A boy wanders into a painter's imagination, a young hero rescues a group of terrorized clouds, "lightning bugs" illuminate Effie Lee Newsome's poetry, and a girl revives the languishing sense of smell.
Quint Buchholz's extraordinary The Collector of Moments (Farrar Straus Giroux, $18, ages 9-12) is the story of an affectionate bond that developed between a bookish, heavyset boy and a painter who rented a room above his family's apartment. The painter, a self-described "collector of moments" named Max, often allowed the shy, violin-playing boy to spend quiet afternoons in his studio. While Max painted, the boy helped himself to his host's library. "Heavy picture books were piled up all over the floor," the adult narrator recalls. "I disappeared into bygone worlds of kings and queens, followed the tracks of explorers and the migrations of wild animals, visited distant cities and countries, and saw the works of famous builders and distinguished painters."
The boy lived in an unnamed town where the ocean was visible between the houses on the other side of his street. The day Max arrived, "the first herring gulls had returned from the south, and they filled the air with their screams. The wind scudded small white clouds across the sky and wafted the scent of saltwater up from the sea."
Sometimes the artist would amaze the boy with fanciful stories. "I liked these stories," the narrator says. "They sounded so implausible, and yet Max recounted them as though he really had seen all these things." On other occasions Max shared his artistic philosophy: "One invisible and unique path leads into every picture," he once told the boy, "and the artist has to find just that one path. He can't show the picture too soon, or he might lose that path forever."
Peter F. Neumeyer's translation of Buchholz's German renders the narrator's memories in haunting, dreamlike language. Although Buchholz's storytelling is impressive in itself, it risks being overshadowed by his art. While the narrator's memories are illustrated with impressive, monochromatic seascapes, Max's paintings are shown in all their colorful glory. In keeping with his philosophy, Max hid most of his work from view until he moved away. He left behind a series of paintings containing images from the tales he told to his young friend. In one picture, a boy watches as a circus wagon hovers at second-story height above a nearly deserted street. In another, white "snow" elephants pass unnoticed during a blizzard. The narrator remembers that "In every picture, something unusual was taking place. Happenings that confused me and mesmerized me and almost pulled me into the picture." These are tall claims, and Buchholz's paintings easily do them justice. The Collector of Moments is a joyful read.
"Mesmerizing" is also an apt description of Sector 7 (Clarion, $16, ages 4-8), a wonderful, wordless offering by David Wiesner. Like Buchholz's book, it features a talented artist whose work helps others to see the world in a new and rewarding way. In this case, the artist is a young boy who is first shown using his finger to draw elaborate sea creatures in the frost on his school bus window. Wiesner follows with a full-page rendering of the Empire State Building, its observation tower half-obscured by swirling clouds. That just happens to be where our young hero is headed, courtesy of a field trip. Once he reaches the tower, he soon becomes separated from his group. Caught in a blinding mist, he encounters a mischievous cloud who swipes his hat and scarf. A fast friendship forms between the two, who will turn out to be kindred, creative souls, naturally resistant to the constraints of conformity. The cloud escorts the boy to Sector 7, a cloud dispatch center located high above New York. It is a joyless place where unsmiling bureaucrats regularly whisk altostratus, cumulus, cirrus and other types of vaporous beings along to their predictable destinations. The cloud laborers are none too happy and, as the youthful interloper discovers, capable of startlingly beautiful formations that are -- alas -- against regulations. Grabbing a pencil and some paper, the artist goes to work, quickly sketching various fish and octopi shapes that the clouds gladly adopt before heading out to patrol the skies.
Management soon "gets wind" of the small-scale revolt and swiftly represses it. The boy is sent back to the Empire State Building and rejoins his class. The students exit the building and witness an incredible sight: the sky above Manhattan crowded with clouds of marine animals. Having briefly liberated his newfound friends from their puffy drudgery, the nameless adventurer returns home with the cloud he met on the observation deck. Mere plot description fails to convey the powerful imagination and deft artistic wizardry on display within this book's pages, which is perhaps appropriate because anyone who "reads" Sector 7 won't miss the words at all. When the various committees of prizegivers next convene, they'd do well to remember this highly accomplished effort by Davis Wiesner.
My knowledge of Effie Lee Newsome has long been limited to one poem included in Arna Bontemps's classic anthology, American Negro Poetry (1963). Newsome's "Morning Light the Dew-Drier" refers to little boys (known as "dew-driers") whom European explorers in Africa sent ahead to tramp down tall grasses, create paths and -- sometimes -- encounter dangerous beasts. "Brother to the firefly -- ," the poem begins, "for as the firefly lights the night,/ So lights he the morning -- / Bathed in the dank dews as he goes forth/ Through heavy menace and mystery. . ." That poem has been all I've known of Newsome until Woodsong/Boyds Mills Press's recent publication of Wonders: The Best Children's Poems of Effie Lee Newsome ($14.95, ages 4-8).
Compiled by Rudine Sims Bishop (who also contributes a most helpful introduction), Wonders shows that "lightning bugs" were a recurring presence in Newsome's work. An excerpt from "Two Firefly Songs" observes, "The firefly/ Goes flashing by,/ A lemon-golden spark,/ A dancing Rhinestone in the sky,/ a jewel in the dark." Bugs, flowers and other natural wonders were frequent subjects for Newsome, who, Bishop writes, "published well over a hundred and fifty poems for children," many of which appeared in a children's column she wrote for the Crisis, the official magazine of the NAACP. Newsome was born in 1885, published her sole book, Gladiola Garden, in 1940, and died in 1979 after a long career as a professor and librarian. Bishop's selections should rescue Newsome from undeserved obscurity and delight a new generation of readers. Black-and-white illustrations by Lois Mailou Jones are an added bonus; until her death in 1998, she was one of the world's most celebrated African-American painters.
"In a faraway land, long, long ago . . . every sunrise had its own subtle fragrance, blowing off the graceful palms and the slowly baking sands, rising from the golden bricks of the roads and walls." The Perfume of Memory, written by Michelle Nikly and illustrated by Jean Claverie (Scholastic, $16.95, ages 4-8), takes place in this magical setting.
Scent reigns supreme in this kingdom, where even the children "smelled like powder and fresh mud and grass clippings." It can hardly be surprising that every child grew up dreaming of becoming the Royal Perfume Maker. However, because a girl once spilled essence of skunk on the Royal Advisor, only males were eligible for the post. But all of that was long ago: in the intervening years, the inhabitants of this fragrant kingdom fell prey to a plague of forgetfulness. "They even forgot their own history," Nikly writes.
Enter Yasmin, a talented youngster whose knack for fashioning fragrant formulas may be sufficient to overturn the boys-only edict and save the kingdom besides. As Yasmin goes to work under her loving father's tutelage, Nikly's gift for lyrical description shows itself in nearly every sentence. One of Yasmin's vials holds "the essence of mint and wind." Another potion is "dark, velvety, seductive . . . like the first soft touch of a pillow at the start of a deep, deep, sleep." Claverie's accompanying paintings are appropriately whimsical as they trace Yasmin's triumphant journey. Like the powerful scents Nikly describes, her charming tale is anything but easy to forget.
Jabari Asim is children's book editor of Book World. "The Road to Freedom," his novel for middle-schoolers, will be published this year.