Philosophical meditations

Those big, sometimes unanswerable questions of life may seem daunting to discuss as adults, and yet they are often subjects that pique children’s curiosity. These six fiction and nonfiction picture books introduce philosophy concepts in a kid-friendly manner. See also the Philosophy tag in the Guide/Reviews Database for more recommendations.

Twenty Questions
by Mac Barnett; illus. by Christian Robinson
Preschool    Candlewick    40 pp.
3/23    9781536215137    $17.99

This conversation-starting picture book presents a series of questions and invites children to supply the answers. The first spread asks viewers to count the number of animals pictured, with Robinson depicting a creature-filled tree and a bear and elephant at its base. The next spread, featuring a tiger partially concealed by jungle leaves, adds an element of delicious mischief: “How many animals can you not see in this one, because they’re hiding from the tiger?” There’s much more mischief: someone has just robbed a bank (“which of these ladies” did it?); bandits bury a treasure (and “what would you do if you found it?”); there’s a mysterious beast in a bathtub (what kind?); and more. Some questions give simple options, one spread showing three sleeping children with Barnett’s text asking which one dreams of peaches. Others are open-ended, making them a good match for creative writing prompts. For instance, a woman stands atop a cliff next to the question: “Who is she waiting for?” Robinson’s textured mixed-media collages provide just enough detail and sometimes pose visual questions that the text doesn’t even touch on. How, for instance, did the snake get in the tennis shoe pictured on the cover? Even the endpapers are a delight, Robinson turning everyday objects (a banana, a mug) into question marks. This is creative, interactive picture-book fun, without question. JULIE DANIELSON

by Annie Barrows; illus. by Leo Espinosa
Preschool, Primary    Chronicle    40 pp.
9/22    9781452163376    $17.99

“You are you, and I am I. We are people…This makes us different from most of the things on Earth.” Head crowned with a mass of brown curly hair, this book’s narrator speaks directly to readers, guiding them through several silly yet thought-provoking comparisons. Do humans have anything in common with tin cans? No. “We are not shaped like tin cans. We cannot hold tomato sauce like tin cans.” Humans have some minor similarities to swimming pools (water) and excavators (digging, but not as efficiently), but a person is “way more like a mushroom” and has even more in common with a hyena. Barrows’s (the Ivy + Bean chapter books) straightforward text seems at first to be an exercise in comparing living and nonliving things, but it’s ultimately a lesson in empathy toward our fellow humans. “I am more like you than I am like most of the things on Earth.” Espinosa’s (The World Belonged to Us, rev. 7/22) bold, blocky, and vibrant illustrations enhance the text’s humor and heart with the punch of a pop-art palette. A compelling thought-experiment with a powerful, effective, and timely message. GRACE MCKINNEY

We Go Way Back
by Idan Ben-Barak; illus. by Philip Bunting
Primary    Roaring Brook    40 pp.
2/23    9781250850799    $18.99
e-book ed.  9781250291868    $10.99

Ben-Barak and Bunting have impressively produced a thought-provoking, scientifically precise, and accessible explanation of the origins of life and evolution across Earth’s history for a young audience. Ideas about life, time, and heredity are conveyed through friendly illustrations and simple sentences (albeit with some sophisticated vocabulary). The book opens with questions that children may ask about their human families and histories: “What is life?” “How did I get it?” A deceptively modest reply, its last phrase repeated throughout the book, serves as an organizing concept as the origins of cellular organisms are explained: “Life Is the Way That Some Things Make More Things That Are a Lot Like Themselves but Sometimes a Little Bit Different.” In the final pages, a gorgeous gatefold illustration invites readers to spot familiar plants and creatures (including a human) and trace their paths back to the first cell — a “very clever little bubble.” If readers pause to let the statements sink in and look closely at the details in the finely crafted illustrations, they’ll find clever subtleties that invite further contemplation about what makes “all of us.” DANIELLE J. FORD

All the Beating Hearts
by Julie Fogliano; illus. by Cátia Chien
Primary    Porter/Holiday    40 pp.
1/23    9780823452163    $18.99
e-book ed.  9780823455201    $11.99

“Each day starts with the sun.” Fogliano (My Best Friend, rev. 3/20) and Chien (The Bear and the Moon, rev. 11/20) use the cycle of a day as a frame for their meditation on existence. Fogliano’s prose is at once straightforward and poetic, talking about the routines that make up our days — eating, dressing, playing, whiling away time. Chien’s impressionistic pastel and colored-pencil illustrations have a soothing fluidity, but their vibrant colors and textures add a bracing note of contrast. A dream sequence in the middle of the book delves deeply (“and for a little while there / we are all just hearts / beating in the darkness / strong and steady and sure”), and the illustrations follow suit, losing form and taking on a more surreal cast for a few pages. While the text occasionally leans toward New Agey affirmations, Fogliano couches her words in everyday experiences children can understand and even acknowledges loss (“and some things / will die”). Chien’s illustrations have an inviting childlike quality in their use of color and in the images and backgrounds, preventing the whole from feeling too highfalutin. Similar in scope and tone to Scanlon and Frazee’s All the World (rev. 9/09), this book gives kids something to ponder. ADRIENNE L. PETTINELLI

All About Nothing
by Elizabeth Rusch; illus. by Elizabeth Goss
Preschool, Primary    Charlesbridge    32 pp.
4/23    9781623543525    $17.99
e-book ed.  9781632893222    $9.99

Rusch’s thought-provoking text begins: “Nothing is the space around and between everything.” The presence of nothing, cued by plain white areas in the cut-paper illustrations, appears first as physical space: the gap where a tooth once sat, the expanse between stars in the sky, the space for a missing puzzle piece. Important, too, is nothing as temporal space: the moment before a leap of faith or a bit of spare time in one’s day. Even in music, room for nothing fosters beauty: “For what is a song without some silence?” There can be, of course, too much or too little of nothing. On these spreads in particular, Goss’s use of color and space makes a strong emotional impact: a queasy-green child sandwiched between tightly packed adults in a crowd finds “too little” of nothing, while a blue-hued child sulks surrounded by “too much” of nothing amid a stark white double-page spread. Wherever nothing is found, there is space for something to unfurl. Goss’s intricate illustrations visually articulate the importance of nothing, or negative space, as discussed in the back matter. A striking call for young children and aspiring artists alike, the story sets out to prove that “nothing” matters, after all. GRACE MCKINNEY

In Between
by April Pulley Sayre and Jeff Sayre; photos by the authors
Primary   Beach Lane/Simon    40 pp.
3/23    9781534487819    $18.99
e-book ed.  9781534487826    $10.99

With a poetic text and sharp, uncluttered photographs, the Sayres examine transitions in the natural world — transitions from physical spaces as well as those between states of being. The initial double-page spread sets the stage: “Every creature / on earth / at times / finds / itself / in / between.” A stark white background encourages scrutiny of the accompanying photograph of three chicks, “in between” birth and maturity, lined up in a nest located inside the V of two intersecting rafters. Other spreads, composed of two, three, or four images, create similar tableaux with layers of meaning; text placement expands the viewing experience. The authors gradually introduce synonyms; readers see a pair of birds with eyes just about closed, “almost asleep, / but not yet”; and see a duckling flapping its wings, as “in the meanwhiles” it grows stronger. Ideal for a group read-aloud, this book encourages discussion of personal “in betweens.” BETTY CARTER

From the February 2023 issue of Notes from the Horn Book.

Horn Book
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