Paperboy, by Dav Pilkey

Paperboy, by Dav Pilkey

Can an illustrator write a good story? The Paperboy knows that’s the wrong question to ask. Instead, the book shows some gorgeous illustrations, while its text just fills in the details. It’s a wonderful example of two art forms combining. Dav Pilkey illustrates his interpretation of a dark neighborhood seen by a newsboy – while Dav Pilkey the author contributes a story which weaves it all together

But it’s the illustrations that are really the star of this book. The title page shows a grey truck leaving the printing building on a dark night. There’s a beautiful two-page drawing of the empty field that truck will pass. Shades of green suggest gentle moonlight, and so do the softened edges on the houses. The sky has turned dark blue, but on the next two pages it’s becoming purple. And the truck parks by some rows of colorful houses which represent the sleeping city.

The paperboy sleeps with his dog – which gives the story a crucial warmth. The boy doesn’t want to get up, but the next page shows his room filled with his lamp’s yellow light. The sleepy boy shuffles alone past the rooms where his family is still sleeping. But at least his pet keeps him company, and the boy and his dog head to the kitchen “where they eat from their bowls.” There’s even a whole page about the dog view of the paper route. (“He knows which trees are for sniffing,” and “which birdbaths are for drinking,” and of course…which squirrels to chase!)

I think it’s a good story, because it captures the best lessons of the paperboy life: that even a child can shoulder a responsibility, and play a role in the neighborhood’s life. The boy puts rubber bands around the papers. And though it’s difficult to ride his bike, he manages. But there’s also a quiet celebration of the joys of being alone. Sometimes the paperboy thinks about big things, and sometimes he thinks about little things. And sometimes, “he is thinking about nothing at all.”

“All the world is asleep except for the paperboy and his dog. And this is the time when they are the happiest.” It’s the same lonely message that Robert Frost shares in his darkest poems. Unfortunately, “little by little, the world around them wakes up.” The sky turns a brilliant orange, and back home, he hears the sounds of his family waking up. But he crawls into his bed, and now carries the pride deep inside of him. He dreams that he’s flying back into the nighttime sky.

And his dog flies with him too.

Michael Rosen’s Sad Book



Is the celebrity hiding a secret depression? Michael Rosen shares children’s books on a radio show in England, and he’s written more than 140 books himself, according to Wikipedia. But the first page of Michael Rosen’s Sad Book seems to be sending a message – that everyone gets unhappy…even celebrities! “This is me being sad,” Rosen writes, next to a cartoonish picture of a man smiling. “Maybe you think I’m happy in this picture. Really I’m sad but pretending I’m happy.

“I’m doing that because I think people won’t like me if I look sad.”

I have to applaud the honesty of Rosen’s book, and his message about sadness has an undeniable credibility. “What makes me most sad is when I think about my son Eddie. He died,” Rosen writes. “I loved him very, very much but he died anyway.” Rosen’s son died of meningitis in 2004 at the age of 19. “Sometimes this makes me really angry.”

There’s simple illustrations of the little boy in a bathtub or playing soccer. And the cartoonish pictures by Quentin Blake seem important, since they soften the edges of Rosen’s sorrowful text. “Eddie doesn’t say anything because he’s not here anymore,” Rosen writes. “Sometimes I want to talk about all this to someone. Like my mum. But she’s not here anymore, either.” And sometimes, he doesn’t want to talk about it at all.

Sometimes he shouts in the shower, or bangs a spoon on the table, or makes his cheeks go “whooph, booph, whooph.” And sometimes he does bad things, when he won’t reveal because “it’s not fair to the cat.” Sometimes there’s a grey cloud hanging over him, which he describes as a sadness that things aren’t the same. And Blake captures this perfectly, as four drawings show the man passing a tree, as the background turns grayer and grayer, until suddenly it’s raining.

Rosen reminds himself that everyone feels sad. He reminds himself that sad is different than bad. He tries to do things he can feel proud of. He tries to have a good time at least once a day. “And sometimes I write about sad.” It can be anywhere, any time, anyone…”

This book was selected as an exceptional book by the English Association in 2004, and to Rosen’s credit, he includes those moments when he re-awakens to the world. There’s faces at a window, the people on a train, memories of his mother, memories of Eddie, “And birthday… I love birthdays. Not just mine – other people’s as well.”

“And candles. There must be candles.”

