A Bit of Picture-Book Globe-Hopping Before Breakfast
(With an Extra Thumbs-Up for Lola and the Rent-a-Cat)

h1 December 14th, 2010 by jules

Title page illustration from Yona Tepper’s Passing By,
illustrated by Gil-Ly Alon Curiel (Kane Miller, January 2010)

Pack your bags, bring some coffee, and join me on a quick peek at some picture book titles from around the world. I’ve been meaning to do this for a while now, so let’s get right to it.

We’ll get to the illustration opening this post in a second. First, let’s travel to Iran. In February of this year, Frances Lincoln Children’s Books released a collection of stories from Iran, titled Pea Boy.

“‘I’m off to Hamadan to marry Ramazan, because I’m too silly to manage on my own,’ replied Miss Cockroach. ‘Marry me instead,’ said Mr. Mouse. ‘I’ll feed you on honey and tell you stories, and I’ll never beat you, whatever you do,
but only tickle you under your chin.'”

— From “Miss Cockroach and Mr. Mouse”

Novelist Elizabeth Laird, who has traveled extensively throughout the Middle East and once lived in Iraq, collected these tales, illustrated by mixed-media artist Shirin Adl, who was born northeast of London but grew up in Iran. “Iran is a country full of stories: of jinns and fairies and demons, faithful mice and frivolous cockroaches, foolish young weavers and curious sparrows,” writes Laird in the introduction. School Library Journal wrote, “In these folktales, Laird writes as a storyteller would speak, with natural cadence and authentic voice.” These are not all happy-ending tales, as the same reviewer notes. (And who knew that “The Sparrow’s Quest” was so similar to the Japanese folktale, The Stonecutter. I didn’t.)

Betsy Bird covered this one in great detail in July of this year. (“Funny, incredibly strange, honest, and unchanged. You truly believe while reading these tales that they have lasted for hundreds of years. How else to explain how peculiar they can be? Libraries and personal collections around the country should take note of this lovely little book. In a time when Iran is demonized with great regularity in our films and on our news, it’s nice to see another side of the story. And by my thinking, you’re not likely to see anything similar for a couple more decades, I’d wager.”)

Back to the illustration opening this post. That comes from Yona Tepper’s Passing By, illustrated by Gil-Ly Alon Curiel (Kane Miller, January 2010). Tepper currently works as a children’s editor at a publishing house in Israel, and Curiel studied graphics and design in Haifa. This picture book, translated from Hebrew by Dr. Deborah Guthman, is an engaging page-turner for the youngest of children.

A young girl named Yael likes to watch the world from the second-story balcony of her home on the street to simply see what’s going on and who’s passing by. In spreads alternating from longer-focus (a view of the street) to zoomed-in (the dog trotting down the road, whom Yael has spotted), we see what she sees — and delight in it as well. First, a dog, followed by a cat, a man on his bike (where’s he going? she wonders), a tractor, and more…and leading up to her very own father, coming home from work to take her for a walk herself. Publishers Weekly, calling it “a very gentle outing for smallest children,” adds: “Tepper’s account of a preschooler’s day reflects the watching and waiting that can make up much of the daily life of a small child… Curiel’s cheerful spreads have clear black outlines filled in with soft, creamy shades of sand, pale blue, and yellow.”

“It’s a cat! She was hiding in the yard. ‘Miaow, miaow.’ She’d like some milk.”

“Who made that noise? Who honked its horn, ‘Beep beep?’ It’s the red car. It honked its horn and then it drove away. Yael peeks between the railings. Who’s that whistling and ringing a bell? Is he far away? Is he coming closer?”

“Wait! Who’s that walking and waving? Who is calling, ‘Hello! Hello!’
Who looks so cheerful? It’s Daddy! ‘Let’s go for a walk!'”

Now back to Frances Lincoln Children’s Books (who published most of the books featured in this post, as they are certainly one of you’re go-to publishers for international titles) and Azad’s Camel, the story of an orphan boy “somewhere in Arabia” who is forced to work as a camel jockey. Erika Pal (born in Budapest) brings us this story, first published in Great Britain in 2009, and she illustrates it with watercolors and ink.

This is an eye-opening story from the other side of the world: Azad, who lives with his uncle, is taken away by a sheikh, who wants to train him in camel-riding. The boy’s uncle agrees, as he can’t afford to keep him. Azad does not enjoy the dangerous camel-racing, but the story—infused with a bit of magic—ends on a hopeful note. Most striking in the book, which closes with a note about this popular sport in the Gulf states of the Middle East, are Pal’s fluid illustrations, sprawling spreads with striking line.

“In the afternoon, Azad would meet his friends to play. Azad did handstands on the goalpost — he was brilliant! One day a rich sheikh drove by.
He was amazed by Azad’s balancing skill.”

