Modern-day tastemakers, unlike their forebears, shower love on comics and graphic novels without a hint of condescension. This is true even of works intended mainly for children, a category that includes — let’s be honest — most of the superhero sagas that dominate pop culture’s most lucrative precincts. I’m not complaining, by the way (I love comics too), just observing. But picture books are another story. Even the genius likes of Beatrix Potter and Maurice Sendak are shunted off to the critical equivalent of the Thanksgiving kids’ table, smiled at but not often engaged with. Yet the best picture books, far from being baby food, display a pictorial sophistication that puts many graphic novels to shame; think of them as visual haiku, an art form of juxtaposition and implication, bright colors notwithstanding. And here are three examples to prove the point — books full of surface delight that also reward close reading. Kids might love them, but I’m guessing all three will resonate even more with grown-ups.
Standing in the outfield and waiting to catch a high fly ball is among the more agonizing but ubiquitous rituals of American childhood: not quite as dire as doctors’ shots or puberty, but still bad. (That anyone sticks with baseball long enough to get good at it is a tribute to either the human spirit or masochism.) In I GOT IT! (Clarion Books/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 32 pp., $17.99; ages 4 to 8), David Wiesner slows time down and finds a world of drama in those five or so hellish seconds between ball leaving bat and settling — or not — into mitt. Surely even capable athletes will relate to the interplay between body and mind, muscle and emotion, which “I Got It!” captures with beauty, fluidity, wit and suspense.
Wiesner is the only three-time winner of the Caldecott Medal — for “Tuesday” (1991), “The Three Pigs” (2001) and “Flotsam” (2006). Like most of his books, “I Got It!” is wordless, apart from the title phrase, which appears first as aspirational shout and once again, many pages later, as triumphant cry. (I hope that’s not a spoiler, but Wiesner is no Charles Schulz.) The hero is a boy who, when we first see him, is standing on the wrong side of a backstop fence, longing to join a sandlot game. He looks to be a year or two younger than the rest of the kids; a team captain banishes him to the farther reaches of the field, somewhere around Pluto’s orbit, where he can presumably do no harm. But the inevitable ball is hit his way, and Wiesner’s illustrations begin to shift subtly between actual playing field and interior landscape. In the boy’s mind, as he races to make the catch, he suffers several catastrophic failures. Then, as teammates also converge on the ball, he takes flight in a rush of surreal images — focus emerging amid fear and distraction.
Like René Magritte, Wiesner has a precise and realistic style that makes his leaps into the weird all the more effective, though it took me a few passes to figure out how to read the illustrations, the flitting between literal and figurative. As with any good wordless picture book, “I Got It!” should provoke many discussions — not just about doubt and perseverance, but also about creative visual storytelling. The kids will soon be ready for Terrence Malick and Wong Kar-wai.
While the sky is a key supporting player in “I Got It!,” the sea is a true co-star in Sophie Blackall’s HELLO LIGHTHOUSE (Little, Brown, 48 pp., $18.99; ages 4 to 8). Blackall’s ocean is variously placid, rippling, luminescent, angry, violent, frozen, gray, green, cerulean, black; her waters surge and recede, but her red and white lighthouse and its bearded, contemplative keeper remain stolid and constant — until they don’t.
I will be surprised if a more exquisite picture book is published this year. Blackall is another Caldecott Medal-winning illustrator, in 2015 for “Finding Winnie: The True Story of the World’s Most Famous Bear” (written by Lindsay Mattick). She is also known for drawing Ivy and Bean, stars of the best-selling chapter book series by Annie Barrows. Here, her illustrations evoke American folk art, early Renaissance painting and traditional Japanese seascapes, but in a synthesis all her own.
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