Gift Books for Children (That Adults Will Also Love)


By Gianni Rodari
Illustrated by Valerio Vidali
Translated by Antony Shugaar
212 pp. Enchanted Lion. $27.95. (Ages 8 to 12)

Once upon a time, for many nights each week, “no matter where he was — at 9 o’clock on the dot,” Signor Bianchi, an accountant who worked as a traveling salesman, called his little girl on a pay phone to tell her a bedtime story. Those 67 whimsically surreal tales, most as short as the time one coin allotted — first published together in Italian in 1962 and finally all brought together again in a new English translation — make up this treasure trove of a book. Its author, Gianni Rodari, who would have turned 100 this year, is as revered in Italy as Carlo Collodi, the creator of Pinocchio. Valerio Vidali’s new illustrations, inspired by the act of doodling on a message pad, match Rodari’s radical playfulness. Vibrant and fanciful, they run the gamut from small inserted flaps of paper to brightly colored foldout drawings. Rodari’s upside-down fairy-tale world, in which the table of contents is at the back, features, among other delights, a stoplight that turns blue; a city bus full of passengers that on a lark heads off its route into a meadow; a country that boasts pencil unsharpeners, clothes unhangers and military uncannons (“good for unwaging war”); and an entirely edible planet that offers this for breakfast: “The alarm clock goes off, you wake up, you grab the alarm clock, and you gobble it down in two bites.”

A Visual History of Our World
By Peter Goes
80 pp. Gecko. $29.99. (Ages 10 to 18).

Who knew the Roman Empire produced a daily “paper,” called the Acta Diurna (stone tablets carved with news reports that were distributed throughout Rome), as well as public toilets on which to read them (stone benches over a channel of running water)? This gigantic, propulsive, lavishly drawn and smartly annotated global timeline of science and technology from the Stone Age to the present, by the Belgian author and illustrator Peter Goes, provides wry glimpses of these sorts of developments, as well as deeper dives into oft-neglected periods and cultures: the peaceful Norte Chico, or Caral, civilization on the north coast of Peru (3500-1800 B.C.); the mixed-race Indus Valley civilization of northwest South Asia (1900-1700 B.C.); the Abbasid Caliphate, or Golden Age of Islam (750-1258). Filled with hidden details and subtle wit, Goes’s sweeping graphic history is peopled with endearing Gumby-like worker beings and more richly textured, realistically rendered individual game changers. As the last quarter of the book shows humanity dominated by machines and electronics, Goes segues to climate change, dwindling natural resources and endangered species. On the 2020 page, he sounds a hopeful note for the future, while including this quirky, double-edged factoid: “Using advanced cloning techniques, Russia is planning to bring the extinct woolly mammoth back to life in order — in true Jurassic Park style — to breed the animals in Siberia.”

This comprehensive, deeply informative educational resource doubles as an arty coffee-table book, the kind science-minded readers and fact-finders love to pore over. Its design motif of bright neon-hued icons against a night-black background had me fantasizing that the illustrator, Sara Gillingham, had included in her palette rubidium, strontium and barium salts, which the author, Isabel Thomas, tells us are sometimes used in the creation of violet, red and green fireworks, respectively. The reverse side of the book’s jacket features an equally stunning periodic table that can be removed and tacked to a bulletin board or hung on a wall.

In the King of Soul’s own original recording of this song in 1965, a man asks a woman for respect. Two years later, Aretha Franklin’s feminist rendition took the same song to No. 1 on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart. Later it became a civil rights anthem. Now an ultrasimple children’s book whose only words are the lyrics themselves reimagines it yet again, through the eyes of a young girl and her brother as they try on future roles and careers, and appreciate the bonds they have with their parents, friends and community. While the result may be too over-the-top happy for some — none of these people seems to have a care in the world — its art, by Rachel Moss, a Jamaican illustrator fueled by the energy of the Caribbean, will make readers want to amp up the music and dance, which perhaps is exactly what all of us need right now. “Respect” is currently one of eight books, by various songwriters, in the Lyric Pop series, with another Otis Redding title, “(Sittin’ on) The Dock of the Bay,” coming this spring.

Sixty-Five Years of Illustrations From Beverly Cleary’s Beloved Books
By Anna Katz
Essays by Annie Barrows and Jacqueline Rogers
256 pp. Chronicle. $40. (Ages 8 and up)

Five different illustrators have drawn Ramona Quimby, from her first appearance in the Henry Huggins series, begun by Beverly Cleary in 1949, through a new set of reissues in 2014, well after the last Ramona book was published. The true pleasure of this retrospective is that it highlights key moments from the books, in chronological order, and compares the various illustrators’ ways of depicting them. We see the same sequence drawn in different eras (with different fashions and hairstyles); we see varying unscripted reactions on the characters’ faces, and a wide range of demeanors. We see situations from different angles and perspectives, with positive versus negative spins; individual choices of which parts to show (crisis or resolution, detail or overview, Ramona and her sister’s focus on their father or on the candy he’s brought them).

Louis Darling’s original comic-book pen-and-ink Ramona, the author Anna Katz notes in her lively running commentary, looks a lot like Cleary herself did as a child. From 1975 to 1990, Alan Tiegreen drew Ramona in a purposely “messy,” sketch-like style (for which he won a Newbery Medal and an American Book Award). During the same period, Joanne Scribner painted realistic Rockwellian covers for which she used her own young daughter as a model. Later, Tracy Dockray’s “more inclusive, cartoonish style” introduced flat gray shading when showing groups of people, to reflect diversity. The most recent illustrator, Jacqueline Rogers, describes her style, in an afterword, as “sometimes scratchy,” with a variety of thick and thin lines, “loose and full of energy,” just like the incorrigible, irresistible Ramona. Appendixes include Darling’s correspondence with Cleary (whom he met only once in person over 20 years of collaboration) and Dockray’s early sketches.


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