(Click to enlarge spread.)

“The races were dangerous. Azad was frightened by the camels’ blazing speed, and deafened by their thundering hooves and the shouts of the crowd.
He did not like racing at all.”

(Click to enlarge spread.)

“That evening, as Azad and Asfur sat with the Bedouin around the fire, one of them played on his rababa. He sang about a brave little boy and his camel…
who had found a home at last.”

(Click to enlarge spread.)

Last, but from far least (and also from Frances Lincoln), comes one of the bravest picture books I’ve seen in a while. This one is a gem, I tell you, though certainly not for everyone. Lola and the Rent-a-Cat came this October from Ceseli Josephus Jitta and was originally published in Belgium in 2007.

Lola and her husband, John, have been married a long time. With great affection and in bright, bold spreads, Jitta lays out their lives for us. (The quality of these spreads is lacking. I apologize. But it’s all I’ve got.)

“Lola and John have been married since they were young.”

“Together they can reach anywhere and together they stay balanced. Together they look after each other and together they remember the shopping list.”

It’s not often you see American picture books get as honest about aging and death as a picture book like this does: “Sometimes John is sad for no reason and loses his way around the house. It’s hard for him to get down stairs, and that makes Lola sad, too. One day John falls over. His heart stops beating.”

Oh yes. It does. And it’s laid out in one very stark, honest, sad illustration from Jitta.

The funeral happens. Lola, after fifty-six years, pulls her curtains and sits alone in her home.

Lonely though she may be, she tries to entertain herself during the long days. This includes some internet-surfing. (That Lola. She’s a hipster.) One night she finds rentacat.com and peruses the cats for hire. Needless to say probably, this cat brings some happiness into her life again. But you absolutely must see the book for yourself and how the author/illustrator lays out these issues of loneliness and loss and recovery and memory with such tenderness and great respect for the child reader. No glossing-over anything here. No talking down to kids. And the emotions in the book are depicted with such veracity that you grow to love Lola, John, the love they had for one another, and this random rent-a-cat, who is able to bring her a bit of joy as well as conjure up memories of her beloved John (indeed, memories of her whole life) without, for once, making her sad.

Don’t you like the litter-box moment? It’s another instance, I think, of a picture book straight-up dealing with reality, which kids adore. It’s usually the parents who get squirmy — whether the author’s talking about death and loss or the manner in which an indoor cat relieves itself. I, for one, admire such straight-shootin’ picture books. And this one is a winner — sweet-hearted without pouring an entire bottle of syrup on our plates. A sympathetic, affectionate look at overcoming grief, rendered with a pleasing economy of text. (For more information, don’t miss this great review: {The illustrations} “depict the beauty of wrinkles, the happiness of two crooked backs keeping each other in balance, and the inevitability of our mortality,” writes Mirjam Noorduijn).

Okay. Thanks for jettin’ around the world with me a bit. Back to bed, my warm covers, and perhaps some hot tea. Until next time…

* * * * * * *

PASSING BY. Copyright © 2010, First American Edition, by Yona Tepper. Illustrations copyright © 2010 by Gil-Ly Alon Curiel. Published by Kane Miller, Tulsa, OK.

PEA BOY: AND OTHER STORIES FROM IRAN. Copyright © 2010, First American Edition, by Elizabeth Laird. Illustrations copyright © 2010 by Shirin Adl. Published by Frances Lincoln Children’s Books, London.

AZAD’S CAMEL. Copyright © 2010, First American Edition, by Erika Pal. Published by Frances Lincoln Children’s Books, London.

LOLA AND THE RENT-A-CAT. Copyright © 2010, First American Edition, by Ceseli Josephus Jitta. Published by Frances Lincoln Children’s Books, London.

6 comments to “A Bit of Picture-Book Globe-Hopping Before Breakfast
(With an Extra Thumbs-Up for Lola and the Rent-a-Cat)”

  1. Oh man! How did I miss Lola? That book looks fantastic! Thanks so much for discovering it, Jules.

  2. Thanks for the globe trotting! Yes, the Lola book looks wonderful, and I like the Pea Boy art . . .

  3. Wow. LOLA is a brave and honest book. I love how the sparse words and colorful illustrations work together to flesh out these characters and their story. Would like to see the rest. It’s interesting to me how PBs handle death and grieving. I don’t feel I’m particularly good at fielding those questions as a parent, but a good PB can really help…

    Thanks for the virtual trip!

  4. Jules,

    Thanks for the book tour! That LOLA books looks very interesting.

  5. Thanks, you all! Jessica, yes, those questions are hard as a parent, but you’re right about roping in a good picture book that handles it all well.

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