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The Night Watchman

Jean-Baptiste Labrune, trans. from the French by David Henry Wilson, illus. by Jérémie Fischer. Little Gestalten (Prestel, dist.), $24.95 (192p) ISBN 978-3-89955-749-7

Blurring the lines between picture book, fiction, and comics, this distinctive illustrated novel by a European team defies easy categorization; part noir detective story and part fable, Labrune’s narrative flexes and shimmers with bold magical realism. A night watchman narrates; equipped with a forehead lantern that casts a bright yellow beam wherever he looks, he is charged with guarding a town whose three clock towers are being sabotaged one by one. “Time,” he declares, “has lost its voice.” He tracks down the culprit, the Vagabond, and his accomplice, a beautiful newspaper vendor the Watchman knows and admires. They convince him to hear their story before arresting them, and the knowledge they reveal changes their lives and dooms the town. Fischer’s artwork, like primitive linocuts, uses luminous blues, yellows, and roses to conjure obscure shapes and ghostly figures. Wilson’s translation is elegant, though the text will likely strike many readers as overwrought (“They have returned to haunt the night, disgorging themselves into the streets through the suppurating wound of the sewers”). Yet those who give themselves over to it may find themselves entranced. Ages 8–up. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 07/31/2015 | Details & Permalink

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The Last Kids on Earth

Max Brallier, illus. by Douglas Holgate. Viking, $13.99 (240p) ISBN 978-0-670-01661-7

Thirteen-year-old Jack Sullivan may be the world’s last survivor in this terrifically funny illustrated novel from Brallier (Galactic Hot Dogs) and Holgate (the Case File 13 series). When a “Monster Apocalypse” comes to the town of Wakefield, some escape, others are “zombified,” and still others—Jack hopes—are in hiding. As a foster child, Jack has had his share of hard knocks, so he tries to take his situation in stride and with wisecracking humor. With a tree house refuge “that’s better-defended than Fort Knox, Stark Tower, and the X-Mansion combined,” Jack searches for sustenance, other living people—especially his best friend Quint and his dream girl June—and weapons to fight hideous monsters and undead neighbors. Holgate’s b&w cartoons (not all seen by PW) mix splatter-and-slime-heavy action sequences with humorous character profiles (a portrait of a “winged wretch” points out the creature’s “huge, hooked talons like a freaking velociraptor”), all playing into Jack’s gamified take on post-apocalyptic life. Snarky end-of-the-world fun. Ages 8–12. Author’s agent: Daniel Lazar, Writers House. Illustrator’s agency: Shannon Associates. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 07/31/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Seven Viking Days

Lee Cuesta, illus. by Mia Hocking. Infinity Publishing (infinitypublishing.com), $29.95 (32p) ISBN 978-1-4958-0584-4

Combining abstracted mixed-media illustrations and snippets of European legend, Cuesta recounts the origins of the names of the days of the week. After a Viking boy named Canute wakes one morning, the sun describes the stories behind the days’ names. “Without me, no plant or animal could survive on a dark and frozen earth,” says Sun, a fuzzy-edged orb with a smirking smile. “That’s why the first day bears my name.” Monday is named for the Moon, while the others “celebrate your Mighty Ones,” as Sun explains. They include Tiu, who loses his hand to the “monster wolf” Fenrir; Thor, ruler of the sky; and Queen Frigg, Friday’s namesake, who mourns the death of her son, Baldur. Blending papers, paints, and collaged objects, Hocking succeeds in creating a dreamy, multilayered backdrop for the sun’s stories, but the quality and consistency of the images vary. And while Cuesta gives readers a taste of Germanic, Norse, and Roman legend, the stories (such as the one of Tiu losing his hand) don’t always give a strong sense of why these deities were honored with days named after them. Ages 4–8. (BookLife)

Reviewed on 07/31/2015 | Details & Permalink

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The Whisper

Pamela Zagarenski. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $17.99 (40p) ISBN 978-0-544-41686-4

