Reviews of the 2021 Boston Globe–Horn Book Picture Book Award Winner and Honor Books

Picture Book Winner

I Talk like a River
by Jordan Scott; illus. by Sydney Smith
Primary    Porter/Holiday    40 pp.
9/20    978-0-8234-4559-2    $18.99

In this lyrical and empowering picture book, Canadian poet Scott tells a story based on his own experiences as a boy who stuttered. In simple, evocative language, he captures the isolation, social devastation, and self-doubt of a child who feels incapable of communicating his thoughts and offers an affirming way to think about difference. As the boy’s dad picks him up from school one day and takes him for a walk by the river to de-stress and relax, the narrative goes beyond the calming solace found in the natural world to make a more profound comparison and connection. The man reassures his son that his speech is like a river. Using this imagery and language, the boy is able to think about his dysfluency in a new way, realizing that sometimes his speech is “bubbling, whirling, churning, and crashing”; sometimes calm and smooth, just like the ever-shifting waters of the river. Smith’s (Town Is by the Sea, rev. 3/17; Small in the City, rev. 11/19) verdant and light-infused paintings pack an emotional punch and provide the perfect complement to the poet’s words. The varied layouts and dazzling spreads keep the boy center stage and lovingly framed. An expressive double-page close-up of the boy’s face opens to a spectacularly effective gatefold of the child in the embrace of the river’s sparkling water (Smith captures the play of light on water like nobody else). I Talk like a River is not mere bibliotherapy; it is instead a meditation for all children on self-acceptance, finding one’s voice, and reconsidering what is labeled as normative. An important and unforgettable offering presented with natural beauty and grace. LUANN TOTH

From the November/December 2020 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

 

Honor Books

I Am Every Good Thing
by Derrick Barnes; illus. by Gordon C. James
Preschool, Primary    Paulsen/Penguin    32 pp.    g
9/20    978-0-525-51877-8    $17.99
e-book ed.  978-0-525-51878-5    $10.99

Barnes and James reunite, after the multi-award-winning success of Crown (rev. 11/17), for this beautiful and necessary book that affirms Black boys and their right to thrive. James’s vibrant oil-paint illustrations harmoniously depict Black boys in motion, in contemplation, and in full vitality as they skateboard, swim, or stand contemplatively in the outdoors. Barnes’s refrain throughout the book of “I am” (“I am a roaring flame of creativity. / I am a lightning round of questions, and / a star-filled sky of solutions”) is a powerful, present-tense reminder that normalizes the robust lives Black boys deserve to live, in stark contrast to the dedication page, which lists a number of murdered Black men and boys, many of whom were denied their own boyhoods. I Am Every Good Thing lets Black boys know they are loved and valued just as they are, with unlimited possibilities. Movingly, one boy affirms for himself and for the reader, “I am not what they might call me, / and I will not answer to any name that is not my own.” Fortunately, Barnes and James provide us with a range of powerful, positive names to call Black boys as they urge us to see them, to love them, and to let them live their lives as they deserve. KIM PARKER

From the September/October 2020 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

Watercress
by Andrea Wang; illus. by Jason Chin
Primary    Porter/Holiday    32 pp.    g
3/21    978-0-8234-4624-7    $18.99
e-book ed.  978-0-8234-5054-1    $11.99

Transcending space and time, memories bring a Chinese American family together. A girl in cutoffs and a T-shirt is embarrassed when her parents stop the car to pick wild watercress growing by the side of the road; she doesn’t understand why her family has to be so different from everyone else. At dinner, she refuses to even taste the watercress. But when her mother shares the story of her family’s difficult past in China, the girl learns to view the food on her table with new appreciation and understanding. Together, the girl and her family make “a new memory of watercress,” ending the story on an optimistic note. Chin’s expressive watercolors create their own narratives to complement the different layers of Wang’s story. On one double-page spread, the illustration delivers devastating information only implied by the text. Another spread visually connects the family’s present and past: as readers’ eyes move from left to right across the gutter, they experience two completely different spaces and times — cornstalk morphs into bamboo, and the scene changes from Ohio to China, present to past. Chin’s smooth visual transition cleverly disturbs and dissolves the barrier created by the gutter and bridges the two worlds. Inspired by Wang’s own memories as the child of Chinese immigrants (as revealed in the closing author’s note), this quietly affecting book encourages honesty, communication, and sharing of family history. WEILEEN WANG

From the March/April 2021 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

 

The 2021 Boston Globe–Horn Book Award winners and honors were announced on June 23rd, 2021. For reviews of the other winning titles and more, click on the tag BGHB21.

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