Books that Invite Smiles

By Janelle Mathis, University of North Texas

As this week brings to a close my sharing some personal highlights of this year’s Outstanding International Book Award list, I wanted to mention a few titles that left me smiling for a number of different reasons. While many of the rich international titles are ones that challenge us to be responsible readers and take on new perspectives and difficult topics, there is also the universally shared pleasure in reading. What makes us smile could be that the situation in the book is one we have experienced or one that is ironically silly; a smile could come from how the illustrator depicts a character with personality, often with the simplicity of lines and positioning; and we could just smile because of the satisfactory solution to a problem that a character finds. While humor and laughing out loud are not outside the reading experience, a smile can be that satisfactory emotional expression that connects us in many ways to our reading.

I Really Want to See You, Grandma cover

The 2019 OIB list has several books that make me smile, as did many others in the books the committee reviewed. One of these is I Really Want to See You Grandma by Taro Gomi, originally published in Japan in 1979. Yumi and Grandma each decide at the same moment that they really want to see each other, but they live far enough apart that each must find transportation to get to the other. Yumi starts out on a bus while Grandma takes a train and each arrives at the other’s house. When they discover the situation, they each take another form of transportation as they eagerly seek their loved one—Yumi on a truck and Grandma in a taxi. Again, they arrive home to find the other one gone. The final attempt with Yumi on a scooter and Grandma on a motorcycle finds them meeting in the middle under a tree where they decide from then on they will meet. Simplicity is key to both text and illustrations as is characteristic of Gomi’s work, but the reader connects easily to the love that keeps the characters in search of each other. Whether relating to the child who loves her grandmother or the grandmother’s desire to see her grandchild, the irony created by their persistence easily creates smiles.

A Case for BuffyAnother title, A Case for Buffy, will be familiar to readers who follow Ulf Nilsson’s Detective Gordon series. These books have won awards as has their Swedish creator. Gitte Spee, the illustrator is internationally published as well. If you are not familiar with this series, A Case for Buffy can be a good place to begin as it can stand alone as a mystery that is solved by delightful characters with very distinctive personalities. The small police station takes care of the needs in the forest– needs such as finding granny squirrel’s scarf, educating a badger family about being kind to one another, and making sure the cake tins were filled with new cakes, a task that Detective Buffy, a female mouse, especially enjoys. Her partner Detective Gordon is a toad, older and slower, but nonetheless able to solve crimes. Early on in the story a younger mouse and toad appear and the detectives begin training these young recruits with a case involving the whereabouts of Buffy’s mother. This early chapter book is sprinkled thoughout with images that support the personalities created in the text as the detectives take on a dangerous journey to find the lost mother. I would agree with Horn Book who said A Case for Buffy is full of “warm humor and wisdom”—a great early chapter book for beginning readers or for listeners.

Farmer Falgu Goes to the MarketFarmer Falgu Goes to the Market by Chitra Sounder is an uplifting story about a farmer who loads his cart to go to market. The road offers many obstacles and as he travels. He not only breaks all of his eggs, but he also crushes his cilantro and green chiles and other vegetables. With each challenge along the way, he decides to make the best of it and although his market goods are all but destroyed, his ingenious thinking results in his having a long line of customers at the market. The solution– he makes a delicious smelling omelet with the cracked eggs and chopped vegetables! While the story has a positive message about making the best of a situation, the illustrations for me were key to the book’s appeal. Using bold colors outlined black, Kanika Nair created images that delightfully reflect Farmer Falgu’s challenges, personality and the market context. A touch of color in the text connects to the various items on the cart and a few onomatopoetic words emphasize what was happening to them: cracked, thud, squashed, slid, toppled, and so on. This reminder to fill the half-full glass to the top is told in a way that all ages can understand.

A Very Late StoryMy favorite book outside the final list is A Very Late Story (published in Great Britain) by Marianna Coppo, an Italian author. Anyone thinking about where ideas for stories come from should enjoy this book. Beginning with two white pages except for the opening line, “Once upon a time, there was a blank page.” The story continues with five personified animal characters appearing on the blank page. For several double page spreads, they wonder where they are and then they decide they are in a book waiting for a story. Several more blank pages appear with only the 5 animals and finally a small rabbit asks if they can play to which the others say there is not time as they are waiting for a story. The rabbit decides that is boring and he leaves the group to play – taking out his drawing supplies while the others continue to wait. After filling his page with imaginary drawings to include a unicorn, dinosaur, tree house, and other items that take on a life of their own, the others are eventually enticed into entering the story as it comes alive. In the midst of their engaging play, a bird arrives with the “story you’ve been waiting for.” To which the animals say, “we’ve already got one. Sit down and we’ll tell it to you!” So, where do stories come from? Do we have to wait for stories to come to us or do we find them in our daily activities? I especially liked the last double page spread that has only the text, “Once upon a time there was a blank page.” I smiled as I thought of how the reader might decide to fill that blank page and start another story.

Inside the VillainsA final book to share is also one that was considered and discussed. A large, over-sized book, Inside the Villains by French author and illustrator Clothilde Perrin, uses an interactive focus to describe three of the traditional villains in fairy and folk tales: a wolf, a giant, and a witch. The first person descriptions on the left are accompanied by images on the right that are about 14 inches high. Folding back the various layers of costumes and clothing reveal the villain as seen in different tales. For example, the wolf begins with a typical wolf appearance, but as one unfolds the top layer, underneath reveals grandma’s nightgown and beneath that a view into his “misery-guts”. Inside his head, the reader finds what the wolf perceives as his brilliant ideas. Each villain is completely forthright about what they like, such as devouring children, but it is told in a humorous confessional way. The witch’s personality is accompanied by an actual tale about Baba Yaga. The book offers opportunity for readers to consider the different stories in which they find these traditional villains. The detailed interactive nature of each figure was fun and the first person personality description is smile-worthy—a very different approach in format.

There are so many more ways to approach the OIB books in this most recent 2019 award list as well as past lists. Visit these books and consider connections that you can make to other books you currently use, enjoy, and depend upon as you build international titles into your library.

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