Books

for children

‘Flashlight,’ ‘Spic-and-Span,’ ‘Half a World Away’

An illustration from Lizi Boyd’s “Flashlight.”
Lizi Boyd
An illustration from Lizi Boyd’s “Flashlight.”

Contrast, rhythm, simplicity, ingenuity — these tools of the picture-book maker’s art can produce grand effects. In Lizi Boyd’s “Flashlight,’’ the results are positively breathtaking.

“Flashlight,’’ pictures a wordless adventure through a night-time wood. A boy illuminates the darkness, loses his flashlight, and finds it again in the most unlikely hands — or paws. Dye-cut shapes magnify the startling effects of black and white, hide and seek, flashlight and moonlight.

The way the peek-through shapes shift cleverly mimics the effect of light flickering over fish, birds, porcupines, deer. Boyd’s judicious use of color — only where light touches — is nothing short of brilliant.

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Each page contains myriad half-hidden images, from boots to bats to sneaky raccoons, white birch and falling leaves — a landscape, literally, of discovery and wonder. I always felt that flashlights were a modern type of magic wand, and now I see it’s true. No book more purely beautiful has appeared this year.

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If you have ever used an electric mixer, stepped on a trash can pedal to open the lid, stored butter and eggs in their own compartments, or worked in an island-style kitchen, you have Lillian Gilbreth to thank. Mother of 11, widowed at an early age, Gilbreth “was a shy woman” who chose love over convenience, adventure over safety, and forged her way forward as a pioneer in the field of improving efficiency.

She promoted common sense but beautifully advanced ideas. For instance, her belief that “people did their best when their workplace was comfortable and they enjoyed what they were doing.” Lillian took what she had learned about the workplace and applied it to people’s homes as well, inventing ways to make houses more efficient. But it wasn’t only efficiency that mattered. “[H]appiness minutes” counted with her, too.

Gilbreth’s life and family later became the basis for autobiographical novels by two of her children, which were turned into the well-loved family movies, “Cheaper by the Dozen’’ and “Belles on Their Toes.’’

In “Spic-and-Span,’’ Monica Kulling tells Gilbreth’s life story with warmth and clarity, and David Parkins’ illustrations underscore the wit and humanity of this picture book biography. Lillian Gilbreth is a heroine not only because she improved our lives and survived tragedy, but because she “reinvented herself.”

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“Half a World Away’’ moves with the speed of a skidding car, in a fine mix of danger and hilarity. It is quite different in tone, subject, and voice from Cynthia Kadohata’s two lyrical award-winning novels, the Newbery medalist, “Kira-Kira,’’ and National Book Award-winning “The Thing About Luck.’’ But from this new novel’s opening pages, it’s clear we are in the hands of a story-telling master, and, scary or not, we’ll come for the ride.

The narrator is troubled 12-year-old Jaden, adopted from Romania. Jaden is angry about everything — furious that his mother gave him up; resentful that he’s had to leave his “true home” ; aggrieved that now they are adopting a new baby — one he thinks his parents are bound to like better — from a small dusty orphanage in Kazakhstan.

Jaden is not easy to love — not for the people around him, nor for the reader. He steals, lies, hoards food, and blurts out exactly what’s on his mind. But from the moment they arrive in Kazakhstan, the family’s troubles without are even worse than those within.

First, their adoption agency is going out of business. Then they learn the promised baby has been given to another couple. The “baby house” director has a short fuse, and even their driver, with his poor English and poorer driving, easily takes offense. Jaden finds himself drawn to an orphan toddler who’s severely disabled. The whole thing feels like certain catastrophe.

Instead, the plot turns slowly, surely, almost magically toward happiness and hope. Moment by moment, Kadohata never stumbles. Unlikeable characters turn into heroes; adversaries form truces; love leaps out from the dark corner where the bogey-man appeared to be hiding.

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She accomplishes all this by way of flat-out gorgeous writing (“The steppe was lonely and beautiful, and he couldn’t take his eyes from it. Loneliness flooded his whole body like it was a physical sensation, not merely a feeling. Like it was a liquid that had replaced his blood and flowed in his veins as his heart pumped it through. He wasn’t even Jaden anymore; he was loneliness.”) and never veers for an instant from the truth of the story.
The dark subject matter is leavened by frequent flashes of humor: “Akerke smiled maternally at Jaden. ‘And when will you get married?’ ‘Well,’ Jaden said. ‘Well, I don’t know. I’m twelve years old.’ ‘Is good age,’ Akerke said approvingly, adding, ‘I will sit in back to talk to your parents.’ ’’

If literary genius is composed, at least in part, by an uncanny ability to enter other worlds, then “Half a World Away’’ proves Cynthia Kadohata’s genius — not that there was any doubt.

More information:

FLASHLIGHT

By Lizi Boyd

Chronicle, 40 pp., ages 2 and up, $16.99

SPIC-AND-SPAN!: Lillian Gilbreth’s Wonder Kitchen

By Monica Kulling

Illustrated by David Parkins

Tundra, 32 pp., ages 5-8, $17.99.

HALF A WORLD AWAY

By Cynthia Kadohata

Atheneum, 240 pp., ages 10-14, $16.99

Liz Rosenberg is the author of more than 30 children’s books and several titles for adults. Her most recent novel is “The Moonlight Palace.’’ She teaches English at Binghamton University.