These Kids Never, Never, Never Give Up

These Kids Never, Never, Never Give Up

Willems works in a cartoony vernacular, while Santat’s aesthetic is darker, near realist, so his Humpty Dumpty is an uncanny fellow, clearly an egg but one decked out in jeans and a skinny tie. The book’s illustrations are suffused with fear — scary, in fact. Humpty is quite alone on most of the pages; the urban landscape in which he dwells is one of shadows, plus that looming wall from which he famously tumbles. As the subtitle promises, the story begins postfall, Humpty so afraid now of heights he can’t sleep in his loft bed. I was so genuinely surprised by the book’s conclusion that I won’t spoil it. It’s always gratifying to see how an artist can turn even the most familiar tale into something new.

The heroines of Barbara McClintock’s “The Five Forms” and Liz Garton Scanlon’s “Another Way to Climb a Tree” are both adventurers, but even daring souls have their troubles. Scanlon’s Lulu — drawn by Hadley Hooper in a beautiful throwback style — has never met a tree she didn’t want to climb. So what to do when confined to her room on a sick day? McClintock’s unnamed protagonist is similarly game for anything, certain she can master the forms of traditional Chinese martial arts. She ends up in over her head, her body’s contortions conjuring an actual crane, leopard, snake and dragon who wreak havoc in her house.


From “Another Way to Climb a Tree.”

“Another Way to Climb a Tree” contains the ineffable thing that makes the picture book so special a form. Over repeat visits, the reader — of any age — will find and savor new details in Hooper’s pictures. And the way that Lulu solves her problem and climbs a tree, illness or not, is quite magical.

If story is less of interest in “The Five Forms,” it hardly matters; There is something irresistible about McClintock’s painterly illustrations, which are a departure from the beautiful realist style of her previous books (like last year’s “Emma and Julia Love Ballet,” an all-time favorite in my family). The new story has a comic strip’s construction, and a young reader will naturally find joy in the utter destruction the forms of the title release, as well as in how sensibly the story’s heroine deals with that mess.

One problem all kids, and people who are no longer kids, can understand is the vicissitude of mood — the way human happiness is fleeting, sadness inevitable. It takes a special writer to grapple with this and still come up with an interesting book, and Lemony Snicket is a special writer. He writes with clarity as well as complexity, and can bounce from silly to serious quickly and easily. Snicket’s wit is never at the expense of adult or child, and somehow accessible to both.

Yes, Snicket has his shtick: ponderous character names, an air of the old-fashioned, unlikely plot twists. But these are deployed to winning effect in “The Bad Mood and the Stick,” which is about a bad mood that is stuck to a girl named Curly, who picks up a stick that falls from a tree. The illustrator, Matthew Forsythe, isn’t reinventing the wheel by depicting the bad mood as a cloud, but of course, that particular wheel is perfect as it is; it’s remarkable, really, how with only a squiggly outline and a wash of color the artist creates so vivid an antihero.

Self-help books (all sorts of books, come to think of it) can almost all be distilled down to one takeaway, a few words of wisdom. To explain the inexplicable (the fickleness of mood) Snicket tells us “You never know what is going to happen.” This turn of phrase transcends being a simple moral — the closing coda of his odd story — to become something more like a mantra. Some of us are struggling with getting dressed, some yearning to climb a tree, some stuck with a bad mood, and the truest thing for all of us is that no matter what, we can’t know what’s coming. We’ve all got problems, no matter how old we are. If adults can’t step in and solve all of a child’s troubles, we can at least give them that particular reassurance. You never know what’s going to happen; life’s joy is in seeing what comes next.

Written and illustrated by Shinsuke Yoshitake
32 pp. Abrams Books for Young Readers. $12.95.
(Picture book; ages 3 to 7)

By Lemony Snicket
Illustrated by Matthew Forsythe
48 pp. Little, Brown Books for Young Readers. $17.99.
(Picture book; ages 4 to 8)

By Liz Garton Scanlon
Illustrated by Hadley Hooper
40 pp. Roaring Book Press. $17.99.
(Picture book; ages 4 to 8)

Written and illustrated by Barbara McClintock
40 pp. Farrar Straus Giroux. $17.99.
(Picture book; ages 4 to 7)

Written and illustrated by Dan Santat 40 pp.
Roaring Book Press. $17.99.
(Picture book; ages 4 to 8)

Written and illustrated by Mo Willems
48 pp. Hyperion. $17.99.
(Picture book; ages 4 to 7)

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