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My Friend, the Starfinder, by George Ella Lyon

My Friend, the Starfinder, by George Ella Lyon

George Ella Lyon is one of my favorite writers, but there’s some surprising illustrations in “My Friend, the Starfinder.” Stephen Gammell contributes amazing watercolors showing the wonders of the night sky, adding a glorious background for even the simplest sentences. It’s a fascinating combination of two artists – a writer and illustrator – and there’s an exciting interplay between the two as the story moves along.

Lyon describes an old man in a ragged suit – but the illustrator fills his jacket with wild colors. The colors almost steal the show, as the side of his house is filled with greens, pinks, and purple. “He wore old soft clothes and sat in and old chair on an old green porch and told stories,” Lyon tells us. On the next page, a meteor shines through a green universe… But then the watercolors switch to rich grays and whites when the old man begins telling his story to a little girl.

Even with blacks and grays, he somehow creates a magnificent sky filled with planets and stars, its dark clouds swallowing trees on a hill. The shades create levels and depth behind twinkling stars, even on the title page where the author and illustrate dedicate the book to their loved ones. I’ve never seen black and white watercolors before, but they’re surprisingly effective. The illustrations show the old man’s memory of following a star across a field when he was a young boy.

When Lyon writes that the boy kept walking, Gammell draws a breath-taking cumulus cloud, stretching across the sky with black edges in a bright white sky, dwarfing the tiny fence in the field below. When the boy reaches the top of an inky hill, there’s a splotch of yellow and spectacular stars in the sky. Lyon writes simply that the boy “picked the star up,” and Gammell imagines a big star-shaped rock, its grays flecked with gold and turquoise. And when he hands the star to the little girl, the two friends are filled with colors, and a ray of sunshine peeps through the gray clouds.

In another story, the old man’s hand turns purple – and Gammell draws mysterious tangles of branches and tree trunks. I like Ella’s simple words – she describes one color as simply “orangey orange as fire” – and it turns out the man had wandered to the end of the rainbow, discovering “cool warm striped air.” But the illustrations give the story a vast perspective – showing the mountains in the valley as a pastiche of colors with white wisps and a yellow streak of sun.

And Lyon writes that she could feel all the colors.

Mr. Munchlee’s Magic Tophat by Corrie R. Rice

Mr Munchlees Magical Top Hat

“Mr. Munchlee comes to a town that has forgotten how to smile,” explains the back cover of Mr. Munchlee’s Magic Top Hat. “With a little help from his friends, a world of imagination begins to save the day!” But the experience of the book is something far more elaborate, since its text is written entirely in rhyme — and within a few pages the book is virtually exploding with colorful and imaginative illustrations!

Even when the book first shows Mr. Munchlee — a tall man with a mysterious moustache and a top hat — there’s a wall of bright yellow in the background. He strolls into town whistling, with fireflies under his hat, each one twinkling at the thought of sharing their good will. Soon he’s given a magic map to a girl named Luzianne, and then abruptly vanishes from the book. But the map shows her a way to dream — to laugh and be happy whenever she wants — and it awakens her own happy spirit.

“Imagining one thought made a jungle come alive…” the book explains, as the color suddenly begin splashing across the pages. There were animals doing “troopa-loopa” tricks who invited Luzianne to eat bubbles and share bananas splits. The book’s cover illustration captures this moment with an iconic picture of the girl dancing on the rim of Mr. Munchlee’s hat. All around her are butterflies, musical notes, and even a bird with a flower in its mouth.

Some of the more fanciful drawings reminded me of Dr. Seuss. The little girl swings impossibly high on a yellow streamer that’s held by a smiling jack-in-the-box. As a background there’s the silhouette of pink and purple hills. And on top of those hills are more jack-in-the-boxes, and birds with impossibly large tails…

The smiling girl marches behind blue monkeys banging cymbals in a parade through a yellow field. But she learns a valuable lesson — “I can be whatever I choose!” And that sharing a smile makes smiles spread even further, and can make happiness grow. Luzianne’s love was “like a butterfly garden,” and there’s actually a lot of lessons. Maybe one too many? The book seemed to have a little extra text…

But maybe I just couldn’t find the right rhythm for reading the rhymes…especially since I was feeling impatient about getting to those pretty pictures! Tulia Lulu drew the book’s illustrations — and it’s obvious that a lot of care went into this project. My copy even came with a black-and-white coloring book, presumably created for an appearance at the Miami Beach Regional Library. It asks a very thoughtful question — “What makes other people smile?” — and then also asks its young readers, what makes you happy?

And then it invited those young readers to fill Mr. Munchlee’s hats with their own happy thoughts…