Paige Britt’s Why Am I Me? (Scholastic, ages 3-7) invites very young listeners to consider something both astonishing and elegantly simple: What do I know about myself? What makes me different from everyone else? “If someone else were me,” the book asks, “who would they be? Someone lighter, older, darker, bolder?” The illustrations, by Sean Qualls and Selina Alko, tell the story of the first moments of friendship — or love — as a boy and a girl, each with a parent, board an elevated train and travel across the city. The boy, carrying a skateboard, and the girl, with a musical instrument on her back, notice each other in the crowd. “Why are you, you . . . and not me?” they wonder. The questions seem to rise from the glances they give each other, as the train travels past green parks, tall buildings, an outdoor concert. Qualls and Alko make beautiful use of warm colors — reds and pinks of sunset, deep green-blue in the grasses — and capture a sea of smiling girls and boys, men and women of all ages and skin tones. A man in a jacket and tie, another with a beard and a high-crowned hat, and a girl with a headscarf are among the other travelers on the train. Each is different, but connected by the journey; separate yet sharing the same space. “Why am I me?” each might wonder. As the children arrive at their destination and emerge from the train, they exchange a first greeting, a simple “hi” under the starry sky — and it could almost be an answer to that question.
Before Zaha Hadid died last year at the age of 65, her designs had won the biggest prizes in architecture and she was busy developing future projects. In The World Is Not a Rectangle: A Portrait of Architect Zaha Hadid (Beach Lane, ages 5-10), author-illustrator Jeanette Winter deftly shows how the landscape of Hadid’s childhood influenced the remarkable buildings she designed. The picture book introduces a young Hadid marveling over Iraq’s “rivers and marshes and dunes and ruins” with her father. She loved math and dreamed of “designing her own cities.” With concise text and gorgeous images, Winter conveys how this girl grew up to make her mark on the world. Hadid’s disparate creations offer startling visions — an opera house that looks like an oyster shell, a bridge that seems to move with the water, a chair shaped like an iceberg. The book’s illustrations honor Hadid’s ideas by delightfully embellishing reality, too. On the left side of one spread, for instance, the chic Hadid sits like a giant atop a mountain, drawing her plan for a museum in the Alps; on the right side is an image of the museum itself, with ant-size people heading up a mountain road to see it. Winter concludes by pointing to the hundreds of people and projects Hadid has inspired; this book will surely add to that number.
“If you find yourself standing near a particularly friendly-looking tree . . . listen up,” advises the narrator of Katherine Applegate’s memorable novel Wishtree (Feiwel and Friends, ages 10-14). In this layered fantasy, a good-humored and very old red oak named Red describes life as a leafy shelter for generations of animals and birds and as a wishtree for humans. Once a year, people write their dreams and desires on scraps of paper and fabric and tie them to Red’s branches. When a teenager carves a hateful message into Red’s trunk, the tree worries about its effect on 10-year-old Samar and her Muslim family, who have just moved into the neighborhood. Red wants to comfort and help the friendless child, remembering the prejudice encountered by the tree’s first wisher, an immigrant Irish girl in the mid-1800s. Red and various animal friends try unsuccessfully to aid Samar and then learn of plans to destroy Red to save local plumbing from tree-root damage. The short chapters, simple, lyrical language and reflective voice help speed the story to a surprising end — and a touching display of community support and shared history. With Red, Applegate introduces another quiet, resilient protagonist who — like the caged gorilla in “The One and Only Ivan,” winner of the 2013 Newbery Medal, and the working-class boy in “Crenshaw”— speaks movingly to a noisy, fractious world.
On Sept. 26 at 10:30 a.m., Katherine Applegate will be at Politics and Prose Bookstore, 5015 Connecticut Ave. NW; at 7:30 p.m., she will be at the Takoma Park Community Center auditorium, 7500 Maple Ave., Takoma Park.