Life, by Cynthia Rylant and Brendan Wenzel
“Life begins small…
Then it grows.”
So begins Cynthia Rylant’s new picture book, Life, a celebration of creation from hawk to elephant, tortoise to rabbit. With very spare text and large paintings of wide-eyed animals on every page, Ms. Rylant has authored a volume that is only seemingly for children. The wisdom of this book would also be meaningful for graduates or for thoughtful adults. One passage reads, “Life is not always easy… but wilderness eventually ends,” as a bird flies out of a dark forest, looking warily back over his shoulder.
My son grew up on the heartwarming “Henry and Mudge” series by Cynthia Rylant, which is still just as popular as ever. She has also written the “Mr. Putter and Tabby” series and many stand-alone titles, such as the Caldecott Honor book, When the Relatives Came. When I had the opportunity to hear Brendan Wenzel describe his process (above) for the illustrations in Life, he owned that he was very aware of the honor of working with an icon in children’s literature.
After the Simon & Schuster breakfast at Book Expo, Mr. Wenzel kindly took the time to sign my copy of his book. Artists are the best for autographs. Here is Brendan Wenzel’s “signature” in my copy of Life.
Town Is by the Sea, by Joanne Schwartz and Sydney Smith
A young boy lives in a seaside town based on Joanne Schwartz’s home town of Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. Although his view of the sea is sparkling and white-capped, the boy is ever aware of the fact that his father is in a tunnel underneath the sea, digging for coal. The main character narrates his day for the reader by telling us “how it goes,” as in the morning, when he says, “When I wake up, it goes like this….” Whether he plays with his friend or goes to the market for his mother, his mind is on his father, working in the darkness. Muted scenes of ivory and green with thick, black outlines are periodically punctuated with a mostly-black double-page spread of the miners underground. The text ends with “One day, it will be my turn. In my town, that’s the way it goes.”
We lived in eastern Kentucky for a number of years, and the scenes that we saw in October Sky, the movie based on Homer Hickam’s book, Rocket Boys, came to life for us. Coal mining is the destiny of most of the men this part of Appalachia, and although many ministries and government agencies are working to create alternative means of income for the families there, most boys will go underground at a young age, dwell in darkness for years, and die too soon of accidents or lung disease. Ms. Schwartz saw the same inevitable ending for the boys in her town, and the cadence of her prose expresses the relentless despair of life in a mining family. When the library copies of this book came in, I read one at my desk and wept.
For the first time this year, the Boston Globe- Horn Book Award winners were announced at the end of SLJ’s Day of Dialog, and Sydney Smith won an honor for his illustrations in Town Is by the Sea. Immediately following the announcement, we attendees boarded the elevator to go upstairs to the book signings. Just as the door was about to close on our full elevator, Sydney Smith rushed up and said, “Is there room for me?” We all said yes, and when the door closed, we yelled, “Congratulations!” and “Yay!” It was probably the best elevator ride ever. Once we arrived on the tenth floor, I was the first one in line for an autograph, so I will share with you the lovely drawing Sydney Smith whipped up in an amazing few seconds for the very first Town Is by the Sea to be autographed after it won a Boston Globe-Horn Book award.
Disclaimer: I read copies of these two books that I received at Book Expo (Life) and SLJ’s Day of Dialog (Town Is by the Sea). Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.