September 19, 2019


I Love Me. By Sally Morgan & Ambelin Kwaymullina. Andrews McMeel. $8.99.

Little Big Nate Draws a Blank. By Lincoln Peirce. Andrews McMeel. $7.99.

Limelight. By Solli Raphael. Andrews McMeel. $14.99.

     The art of creating successful books for young readers and pre-readers lies largely in – well, in art. The pictures need to attract the youngest children, or the words that go with the illustrations will have no chance to tell a story or otherwise have an effect. It helps, of course, if the story that goes with the pictures is simple enough so it can be quickly and easily absorbed – and what could be simpler than expressing happiness with one’s own body and being? That is what Sally Morgan and Ambelin Kwaymullina put forth, both in art and in words, in I Love Me, a new board-book version of a work originally published in Australia in 2016. The two human characters may look somewhat unusual to some families: Morgan and Kwaymullina are from the Palyku people of Western Australia, and their drawings reflect their heritage not only through very dark skin but also through hair that is quite distinctive (“I love the way my curly hair grows,” the text says at one point, although the illustration shows the hair looking distinctly stringy and two-colored, as if highlighted). Some elements of I Love Me transcend cultures, including the cover – which shows the two characters and a dog, the humans wearing clothing with a big heart on the front and the dog shown with a red heart on its front as well. And the Aboriginal-and-manga-influenced art is both unusual and attractive, with every two-page spread having a different multicolored border and the story panels themselves appearing in different sizes and shapes. I Love Me is a very busy book, visually speaking, and that is one reason it works well for very young readers and pre-readers: there is lots going on, visually, at all times. The words are sometimes straightforward: “I love the inside me. I love the outside me.” (“Inside” gets an impressionistic drawing of what is inside people, while “outside” gets a super-colorful picture focused entirely on clothing and decorative display.) At other times, the words are a touch surprising: “I love the way my toes make art” (the two characters are shown using their feet to apply paint to paper, with examples of finished “toe drawings” on the wall behind them). And Morgan and Kwaymullina seek a kind of cadence in the writing by using repeated words on some pages: “Thump, thump, thump,” for example, and “Zing, zing, zing.” Those words are then attached to the narrative: “Dash, dash, dash. I love the way my feet splash” (with the characters running barefoot through puddles). Through its words and its art, I Love Me transmits its message of self-acceptance both vibrantly and playfully.

     The playfulness is with the art in Lincoln Peirce’s new board book, Little Big Nate Draws a Blank. Peirce here puts his familiar preteen character, Big Nate, into a time machine, sending him back to early childhood and what is clearly an early interest in drawing (in the Big Nate comic strip, sixth-grader Nate is, among other things, a cartoonist). This board book is not really for Big Nate fans, although the strip has been around so long that it could be for the children of Big Nate fans who have enjoyed the strip for a quarter of a century. Peirce connects Little Big Nate with the familiar sixth-grade character through personality traits and Nate’s trademark spiky hair – although the character creation falters a bit when it comes to the mouth, with Peirce giving Little Big Nate just two teeth, both of them semicircular uppers and each as big as Nate’s nose (resulting in a rather weird look for what is otherwise a pleasant character). The art here is “by” Little Big Nate, and that is a lot of what makes this book fun to see and read. It is about all the things Little Big Nate considers drawing but decides not to draw – each of them, however, being shown in a Nate-style drawing, indicating how they would look if the young artist did draw them. This is harder to describe than to see: it is quite clear in the book and works very well. For each possible thing to draw, Little Big Nate gives a reason not to do so: “A toad? TOO BUMPY! A cricket? TOO JUMPY!” But each non-drawing (presumably from Nate’s imagination) looks like what he would draw if he did decide to draw it. The result is a lot of Nate non-drawings that let kids see what Nate drawings would look like if he created them – a convoluted notion that is distinctly amusing. The drawings themselves are a lot of fun, too, from the “too hairy” dog shedding everywhere as it runs, to the “too inky” octopus that smiles broadly while emitting a huge black cloud. At the end of the book, undecided Nate is just “too sleepy” to draw anything and is napping on the floor, crayon to paper, imagining the “too creepy” (but smiling) snake that he has decided not to draw. The way Peirce uses his art here – and Nate’s imagined art – makes the book highly enjoyable.

     It is the art of poetry, not representational art, that is featured in Limelight, a book for kids who are roughly the age of the original Big Nate character. And this book, like the one by Morgan and Kwaymullina, has an Australian connection: author Solli Raphael is Australian, and became instantly famous when he won the Australian Poetry Slam at age 12 and then put together Limelight at age 13. Now Raphael is 14 and is actively engaged in promoting his poetry and his book – and the messages he seeks to convey in both. Raphael has some knowledge of how poetry works, having learned about it from his mother, and offers several explanatory chapters on the topic in Limelight. But they are not the book’s focus and, in the main, not especially relevant to the actual poetry that Raphael creates. The poems, unsurprisingly for someone of Raphael’s age, are all about how badly things need to be different from the way they currently are, and how important it is for him and others in the same age group to get involved to make change happen: “Since the day of our arrival, we’ve been killing our own survival, and it’s vital, that our sidle title is put aside, so we can become ONE with our rivals.” And (another example among many): “So next time you go into the shops,/ think about all the crops, ripped-off farmers, plastic bags, and those who dedicate their lives to the war on waste they pursue.” And (one more): “The floods have finished, and the fires have burned out./ Suicide rates climb higher and higher/ and this is something we should all be worried about.” The poems read mostly like polemical pamphleteering, certainly filled with all the sincerity and angst of a preteen or young teenager, and intended for an audience that has grown well beyond board books and currently seeks something beyond (or other than) entertainment from the art of poetry (or at least from slam poetry). Limelight is part of the “celebrification” of sociopolitics, with Raphael being presented (in many media, not just this book) as the sort of committed young person who can and should attract others to the cause of – well, of just generally making things better and less messed-up. On its own, this is a (+++) book, but if it reaches its intended preteen or young-teenage audience, it may be seen as a clarion call to (nonspecific) action and may – if Raphael has his way – inspire others to get down to the hard work of actually making things better.

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