In her first work as author, two-time Caldecott Honor recipient Zagarenski appears to have constructed a story to accompany her dreamy, otherworldly paintings, rather than the other way around. A girl in a fox-eared red hood borrows a book from her teacher and hastens home, but its words spill out along the way, leaving only the pictures. A mysterious whisper tells her, “You can imagine the words. You can imagine the stories.” And so she does, inventing the first few sentences of a story for each of Zagarenski’s magical paintings, but leaving them unfinished. In one, an enormous ox lies in a field, listening “to secrets that anyone wanted to share.” In another, an elephant floats tranquilly down a river: “Their hundred mile journey began in a sturdy wooden boat.” Tiny vignettes of the girl looking at these very images in her own treasured book create the sense that readers are reading it along with her. The unfinished stories may leave some readers with an uneasy sense of irresolution; others may see them as filled with possibilities. Either way, Zagarenski’s artwork is irresistible. Ages 4–8. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 07/31/2015 | Details & Permalink

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There’s a Little Black Spot on the Sun Today

Sting, illus. by Sven Völker. NorthSouth (IPS, dist.), $19.95 (40p) ISBN 978-0-7358-4238-0

Inspired by the 1983 song “King of Pain” by The Police, artist and graphic designer Völker honors a difficult time in his young son’s life with this picture-book representation of the pain the boy suffered during a serious illness. The lyrics by composer, musician, and former Police front man Sting offer a litany of painful images from nature and folklore: “There’s a blue whale beached by a springtime’s ebb/ There’s a butterfly trapped in a spider’s web/ There’s a king on a throne with his eyes torn out/ There’s a blind man looking for a shadow of a doubt.” Völker pairs the words with scenes constructed of boldly contrasting geometric shapes, mostly triangles along with a few hexagons, trapezoids, and parallelograms (triangular drops of blood drip from the triangular hand of a disembodied person on an early page). Though the book’s overarching theme evokes sadness and anguish, readers will enjoy the puzzle-decoding elements in the artwork, and the book’s head-on approach to the reality of pain offers a jumping off point for discussions of feelings, both physical and emotional. Ages 4–8. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 07/31/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Goodnight Selfie

Scott Menchin, illus. by Pierre Collet-Derby. Candlewick, $14.99 (32p) ISBN 978-0-7636-3182-6

Of the innumerable reasons children have offered to explain why it’s too early for bed, this is a fairly new one: “But there are so many selfies I still need to take.” So protests Menchin’s redheaded heroine, who has inherited her brother’s old camera-phone and his penchant for taking photos of himself. Menchin (Grandma in Blue with Red Hat) and Collet-Derby (The Boulder Brothers: Meet Mo and Jo) follow the girl through a day’s worth of photos, from a “just-woke-up-with-crazy-hair selfie” to a don’t-try-this-at-home “skateboarding-to-school selfie.” Halfway in, the girl’s mother quietly suggests, “Why not take a photo of someone else?” While the girl snaps a few pictures of her family members (including her grandmother’s many, many cats), she remains in the photos, too, and quickly resumes selfie taking. Collet-Derby valiantly plays with visual perspectives in his loose, cheery digital cartoons, but he can’t escape the reality that an endless parade of selfies isn’t much more interesting in the pages of a picture book than it is in an Instagram feed. Ages 4–8. Illustrator’s agency: Bright Literary Agency. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 07/31/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Cock-a-Doodle-Doo-Bop!

Michael Ian Black, illus. by Matt Myers. Simon & Schuster, $17.99 (40p) ISBN 978-1-4424-9510-4

It’s just before dawn on the farm. A crescent moon hangs in the sky, and Myers (Battle Bunny) conjures up a landscape awash in purple and blue. But this farm’s hip rooster (he even wears shades at night) wants to replace his traditional crowing with something more interesting: scat, doo-wop, a trumpet solo, even record scratching (“wick wick wickee old mac wick wick wickee eieiooo”). It isn’t just annoying to his fellow farm denizens—it violates the laws of nature, as a bleary farm boy explains: “The sun won’t come up without a ‘cock-a-doodle-doo.’ ” The cow, whose attempts at being reasonable are the book’s funniest running joke, takes a different tack. “Look, Mel,” he says, “I’m all for creativity, but some things are perfect just the way they are.” When Rooster’s artistic integrity proves implacable, desperate measures prevail. This is a witty crowd-pleaser and a gift to those reading aloud, thanks to Black’s (Naked!) gooses of blaring onomatopoeia (the typography plays along, popping off the page) and character-rich dialogue. Ages 4–8. Author’s agent: Barry Goldblatt, Barry Goldblatt Literary. Illustrator’s agent: Steven Malk, Writers House. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 07/31/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Beyond the Pond

