A New Green Day

Before I had children, I had it all planned out. Thanks to my chosen occupation (children’s librarian), I already had a house filled with picture books of all kinds. I knew the literature. I knew which books would appeal to one age range or another. I was book-smart about children’s reading habits. Then I had my own kids and found myself taking a crash course on a topic that those years working a children’s reference desk had ill prepared me for. It turns out that you can fill your house with every book under the sun, but at no time will you ever be able to predict what titles speak to the heart and mind of one child or another. I have such loving childhood memories of reading picture books with grand, sweeping illustrations. This is art that, on some level, would find its ways into my dreams and memories. I wanted to give that experience to my own children, but I discovered quickly that books from my youth weren’t always the way to go. Sometimes you have to select a new title that can appeal to both older and younger children simultaneously. A book unafraid to be both beautiful and clever. Something along the lines of A New Green Day by Antoinette Portis.

As an author/illustrator, Portis has always excelled in reducing complexity to its most essential parts. She debuted with Not a Box back in 2006, for which she received a Geisel Honor. Since that time she has gone on to explore varying levels of complexity in her art, while always keeping the text of her tales young. She is one of the very rare authors out there working exclusively with stories that explore a kind of pre-K mindset in the heart and art of her stories. A New Green Day might be the first to skew slightly older than this usual fare. Each page features a riddle. “I’m a candy sucked smooth in the river’s mouth. Let me sweeten your pocket” — turn the page — “says pebble.” These sophisticated riddles are matched by squares of beautiful art. Hand-stamped lettering, unique textures, leaf prints, sumi ink, and vine charcoal work together to produce art that can be called nothing short of evocative. Or, as the New York Times said it best, as “elegant and perfectly composed as a snail.”

Notable too is the fact that the book is not simply a random assortment of objects and ideas. It takes care to follow the course of a summer day. The ending comes to a close amid crickets and shadows (“a black coat / slipped around / Earth’s shoulders”). With an intensity worthy of its young audience, the pages invoke the best parts of summer, bringing them to life with all the mystery and wonder they may entail. It’s as if Ms. Portis is attempting to freeze those moments a child experiences firsthand into striking squares of color and light. For some of us, memories are an odd mix of truth and what we were read during our formative years. Portis may well be giving children the canvas that will guide their future remembrances of summers past.

As this piece runs, it is the day after Election Day. I wrote this piece in the past — but knew this post would appear at a tempestuous time (to say the least). Let us hope that this book helps to usher in new green days. Days of familiar yet mysterious moments, great grand feats of nature, and times that can be appreciated in those small, perfect squares that are otherwise known as the pages of a book.

Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is collection development manager of the Evanston (IL) Public Library and former youth materials specialist of the New York Public Library. She reviews for Kirkus and blogs for SLJ at A Fuse #8 Production. She is the author of Giant Dance Party (Greenwillow) and co-authored (with Julie Danielson and Peter D. Sieruta), Wild Things!: Acts of Mischief in Children’s Literature.

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