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Courier Article by Carol Banks
Sunday, December 17, 2006

Four Illustrated Books for Kids Are Among Year's Best

The end of a year always brings out a blitz of "best of the best" lists. Here's a sampling of children's books that rank as some of the "best illustrated books of 2006," according to major reviewing sources. Each book received at least four starred (outstanding) reviews. Each book is a good candidate to garner the illustrator a Caldecott Medal or Honor award when the American Library Association announces its prestigious literary awards in mid-January.

Dizzy, by Jonah Winter; illustrations by Sean Qualls.

Jazz. It's so hot, it's cool, man, and it owes a huge debt to one John Birks Gillespie, a small, troubled boy from South Carolina, who took this uniquely American music style to the next inventive level -- bebop. John grew up listening to jazz, loving it. Every blast of his trumpet played out his anger at the world around him. He played loud "a until he was ROARING. He was SOARING." It felt good. "For the boy with the horn fueled with a FIRE that burned with every whooping, JAZZ was like a fire extinguisher. It was cooooooool."

John moved to Philadelphia, playing in jazz clubs there. His onstage antics were unwelcome to many of his fellow band members. Most agreed he was a bit dizzy. And the name, "Dizzy," stuck. He didn't mind. It all "a fit into his PLAN, you see, to STAND OUT on the BANDSTANDa" And stand out he did.

For inspiration, Jonah Winter and Sean Qualls listened to Gillespie's recording of "Salt Peanuts" while composing this book. It obviously worked. Winter's lyrical words, like Dizzy's music, explode in a variety of fonts and colors, while Qualls' acrylic and pencil pictures with their fiery red-hot streams and cool blue waves pour forth from Dizzy's trumpet. A perfect composition of gratitude for one of America's great musicians.

I'm Dirty, by Kate McMullan; illustrations by Jim McMullan.

The team that penned an ode, uh, odiferous tribute to garbage trucks is back again with another mud-splashing, metal-chomping, dirt-digging paean, this time to those multitask wonders -- backhoes. While "I Stink" included an alphabetical assortment of smelly trash, "I'm Dirty" counts down from 10 to one with a riotous collection of Dumpster delights just waiting to be hauled away.

With booms and clangs, bangs and rattles, this super-charged picture book will please all those heavy machinery lovers at your house, thanks to Jim McMullan's ink and watercolor palette of yellows and browns and Kate McMullan's energized text about a mechanical employee who obviously loves his work. Pair this book with Gene Zion's classic tale, "Harry the Dirty Dog," for pre-bathtime delights.

John, Paul, George & Ben, by Lane Smith. No, it's not a story about Beatles-wannabes. Smith, a Caldecott Honor Medalist (The Stinky Cheese Man & Other Fairly Stupid Tales), shows us the childhood foibles (which later proved them in good stead as adults!) of five Founding Fathers of America.

John Hancock loved to write really BIG in school; Paul Revere learned to shout at a young age, thanks to his bell-ringing in Old North Church's tower; George Washington learned honesty from his cherry tree chopping days; Ben Franklin was quick-witted and thought up new sayings to explain the world around him; and Tom Jefferson learned to be independent because he never saw or did things the way his schoolmates did.

Printed in a font reminiscent of ye olde colonial broadsides, Smith gives us a humorous and enlightening introduction to American history. The crackle-textured pen-and-ink paintings add yet another layer to the old-fashioned feel of the book. Even the gold-framed portraits of the youngsters are modeled after those great colonial portraitists, John Singleton Copley, Gilbert Stuart and Joseph Wright.

"Taking Liberties," the final page of text, has a great true-and-false quiz for budding colonial scholars. OK, adults, how many can you answer correctly?

So Sleepy Story, by Uri Shulevitz.

Parents seeking the perfect bedtime companion to read graduates of Goodnight Moon should look no further than the latest offering by Shulevitz, a Caldecott Medalist and two-time Honor Medalist.

The snoozing house, trees and quarter moon on the cover foretell a wonderful bedtime story to come. Shadowy shades of blues, grays and greens give way to dancing shades of gold as music, first softly, then louder and louder, wafts in the open window and wakes the furniture. Swaying with the beat, the house comes alive, waking a small, slumbering boy. Just as quickly the sounds ebb and once again the house settles down in peace.

This book gets my vote as the one most likely to win the 2007 Caldecott Medal. Don't take my prediction to the bank, however. I've been working with children's literature for almost 40 years and I've yet to outguess the sitting Caldecott Committee. However, there's just something about this book.

Carol Banks is supervisor of the READ Center, Central Library's children's Department. Contact her at (812) 428-8222. The opinions expressed in this column are personal and do not reflect policies or official recommendations of the library.