May 02, 2019


Kahlo’s Koalas: 1, 2, 3, Count Art with Me. By Grace Helmer. Andrews McMeel. $8.99.

Baby Love. By Sandra Magsamen. Cartwheel Books/Scholastic. $8.99.

I Love My Llamacorn. By Danielle McLean. Illustrated by Prisca Le Tandé. Random House. $9.99.

     Usually small, usually square, always limited in length and usually limited in what they try to communicate, board books are an excellent introduction to the world of reading for the youngest children, nearly from birth up to perhaps age four. Every once in a while, though, a board book comes along that pushes past the typical limits of the format and ends up giving very young children far more information than parents have any right to expect from these generally very simple volumes. A particularly fine example is Kahlo’s Koalas, which basically requires parents to study or re-study a variety of famous artists before letting their little ones engage with Grace Helmer’s illustrations. Helmer does something truly amazing here: she turns the usual one-to-10 counting book into a presentation of 10 different styles of art, distilling each artist’s signature approach into broad-brush (literally broad-brush) illustrations to go with every number. The book’s title refers to the number two, for example, and the illustration – shown in somewhat different form from the way it appears on the book’s cover – is of two koalas wearing bright, Kahlo-esque, multicolored floral caps. The number one is a Cubist, dual-perspective “Picasso panda,” the number three features “Lichtenstein llamas” against a background of evenly spaced red dots on white, and so on. Every page is a wonderful encapsulation of a specific artist’s approach. The number seven shows “Van Gogh geckos,” all of them primarily yellow and swirling in circular fashion against a “Starry Night” background that is mostly a rich blue. The number eight is “Seurat sloths,” and a very pointillist portrayal it is. The other artists to whom Helmer pays tribute are Matisse (four multicolored cutout-like silhouettes of monkeys), Pollock (five paint-spattered poodles), Kandinsky (six abstract line drawings of kangaroos), Warhol (nine different views of warthogs on a 3 x 3 grid, eight from the front and one from the rear), and Monet (10 delightfully colored and posed mice amid lily pads). The final two pages of this marvelous board book offer a “Gallery of Artists,” giving the dates of each one mentioned and some basic information on their styles. At a minimum, parents should familiarize themselves with these very short biographical sketches so as to be able to guide their young children’s enjoyment of this very special book. Ideally, families will have art books on hand so slightly-older-than-the-very-youngest children who especially like one or another of these artists can see their actual work and begin what will hopefully turn into a lifelong love of art and culture.

     Sandra Magsamen’s board books hew more closely to the minimal-communication model than does Kahlo’s Koalas, but Magsamen is an expert at giving families more than just a very simple set of sentences on a very straightforward topic. Several works by Magsamen are called “Heart-Felt Books,” because the messages they convey are heartfelt and their covers incorporate actual felt in some form. That form, in the case of Baby Love, is in fact a heart, which functions as an overlay of a circular mirror that reflects through all the pages from the book’s end to its front cover. There are not many pages here, only 10, and not much message beyond love, either. But for the very youngest children, that will be plenty. Magsamen uses gentle humor here, as in her other board books, to interest parents and little ones alike. She first asks what the mommy bunny says to her baby, and then answers her own question, “You’re some bunny special!” Next is the elephant mommy, who tells her baby, “I love you a ton!” Then comes a cat, then a dog, and finally the human mom’s question, “What do I say to you?” The answer, of course, is “I love you!” But there is more to the book than this. That built-in mirror lets a child look into every page and see himself or herself “in costume,” as it were – that is, looking like a baby bunny, elephant, cat or dog. The words themselves draw young children in: some are in thin letters, some in thick ones, some white, some multicolored. And there are prettily drawn hearts of all sizes and colors sprinkled around the pages, picking up on the “Heart-Felt Books” theme and the big red heart that appears around the central mirror cut-through on the book’s cover. There is not a great deal of information communicated in Baby Love, but what is put across is perhaps the most important information a young child can be given – and Magsamen gives it with her usual heaping helping of joy.

     There is a cut-through feature as well in I Love My Llamacorn, and here too a heart is involved, but what goes beyond standard board-book design in this case is the way the cut-through is used. It looks, on the cover, like a series of ever-smaller hearts in multiple colors: dark blue, lighter blue, pink, red, yellow and green. Each of those colors then becomes the primary outline-of-heart color on the inside pages, so the hearts get smaller as the book progresses, while the delightful Prisca Le Tandé illustrations take up more and more of the page space. Danielle McLean’s concept here is also an above-and-beyond-the-usual one: the magical animal is neither a llama nor a unicorn but a blend of both, with a llama’s shape and furry coat, a unicorn’s rainbow-colored horn and tail, and even a rainbow-colored blanket on its back. It is just too cute for words – not that McLean lacks those: “You leap across the RAINBOW sky/ and dance on clouds that float up high.” And, “When you come near, birds start to sing/ because of all the JOY you bring.” And so forth. The llamacorn, a less stately beast than unicorns usually seem to be, spends most of its time cavorting with a group of suitably upbeat fellow creatures, including a saxophone-playing bunny, a guitar-strumming fox, and birds and butterflies and even a turtle that perches on the llamacorn’s head. All the typical pleasures of books for very young children are here: happily buzzing bees, a smiling sun, a crescent moon holding out its arms (yes, it has arms) for a hug, and more. Interestingly, though, in another of its departures from standard board-book design, I Love My Llamacorn is the size and shape of a regular book – that is, taller than it is wide – instead of being square, as board books usually are. As a delightful combination of expected and unexpected elements, I Love My Llamacorn is sure to be plenty of fun both for the youngest children and for adults fortunate enough to have a chance to read the book to them.

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