9.02.2015

Double Happiness by Nancy Tupper Ling, illustrated by Alina Chau


Double Happiness by Nancy Tupper Ling with illustrations by Alina Chau is the definition of the phrase itself. Well, the actual phrase is traditionally used for newlyweds in Chinese culture, or sometimes as a wish for happiness in the present and in the future. But for me, the phrase here means the double happiness of a wonderfully written and beautifully illustrated picture book that stands out on the shelves and will be remembered long after reading.

Gracie and her brother Jake are moving from their "city house / by the trolley tracks, / away from Nai Nai, / Auntie Su, / and Uncle Woo. / Today / we fly away - / and I don't want to go!" But Grandmother has an idea. In her poem she says, "When I was young, / I placed memories / inside a special box. / It was my happiness box. / Always, it was near me. / Together you can make / double happiness." She tells Gracie and Jake to find "four treasures each, / leading from this home / to your new." The poems follow Gracie and Jake as they say their goodbyes, find their treasures and begin the journey to their new home. Jake, who narrates a few poems of his own, is a bundle of energy and colorful action like the dragon that he admires. Looking for treasures for his box, Jake says he will, "keep my dragon eyes / wide open for stuff / along the way."

Chau's illustrations are also filled with double happiness. Delicate both and solid. At times they are brightly colored and richly patterned, other times her watercolors are subtle and like a fading memory. I found myself paging through Double Happiness again and again, poring over every illustration.



After settling into their new house and having a dinner of comfort foods, (with their memory boxes and a picture of the family they left behind on the dinner table) the siblings begin to unpack. As they sort through their memory boxes, they take out their paints and add one more memory to each box. Jake adds a dragon and a train, and Gracie adds a "boy, a girl, / walking in the snow. / each with a box full of memories / tucked under their arms. / They look very, very happy."

Source: Review Copy


9.01.2015

Waiting by Kevin Henkes


There are so many things I love about Waiting by Kevin Henkes. For someone who has been an avid reader and admirer of Henkes's books, from the picture books to the novels, for over twenty years now, Waiting feels like the culmination and perfection of all that is wonderful, special and definitive about Henkes's work as an illustrator and author. Kevin Henkes seems to have a deep understanding and remembrance of childhood that he is able to translate to the page with a genuine, untarnished simplicity that I find very meaningful and memorable.

My advance copy of Waiting came with a letter from Henkes about his new book that I would reprint in its entirety here if it wasn't so lazy. So I'll just quote it a lot. Henkes begins his letter by pointing out something I realized shortly after my first born reached toddlerhood - "children have to wait all the time. They wait for birthdays and holidays and weekends. Waiting is part of their daily lives. 'Wait' is a word like 'yes' or 'no' - something they hear a lot." This is so obviously true and yet something that I don't feel has ever been positively addressed in a picture book, which is exactly what Henkes intended to do with Waiting. In addition to "casting a favorable light" on the concept of waiting, Henkes wanted to put a "slightly different spin" on it by having his characters who are all waiting for different things, including one who "wasn't waiting for anything in particular" at all.

Waiting begins, "There were five of them. And they were waiting . . . " The five figurines, clearly a child's playthings, are inspired by the "small, hand-built animal sculptures" that Henkes has been creating at his local clay studio once a week since 2006. The figurines wait on a windowsill for things outside - snow, wind, rain, the moon - and are happy. The windowsill, the figurines and their view outside are all that readers see in the gentle brown ink, watercolor and colored pencil illustrations. There is no child depicted in the illustrations, but the presence of one is felt when the figurines "sleep" and receive presents. Henkes wanted Waiting to be "simple in its design and universal in its scope." The effect of this draws you into the book, making you feel like you are there with the figurines, waiting, looking out that window as the world changes. The "changing of the seasons, the wonder of nature, sudden sadness and disappointment, unexpected moments of joy, birth, death. All of these things - these aspects of human experience - were filtered through the lens of a child's imaginative play" as Henkes thought about the five figurines and the story that would become Waiting. Surprisingly, this all comes through in this simple, magical book. To excel at it the way Henkes does, and to imbue his books with an authentic childhood perspective is truly a gift.

My daughter, now twenty-two, grew up with Lily, Chrysanthemum, Chester and Wendell from Henkes's Mouse Books. I adore those books, both because of how much she loved them and how much I enjoyed reading them to her. They are rich in humor, character and vocabulary and the parents and adults in the stories are never two-dimensional buffoons or straight men, as in so many picture books. That said, my favorite book by Henkes, now second to Waiting, is the uncomplicated A Good Day, which begins, "It was a bad day . . . " Like Waiting, Henkes takes a simple but powerful childhood emotional experience and looks at it from a new perspective - through a new window - and turns it around. While I love all of Henkes's books, I treasure books like Waiting and A Good Day most because I know how hard it is to write a (meaningful) picture book, especially one that is so economical with words and ideas.

If you aren't familiar with the superlative Kevin Henkes, take a look at his website or my review of his Newbery Honor winning novel, The Year of Billy Miller, which includes an overview of all of his books.


Source: Review Copy