Snow Music, by Lynne Rae Perkins

Snow Music by Lynne Rae Perkins

Snow Music is wildly drawn, with a strange, beautiful layout. Artist Lynne Rae Perkins captures a child’s excitement about new snow – but her book is also unusually creative. Both her pictures and her text offer lots of fun surprises. It’s as though Perkins is enjoying her freeform structure, like a child playing in the yard, while she offers moments of playfulness that float like a snowflake

There’s a warm pattern on the title page of Snow Music, representing the comforting wallpaper of a little boy’s bedroom. But then Perkins jumps immediately to cool colors with a remarkable pattern on the next page of blue, aqua, and purple. “Everyone whisper,” writes Perkins, before the story has even started. And then she offers a gorgeous illustration of globs of snow falling in the light of a distant streetlamp.

“Soft as our nests when day has gone, snow came singing a silent song.” As the rhyme snakes across a two-page spread, Perkins peeks into the warm dens of rabbits, birds, and mice. But the rhyme suddenly ends when there’s bright white snow blanketing the neighborhood in the next amazing illustration.

“Shhhhhhhhh,” Perkins writes.

“Oops,” she adds on the next page – as a little boy’s dog rushes out his front door.

She’s playing with the structure of her story, but she’s also playing with words. Random sentences appear, in an almost accidental rhythm. (“What is the sound of one bird hopping? Does the deer feel the cold of the snow in her hoofs?”) The right page shows a squirrel’s footprints curving in a trail, while the facing page precedes it with his thoughts. “I think – I think… I think I left it here.” And the plot has already started, though its characters remain vague and abstract.

“You say something like, Hi. I say something like, Hi. Have you seen my dog?” The sentences curl around a page, matching the pattern of the characters’ own footprints. And on the next page there’s a staff of musical notes – except the notes are replaced by four jingling dog tags. A car drives by, and its sound appear on the staff – parallel to the trail of its tires. The next page offers “Truck Song,” but then there’s a bunny in the yard and a bird on the fence. The plot only continues through the window in the background.

“Did you find him?”


The speakers are never identified, but then the narrator’s poem returns, to wrap up the book. “All of us looking for something to eat. The sun came looking for something to heat. It found the snow, and the deer’s cold feet.”

“There he is! I see him!”

Night Ride, by Bernie and Mati Karlin

Night Ride, by Bernie and Mati Karlin

“Night Ride” is a children’s book that you experience instead of just reading. Every drawing is a dark scene from the night of mother’s car trip with her son. And every sentence is a part of their conversation. The book opens as they wave good-bye to the boy’s sister and father – seen in silhouette on the steps of their house. “Good-bye, Dad. Good-bye, Susie.” And the adventure has begun…

“Is your seat belt fastened?” the mother asks with a smile. But she’ll never be shown again, since the book switches to views of what’s outside their car.  “Careful, Billy. Don’t drop the money,” his mother says as their call pulls into a toll booth. The toll-taker is shown smiling back – and his booth is decorated with dimly-lit signs. Turn the page, and there’s a spectacular view of the city lights at night.  

“Wow!” says Billy.
“Pretty, isn’t it?” says his mother…

And it is pretty – a two-page spread showing the black outlines of buildings, sprinkled with lights, under the moon and the stars, behind the shadowy towers of a bridge. The pictures provide all of the details about what they see – including an airplane coming in for a landing, an overturned delivery truck, and the lights of a distant amusement park. They’re simple but realistic pictures documenting the random speckles of light in those quick glimpses of the world at nighttime – and there’s a gentle magnificence to it all. The final page shows a sunrise over a village, but the rest of the book captures the magic and mystery of night.

The entire plot of the book is delivered wordlessly – only implied in those spaces around the conversation. Because of its simplicity, Simon and Schuster labeled it as one of their books “for young readers,” but it’s still a nice example of the everyday love in a family. It was written by the husband-and-wife team of Bernie and Mati Karlin (and illustrated by Bernie Karlin). And on the first page, the couple dedicated the book to their parents, their children, and their grandchildren.

It’s an original book, and its plot would probably be described as “naturalistic”. But once readers discover the book’s pattern, it’s a lot of fun – and it still leaves lots of room for imagination. And despite all the mystery, the book still ends on a positive note.

“Are you asleep, Billy?

“It’s going to be a beautiful day.”

All Those Secrets of the World by Jane Yolen

All Those Secrets of the World by Jane Yolen book cover
“My cousin Michael was five and I was four when my father went off to war.” It’s the first line of a poignant children’s book capturing the childhood memories of Jane Yolen. Yolen wrote the award-winning children’s book “Owl Moon,” about a child’s late-night stroll through the snow. But she tackles a much more ambitious memory in “All Those Secrets of the World.”

