With Labor Day in the rearview mirror, students have begun settling in for the exciting road ahead. Fall also tends to be the season of state tests and federal mandates, and it can become easy to forget that education is about so much more. Luckily, most children — and some children’s books — already know this. For the youngest, some of the most profound lessons come in shapes and colors; older brothers and sisters, on the other hand, can gain much by exploring identity and how to be brave and clever about helping others.
Xavier Deneux, the popular French illustrator, has created a new board-book series called TouchThinkLearn. The first two titles in the series are “Opposites’’ and “Colors.’’ “Opposites’’ is an irresistible book, actually a ground-breaking concept book for babies and toddlers.
Opposites appear on facing pages: white and black, high and low, full and empty. Nothing new in this — but the images share the same simple shape, with a difference. One juts out three dimensionally, like a bas relief, and the other dips in, making a shallow well. So on the left-hand page is the word “High,” and children can feel the three-dimensional shape of a ladder on which a kitten perches round-eyed. On the opposing right-hand page, they see “Low,” and they can move their hands inside a rectangle where a mole sits looking up and across at the kitten.
“Full” shows us a raised goldfish bowl, complete with fish, stones, plant, water, and bubbles. The facing page “Empty” dips in to a white bowl with only stones and plant. Children learn best by engaging as many senses as possible, and “Opposites’’ brings touch and sight vividly into play, with bold simple images, bright colors, and humor.
There are serious concepts, too. The difference between “Caged” and “Free” means a good deal to the lion, while “Small” and “Big” seems a matter of perspective. The difference between “Heavy” and “Light” is the difference between presence and absence, between an elephant and an elephant-shaped cloud. I found “Colors’’ far less inventive, but there are two more books in the TouchThink Learn series, “Numbers’' and “Shapes.”
“One Bright Ring’’ by Gretchen Géser strikes a bright debut into children’s picture books. Both a counting book and city adventure story, the book begins when one little girl spots a diamond ring falling out of a man’s pocket while he’s busy buying flowers. “One big smile. One little hole. One bright ring falls to the ground.” The ring bounces; the girl catches it. But city noises (two jackhammers) obscure her shouts. Undaunted, she tugs on her mother’s sleeve and off they race in search of the man who has lost his ring. Will they catch up before he heads to the park, meets his beloved, and proposes?
“One Bright Ring’’ has the bouncy energy of its urban setting. In every scene, people are moving, waving, working, ducking, talking, while “one brave girl” pulls her mother through the crowd. A black cat follows wherever they go, and the young male suitor keeps dropping things as he walks.
Géser moves the perspective in and out like a movie camera, zooming in on the diamond ring slipping through a hole in a pocket, zooming out to take in a city street grid. Géser may be new to children’s books, but she’s no beginner. She demonstrates deftness and lightness in everything she does. “One Bright Ring’’ gives us an urban love story, a count-to-ten book, and a “brave girl” adventure, all in one.
If they the gave prizes for such things, “Yes! We Are Latinos’’ could easily win one for “Best Book with Worst Title Ever.” Written by Alma Flor Ada and F. Isabel Campoy, with powerfully simple black-and-white illustrations by Newbery medalist David Diaz, this is a vibrant and vitally important book. The introduction tells us “There are more than fifty million people in the United States who call themselves Latinos or Latinas — a population larger than that of many countries.”
In 12 distinctive and artfully written chapters, we learn some of their stories. In first-person narrative poem form, each of a dozen young people tells us about his or her yearnings, troubles, joys, and ambitions. Juanita misses her “language, my sweet Mixtex . . . a secret language/ that no one in this school/ even suspects exists” — till one of her old schoolmates from Mexico surprises her. Monica, from El Salvador, is waiting impatiently for immigration papers, “so I won’t have to be/afraid . . . /having nightmares/ that they send back my parents/ and I stay/ all alone/ in this big city.”
“Yes! We Are Latinos’’ puts a human face and voice to what has become a politicized issue regarding immigration. Following each chapter comes a brief but helpful explanation of the history pertaining to a particular country or culture. Along the way one learns some startling but important facts about America’s role in these histories.
From migrant farmworkers to 15-year-old girls celebrating their quinceañeras; from Sephardic Jews to sanseis, “Yes! We Are Latinos’’ is a book no school or public library should be without. It’s visually elegant, verbally eloquent, and a fascinating read.
ONE BRIGHT RING
By Gretchen Géser
Holt, 32 pp., $16.99,
YES! WE ARE LATINOS
By Alma Flor Ada and
F. Isabel Campoy
by David Diaz
Charlesbridge, 96 pp., $18.95, ages 9 and up.