The story of the Chinese zodiac is beloved in my household. InYear of the Cat, Richard Ho digs deeper to follow up on how Cat feels about not receiving a calendar year—she was pushed into a river by Rat! This story is as good as the original and then some.
Jocelyn Li Langrand’s fun illustrations begin even before the title page. I especially like the behind-the-scenes scoop on the animals such as Rat lounging in his home with telling photos on the wall or the clever places each animal lives. The dragon? A fire station!
Whether this is a familiar tale or your first read, kids will get a kick out of the teamwork and mishaps that lead to us finding out if Cat is upset she was unable to finish as one of the twelve animals. (Her answer may surprise you.) And, speaking of surprises, be sure to peek under the dust jacket to see the map-consulting image from inside the book repeated. Kids will love figuring out which paw, hoof, or claw goes with which animal, and adults can help kids count to twelve by following along the map’s edge.
In The Perfect Plan, author/illustratorLeah Gilbert takes the reader along on a magical journey with Maya, the main character who hopes to build a special place for dreaming and playing in the forest. Through perseverance and teamwork, she builds a fort grander than anything she could have imagined in Gilbert’s enchanting second picture book.
Transporting readers through spreads of tall brown trees and tiny yellow birds, Gilbert’s art encompasses all the beauty of an inviting forest. Tiny Maya gazes upward toward the sky envisioning a tree fort with a ladder to climb and windows to see out of. “’It will be the most INCREDIBLE and WONDERFUL tree fort in the world!’ she imagined.”
Maya is a determined child, and quite the planner, and returns to her bedroom with her black cat by her side to research and design the perfect tree fort. “When she was sure she had thought of everything, she headed outside.”
With her perfect page turns, Gilbert returns the reader to the colorful green forest and the most perfect spot to build a fort. Gilbert depicts Maya pulling and pushing and thinking, but having trouble building a fort alone. Maya realizes that sometimes in life we need help and asking for help is okay. She begins by selling the idea of a fort to three little brown beavers. “I’m building the most OUTSTANDING and ORIGINAL tree fort in the world! Will you help me?” and of course they eagerly agree.
Gilbert’s beautifully expressed words convey that not everyone is good at every job. This is an awesome reminder for both parents and kids! We see that beavers are great at cutting and chopping branches, but not so good at dragging heavy items. Gilbert introduces the kind moose and tells him that she is building “the STRONGEST and STURDIEST tree fort in the world!” Two big brown bears happily agreed to build and stack the frame, and the yellow birds with their natural ability to fly high “twisted and twirled, weaved and wound. Now all the branches were secured.”
When Maya and the animals scanned the finished fort, Maya began to think something was missing only to be interrupted by a big storm. Maya ran for cover looking back at the fort, while worried that it would be ruined. But upon returning to the spot “Maya couldn’t believe her eyes. ‘It’s Perfect.’” Gilbert paints delightful purple flowers that have bloomed from the rain and the fort is now “far more than she had even imagined it would be.”
Gilbert celebrates creativity and shows children the importance of perseverance and teamwork. Kids see that magical things can happen when putting their heart and soul into something. The words can be re-read with new meanings found in the message each time, while the soft colorful art inspires kids to get out a paintbrush and create their own hideaway.
A brave hero doesn’t always mean a big hero in Nicolò Carozzi’s beautifully worded and illustrated picture book Brave as a Mouse, his debut picture book in the US.
Through simple text and stunning art, Carozzi draws our attention to Mouse’s new friendship with the homeowner’s fish. Mouse asks the fish, “Would you like to play?” and with a simple “YES!” both creatures enjoy each other’s company, swimming together. Mouse blows through a straw, and the fish enjoys jacuzzi-style bubbles.
However, the fun stops when other housepets want to “play.” Three ominous shadows cast on the wall next to the fish’s bowl are plain but powerful images foretelling of the dangers ahead.
As the homeowner’s beloved fat cats encircle the fishbowl, Mouse has a “wild … bold … [and] brave idea” to entice the three to follow him, all the way to the pantry where they gorge themselves on cat food.
While the felines sleep off their big meal, Mouse uses the time to fulfill an even wilder, bolder, and braver idea that includes the help of other mice living in the house. Straight lines, calm, muted colors, and minimalist illustrations keep us focused on the rescue plan. Children and adult readers will enjoy the action-packed adventure as Mouse risks his own safety to protect his new friend. A more subtle, though important theme is the infectious nature of Mouse’s bravery and kindness.
