Pandemic dangers and safety limits . . . uncertainties about the shape of the upcoming school year—it remains hard to be upbeat when these woes press us down. Low spirits, of course, affect kids as well as adults. Two recent picture books remind us how family and home can inspire us, lifting spirits when daily annoyances loom large, as well as when disaster strikes. Young readers with siblings will especially appreciate these books, though their similar “messages” and strong visuals will appeal to readers of all ages, even ones (like me) who do not have brothers or sisters.
Lift (2020), written by the award-winning team of author Minh Le and illustrator Dan Santat, employs tender humor to depict its sister-brother relationship. Fans of their earlier picture book Drawn Together (2018, reviewed by me here) will not be surprised at how smoothly Santat’s full-color illustrations move the story line along. In fact, many of its scenes and pages are entirely wordless. We see Iris, the early elementary-aged narrator, delight in pressing the elevator button in her apartment building and then observe her frustration when her toddler brother discovers this button! This is just one of the ways in which his impulsive joys and terrors affect her daily life. Cartoonish facial features, through Santat’s slyly funny exaggeration, add “punch” to characters’ emotional reactions throughout the book. These insightfully detailed everyday scenes soon merge with Lift’s charming fantasy elements.
Pressing the button of a discarded elevator keypad she finds, then opening a closet door, Iris enters the worlds of her dreams—or, as she wishes, “anywhere but here.” We observe her in a fantastic, tiger-inhabited jungle and later in outer space. Close-ups and several double-page spreads convey her surprise and joy in these amazing situations. I particularly appreciated the shifts in perspective in some outer space panels, capturing the vertiginous nature of gravity-free floating. Of course, her brother’s needs and wants soon interrupt these pleasures. How Iris comes to realize that sharing her imaginative adventures with him can enhance these experiences becomes another kind of journey here.
Has Iris found a literal portal into other worlds, a nod to such classic chapter books as C.S. Lewis’ Narnia series, with its magical wardrobe, or is she imagining these journeys? Is there a connection here between the ragged stuffed toy tiger her brother carries or with the solar system mobile in her room? The drifting snowflakes at Lift’s end, harkening back to her brother’s favorite snow-filled picture book, leave both possibilities open. Regardless, young readers may enjoy seeing and hearing Santat and Le read this book aloud at minute four of a 50 minute-long online interview with them. The rest of the interview focuses on their creative process, individually and together.
While Lift deals with everyday frustrations and annoyances, The Shared Room (2020) deals with disaster. It has a much different, more somber tone than Lift. Author Kao Kalia Yang and illustrator Xee Reiter depict the lingering, emotionally devastating aftermath of a young girl’s accidental drowning. How her two elementary school-aged brothers, her younger sister, and their parents cope with this loss—moving from silence to shared remembrances, from denial to acceptance—is the heart of this touching volume. Their family photographs and videos provide the path that finally draws them onward. Their home itself is also part of this path. When one brother finally moves into what had been the dead girl’s room, having it become a “shared room,” filled with good as well as now sad memories, it is the culmination of that long emotional journey. Such journeys in these pandemic days may be all too familiar to some readers.
Reiter effectively shifts between close-ups and long-distance views, as we follow this story, which begins in summertime tragedy but emotionally concludes during a bleak Minnesota winter. Her close-up, full-page head shots of the lost sister, seen here brightly smiling, and later of her grieving brother are particularly moving. Reiter’s illustrations parallel Yang’s perceptive observations about the impact and changing nature of grief. The book’s final image, with the family silhouetted against a glowing fireplace, family photos placed on and above its mantelpiece, captures Yang’s eloquently simple conclusion about the feelings the parents and children now share: “[T]hey are keeping each other warm, their little girl’s memory like the fire before them, a melt in the freeze of their hearts.”
I recently wrote about Yang’s acute take on another loss, the death of a neighbor from old age, in this review of A Map into the World (2019). I recommend that gentle picture book, illustrated by Seo Kim, to you. Both A Map into the World and The Shared Room specify the Hmong heritage of their characters, while Lift’s characters are of non-specified Asian-American heritage.
Having enjoyed two books illustrated by Thai-American Dan Santat, I was happy while blogging here to catch up with his Caldecott award-winning picture book, The Adventures of Beekle: The Unimaginary Friend (2014). As you will see either when holding this book in your hands or observing Santat reading it online here, Beekle is another spirit-lifter. It is noteworthy that Santat wrote as well as illustrated this beguiling story about youngsters and first friendships. This October I am looking forward to reading Kao Kalia Yang’s upcoming, autobiographical picture book The Most Beautiful Thing, illustrated by Khoa Le. And, while I do not know the overall tone of her other forthcoming picture book, Yang Warriors, I am happier just knowing it is scheduled for Spring, 2021. Meanwhile, I intend to keep my eye out for the small, immediate joys that can offset the bigger uncertainties we now face.