Doing things with Dad

Celebrate Father’s Day on June 20 by sharing the following recent picture books about fathers and children enjoying the natural world, building things together, and helping others. Find more book recommendations and links from the Horn Book here; and don’t miss our Five Questions interview with Matt Ringler about Strollercoaster.

My Two Border Towns
by David Bowles; illus. by Erika Meza
Primary    Kokila/Penguin    40 pp.    g
8/21    978-0-593-11104-8    $17.99
Spanish ed.  978-0-593-32507-0    $17.99

A sleepy boy is nudged awake by his father for a routine Saturday trip, heading across the U.S.–Mexico border to “el Otro Lado.” As they reach the Rio Grande, the father reminds his son of the Indigenous history of the land, now divided, the flag of each nation visible on opposite banks of the broad river. Once across, father and son visit their favorite restorán for breakfast; then, with mercado bags in hand, begin their errands, stopping by brightly colored shops (such as Tio Mateo’s jewelry store) and picking up prescriptions, bottled water, T-shirts, sweets, and other items on their list. The trip culminates in a visit to their “gente” — families camping out on the side of the bridge, hoping to enter the U.S. — for whom most of the items on their list were purchased. Meza’s gleaming watercolor and gouache illustrations magnify Bowles’s bittersweet tone, capturing the compassion in the pair’s venture and the underlying tension at the border in the expressions of soldiers and refugees. Spanglish (“troca”; “my primos”) and shop signs in Spanish and English emphasize how culturally interconnected border towns are. With lyrical text (the Rio Grande is “a watery serpent that glints with the dawn”), novelist Bowles’s picture-book debut weaves weightier realities into a story of ordinary border-town life, and does so with a gentle hand. Waving goodbye to their friends, the father and son return home as the sunset washes the scenery with warm pinks, leaving no doubt that the dedicated pair will carry on their duty as long as the hopeful migrants wait. Concurrently published in Spanish as Mis dos pueblos fronterizos. JESSICA AGUDELO

The Great Whipplethorp Bug Collection
by Ben Brashares; illus. by Elizabeth Bergeland
Primary    Little, Brown    40 pp.    g
4/21    978-0-316-53825-1    $18.99

When Chuck decides he’s “bored enough” to accept his dad’s suggestion to start unpacking boxes in their new home, he discovers he’s descended from a long line of explorers and scientists. Among them is his grandfather Charles Van Velsor Whipplethorp III, who was a “famed entomologist and world traveler.” In comparison, Chuck’s data-analyst dad seems rather dull. “The great Whipplethorp men, it appeared, were getting…a lot less great,” reads the droll text. Chuck’s dad good-naturedly accepts his son’s mild disdain and encourages him in his efforts to emulate his grandfather’s study of insects. Here, Bergeland’s art excels, as Chuck imagines himself shrunk to the size of a beetle while preparing to capture and kill one for display. His second thoughts about the project provoke a creative solution (which wins accolades from his dad) and change his perspective on what it means to be great. Throughout, human characters are rendered in pencil, their forms incorporating the white of the page. Setting and insects, meanwhile, are illustrated with pencil and watercolor. The result is a distinctive style, and the play with scale evokes Kevin Hawkes’s depictions of children shrunk, surrounded by mammoth flora, in Paul Fleischman’s Weslandia (rev. 3/99). And just as with that book, Brashares’s wise, warm tale delivers a lesson about individuality, belonging, and progress without resorting to preachiness. MEGAN DOWD LAMBERT

Night Walk
by Sara O’Leary; illus. by Ellie Arscott
Preschool, Primary    Groundwood    32 pp.    g
9/20    978-1-55498-796-2    $18.95
e-book ed.  978-1-55498-797-9    $16.95

“Can’t sleep?” asks the narrator’s dad. “Come on, we’ll go for a walk” — and the two set off into the night. This small adventure, described in the child’s observant voice, is a lovely, calming exploration of the idea of home. As they walk through their neighborhood, the child notices that she and her father are not the only ones up and about. Through a window above the corner store, she sees the “sad-looking” store owner joyfully reaching for a baby. Now the narrator realizes not only that the woman “wasn’t always sad” but that the store is also a home. She looks into well-lit windows, observes that each streetlamp creates its own island of light, and marvels that so many people are out this late. Throughout, her observations make it clear how fresh and new her neighborhood feels, while still remaining comfortingly familiar. “I belong here, and here belongs to me.” Arscott’s watercolor and ink illustrations are as fresh and comfortable as the story. Realistic details create the homey setting: Dad sports a T-shirt and jeans, the narrator wears a puffy red vest over her pajamas. The dark blues of the night are punctuated by warm spots of light from windows and streetlamps in a diverse, compact city neighborhood with businesses, apartment buildings, houses, and an expansive park. The satisfying bedtime story will get young listeners ready for sleep with the calming final sentence, “I am home.” Pair with Denos and Goodale’s Windows and Cole and Gómez’s City Moon (both rev. 11/17). MAEVE VISSER KNOTH

