April is that month where winter shakes hands with spring, so what better way to celebrate it than with Johanna Wright’s charming “Bunnies on Ice.” “When you’re a champion ice-skater, you have to wait for the conditions to be just right. And wait . . . And wait . . . ”
Our young bunny narrator is full of braggadocio — sure of her skill and prowess — even when she falls flat. My favorite among the gorgeously layered acrylic paintings is one where the heroine twirls for her “fans” — tiny green birds lined up along the branches of a tree. Wright’s palette is unique among contemporary illustrators, considerably richer and more sophisticated than the average, in swaths of teal blue, rose red, violet, burnt umber. “Bunnies on Ice” is nearly wordless, nearly perfect, and just right for the slow coming of spring.
“The Dark,” a new picture book by Lemony Snicket, author of the wildly popular A Series of Unfortunate Events, is that rarest of rarities — an instant children’s classic. And it deals with one of childhood’s classic fears: the terror of the dark.
Young Laszlo is afraid of the darkness, which “lived in the same house as Laszlo, a big place with a creaky roof, smooth cold windows, and several sets of stairs.” At the bottom of those stairs is a basement, where the dark “mostly spent its time.”
Snicket is at his gentlest here, which allows the usually tender award-winning illustrator Jon Klassen (“I Want My Hat Back’) plenty of room to play with the underside of childhood’s fears. The book is simultaneously reassuring and genuinely spooky, just the tiniest bit creepy, and altogether charming. That’s quite a combination. Klassen uses black brilliantly throughout these pages. The dark tells Laszlo “the dark is not afraid of you. That’s why the dark is always close by . . . and you can see the dark up in the sky almost every night, gazing down at you as you gaze up at the stars.”
Treasure is found; truces are drawn. In the end, both get what they need most. And children and adults get a book that deals sweetly, comically, lyrically, straight-forwardly with one of childhood’s last fearful frontiers.
“The biggest part of you,” former slave Grandma Pippin tells her grandson Horace, in Jen Bryant’s picture book biography “A Splash of Red,” “is inside, where no one can see.” But Horace learned early how to reveal part of himself where people could see, in pictures he made in charcoal on paper. He sketched from memory; he drew on demand, and in the margins of his schoolbooks. “Pictures just come to my mind,” he once noted, “and I tell my heart to go ahead.”
Poor and struggling nearly all his life, the self-taught artist Horace Pippin labored hard at rail yards, hotels, and factories, but he never stopped making pictures. He was wounded in battle and lost the use of his right arm. That didn’t stop Horace — it just slowed him down for a bit. Soon he was married with children, delivering laundry, and using an iron poker to inscribe his memories on wood, his good left hand lifting and guiding his right.
“A Splash of Red” is a story of bravery and persistence rewarded. Caldecott Honor-winning illustrator Melissa Sweet wisely gives her own interpretation of Pippin’s work, echoing but not exactly quoting his folk naïf style. “A Splash of Red” will inspire young artists everywhere, and in all circumstances.
As you can imagine, it’s not often that my husband, 9-year-old daughter, and I all fight over the same book. But that’s what happened with Lucy Knisley’s “Relish: My Life in the Kitchen,” a perfect example of the joys of genre-bending. “Relish” looks like a graphic novel, reads like a memoir, and serves as a cookbook for young would-be foodies and chefs — with a dash of whimsy, wistfulness, and cultural history thrown in for good measure.
Knisley comes by her artistry and cooking chops honestly. Her father was a gourmand, and her mother a green-market vendor, chef, caterer — and painter. Even as a preschooler Lucy was tossing back pungent shots of vinegar “like a hardened pro”; munching on profiteroles; and blowing out the candles on a birthday cake with carmelized sugar blow-torched on top. “Relish” is a celebration of food — including occasional forays into junk food gorging — and a recounting of the graphic artist-author’s culinary adventures in places as far-flung as Rhinebeck, N.Y., Mexico and Japan.
Along the way one encounters a variety of fairly-easy-but-impressive recipes: for spicy chai tea, “Mom’s Pesto,” hand-rolled sushi, “the best chocolate chip cookies,” huevos rancheros, and more. “Relish” is not just about food — glorious as that may be. It’s also about friendship, family, art, awkward adolescence, and determination. Like many graphic novels, “Relish” also possesses a poetic intensity and brevity that leaves the reader touched and haunted by life’s subtlest moments. “Relish” is by turns inspiring, witty, melancholy, surprising, and hilarious — in every sense a work of art.
More information on the books:
By Lemony Snicket.
Illustrations by Jon Klassen
Hachette, 40 pp., $16.99, ages 4-8.
A SPLASH OF RED:
The Life and Art of Horace Pippin
By Jen Bryant, with illustrations
by Melissa Sweet
Alfred Knopf, 40 pp. $17.99,
My Life in the Kitchen
By Lucy Knisley
First Second, 192 pp., paperback, $17.99, ages 8 and older