It's not easy. But it needs to look that way.
That’s one of the cardinal rules of creating picture books. The words are often simple, and the pictures frequently have a loose, casual flow. Like a teenager laboring for an hour in front of the bathroom to make his hair look just untidy enough, writers and illustrators hide a lot of effort under a picture book’s easygoing veneer.
Two masters of the deceptively simple picture book have new work out this spring: author-illustrators Emma Dodd and Patrick McDonnell (perhaps best known as the cartoonist who created “Mutts”).
From McDonnell comes “Me … Jane” one of the year’s best non-fiction picture books, an illustrated biography that depicts primatologist Jane Goodall’s childhood (ages 3-6, Little, Brown, $15.99). McDonnell’s spare style and expressive faces are paired with some of Goodall’s own drawings, as well as a subtly colored collection of vintage scientific drawings. The story is straightforward and humorous, an inspiring look at a girl who defied expectations about proper careers for young ladies. The book wraps up with a short biography and a note from Goodall herself, encouraging young readers to tackle the world with the same gusto she’s shown.
“Meow Said the Cow,” Dodd’s tale in verse about farm animals suffering a bit of an identity crisis, is just as effortless – but entirely different in focus (ages 3-6, Arthur A. Levine Books, $16.99).
With poetry that strolls along at an pleasant pace, it tells the story of a sleepy-head cat whose magic spell aims to quiet the rooster’s crowing. “He puffed out his chest and opened his beak/and out came the tiniest, ‘squeak, squeak, squeak!’ ”
Of course, if the rooster now has the mouse’s voice, there’s no telling what other sort of mayhem is in store, and Dodd uses sunrise-bright illustrations to highlight the silliness of the situation – and the predicament cat finds himself in. It’s easy to read, easy to laugh at – and easy to love.