For those interested in quieter books on themes of friendship and compassion as well as those who like a good old fashion story when the good guys win, this picture book will delight again and again.
Itty-Bitty-Kitty-Corn, written by Shannon Hale and illustrated by LeUyen Pham, begins on the front endpapers with Kitty who is gazing admiringly at a picture of a unicorn. But how, she wonders, can she make herself into one?
She gets an idea and takes out her crafts box, removing paper, paint, and glue. She makes herself a colorful horn out of paper and ties it to her head with a piece from her purple ball of string. Now, the text takes off with Kitty looking in the mirror and seeing a unicorn in the reflection. “She feels so perfectly unicorn-y.” But much to her dismay, Parakeet and Gecko tell her she’s not a unicorn, just a cat, bursting Kitty’s bubble of happiness as a unicorn. This scenario repeats itself with Kitty becoming more and more dejected. It is not until she meets Unicorn who shows Kitty that she herself is actually a Kitty-Corn just like her, that Kitty is able to be who she really is and sees Unicorn for who she is too.
At forty-eight pages, this length exceeds today’s standard for a fiction picture book title and allows for a more relaxed reading experience with the young listener. Each page has very few words and lots of white space which allows the expressive illustrations to shine through. The most ardent of non-cat lovers will melt at the sight of Kitty.
Everyone, both children and adults alike, has an idea of how we perceive ourselves and how we want to be perceived by others. This is our reality when we look in the mirror each day and when we venture out into the world. Itty-Bity-Kitty-Corn’s positive message of instilling in children the notion that they can be anything they want to be, no matter the naysayers they may come across is very self-affirming. We should all have the confidence that Kitty finds in her friendship with Unicorn to be our true selves and see others in their true light as well.
Meet cats from one to a dozen in this adorable board book introduction to counting with a feline twist. Author Lesléa Newmandraws on her love for (and familiarity with) cats in a concept book for the very young, while illustrator Isabella Kung captures the animals’ movements and gestures in a way that is sure to delight.
ABC Cats: An Alpha-Cat Book
From curious to elegant, grouchy to inquisitive, rowdy to tangled to . . . well, unusual (who says cats don’t swim in the tub?), these twenty-six charming felines interact with oversize alphabet letters on rhyming spreads. Author Lesléa Newman and illustrator Isabella Kung offer a cat’s-eye concept book that makes the ABCs go down easy—and is sure to inspire many a repeat viewing.
Colleen Paeff:Happy book birthday, Isabella! It must be so exciting to have two books coming out on the same day! You had to paint over 120 cats for these two adorable books. Do you feel like you need to take a break from painting cats now?
Isabella Kung:Thank you so much, Colleen! It is exciting! They are my first board books too. And yes! 122 cats to be exact, more if you count the different painted versions on various materials to achieve the final results. Thankfully, I love cats so much that it is the one subject I have never grown tired of. Which is good, because I am working on theNo Fuzzball!sequel right now!
CP:Hooray! Your author/illustrator debut is getting a sequel?! I’m really glad to hear that. I love Fuzzball. She has so much personality–as do the cats in your latest books. Was it difficult to create so many distinct cat personalities at once? How did you do it?
IK:Lesléa Newman’s words really help spark the inspiration – ideas for gestures, expressions, and body language came to me rather quickly, a little easier for ABC CATS, as each cat only appears once. For 1 2 3 CATS, I kept referring back to my notes about each cat and did my best to stay true to their initial introduction for the following spreads. For example, Cat Number Three was first described as sweeter than Cat Number Two – I drew her being sweet on Cat Number Two, taking the kitten under her wing. From then on, you can always find them together for the rest of the book. The hard part was actually determining what breed, size, fur patterns and colors each cat should be depicted as, which was more a design puzzle to solve, it was fun and challenging.
CP: Can you speak to the experience of illustrating a board book. Did you face any particular challenges?
