal,” disappears mysteriously, along with several others. As any smart kid would, Spencer suspects cunning thievery and so he sets a trap. No spoilers here, except to say that the culprits are nabbed and there’s peace in the valley. It all unfurls marvelously, a testimony to Debbie Ridpath Ohi’s nimble gifts for storytelling and wry artistic humor. A great backyard adventure, for certain.
By Jory John, illustrated by Benji Davies. (Harper; $17.99.)
Bear is tired — “I could sleep for weeks. Months, even.” Next door, Duck is eager to socialize — “I’ve never been so awake.” You get the picture: It’s the perennial struggle between the dead tired and the wide-awake. And when that struggle occurs between a big sleepy bear and an annoyingly perky duck, what could possibly go wrong? Benji Davies’ bold, flat artwork is perfect; Jory John’s tale — a jokey little story with an ironic twist — is one kids will find totally silly and delightful. Great bedtime reading for one and all.
A Nest is Noisy
By Dianna Hutts Aston, illustrated by Sylvia Long. (Chronicle Books; $16.99.)
Everyone’s life starts somewhere, whether you’re a hummingbird or an alligator or a platypus. In this splendid book we learn where a variety of birds, insects and assorted other critters are hatched and raised — which would be in nests, naturally. Nests, it turns out, are as diverse and fascinating as the creatures that build and inhabit them. This elegant, colorful book serves its subject most appealingly; Sylvia Long’s refined illustrations and Dianna Hutts Aston’s clear, informative text send us delving into places we’ve never been. And who doesn’t like a bit of that now and then? This entire effort is really exquisite in every way.
Stella Brings the Family
By Miriam B. Schiffer, illustrated by Holly Clifton-Brown. (Chronicle Books; $16.99.)
Children’s books have come some distance in the 25 years since the controversial “Heather Has Two Mommies.” As evidence of that, here’s the engaging and charming story of Stella, a girl with two dads. There’s going to be a Mother’s Day party at school, and Stella has a dilemma: no mom. She talks to her teacher; classmates offer tips and advice. She ends up inviting her extended family and everyone has a swell time. Miriam Schiffer’s gently humorous narrative and Holly Clifton-Brown’s sensitive illustrations give just the right touch to a story that’s become increasingly familiar to many kids in many places.
Marvelous Cornelius: Hurricane Katrina and the Spirit of New Orleans
By Phil Bildner, illustrated by John Parra. (Chronicle Books; $16.99.)
Author Phil Bildner learned of the late Cornelius Washington, a New Orleans sanitation worker, from a journalist in that city, and decided that Cornelius’ was a story worth telling. The result is a generous, touching tribute to a charismatic figure and to the legendary city where he worked. Bildner’s poetic text and John Parra’s lovely folk art-like paintings set the wonderful “trash talking” Washington against the backdrop of a city nearly destroyed by Hurricane Katrina. It’s a personal story of destruction and resurrection, superbly put together in this remarkable book that everyone can enjoy and learn from as well.
By Beth Ferry, illustrated by Ben Mantle. (Chronicle Books; $16.99.)
It’s that old familiar story: You want a pet shark for your birthday, but instead you get a puppy. Who hasn’t been there? Bobby wants a shark; instead he gets an adorable object-destroying puppy. Mayhem consumes the household, of course, ending with the sweet lesson that when you don’t always get what you want, you might get something even better. Beth Ferry’s wacky tale is made all the more so by Ben Mantle’s colorful art.
By Claire Saxby, illustrated by Graham Byrne. (Candlewick Press; $16.99.)
Here’s the ideal way to get up to speed on your knowledge of emus — those big, flightless, slightly goofy-looking birds found in Australia. (It turns out that Claire Saxby and Graham Byrne are Aussies, so rest assured that you’re getting all this emu info first hand.) These unique birds are fascinating, as this splendid nature book — a kind of “meet the emus” effort — reveals. There’s a lot of information packed into these gorgeous pages, information that children (and curious adults) will find wonderfully intriguing. Speaking as an artist, I must add that Graham Byrne’s panoramas and depictions of emus in their natural environment are breathtaking, adding much to our learning enjoyment of this engrossing topic.
Written and illustrated by Bob Barner. (Chronicle Books; $16.99.)
Author and artist Bob Barner knows his bones. In this absorbing book he traverses the oceans from beaches to coral reefs to the darkest depths, finding creatures of all shapes and sizes in order to explain how nature constructs them. Jellies (don’t call them fish, because fish they’re not), for example, have neither bones nor brains. Blue whales, on the other hand, are the largest animals on Earth and have 176 bones. And then there are the sharks, of course. Sharks’ skeletons are made of cartilage, and they lose and grow thousands of teeth in a lifetime. All this is related to us with lovely cut-paper critters and — of course! — watercolor. There’s plenty to inform and delight here; terrific homework for that next trip to the beach or aquarium.
The Death of the Hat: A Brief History of Poetry in 50 Objects
Selected by Paul B. Janeczko, illustrated by Chris Raschka. (Candlewick Press; $17.99.)
This treasure of a book takes its title from Billy Collins’ lovely homage to the hat, and to bygone eras when nearly everyone wore one. Collins’ piece is but one of the gems in this delightful collection of short poems, spanning centuries from the early Middle Ages to the present. The “objects” in the poems range from a bookworm (Anonymous) to the letter E (Lord Byron) to flash cards (Rita Dove). With Chris Raschka’s sublime watercolor illustrations, this is a picture book deluxe, I’d say, as well as a great introduction to poetry and poets for kids of just about any age.
L.K. Hanson is an artist and writer in Minneapolis, and a former artist for the Star Tribune.