Every now and then a picture book comes along that opens doors to another world — a world of mystery, fantasy, where the end is not the end, the adventure could go on.
“The Antlered Ship” (Beach Lane Books, 2017; $17.99) by Dashka Slater and illustrated by the Fan Brothers seems like such a book to me. Starting with the first sentence we enter a magical world, “The day the antlered ship arrived, / Marco wondered about the wide world.” The beautiful two-page spread shows readers a fox sitting on a high rock overlooking a body of water, as a schooner with a wooden deer head and antlers approaches. We turn the page and hear Marco’s questions: “Why do some songs make you happy and others make you sad? / Why don’t trees ever talk? / How deep does the sun go when it sinks into the sea?” These are questions a child might have, a child trying to figure out the world. But this fox’s fox companions only say, “What does that have to do with chicken stew?”
So, Marco joins the crew of the ship. Sylvia, a deer, and captain, says “I’m afraid we aren’t very good sailors.” Even so, Marco signs on. He hopes to find other foxes who will know the answers to his questions. A flock of pigeons, led by the one named Victor, also signs on to the crew.
There is rain and more rain. The pigeons go below deck — and stay there. The deer “huddle in the bow.” Marco says, “ ... we must do the best we can” and makes “a warm reviving stew.” Strengthened, the crew sails on, meets pirates and bests them, and finds an island with good grass and many trees. Marco learns about friends and about questions — that perhaps the asking is more important than the answering — and the adventure goes on.
This is a book that will linger in the minds of readers of all ages long after the covers are closed. The questing fox reminds us all of who we were and are. The illustrations invite us into this world. Even the feel of the jacket cover is inviting and satisfying. This might be a “new” classic.
We all know the nursery rhyme about Humpty Dumpty who had a great fall. Dan Santat (who also wrote “The Adventures of Beekle: The Unimaginary Friend,” the 2015 Caldecott winner) has written a “sequel” to that rhyme, titled “After the Fall” (Roaring Brook Press, 2017; $17.99). It begins: My name is Humpty Dumpty./ This was my favorite spot, high up on the wall./ I know it’s an odd place for an egg to be,/ but I loved being close to the birds./
Then one day, I fall. (I’m sort of famous for that part.)
Folks called it “The Great fall,” which sounds a little grand. / It was just an accident.
But it changed my life.”
After the fall, Humpty was afraid of heights (“There were some parts that couldn’t be healed with bandages and glue.”) He couldn’t get to his favorite cereals on the top shelf, could not climb the ladder to the top of the wall where he used to sit and watch birds. He watched birds from the ground and one day had an idea. He would make paper airplanes that could get up high.
He worked and failed, worked and failed until one day he “got it just right.” The plane “flew like nothing could stop it ... It wasn’t the same as being up in the sky with the birds, but it was close enough.” Then the plane lands on the top of the wall. Humpty Dumpty has to climb. Can he do it? Will he get to the top? And then what?
This is a book that deserves to be read twice, and more. The later times to enjoy the clues that predict the lovely surprise ending.
We have recently lost two giants in the world of children’s books — Ursula LeGuin and Julius Lester.
All writers owe much to LeGuin for her groundbreaking books and her wonderful book on writing, “Steering the Craft” (Eighth Mountain Press, 1998; $14.95).
And I want to remember today Lester’s lively retelling of the Sambo story — “Sam and the Tigers” (Dial, 1996; $15.99). The little boy who could save himself from tigers was named Sam and he lived in a place called Sam-sam-sa-mara, “where the animals and the people lived and worked together like they didn’t know they weren’t supposed to” and where everyone was called Sam.
We watch Sam pick out his wonderful clothes from places such as Mr. Elephant’s Elegant Habilments, or “Feline’s Finest Finery” where he finds a shirt “yellow as tomorrow.”
We know the outline of the story and Julius Lester embellishes it with his gorgeous language. He says in an author’s note at the end, “Many blacks, angered and shamed (by the Little Black Sambo story) resolved that it be thrown in the garbage, for many years so had I.
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“Yet what other story had I read at age 7 and remembered for 50 years? There was obviously an abiding truth in the story despite itself. I think it is the truth of the imagination, that incredible realm where animals and people live together like they don’t know any better; and children eat pancakes cooked in the butter of melted tigers, and parents never say ‘Don’t eat so many.’ ”
Thank you, Julius Lester.
l Jacqueline Briggs Martin of Mount Vernon has published 17 books for children, including “The Chiru of High Tibet.”