I’m still scrambling to catch up with 2017 books (though maybe that will give my library time to get a few 2018 titles in…). Here are three 2017 nonfiction picture books I’m just now reading. All three titles have beautiful art depicting nighttime scenes:
Nile Crossing is a surprising first-day-of-school book. The main character, Khepri, is nervous about leaving Mom and Dad behind, and worried about the new activities he’ll have to get used to. But he’s a child in ancient Egypt instead of the next town over, and he has to leave home before dawn in order to cross the Nile to get to school. The beautiful art is inspired by ancient Egyptian art. The back matter actually continues the story–we get to see Khepri make his first friend!–and watch him write his first letter. I’ve never before seen a sequel embedded in back matter, and I can only imagine how delighted Egypt-crazy kids will be to discover that the story continues. The back matter also has a fascinating essay about why it’s likely that lower-class boys and some girls attended school in ancient Egypt. In the Author’s Note, the author talks about how she got interested in the topic, and in her analogous note the illustrator talks about the process of illustrating a story from long ago.
Nile Crossing by Katy Beebe, illustrated by Sally Wern Comport. (Eerdmans: 2017).
Vincent Can’t Sleep is a lyrical picture book biography of Vincent Van Gogh. It’s structured around the refrain, “Vincent can’t sleep…” We follow Vincent throughout his life, seeing his wakefulness and attentiveness as a child, as a young person, and as an adult, lead to careful observation of the world around him. The scenes are biographical, placing Vincent where he actually lived at different stages of his life–“while the sturdy Dutch village of Zundert slumbers, he lies rocking in his wooden cradle” and he is “away at boarding schools in bigger towns. Zevenbergen. Tilburg”–but they also evoke his most famous paintings. We see him looking at the stars (Starry Night) and painting in the country (The Potato Eaters). The art is reminiscent of VanGogh’s art, and the back matter gives more detail about his life, including the fact that “from boyhood on, he was plagued with long bouts of insomnia.” I love how the book conveys the energy and emotion of Van Gogh’s paintings.
Vincent Can’t Sleep by Barb Rosenstock, illustrated by Mary Grandpre. (Alfred A. Knopf: 2017).
Most narrative nonfiction picture books have a straightforward, beginning-to-end structure. Before She Was Harriet inverts that pattern. It tells the life of Harriet Tubman starting with old age. Then, with each page turn, we move backward in time and see her at younger and younger ages: “Before she was an old woman she was a suffragist…Before she was a suffragist she was General Tubman…Before she was General Tubman she was a Union spy.” The structural device of moving from old age to youth means that the climax of the book is the moment when we arrive back at her childhood and see her, still unformed, ready to move forward bravely into life. She’s a child, not yet knowing the great good that she will accomplish in her life. It’s inspiring, and puts its child readers there with Harriet, imagining what good they will accomplish in their lives. The paintings in the book are luminous. I especially loved the ones set at night and in dark spaces. In those, Harriet almost seems like a source of light herself. [And this just won a Coretta Scott King Illustrator Honor!]
Before She Was Harriet by Lesa Cline-Ransome, illustrated by James Ransome. (Holiday House: 2017).