There’s a little bit of Henri Rousseau’s dreamy primitivism, a little bit of Eric Carle’s bracing modernity in “They All Saw a Cat” (Chronicle, $16.99, ages 3 to 5), author-illustrator Brendan Wenzel’s tale of a sell-possessed tabby venturing out into a magnificent watercolor world full of flowing grasses and towering trees. When a child sees the cat, we see the cat as the child does: with cartoon-cute eyes, a smiling mouth and a big, plush body just right for hugging. When we turn the page, we are seeing the cat as the dog does: long-limbed, yellow-eyed, an interloper that can’t be trusted. Then we move on to see the cat through the eyes of 10 other creatures, among them a fox, a fish, a mouse and a bee. The art, rendered in everything from watercolor to acrylic paint to Magic Marker to charcoal, is eye-opening; each page offers a fresh perspective, sometimes funny, sometimes mind-blowing: Check out the bee’s-eye view, a mosaic of pollenlike dots.
The text is wonderful, too, at once lyrical and stunningly simple. There’s a powerful moment in an adult’s life when, if you’re lucky, a change in perspective can make you see the world afresh: with more light, color, majesty or mystery. To convey that profound shift in a way that a 3-year-old can understand is no small task; to do so in a way that enchants and delights, page after page, is remarkable.
When I first received my copy of “Du Iz Tak?” (Candlewick, $16.99, ages 4-8) I thought someone had made a mistake. Why were they sending me a picture book written in — I don’t know — maybe Czech? But the language of the bugs in this strikingly original picture book by Carson Ellis is actually closer to pig Latin. As you sound out each word and watch the extraordinarily detailed — and very dapper — bugs gesture as they speak, you realize that “Du Iz Tak?” is “What is that?” and “Unk gladdenboot” is a flower, and “booby” is in no way a compliment.
The bug dialogue, along with splendid gouache and ink illustrations — think Alice in Wonderland populated by bugs and you’re on the right track — take us on a real journey, starting with the appearance of a strange green sprout in the forest. A ladybug, a beetle and two nattily dressed ants ponder the mysterious new plant, which grows at a good pace, revealing itself to be a “ribble.” The bugs get excited about the plant’s fort-supporting potential, set up a ladder, hoist a skull-and-crossbones flag, and build what I’m guessing is the finest fort bugdom has ever seen. But a predator lurks in the forest, and the fort is built on a plant that will not last through winter. A bold retro color palette and lots of white space allow a big, beautiful story plenty of room to breathe.
Do we really need another interactive board book? And if so, do publishers need to go all the way to France to get it? The answer in the case of Lucie Félix’s fresh and absorbing “Give & Take” (Candlewick Studio, $19.99, ages 3-7) is a resounding yes — and yes. Using the simplest possible language — an entire page of text may consist of “give” or “break” — Félix fashions an exciting journey though an increasingly complex world of opposites. Taking becomes giving, breaking becomes building, and opening becomes closing as we lift a pop-out shape from one page and fit it into the opening in the next. On another level, a circle becomes a ball, a square becomes two triangles, which become the roofs of two houses and then the top of a box containing a mouse. We then move into a world of monsters and mirrors, ants and storm clouds, light and darkness, and on to a conclusion that captures the journey and launches us on another.
The art, which relies on primary colors and geometric shapes, is delightfully simple and unaffected: visual signaling whittled down to its absolute essentials with flashes of whimsy to surprise and engage. But the real star is the geometry itself, which is clever enough to keep adults interested. Some of the tasks actually may be easier on kids, who think outside the box, than for grown-ups desensitized by visual cliches. It’s a book you’ll return to many, many times. Bonus points for a built-in cleanup plan.