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“Life cereal. That’s a ballsy name, I always thought. LIFE.
‘What are we going to call this?’
‘How about Oaties? Squaries?’
‘No! This is much bigger than that. This is LIFE, I TELL YOU!’”
—Jerry Seinfeld

Forget cereal. I’d argue Life is a pretty ballsy name for a picture book. But Cynthia Rylant has officially entered the wise-reflection period of her hall-of-fame career and is clearly (and gloriously) intimidated by nothing. So her latest book (is it her latest? Rylant puts out great books at a Yolen-esque clip) tackles a topic no less grand than existence itself. Freshly minted Caldecott Honor–winner Brendan Wenzel (They All Saw a Cat) provides the mixed-media visuals. As the book goes forward, it balances, impressively, a number of contrasts — it’s deep yet accessible, rich yet unburdened, sophisticated yet elemental — and crosses the finish line not haggard, but glowing.

This is going to sound like a dumb comment coming from a former member of a Caldecott committee, but I can’t find any smarter way to say it: I like picture books that are trying to do picture book-y stuff. Okay, a slightly smarter-sounding second attempt: I’m impressed when illustrations find subtle ways to expand the text. If the illustrations aren’t expanding on the story or theme, no one is going to get excited about them. If my experience on the committee has taught me anything (aside from “Snacks Will Unite Us All”), it’s that committee members have to be excited in order to push the book into the award zone. Wenzel’s illustrations provide the flourishes that will give the committee something to talk about, something to excitedly point to and say, “This! This is excellence in pictorial interpretation of story and theme. This of a sign of a distinguished book!”

Over and over in Life, Wenzel seizes opportunities to interpret the text in delightfully unexpected ways. These moments often happen outside the margins of the “main” illustration. Like the one depicting four separate animals in small vignette illustrations (“trust the rabbit in the field and the deer who crosses your path …”). Dude could have just gone with the four vignette illustrations. But no, he also created a little scene at the very bottom of the page, a sort of gradient in nature form, that shows the habitats of each animal. This is the sort of thing that can elevate a book above its peers, and it happens often in Life.

One of my first reactions when first encountering this book was wondering how Wenzel’s often playful artwork would pair with this (I assumed) serious text. It turned out to be an excellent match. Wenzel’s art has a richness that matches the weight of the topic, but it also has an inherent humor that doesn’t allow a book called Life to take itself too seriously.

Life. Bold name. But when a book is this masterfully executed, any other name just seems too small. I wish I could sit in when the committee discusses this one.

Read the Horn Book Guide review of Life.

Travis Jonker About Travis Jonker

Michigan elementary-school librarian Travis Jonker is the author of the 100 Scope Notes blog. Follow him on Twitter: @100scopenotes.



  1. Ha! LOVE that Seinfeld quote entry point!!! And love this entire masterful review from one of children literature’s most passionate luminaries! Oh yes, I feel I must add this too: I LOVE “Life” and consider Brendan Wenzel one of your finest young artists. But heck, who doesn’t? I saw this book shortly after released and I had it pegged as a major player in the Caldecott exploration. Like 100% of the children’s book community I thought “They All Saw A Cat” an instant masterpiece, a book with one of the most brilliant concepts ever transcribed to a picture book. Cynthia Rylant’s festive “The Relatives Came” won a Calddecott Honotr for Stephen Gammell’s irresitible art, and it has remained a personal favorite for years. In “Life” she aces the minimalist avenue, giving Wenzel a plethora of ravishing geographical options. Plenty of gorgeous spreads and vignettes, with my favorite the safari panorama spurred by “And there is always a new road to take.” Yes I agree that giving the title “Life” to any creative venture is rather “ballsy.” Heck I thought that a long time ago when I first came upon the board came whose makers has the temerity to use the ultimate all-encompassing label to increase sales. Rylant’s performance validates the choice and Wenzel, brings warmth and character to all his tapestries. Have to love that homage to his Caldecott Honor winner too over “in the corner of the world, there is something to love.” canvas.

    Another fabulous book. Another stupendous qualification review by Mr. Jonker. What else is new at the Horn Book these days? 🙂

  2. Susan Dailey says:


    Thanks for your insights. I love the cover of this book–the look and feel of it. (When did covers start having texture?) However, I’m not in love with the title being on the left-hand side of the double-page title spread. I commented in an earlier posting that I’m noticing double-page title spreads for the first this year. I like this new trend, but I still want the title to be on the right side. A very minor quibble, but something I noticed.

  3. Amy Lilien-Harper says:

    I think this a perfect example of both illustrations that enhance and extend the text, as mentioned above, and the creation of a picture book that always has more to notice. Every time I look at this book, I find new and interesting things that I missed earlier. I love the use of texture, the flow of the book, and the visual variety of layouts. The way that Wenzel varies the shapes of his frames and goes from single page to full-bleed spreads adds interest and invites page turns. This book is sumptuous with so much to look at, and it makes me want to just keep going back–which to me is the true mark of a great picture book.

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