Seeking an Aurora
by Elizabeth Pulford; illus. by Anne Bannock
Primary    Blue Dot Kids    32 pp.    g
1/21    978-1-7331212-7-9    $17.95

A story from New Zealand about a rare natural wonder. A father awakens his child late at night to “find an Aurora.” The child asks, “What’s an Aurora?” but Dad doesn’t explain, prompting many guesses. The pair enters the cold and climbs to the top of a hill far enough away that they lose sight of their farm. As in Yolen and Schoenherr’s Owl Moon, they then wait quietly. Soon auroral light illuminates the sky, leaving the child speechless and wide-eyed. With the first glimpse of colors, the child, wearing a bright yellow coat, stands page left, mouth open, marveling at the “wide wings of light,” while the background displays deep shades of blues, purples, pinks, reds, and oranges, with a few stars overhead. The following page shows swirling colors, while the words, mostly gerunds suggesting motion, mimic the contours and flow of the light. In the third aurora image, only distant silhouettes of father and child appear as they celebrate this amazing, color-filled sky, arms raised. The soft ­pastels perfectly complement the story (particularly this three-page climax) because of the ability to smudge and blend colors, evoke movement, and highlight the rough texture of the paper. Informative back matter answers many questions the child asks about auroras. A stunningly beautiful, informative, child’s-eye initiation into a notable celestial phenomenon. MICHELLE H. MARTIN

Carpenter’s Helper
by Sybil Rosen; illus. by Camille Garoche
Primary    Schwartz & Wade/Random    40 pp.    g
3/21    978-0-593-12320-1    $17.99
Library ed.  978-0-593-12321-8    $20.99
e-book ed.  978-0-593-12322-5    $10.99

It is spring, and Renata is helping Papi renovate the bathroom. They cut a hole in the wall where the new window will go, and one night Papi leaves the hole open. The next morning, Renata finds dried leaves and pine needles in a heap on the bathroom shelf; a wren flies in and continues building. Renata watches the papa wren make a nest. The mama wren arrives and lays her eggs, and Renata and Papi pause their construction project while the wren family grows. When the baby birds are finally ready to fly, they need a bit of help to make it to the window, and Renata uses her carpentry smarts to save the day. The story blends building and nature-watching in a unique and engaging way: the building project forms a relatable backdrop (Renata can’t wait to use the old-fashioned tub they’re installing) and parallel to the nature story, which takes center stage. The digitally colored pencil illustrations use a variety of compositions, including spreads and small vignettes, to carry readers through a detailed experience with the humans’ carpentry project (“Renata…holds a board while he nails it into place. This board will brace the wall when he cuts the hole for the window frame”), and then the wrens’ nest-building (“First he lays down a floor, a cozy cradle for eggs. Three thick sides go up next”). Renata is a protagonist whose wonder and curiosity shine throughout, and readers will gladly share in her unexpected encounters with these small visitors, who are, as Renata declares, carpenters too. AUTUMN ALLEN

Hello, Jimmy!
by Anna Walker; illus. by the author
Primary    Clarion    40 pp.    g
2/21    978-0-358-19358-6    $17.99
e-book ed.  978-0-358-36090-2    $12.99

Jack doesn’t live with his dad full time, and lately when he stays with him, the house seems especially quiet. Although the text never uses the word depressed, this seems an apt description of Dad’s state at the beginning of this story, which explores a wide range of emotions through expressive art. Then a green parrot named Jimmy appears on the doorstep during a storm. The bird’s presence immediately enlivens the interior scenes of Dad’s home with bursts of color and energy. Dad gets a kick out of Jimmy, but Jack feels jealous, and he’s annoyed by the parrot’s antics. A dreamscape, notable for how much busier and more vibrant it is than previous spreads, shows Jack’s bedroom overrun by birds, which he dispatches by opening a window. When Jack awakens, the window actually is open, and a bright green feather rests on the sill. Without waking his dad, Jack puts on a red hoodie (à la Little Red Riding Hood) and ventures out into the rain to search for Jimmy. He doesn’t encounter any wolves, but he seems lost and hopeless in an affecting image where his small form huddles at the base of a tree. Then across the spread strides Dad, umbrella aloft. The page-turn shows Dad wrapping Jack in an embrace, and closing scenes offer a hopeful portrayal of how Jimmy has changed their lives and how he might surprise them again. MEGAN DOWD LAMBERT

From the June 2021 issue of Notes from the Horn Book.

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