With each spring's flowering of picture books, there's always a blooming profusion of expressions of talent--original ideas, gorgeous art, witty texts. Careful editors shape and prune the luxuriant mass for the benefit of a young audience. Exhilaration awaits at the nearest bookstore, but the exact form of the latest innovations in picture-book offerings is pleasantly unpredictable. It's also worth noting how variegated the book garden becomes each year, how multicultural in its reflection of the real world. Real emotions are evoked, too--a whole fragrant bouquet of them.
For laughing out loud, get a copy of Matt Novak's While the Shepherd Slept (Orchard Books: $13.95; ages 4-7). The drowsy title and pastoral cover scene are deceptive--inside is a hilarious expose of the secret vaudevillian life of both the shepherd and his stage-struck flock. In his third book for children, Novak lets his slightly surreal colored-pencil illustrations tell most of the story (and get most of the laughs). The simple, deadpan text punctuates the mirth in just the right places. The story has the feel of a classic by Tomie de Paola--absolutely on the mark for its intended audience, as well as for anyone who's ever had a secret life, or indeed anyone who's a bit of a ham (or lamb). This is a gentle, sneaky book that will prompt grown-up giggles--and then a dash to share it with the nearest child.
A book that may make you cry, or at the very least will genuinely inspire, is Tar Beach (Crown Publishers: $14.95; ages 4-8) by Faith Ringgold, a prominent artist and professor of art at the University of California, San Diego. Stretching out on the tar-paper roof ("tar beach") of her apartment building, an 8-year-old black girl dreams of flying, with specific sites in mind to ease her parents' struggles and to improve her own existence. The universality of the book's message ("Anyone can fly. All you need is somewhere you can't get to any other way") is rooted in a very specific setting, Harlem in the 1930s.
Ringgold, with studios both in Harlem and in La Jolla, blends incidents and feelings from her own life to create an original fantasy. The oversize format accommodates not only the moving story, printed on a canvas background, but dramatic acrylic paintings bordered by colorful quilted strips. As the final double spread explains in fascinating detail, "Tar Beach" is based on a story-quilt of the same name, now in the permanent collection of the Guggenheim Museum in New York. Published to celebrate Black History Month (February), this marks what we hope will be the first of many children's books from Ringgold.
More quilts and more emotions are found in a different kind of book, Ten Little Rabbits (Chronicle Books: $12.95; ages 3-7), written by Virginia Grossman and illustrated by Silvia Long. Who can resist the feelings of warmth and coziness elicited by chunky, adorable rabbits? And who would have thought there could be a new twist in counting books? The title might suggest the dated "Ten Little Indians" counting rhyme, and as a matter of fact, these rabbits are Native Americans. From "one lonely traveler riding on the plain" to "ten sleepy weavers knowing day is done," each double spread portrays an aspect of Indian life that small children can relate to easily.
The author has done her research--the end notes contain just the right amount of factual information on 10 different tribes--and the artist has transformed her inspirations (Richard Addams' "Watership Down," her life on reservations in Wyoming, perhaps a bit of Beatrix Potter as well) into scenes with great child appeal. This is a book guaranteed to pique interest--in counting for youngest children, and in Native American culture for older ones.
Still more quilts make a splash in Tonight Is Carnaval (Dutton's Children's Books: $13.95; ages 4-8). The text is by Arthur Dorros, and the illustrations are arpilleras , a native South American quilted-art form, sewn by the Club de Madres Virgen del Carmen of Lima, Peru. The endpapers, showing piles of colorful three-dimensional vegetables constructed of fabric, entice the reader into one Peruvian boy's story about Carnaval, a pre-Lenten celebration. The story packs in a wealth of information about the hard lives of the people in the Andes Mountains.
But the intricate artwork--reminiscent of Guatemalan worry dolls--makes this a painless lesson in another way of life, from the smell of toasted fava beans to the swirling music that thrills this narrator. The last pages feature arpilleras being made; with the money this particular group earns from selling its folk art, it runs a soup kitchen that feeds hundreds of people a day.
A percentage of the royalties from this book go to Oxfam America, a nonprofit agency that funds development and disaster relief in various countries. But just as important as the earnest intent here is the simple anticipation of one young child, universal in its attraction.