2020 has been a roller coaster of a year, but books have been undeniably good.
This year, all three of my favorite picture book authors/illustrators have released new titles — two debuted on the same day. I wrote about Christian Robinson’s “You Matter” a few months back, so I will reserve this review for the two most recent titles.
One of my favorite artists, Caldecott honoree CARSON ELLIS released her third solo book last month. “IN THE HALF ROOM” is a nod to Margaret Wise Brown’s infamous “Goodnight Moon,” both textually and visually. Like much of Ellis’ work, though, it leans toward the strange, a trademark effect that makes her art both beautiful and unique. “In the Half Room” is textually simple. Each page names half of an item with an accompanying illustration (“Half chair, half hat/Two shoes, each half/Half table, half cat”). Admittedly, the premise sounds a bit sleepy, but Ellis’ gouache paintings are so beautifully detailed that some of the illustrations feel like fine art. The watercolor paint effect gives her art a human touch, replete with undefined edges and misshapen freckles on the “half a face.” The book takes a strange turn midway through, however, with two halves of a person joining together with a “SHOOOOOP” and running out the front door into the night. In the acknowledgements, Ellis credits her young son Milo with the idea, “though he’s not sure about the ending” (I will let you decide). The image after the ending may be my favorite, though: half a cabin sitting in an empty field with a full plume of smoke puffing out of the half-chimney to hang over the full, twinkling stars.
The second title I want to share features two return guests. MAC BARNETT (author of “Mac B., Kid Spy”) and SHAWN HARRIS (illustrator of “Everyone’s Awake!”) have known each other since childhood, though “A POLAR BEAR IN THE SNOW” is their first collaboration. Barnett, like Ellis, has a reputation for funny books that make you feel as if you are part of a secret club, and this picture book, though simple, fits that mold. In “Polar Bear in the Snow,” we follow the eponymous creature as it lumbers through the snow as the narrator wonders aloud where he is going. The text is fun and will lend itself well to storytime, but the real star here is Harris’ illustrations. The musician/illustrator (Harris also fronts the rock group, The Matches) used an ink pen and scissors to create a 3D effect that makes the polar bear pop from the page. The first page reads: “There is a polar bear in the snow,” though all we see is a textured white page. As we turn the pages, bits of the polar bear appear; first a nose, then eyes, then a full body. The snow on which he trods is actually carefully torn layers of white construction paper, and the animals (and a very scared man) he meets are simple shapes cut out of white paper. The description sounds simple, though maybe that is where the genius lies.
Both Ellis and Barnett created wildly successful virtual followings during quarantine. Ellis’ #transmundanetuesdays on Instagram began as daily art challenges ranging from self portraits to drawings done with your nondominant hand. In fact, one of the best things to come from that time for my household is our collection of Transmundane Tuesday art. I can also credit Barnett for the idea for our Mac B. book club, as we worked to model bits of it after his “Mac’s Book Club Show” book club (Harris was also a key collaborator here).
Both “In the Half Room” and “A Polar Bear in the Snow” are available to borrow from the Joplin Public Library, and I would highly suggest doing so if possible. For more excellent Carson Ellis art, check out her award-winning 2018 title, “Du iz Tak,” also available at Joplin Public Library.