IK:Illustrating board books is fun! Honestly, they are not that different from illustrating picture books. The main differences are being aware of the preferences of a younger audience and a slightly lower page count– no need to illustrate the title page, endpapers, and such. The biggest challenge was at the beginning when we were figuring out the style and artistic direction for both books. I was given the art note that they wished to see a style that is a combination between my children’s book watercolor illustrations like in NO FUZZBALL! and the loose, minimalistic Cat Inklings paintings in mypersonal gallery. This is a great idea and I was excited to try it! Though figuring out how to execute that made me nervous! To achieve the right balance between the looseness and simplicity of my Cat Inklings style with a clearer representation of cats and keep them recognizable (especially for 123 CATS where all the cats are recurring characters) took me two weeks of experimentation, a few failures at the beginning, but I am glad I finally found a good solution! And that is simply the natural progress of figuring something new in art (and writing too) – that you can think about it all you want, but unless it is actually down on paper or screen, and you can review at it objectively, you won’t be able to tell if it really works. You’d think I would be able to trust myself and the process by now and stop being nervous, but unfortunately, my emotions don’t always listen to my logic. I am really grateful to my Art Director, Lauren Pettapiece, and everyone on the team for placing their trust in me, encouraging me, and giving me the room to experiment. It was truly a dream job!
CP: You teach illustration at Storyteller Academy and you also teach a watercolor workshop at Etchr. What do you like about teaching art?
IK: The act of teaching is actually a great learning tool for myself. I have to really break down and analyze my own thought process, materials, drawing and painting techniques, in order to successfully explain and demonstrate to others. I’ve learned so much more about myself and my work over the years thanks to teaching. Teaching is also a wonderful way to share and connect with the creative community. As creators, our career is often an isolating path, it’s nice to discuss your craft with others who are just as excited to hear it. Not to mention, it can be very rewarding when students enjoy my class!
CP:I am mesmerized by your YouTube channel–especially the time-lapse watercolor paintings. How much time (in real-time) does it take to paint something like the No Fuzzball in Despair painting? And what is it about painting with watercolors that keeps you coming back to that medium time and time again?
IK: Thank you! I enjoy watching them sometimes myself, because most of my paintings take hours, so speeding it up to only 2-5 mins really makes it look magical! It makes me look 100% confident, too (not always the case)! The painting No Fuzzball in Despair, in particular, took me about 15-18 hours to complete.
CP:Oh, wow! It looks so fast in the video! What is it about painting with watercolors that keeps you coming back to that medium time and time again?
IK:I love painting with watercolor and other water mediums like ink, even though it might not be as flexible or speedy as digital mediums. I personally really enjoy the tactile aspects of traditional mediums. Working with watercolor is like working with a living being, you’ll have to study it, observe, and guide it to create the effects you want. Sometimes it even leads you to happy accidents! Which is hard to come by digitally when the undo function is so readily available. It’s more challenging, but the results are immensely satisfying as well! Also, I feel like I can get into the “zone” or access the elusive flow state more easily when working with traditional mediums, whereas, when I am working in photoshop, it tends to feel like work.
CP:What’s your advice to people who like drawing, but get discouraged by their lack of natural drawing ability?
IK: Drawing and painting are just skills, skills that anyone can learn and even perfect. Natural abilities will only affect the speed that you learn your craft, never let anyone (even yourself) tell you that you can’t draw or paint. All it takes is dedicated practice, draw and paint every day if possible. Start with the basics and don’t get frustrated if you make mistakes. We’ve all been there, it’s all part of the learning process, I still make mistakes! There are so many courses and workshop options nowadays, you can easily find something by an artist you like too.
CP: What are three art tools you wouldn’t want to live without?
IK:My watercolor palette, all my painting brushes and my trusty Pentel pocket brush pen with black ink!
CP:You’re the Illustrator coordinator of the SCBWI SF/South region of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI). Has taking on that role had any impact on your work as an author/illustrator?
IK:SCBWI is such a wonderful organization, joining it really helped me connect with others in my community and learn more about the professional industry when I was just starting out; going to SCBWI conferences also sparked the desire to write my own stories too. So when I was asked to step up to this role, I said yes because I really wanted to give back and contribute to our region. I’ve gained the experience and confidence in organizing and planning events (and now virtually as well); I got to meet and invite fantastic industry professionals that I personally admire; and most of all it gave me the opportunity to personally meet my editor for No Fuzzball!, Kait Feldmann, through one of our annual conferences!
CP: I really related to something you said in your interview with Stephani Martinell Eaton on theCynsations blog when you were talking about the challenges of being an author/illustrator. You said, “Even when I do have time in between projects, it is hard to truly rest and exercise self-care. There are stories on the back burner that need to be worked on! Art experiments waiting to be explored! New tools to be learned! Promotional materials to be done!” Have you learned any useful tricks to help you deal with that particular challenge? I could use them!!
