Oregon’s Best New Children’s Books

The recent crop boasts poetry, biographies, and a Mo Willems stamp of approval.

By Fiona McCann November 20, 2017 Published in the December 2017 issue of Portland Monthly

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Image: Michael Novak

Greek characters making friends. Bad seeds and their backstories. An Italian piano inventor, a sick boy and a mouse, and a button that does nothing or everything: Oregon children’s literature right now is vibrant and ranging and bursting with color and character.

Last year gave us some attention-grabbing additions to the local kid-lit canon. Vera Brosgol borrowed from traditional folk and astrophysics to talk about personal space in Leave Me Alone. In Music Is ..., illustrated by Portlander Amy Martin (also the associate art director at this magazine), a diverse cast of characters enjoyed music in various forms and at various volumes. And Oregon Reads Alouda collection released to mark the 25th anniversary of the statewide literacy nonprofit SMART (Start Making a Reader Today), showcased a staggering wealth of local authors and illustrators telling stories about everything from Bigfoot to the Pendleton Round-Up.

Now 2017 has shaken out another satchel-full of literary delights for tiny-eyed Oregonians. Take Portlander Charise Mericle Harper, who received the coveted (also lucrative) Mo Willems stamp of approval for The Good for Nothing Button! (May 2017, Disney-Hyperion) released as the third in Willems’s “Elephant & Piggie Like Reading” series. Starring three primary-colored and extremely animated birds, it’s the story of a button that, when pressed, does absolutely nothing. Or everything, depending on your avian perspective. This nonfunctional prop inspires an emotional gamut, and the book wins with clever wordplay and a satisfyingly upbeat conclusion. It’s bookended by Willems’s Gerald and Piggie, who declare themselves superfans of a book not stylistically distant from their own oeuvre.

Jory John finds a more muted palette in The Bad Seed (August 2017, HarperCollins), while mining some pretty big topics. How do life experiences shape us, and what can we do about it? What constitutes bad behavior? This and more is explored in John’s funny and poignant book, which follows the eponymous seed through defining, dark moments to transformative decisions and a new identity. Add spitting, discarded gum, smelly feet, and a portapotty, and kids will be invested, even if the inbuilt pun flies above their pay grade. Should it win hearts in your home, it’s worth considering John’s Come Home Already! (December 2017, HarperCollins). The latest in the author’s ... Already! series, it returns to the theme of unrequited friendship as Bear leaves Duck behind for a week’s fishing trip. The irrepressible Duck, unsurprisingly, has feelings. 

Feelings abound in Mrs. McBee Leaves Room 3 (April 2017, Peachtree Publishers), the story of a class that finds out a beloved teacher won’t return. In this work from Gretchen Brandenburg McLellan (now based in Camas, Washington) the confident Jamaika takes charge of the classroom cleanup while complaining about a lack of participation from Room 3’s resident introvert, William. Grace Zong’s wide-faced characters roam through classroom spreads as the students come to terms with a difficult transition and a bittersweet moment their teacher explains with a swirly ice cream metaphor.

“When Young Elwyn White lay sick in bed, a bold mouse befriended him.” And that, at least in this retelling of E. B. White’s creative life by Newport’s Barbara Herkert, is where Stuart Little was born. A Boy, a Mouse and a Spider (October 2017, Henry Holt and Co) is an exquisite exploration of the genesis of beloved books from one of children’s literature’s most famous authors. Herkert’s graceful, perfectly paced prose is lit by the warm, textured illustrations of Lauren Castillo. Elizabeth Rusch mines the life of an artist, too, in The Music of Life (April 2017, Antheneum), her bright and musical tale of Bartolomeo Cristofori and his invention of the world’s most popular instrument, the piano. The story of clattering hooves, clinking plates, and KA-CHUNKing printing presses splashes musical terms across bright swirling pages, and recasts something most of us take utterly for granted. Bravo, Bartolomeo!

Meanwhile, Oregon illustrators are breathing life into a kingdom of memorable fictional characters, with Tracy Subisak’s furry Cyclops the fetching star of Ann Marie Stephens’s Cy Makes a Friend (March 2017, Boyds Mills Press). Who knew the monstrous creatures of Greek mythology could be quite so endearing? The prolific Kate Berube washes My Little Half Moon (May 2017, G.P. Putnam’s Sons), Douglas Todd Jennerich’s tale of one child’s fixation on the moon’s missing piece, in deep greens and blues against which a child in a bear sweater becomes fittingly vulnerable and winning. Rilla Alexander brings bold lines and primary colors to the interchangeable panels of Emily Snape’s Motor Mix: Emergency (August 2017, Chronicle), where lifeboats and snowplows and patrol cars and more can be mixed to create your very own vehicular expression for any potential emergency.

Finally, a gleeful squee for the whimsical, dreamlike worlds created by Johanna Wright in Keep a Pocket in Your Poem (March 2017, Wordsong), by J. Patrick Lewis. Each page of this book, which features classic poems beside Lewis’s pleasing parodies of same, is swathed in soft and evocative color, and populated by a diverse cast of sweetly rendered children. Poetry has never looked like so much fun.

In short, young Portlanders, you’ve got a library of wonders at your jammy fingertips. Get reading.

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