September 21, 2017


The Colors of Ancient Egypt. By Amy Mullen. Pomegranate Kids. $10.95.

Flowers Grow All in a Row. By Lisa Houck. Pomegranate Kids. $10.95.

     There is something familiar and ultimately predictable about almost all board books, no matter how well they may be written and designed. The topics are formulaic: simply expressed emotions designed to be of interest and comfort to very young children, a few numbers to count, some colors to learn, maybe some shapes. And the books generally have a similar look as well, not only because they are usually small in size and always printed on thick cardboard but also because they either use bold colors and designs that are easy for young  eyes to see (black and white, bright red) or soft pastels that are intended to be gentle and soothing for bedtime-focused and other “comfort” books. The exception to all this sameness is Pomegranate, a publisher so devoted to art in all its forms that it has rethought and redesigned even its books for the youngest kids. When Pomegranate offers a book of colors or numbers, it is certain to be anything but run-of-the-mill. Hence Amy Mullen’s The Colors of Ancient Egypt, a wonderful blend of history lesson and color instruction. The colors themselves are muted – but are not pastels – and are carefully chosen to reflect those of the ancient Egyptians. And the words associated with the colors are certainly not ones that usually appear in board books. The very first color is gold, in the form of a gold headdress (another concept not normally found in board books); and the word associated with the headdress is Nefertiti – adults reading this to even the youngest children had better learn or relearn some history to be able to explain this. The next color is “red clay,” with a far deeper and earthier tone than the bright reds usually seen in board books, and this is shown in pottery – yet another unexpected word. Then comes a surprising and wonderful concept: “yellow belly,” which goes with “crocodile,” two of which are shown facing in opposite directions, with their toothy mouths wide open. There is also green in the book, but it is the dark, rich green of papyrus; and purple, in the purple belt of a tunic; and black, as in the shell of a scarab beetle. There are 10 colors in all, all of them displayed again on the book’s last page, all of them digitally rendered and shown quite beautifully and quite unusually through the chosen illustrations. This may not be the best first-colors book for the youngest children – it cannot hurt to have them see and learn bright primary colors before anything else – but it is a book into which kids can grow, and one to which they will likely return even after they know and understand colors. The reduced likelihood of quickly outgrowing board books is something else that sets Pomegranate’s apart from most others.

     The artistic sensibilities of Lisa Houck’s Flowers Grow All in a Row are quite different, but this too is a very unusual treatment of a very common topic – in this case, numbers. This is a counting book, yes, but despite its title, the book does not focus only on flowers – and it therefore shows young children that the meaning of numbers is independent of the things being counted. That is a rather advanced concept for a board book, and in fact is one that parents reading to kids will need to explain, since Houck shows it but does not say it in so many words. In fact, her words are simple and well-targeted to the very young children for whom board books are intended. And her woodcut illustrations are quite lovely – and laid out to emphasize the way in which counting is done. The first picture shows the moon in the upper right of a two-page spread, as dawn (a pinkish color) starts to emerge from night (most of the illustration is in lovely, complementary shades of purple). Moon changes to sun as the book goes on, the two celestial orbs remaining in the same page position as the blank space between them and the text (set at the far left of each left-hand page) is slowly filled up. First there is one tulip; then, writes Houck, “2 bright flowers now appear.” Then the two are joined by a third – and each flower looks completely different from the others, turning Flowers Grow All in a Row into a nature book as well as one about counting. One by one, plants are added, marching across the pages from left to right, until, when there are seven, the whole two-page layout is full. Now what? This is where Houck makes a clever switch: the next page shows the same seven plants, plus two blue butterflies that “flutter and play” as the scene darkens toward evening. And finally, “a little BUG visits at the end of the day” and crawls up the stem of one of the flowers. The result is “10 plants and critters,” all of them shown by Houck at the end of the book so kids can count them again and learn that any 10 things can be counted using the same set of numbers. The beauty of Flowers Grow All in a Row, although very different from the beauty of The Colors of Ancient Egypt, is used for much the same purpose: to create a distinctive board book that will engage and involve young children in ways that more-ordinary books of the same shape and size rarely do.

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