Joseph Kuefler. HarperCollins/Balzer + Bray, $17.99 (40p) ISBN 978-0-06-236427-2

Newcomer Kuefler reveals an impressive toolbox of visual storytelling skills in a story whose wide-eyed characters and broad washes of limpid hues carry echoes of Jon Klassen and Wes Anderson. His hero, Ernest D., bored of his house and his town, gazes into the pond in his backyard, trying unsuccessfully to sound its depths. It’s bottomless, he realizes, and he leaps for joy: “Oh, how exceptional!” He and his trusty dog dive in, and the camera pulls back to reveal, with a grin, dark, deep water where the shadows of sharks and squid lurk. Equipped with a flashlight, camera, and wooden sword, the two emerge to find a parallel world crammed with all the adventure a bold child could want, from a tiny mouse astride a unicorn to a terrifying, gigantic clawed paw that reaches out to grab him. When Ernest D. and his dog return, “His town looked a little less ordinary... Beyond every street and silent corner was a place unexplored.” It’s a witty, auspicious debut. Ages 4–8. Agent: Elena Giovinazzo, Pippin Properties. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 07/31/2015 | Details & Permalink

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My Name Is Aviva

Lesléa Newman, illus. by Ag Jatkowska. Kar-Ben, $17.99 (32p) ISBN 978-1-4677-2654-2

It’s tough to be a kid with an unusual name (unless you’re Blue Ivy Carter, perhaps). In accordance with Jewish tradition, Newman’s heroine has been named after a loved one, her late great-grandmother Ada, whose Hebrew name was Aviva. Unfortunately, it inspires her classmates to call her everything from “Amoeba” to “Viva La France.” Henceforth, Aviva wants to be known as Emily. Her parents play along, but they also make sure Aviva understand her name’s backstory: how Ada immigrated to America as a child, worked in a lace factory at age 10, taught herself English, and made chicken soup “so delicious, everyone told her to open a restaurant.” Aviva realizes that her name has a more profound meaning than she ever imagined—it connects her not only to her faith traditions but also to a woman who was “brave and smart and talented and kind.” Jatkowska’s upbeat characters have an oddly wooden, doll-like quality, but it doesn’t intrude on Newman’s storytelling, which is characteristically empathic, soulful, and wise—not to mention a great lead-in to discussions about readers’ own names. Ages 3–8. Author’s agent: Elizabeth Harding, Curtis Brown. Illustrator’s agency: Bright Agency. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 07/31/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Thank You and Good Night

Patrick McDonnell. Little, Brown, $15.99 (40p) ISBN 978-0-316-33801-1

A thoughtful girl named Maggie has arranged for a surprise pajama party for her beloved bunny, Clement. The invitees are Jean the elephant and Alan Alexander the bear, and if you haven’t guessed by now that McDonnell (A Perfectly Messed-Up Story) is tipping his hat to some esteemed members of the children’s literature pantheon, then a very familiar window that pops up in one of the party scenes should do the trick. And what a swell party it is: Maggie is an excellent hostess, providing customized snacks for each friend (which they eat with a hearty “Nom Nom Nom”), but letting the animals steer the activities, which include a funny face contest and an almost criminally adorable yoga session. Best of all, Maggie reads the trio bedtime stories—“stories about a majestic elephant, a brave bear, and a quiet bunny.... Stories that bring sweet dreams.” That Maggie is revealed in the final scene snuggling her three favorite stuffed toys adds another wonderful layer to a book that readers of all ages will be thankful for. Ages 3–6. Agent: Henry Dunow, Dunow, Carlson & Lerner. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 07/31/2015 | Details & Permalink

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