‘I’m Here,’ Outside Says. ‘I Miss You.’
‘I’m Here,’ Outside Says. ‘I Miss You.’
I spent most of my childhood outside, climbing trees and wading through creeks with my brother in the South Australian bush. We rarely went barefoot, for fear of bindi grass, like shards of glass. We shook out our boots for fear of funnel-web, redback and huntsman spiders. We never sat down without checking first for snakes, and always kept an eye on the sky for bombarding magpies. As my Brooklyn-raised son once said, the Australian outdoors is beautiful but it sort of wants to kill you.
Not so the outdoors depicted in five new picture books, where nature is kind and gentle, protective and welcoming.
The warning DO NOT RAKE YOUR GARDEN IN A PARTY DRESS (Cameron Books, 32 pp., $16.95; ages 5 to 7) precedes a chain of whimsical consequences in this pretty, airy picture book by Aimée Bissonette, illustrated by Kelly Pousette. A doll-like child preparing for an outdoor tea party in the aforementioned dress is caught in a gust of wind and tossed into the clouds, then deposited by a bald eagle into its nest of fuzzy fledglings, from which she free-falls through tall trees filled with chirping bluebirds and cute squirrels into a pond where her dress becomes a parachute and she frolics with otters. Guests imminent, dress ruined, she changes into sensible overalls in time to greet her friends, who assemble demurely for the salvaged party.
Pousette’s digital collage illustrations are decorative and sweet, and the reminder that things don’t always go as planned is a good one, but as a child I might have hoped for a more exuberant payoff than the polite picnic we get at the end. I also might have worried that there was only one teacup and saucer between eight kids. We take tea seriously in Australia.
In UNDER THE LILACS (HMH Books for Young Readers, 32 pp., $17.99; ages 4 to 7), by E. B. Goodale, a child called Kate is banished by her mother, who is teaching a flute lesson across the hall, then banished by her older sister, who is busy singing to the mirror in their shared bedroom. Filled with the mix of indignation and self-pity familiar to us all, she leaves her mother a note to let her know she’s running away and waits hopefully for maternal remorse. When none is forthcoming, she really does run away, but before long her wallowing is replaced with determination and ingenuity, and she builds herself a nifty home under the neighbor’s lilacs.
Goodale’s richly textured, cozy illustrations are made with digital collage over ink monoprints, and are full of the details kids love; she shows the cardboard, duct tape, sticks and string it takes to make the house (revealed to be a replica of her real house), which Kate gradually expands to accommodate her whole family and her mother’s flute student. This story of a child’s conflicting desire for independence and need to feel loved will especially resonate with families living in closer-than-usual quarters. Hoping some of you have access to cardboard, duct tape and a garden.
A NEW GREEN DAY (Neal Porter Books, 40 pp., $18.99; ages 3 to 7), by Antoinette Portis, begins with an invitation from the sun: a warm square on the pillow of a sleeping child. On each recto, a square of a different color contains a riddle, begging us to turn the page to reveal the identity of the speaker. “I’m a comma in the long, long sentence of the stream.” In the image that follows, we see a black tadpole swishing its tail. “I’m a map of my own green home. Follow my roads and climb.” In the picture, the veins of a leaf held in the foreground are echoed in a tree’s branches in the background. This poetic conversation with nature over the course of a new green day is friendly and familiar and fresh and surprising, and Portis’s evocative illustrations made with sumi ink, vine charcoal and leaf prints are as elegant and perfectly composed as a snail.
If “A New Green Day” opens our eyes and makes ordinary things seem extraordinary, SUMMER SONG (Greenwillow Books, 40 pp., $18.99; ages 4 to 8), written by Kevin Henkes and illustrated by Laura Dronzek, opens our ears. Henkes and Dronzek make the sounds of summer — the lawn mowers, the sprinklers, the birds and the crickets — so vibrant we almost hear colors. Summer has never hummed so brightly. There is the gray of a foggy morning and the blue of the sea, but summer’s predominant color is green. “Green on green on green. Summer is a green song.” Dronzek’s illustrations alternate between full spreads and small vignettes painted in brilliant acrylic-like birthday-cake frosting. We follow four diverse friends as they lie in meadows, chase fireflies, walk their dogs and look for frogs.
Toward the end of “Summer Song” (which is the final in a quartet of books by Henkes and Dronzek that celebrate the seasons), summer “gets bored and wants to try something new, something different.” For a moment we feel wistful, but then we remember all the delights in store in the fall.
The snail in OUTSIDE IN (HMH Books for Young Readers, 40 pp., $17.99, ages 4 to 7), written by Deborah Underwood and illustrated by Cindy Derby, was painted using watercolor, and possibly thread soaked in ink, and maybe even the impression of a flower stem. Derby’s illustrations feel alive and look damp, mysterious and wonderfully out of control. Underwood’s text explores our relationship with nature in a series of quietly profound observations. That the cotton clothes we wear and the wooden chair we’re sitting in were once part of Outside. That even if we’re stuck inside, Outside reminds us of its presence with birdsong and sunlight. For those of us who have been indoors for a long time, this book is a comforting reminder that Outside will be there for us when we’re ready. “I’m here, Outside says. I miss you. Outside waits … and we answer.”
I hope our children can soon close their screens and head outside to climb trees and wade in streams. In the meantime, books such as these serve as a happy reminder of, and an advertisement for, the wonders of the natural world.
Sophie Blackall’s next picture book, “If You Come to Earth,” will be published in the fall.