IK:Haha! I do have some tricks, though I must say, my tricks are less effective during this pandemic. My productivity has been a bit fickle during this trying time, but I’m trying to be kind to myself and take things one step at a time and dedicate time off. The best trick I can recommend is to set up various achievable goals and deadlines for yourself. I usually have 3-4 big goals in mind for the year. Then I break it down to a digital monthly to-do list, adding to it throughout the year as things come up. Then I have an analogue weekly planner that I slot these tasks into each week and cross them off as I go. That way, I am not overwhelmed by everything I need to do and can just focus on getting through each week. I do pay close attention to how much I can actually achieve and fine-tune my planning if needed. There’s no use setting way too many unachievable tasks and goals on your plate, that only cause more disappointment or frustration. Now that trick helps with getting most of my responsibilities done, though writing or coming up with ideas is a whole other ball game. I found just dedicating a creative hour every day, even if all I do is stare at my manuscript is helpful. Eventually, ideas will flow and solutions will reveal themselves to me as long as I show up consistently to work on them. Or if schedules allow, a work retreat somewhere else is an amazing treat to the creative mind!
CP:Speaking of retreat, what would a perfect day, guaranteed to get the creative juices flowing, look like for you?
IK: A perfect day– that means no urgent emails, family and friends, or home duties interrupting, right? It might look something like this: (FYI, I’m a night owl so please adjust the timing to your sleep schedule)
10am – 12pm – Wake up, grab coffee and water, writing time.
12pm – 1pm – Lunch
1pm – 5pm – Illustration work
5 pm – 6 pm – Exercise or Meditation
6 pm – 10 pm – Dinner / Family / Relaxation time
10 pm – 2 am – Illustration work. If no pressing deadlines, then personal art explorations.
2 am – 3 am – Wind down, read and prepare for bed.
CP:Wow. That sounds amazing. Now I have to ask … How often (if ever) do you get to experience a day like that?
IK: Lol! I think I only maintained this schedule for a short period of time (about 2 months) 3 years ago. It was a time before I got any offers for my book, and right after taking a break from teaching and freelance work. During that time, I wanted to give myself a 6-month break from work to invest in my writing and focus on all the neglected back burner projects. I dug deep, took classes, and got a lot of creative work done! Though I wish I enjoyed that time more, it was also a period of time I was experiencing a lot of self-doubt and depression. I’m glad I hung in there and pushed through these difficult emotions! Now, I’m usually juggling multiple projects and deadlines, so it is almost impossible to have a perfect creative day! I hope later this year I’ll get to try this again.
CP: I hope so, too! What’s next for you?
IK: I’m currently working on the sequel for No Fuzzball!, scheduled to hit the shelves in Fall 2022, as well as creating another online course for Storyteller Academy with Julie Downing. Once all of this is completed, I look forward to a well-deserved break and hopefully, I’ll turn to some of those back-burner projects waiting on my attention.
CP: I look forward to seeing what antics Fuzzball gets up to in the sequel. Thanks, for chatting, Isabella. I really enjoyed it!
IK: Thank you so much for your thoughtful questions! I enjoyed it too!
Isabella Kung is the author/illustrator of No Fuzzball! (Orchard Books | Scholastic, 2020), about a fuzzy feline despot who rules the house with an iron paw. Continuing her feline obsession, she also illustrated over 120 cats for the board books 123 CATS and ABC CATS by Lesléa Newman (Candlewick Press, 2021). Outside the world of publishing, Isabella teaches illustration and watercolor classes at Storyteller Academy and Etchr Lab. She is also the current Illustrator coordinator of the SCBWI SF/South region. Isabella resides in San Francisco with her husband and two adorable – you guessed it – cats! She is represented by Jennifer Laughran at Andrea Brown Literary.
Jet the Cat, the picture book debut from Phaea Crede with another debut for illustrations by Terry Runyan, is a story all the kids and adults will have fun reading. I can almost hear their giggles. It all started when Phaea got inspired by her mom’s cat Eddie. Eddie, unlike other cats, loved to take baths.
“I tried to imagine what other cats might think if they caught Eddie happily splashing around. I figured another cat (named Tom in the story) would look down on Jet, maybe even tell her she wasn’t a real cat if she liked water.”
Tom represents people who think they should tell people what they can or can’t do. Phaea dealt with many Toms in her life. Imagine that one girl even told her that her “name couldn’t really start with a P if it sounded like an F!”
