Like most children learning to read, I leaned heavily on illustrations to help me understand and enjoy stories. Images provided a bridge to comprehension when words were little more than mysterious hieroglyphs. But as I became more comfortable with the words and moved on to chapter books and novels in upper elementary school, I missed that extra layer of story the art had provided.
Illustrations can arm apprehensive new readers with confidence, particularly if they’re visual learners. They also offer a space in the story to pause, to reflect on the meaning of what one has just read. To read a book with pictures is to place oneself in those images, connecting more deeply to the characters and their world.
It wasn’t as if illustrated novels didn’t exist when I was growing up — who doesn’t have fond memories of “Winnie the Pooh” or “The Wind in the Willows”? — but it seemed they’d fallen out of fashion since the heyday of A.A. Milne and Kenneth Grahame. In my own work I have found myself looking backward for inspiration, writing and illustrating to fill a gap on today’s shelves.
It makes me smile to see a change starting to ripple through the industry. In the wide acceptance of graphic novels for children, in the inclusion of more art in books for elementary readers transitioning to novels, illustration is once again being championed beyond picture books.
These three new animal-centric middle grade novels are rich in interior illustrations. The stories are as diverse as children themselves, but in all three the words and pictures feed the imagination together.
Daniel Kraus’s THEY THREW US AWAY (Henry Holt, 256 pp., $16.99; ages 10 to 14) is the first book in the Teddies saga, a trilogy for middle grade readers. In the opening chapters we meet Buddy, the leader; Sunny, the brave one; Horace, with PTSD; Sugar, damaged yet sweet; and finally Reginald, the sage. These are not your typical heroes. They’re Furrington Teddies, teddy bears in their own apocalyptic world.
Sensitive readers beware: Tea parties and snuggles are juxtaposed with trash heaps where one could lose a stuffie at a moment’s notice. The wording is playful and descriptive, and Sugar’s commentary injects humor. This is Kraus’s first foray into middle grade novels, but it’s in line with his previous fantasy-adventure successes (from “The Shape of Water” and “Trollhunters” for adults, both written with Guillermo del Toro, to the young adult duology “The Death and Life of Zebulon Finch”). In this reviewer’s imagination, it also brings to mind the weird contrasts and visuals of Wes Anderson’s film “Isle of Dogs.” It is probably not appropriate for the youngest audiences. But those looking for a dark and suspenseful tale will find this one truly captivating.
Rovina Cai’ illustrations are at once beautiful and haunting, drawn with energetic lines. The art appears in the story at precisely the right moments, giving wandering eyes glimpses of what is just around the corner.
SKUNK AND BADGER (Algonquin Young Readers, 136 pp., $18.95; ages 8 to 12), by the Newbery Honor winner Amy Timberlake (“One Came Home”), is the first title in a new chapter book series. Serious, set-in-his-ways Badger lives alone until the day freewheeling, happy-go-lucky Skunk shows up on his doorstep. He’s come to move in.
Badger is a workaholic, while Skunk has a penchant for babble and clutter. The unlikely friendship story of two very different personalities is wordy fun, with laugh-out-loud dialogue. It’s impossible not to think of Arnold Lobel’s classic “Frog and Toad” series as you get to know Timberlake’s charming odd couple, Skunk and Badger.
While the characters are anthropomorphized creatures, this book defies age grouping. Anyone who has shared a living space — with siblings, classmates or grown adults — can relate to this witty and whimsical tale.
Although the curmudgeonly figure who undergoes a change of heart is an old trope, going at least as far back as Dickens, this story gives it a quirky new twist, by detailing with meticulous specificity Badger’s and Skunk’s interests, respectively, in the fields of geology and ornithology. Lovers of rocks and chickens, and nerds of all stripes, will crack a smile at the expert descriptions of the main characters’ favorite endeavors.
Scratchy yet sophisticated ink drawings by the Caldecott Medal winner Jon Klassen (“I Want My Hat Back”) add warmth to the already cozy text. A mix of color pieces and black-and-white vignettes, they give this handsomely designed book the look and feel of a classic.
SAUCY (Caitlyn Dlouhy Books/Atheneum, 304 pp., $17.99; ages 8 to 12), by the National Book Award and Newbery Medal winner Cynthia Kadohata (“The Thing About Luck,” “Kira-Kira”), introduces a family with quadruplets. At just 11 and a half years old, Becca’s three brothers seem to have their lives all figured out. She worries she’ll never find a passion of her own, until the night she finds a sickly piglet.
Becca feels she’s meant to protect this defenseless life, and that doing so will lead to something bigger. Her growing awareness and compassion soon spread to friends, families and communities working toward a common goal: to save Saucy and her piggy brethren.
This story tackles some of the harsh realities of factory farming, through the lens of an empathetic young girl with precocious yet limited understanding and a big heart. It’s a great jumping-off point for conversations about activism, animals, modern food production or finding one’s path in life. Fans of Wilbur in E.B. White’s “Charlotte’s Web” will no doubt fall hard for Saucy and the caring family that rescues her.
If Kadohata’s heartfelt story doesn’t tempt readers to rescue a pig, Marianna Raskin’s endearing drawings surely will. These expertly placed images of Saucy, Becca, her family and the small town they inhabit will tug at you long after you close the book.
Lauren Castillo, a Caldecott Honor winner, is the author, most recently, of “Our Friend Hedgehog: The Story of Us.”
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