Yolen remembers the family’s trip to the docks to watch her father’s ship sail away. Her father kisses her and hugs the family, and “hundreds of grown-ups crowded around, waving handkerchiefs and crying.” The little girl waves a flag, and hears the tuba in a band playing the song “Over There.” And then her father’s ship is gone, as dirty waves slap the pylons. “[E]veryone had a good time, except Mama, who cried all the way home…”

It’s a very moving story about a family affected by war, told from a child’s simpler viewpoint. And it’s the illustrations that make it seem even more real, with bright watercolors suggesting a sunny childhood day, while the child report’s on the day’s events matter of factly. She goes to the beach with her brother, where they see black specks on the horizon. “Are those birds?” asks the girl. But they’re not. They’re ships, “taking soldiers across the sea to war,” her brother tells her. And the illustration shows their innocence in the moment, with the two children wading at the edge of a vast ocean under white clouds, with the ships just visible on the horizon.

They couldn’t be ships, the girl insists. “Those specks are no bigger than my thumb.” And the brother demonstrates that things look smaller when they’re futher away. “‘Come back, come back,’ I cried, suddenly afraid he’d disappear forever like the ships gone from the horizon, dropped over the edge of the world…” And both children get in trouble, because they weren’t supposed to wade in the ocean.

At the end of the book, the father comes back from the war. “There were no big ships or waving flags, just a stranger in brown with his arm in a sling, unfolding himself from a cab.” The youngest son doesn’t remember the father, and yells, “Go away, you bad man. Don’t you touch my mama.” So the father lifts the little girl, who tells him that “When you are far away, everything is smaller. But now you are here…I am big.”

“‘Of course,’ he said. ‘I knew that.'”

And he kisses and hugs her again, until it all seems familiar again, and war seems like a distant secret that belongs to the outside world.

Grandaddy’s Highway by Harriet Diller

Grandaddy's Highway by Harriett Diller

“As he tucked me in to bed, I glanced past him, out the window, to the strip of black across the yard. And I could see it — stretching all the way to the Pacific Ocean…”

That’s the last line of Grandaddy’s Highway, but it could just as easily be the first. As a little girl’s grandfather tucks her in bed at night, they watch the headlights of a passing truck cast light across her bedroom wall. But then the narrating little girl says, “We are headed as far west as you can go on 30 West.” When you turn the page, she and her grandfather are together in the truck’s cab — and he’s even honking its horn.

“On your right — the City of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Squirrel Hill Tunnel directly ahead,” her grandfather narrates. But they’re just passing through, and the text only describes things you can see from the highway. Throughout the book, the author also sprinkles a couple of hints that this trip might be imaginary. “I can already see the squirrels,” the little girl says, “millions of them, watching me from the top of Squirrel Hill.”

The girl’s vivid imagination also serves another function, since it helps readers remember the (real) cities along the route of the famous highway. U.S. Route 30 includes much of the famous Lincoln Highway, the first single road that crossed all of America, according to Wikipedia. But even if you’re not trying to memorize its route, the book is educational in another way. Their trip travels from the east coast to the west coast of America — and it takes in many of the geographical landmarks you’d see along the way.

Author Harriett Diller mixes the details of the trip with the story of the girl’s responses. They’re sometimes very thoughtful, though the “naturalistic” story style may be challenging for young readers. Each page gets a wonderful watercolor illustration by Henri Sorensen (who also worked with Caldecott medal-winner Alvin Tresselt). Sorensen lives in Denmark, but according to the book’s jacket, “to get the feel of heading west in a tractor-trailer, he and a truck driver actually drove part-way west on U.S. Route 30.”

The publisher of the book thanks “the many people at Yellow Freight System, Inc, Overland Park, Kansas, who helped make ‘Grandaddy’s Highway possible.” (And Sorensen himself dedicates the book “to Donald Stover and Jan Cheripko, who made my trip on 30 West most enjoyable.”) But the book’s jacket also reveals that there’s another real-life adventure that may have played a role in Harriett Diller’s story. It reveals the plot is “loosely based on memories of her own summer nights watching the play of passing trucks’ headlights on the walls of her grandparents’ home near a Georgia highway.”

In the story, the girl and her grandfather pass through Chicago, and then approach the Mississippi River. (“Mist and river coolness rise from the brown water.”) There’s a beautiful drawing of the wide river at sunrise. And since Grandaddy needs a nap, he lets the little girl drive the truck.

Even if it is an imaginary trip, it looks like a wonderful bonding experience. They share a cup of coffee in a Nebraska diner that’s “lit up like a lightning bug in the hot night.” Grandpa lights a cigar as they ride past a Wyoming lake, and they point their truck towards the Rocky Mountains. And as the altitude gets higher, the little girl confesses that all the beautiful sights have been giving her goosebumps. There’s “The glow of town from the other side of a hill. The rattle of a train rushing off to who-knows-where.

“Wondering if the Wyoming sky is the same sky that hangs above Pennsylvania…”