But even though her inspiration was Eddie, when she started drafting Jet’s manuscript, she realized this story was also about something else: her dyslexia. Phaea loved writing stories, but her disability made her give up writing creatively.
“ I decided at age eight that real writers didn’t have dyslexia. Thirty-one years later, I have officially proven myself wrong!”
After revising Jet the Cat (Is Not a Cat) a solid fourteen times (shout out to her critique group Friends with Words), she submitted her story to Lisa Rosinski, senior editor of Barefoot Books. And Barefoot Books and Lisa Rosinski were perfect matches to such a conscious and fun book.
Jet the Cat is a book filled with colorful spreads and repetition. After cat Tom tells Jet she is not a real cat because she loves water, Jet goes on a journey to figure out which animal she can be. But of course, Jet can’t be any of these animals. She can’t be a frog because she sings too loud. She can’t be a bird because she can’t fly. And poor Jet can’t figure out who she is until …
I do not want to spoil the end, so make sure to get a copy of Jet the Cat (Is Not a Cat) to discover the fantastic ending and to read it to your children to make them laugh and think: Are we all the same or does each one of us have a little bit of Jet, the Cat? I LOVE IT!!!
I’ve had this book on my TBR shelf for way too long and should have reviewed it sooner, but I’m so happy to finally be able to share it with you now. The Artist Who Loved Cats grabbed my attention when it arrived via mail because its cover was gorgeous and full of cats. In fact, I recognized one cat in particular, le Chat Noir.
If you’ve ever traveled to France or are a francophile like me, you too may recognize artist Théophile-Alexandre Steinlen’s famed black feline. It’s impossible to miss reproductions of Le Chat Noir images sold at almost every bookseller’s stand either in postcard, purse, keychain, or print form when strolling along the banks of the Seine in Paris. His advertising posters from the late 1800s and early 1900s featuring bicycles, cocoa, and chocolat are also well-known.
Author Susan Bernardo was inspired to write this picture book “during a trip to Paris in 2014” when she stayed in Montmartre “and found a lovely little bronze cat sculpture in an antiques store,” near her AirBnB. As a student in Paris, I lived close to Montmartre and yet never considered the backstory of the prolific artist whose beautiful art decorated our dorm room walls and still remains so popular. I’m delighted Bernardo has created a book to introduce Steinlen’s story to children.
Steinlen seemed destined to draw cats. As a child growing up in Switzerland he sketched them in “every which way.” But, following advice from his father, he began a career in textiles and fabric design. Eventually, the artist felt eager “to embrace the creative life.” Paris in the 1880s was a vibrant hub for artists, musicians, writers, and dancers. That’s why Steinlen moved there in 1881. Through a fellow Swiss ex-pat pal and Le Chat Noir cabaret owner, the artist was hired to do illustrations for the Montmartre cabaret’s newsletter. His cats became the talk of the town and things took off from there. While the story is charmingly narrated in rhyme by the antique shop cat, and can at times be uneven, the reason to read this book with children is to spark curiosity not only about the artist Steinlen, but about other countries, and the arts too. Bernardo’s biography conveys the essence of what made Steinlen tick. He clearly was able to capture in his art just what the public wanted.
Steinlen’s artwork celebrated the ordinary everyday things in life which he encountered and though we may know him for his posters, he also made sculptures, storybooks, and songbook covers. And kids who love kitties will not be disappointed with how frequently Steinlen’s feline friends appeared in his art. His love of cats is evident throughout this book.
Fletcher’s fabulous illustrations fill every page with the kind of exuberance that probably emanated from Steinlen’s presence. Her Parisian scenes will take you back in time as will her cabaret and studio spreads. Each illustration provides a chance for children to count cats and check out their antics.
Bernardo’s used the cat bronze sculpture as a clever jumping-off point to discuss the artist’s life but she also takes the opportunity to point out how old items like those found in an antique shop can unlock myriad mysteries and feed children’s imagination. She’s even included a fun search and find activity at the end of the book. In addition to locating antiques, children are told to look out for certain famous people of Steinlen’s era including artist Toulouse-Lautrec and musician Maurice Ravel. Readers will learn from the detailed backmatter that “Steinlen used his art to protest social injustice and war and to celebrate the lives of working people.” His work influenced many other artists but ultimately his passion was for his art to make the world a better place.