How to Be
Written and illustrated by Lisa Brown
HarperCollins, 32 pp., ages 2-7, $15.99
Mrs. Crumps Cat
Written by Linda Smith
Illustrated by David Roberts
HarperCollins, 32 pp., ages 3-7, $15.99
This month brings two exceptional picture books, one a debut, the other, sadly, published posthumously.
I'll start with Lisa Brown's first book, ``How to Be," which gives instruction on how to be a bear, a monkey, a turtle, a snake, a spider, a dog, and, ultimately, a person. Brown's light-handed illustrations are reminiscent of early Maurice Sendak, the Sendak of the Nutshell Library (``Chicken Soup With Rice," ``One Was Johnny," ``Pierre," and ``Alligators All Around." ) Brown's approach here is somewhere between Zen teachings and slapstick comedy. Line rules the artwork, simplicity is key, and from this restraint emerges a world of expression and character.
The book is divided into seven short chapters, one for each animal, with never more than three colors per animal. Brown's color choices are unexpected and engaging: orange, red, and pink; purple and red; brown, red, and pink. This compressed use of color underscores the feeling of repetition and rhythm; it also highlights the visual comedy that runs throughout the book as words and picture knock surprisingly against each other. Our heroine and hero are a big sister and little brother playing at ``how to be," for instance, a spider as they learn to ``creep along walls. Wait for a meal to come to you. Build a web. Be creative." In the illustration of ``Wait for a meal to come to you" the little brother bears a fancy sandwich on a plate to his big sister, who waits, queenly, fork and spoon held at the ready. ``Build a web" shows the same brother wrapped up in his sister's ball of twine, but he has his revenge as a dog: ``Lick someone."
The ``person" of the final chapter (the Yiddish word ``mensch" comes to mind, meaning a real person, a genuine somebody) combines the best characteristics of all the animals imitated in the book, while the art bursts into a full rainbow of color: ``Be brave, curious, patient, charming, creative, and friendly. . . . Be yourself."
Wise, funny and gentle, ``How to Be" not only instructs children on some characteristics of favorite animals, but also on how to be a fully integrated person. Linda Smith, author of ``Mrs. Crump's Cat," as well as ``When Moon Fell Down," ``Mrs. Biddlebox," and ``There Was an Old Woman Who Lived in a Boot," passed away in June 2000, leaving behind six unpublished books. This posthumous picture book, marvelously illustrated by David Roberts, tells a familiar story, but with such grace and subtlety it makes the old seem new -- and that, of course, is the key to all great literature, for adults as well as for children.
Mrs. Crump, as grumpy as her name, lives alone. ``One rainy day, Mrs. Crump opened her front door to fetch the paper and discovered an exquisite golden cat shivering on her porch step." This is elegant prose, in the commanding company of a J. K. Rowling or a Philip Pullman. Indeed, though Smith lived in Texas, there is something distinctly British about her English, and unsurprisingly her illustrator lives in London.
Roberts has created a classically English picture book in ``Mrs. Crump's Cat" -- Mrs. Crump's long, rose-colored overcoat, her red head scarf and large black umbrella, even the market she visits and revisits to buy things for her unwanted feline guest, all create an almost instant nostalgia for past trips to England.
In truth, all of ``Mrs. Crump's Cat," though it is a gently comical story of an elderly woman dragged against her will into friendship and company, struck in me a faintly melancholy, sweet-and-sad note even before I'd read the author's note at the back. This mix of sunshine and rain is part of the book's charm and strength. Roberts's illustrations are like cartoons seen under a slanted magnifying lens. His colors are soft eccentric pastels, in moss green and gold, rose and pale blue. Some of the illustrations are double-spread size, as when Mrs. Crump holds the cat and stands under a ``clear, starry sky" that fans out, snow-flecked and immense above them both, while others are divided into three long skinny panels, and still others show four or more small colored pictures dancing alongside the story. The result is a picture book that angles and moves, zooms in or pulls out to take in an entire general store and, seemingly, all its contents. ``Mrs. Crump's Cat" is not just for cat-lovers (I am both allergic and averse to cats), but for anyone who loves classic tales of resistance and friendship, homelessness and company. The sad news is that we can't hope for dozens more like it. Better to celebrate its singular success.
Liz Rosenberg reviews children's books monthly for the Globe.