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Picture Books About Dreams and Dreamers of All Kinds

Category: Art & Culture,Books

With each new season of children’s books, subjects seem to cluster. Not long ago, a slew of sloth books appeared. Then two blobfish books, in the same month. This year it’s picture books that wear their hearts on their sleeves, displaying value statements, as titles, on their jackets. Recently, “Be Kind” and “All Are Welcome” have shared space on a Times best-seller list topped by the similarly didactic but less utopian “We Don’t Eat Our Classmates!”

Now four new picture books, whose illustrators are among America’s best, arrive with almost matching titles: “The Dreamer,” “Dreamers,” “Imagine!” and “Imagine.” Until recently, people who imagined were dreamers, more or less; now “dreamer” has taken on an additional, weighty meaning. Two of these four books contend with the dreams that immigrants harbor, while two just celebrate the liberating imagination that informs both art and science. You might guess which are which, and you’d be wrong.

Case in point: Il Sung Na’s THE DREAMER (Chronicle, 52 pp., $16.99; ages 3 to 5) has no political overtones. It’s about a green pig whose dream to fly with the birds leads him (after running with feathers clutched in his fists doesn’t work) to invent the Wright brothers’ biplane. Repeated failures turn around only when he accepts help from quirky animal friends (a great pink elephant!), and they all consult with actual birds — lesson being that success requires cooperation and listening. Not stopping at plane flight, the pig sets sights on the heavens, and in short order lands on the moon in a spaceship, then shares his new knowledge communally, so animals in flying vessels soon crisscross the sky. Somehow, Pig still yearns for bird-dom, and the book ends where it began.

I must confess to not quite understanding the story’s ending. And the rhythm of its language is unsatisfying. There’s a popular rule in picture book writing to delete all words describing anything the pictures show, but a pileup of sentences that leave so much unsaid doesn’t sound like storytelling. Still, I love the illustrations. Out of Il Sung Na’s brush flow the most wonderful shapes and colors; his designs land on the page as elegant abstractions (beautifully using the white of the page as shape and color), yet what registers most are vivid, personable characters. I hope Pig and friends return in a more fully resolved story, but I’m happy to have spent 52 pages with them, and I think children will be, too.

While the characters in Yuyi Morales’s DREAMERS (Neal Porter/Holiday House, 40 pp., $16.99; ages 4 to 8) aren’t the young immigrant Dreamers currently threatened by the United States government, the commonality is clear. All immigrants arrive with a dream, Morales says in her notes. The narrator of “Dreamers” is the author-illustrator, speaking to her baby son: “I dreamed of you, then you appeared. Together we became Amor — Love — Amor. Resplendent life, you and I.” You can see that the writing tends to the florid. The art, too, is big, billowy, digitally collaging together copious poetic details of personal significance (and of varying scrutability). Gorgeous display is one of Morales’s strengths, fully deployed in glowing scenes before mother and child cross a bridge into a forbidding world, all brown and gray. Despite their cold welcome, the pair eventually find a place of refuge, then delight and the promise of life and growth. This utopia is the library, filled with illustrated books. “Dreamers” is a paean to libraries, to reading and writing and creativity, a value statement I endorse wholeheartedly.

“Dreamers” aims for the glorious and the poetic; it’s big, passionate, crammed with detail. My own preference is for passion in smaller doses, with more breathing spaces. One element of detail that is not inscrutable is the inclusion of dozens of actual children’s books strewn about this utopian library, tiny tributes to work that changed Morales’s life, and a lot of fun to pick out and recognize.

Raúl Colón’s IMAGINE! (Paula Wiseman/Simon & Schuster, 48 pp., $17.99; ages 4 to 8) could be seen as surrealist autobiography. It’s a follow-up to his award-winning “Draw!,” a wordless book that played games with depiction, featuring an artistic boy who draws his way into African wildlife adventures. In “Imagine!,” a similar child skateboards from his Brooklyn home to the Museum of Modern Art. There, a character from Matisse’s “Jazz” suite steps down from his frame, sets the boy dancing, and the two dancers lure a group of musicians (plus a dog) out of their Picasso, and another musician (plus a lion) down from her Rousseau. Art lover and art form a dancing band that merrily tours New York City (the Statue of Liberty’s crown, a ride on the Cyclone, hot dogs from a street vendor) before heading back, jammed hilariously into a taxi. Colón’s vibrant tableaus hint at other great art by Seurat or Manet. The story continues: Boy skateboards home, filled with inspiration, and chalks a mural onto the wall of an abandoned building. Late that night his art companions — from the museum, from his mural — float outside the window of this dreamer.

This fine book provides not only exposure to art, and an example of art, but also an example of a boy — a boy of color, a boy in America — with a passion for fine art. These are all things that our culture could well stand to see more of.

Juan Felipe Herrera and Lauren Castillo’s IMAGINE (Candlewick, 32 pp., $16.99; ages 4 to 8) is the perfect complement to “Imagine!”: It’s about a boy with a passion for words. It’s an immigrant story, too, and a poem, pastoral at first: “If I picked chamomile flowers / as a child / in the windy fields and whispered / to their fuzzy faces, / imagine. …” On each new spread, a phrase beginning “If I,” and ending with the prompt “imagine,” carries us through the young boy’s move from his rural village to a city, to a school where he will learn English, write stories, sing in front of class. He will fall in love with words, write songs and gradually mature in the pictures — and finally, he will read his poetry atop the steps of the Library of Congress, as the poet laureate of the United States. A question is posed: If he did that. … We turn the page, anticipating the word “imagine” that ended each earlier stanza, and are rewarded with “imagine what you could do.”

It’s true: The book’s author, Juan Felipe Herrera, is a former United States poet laureate. This “If I could do it, you can do anything” exhortation is standard inspirational speech material, so why did I not find it remotely didactic?

Lauren Castillo’s perfect illustrations — warm, deftly composed, with the sensual allure of woodcuts (she seems to have combined foam monoprints with ink and digital work) — are so captivating they might on their own overcome a ho-hum story. But this poem is a masterly picture book text: Its precisely chosen words create a world you have to listen to, to think about. When at the end you learn that you were being told this boy’s story as a spur to your own potentially amazing one, the surprise and the gratification outweigh any sense of a lesson being taught.

Paul O. Zelinsky, a Caldecott Medal winner, has written and illustrated many books for children. He is the illustrator of “All of a Kind Family Hanukkah,” written by Emily Jenkins, which will be published this fall.

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