A cat takes a walk, and as it does, other creatures take notice. It’s a pretty simple concept. But what an experience the walk becomes through Brendan Wenzel’s virtuoso, expressionistic art in They All Saw a Cat (Chronicle, Ages 3-6). Wenzel uses colored pencils and pastels, charcoal and acrylic paint to create a layered, funny and fascinating visual lesson in seeing and interpreting. It’s a delightful experience in multiple perspectives and changing points of view. As the cat ambles, a dog sees a slinking, sly creature; a child sees a rounded, soft-furred pet; a goldfish sees a blurry pair of glowing eyes; a mouse sees danger incarnate. But what might the cat see in a reflecting pool of water? What could a cat look like, to a cat? The repeated phrase “the cat walked through the world, with its whiskers, ears, and paws” brings the reader back to the central character, but for a moment at each page turn, the reader is transported into something else: an insect, a wild animal, a flying creature, a burrowing one. Wenzel has an exuberantly humorous style, and here his ebullience is on full display, along with a marvelous dash of adventure and experimentation.
Just in time for the opening of the National Museum of African American History and Culture in September, Tonya Bolden’s How to Build a Museum (Viking, Ages 10 and up) offers young readers both a sneak peek into its treasure trove and a wonderfully illustrated account of its construction. Plans for the museum began a century ago, but it wasn’t until 2003 that government funding was authorized. Bolden engagingly describes all the work involved in figuring out its mission, constructing the building and creating its exhibitions. This included locating historical materials (such as a hymnal that belonged to Harriet Tubman and one of Louis Armstrong’s trumpets) and designing a building for the Mall’s last remaining open space. Construction and exhibition efforts sometimes had to be carefully coordinated, as when the museum acquired a 1922 railroad car “with separate and very unequal racial sections” that was lowered into the site via crane. Walking through this train, visitors can, in Bolden’s words, “see with their own eyes and feel with their own hearts what it was like to live Jim Crow.” The train car is just one of the more than 30,000 objects at the musuem, all of them carefully collected to help deepen our understanding of both African American history and America itself.
In Jo Knowles’s Still a Work in Progress (Candlewick, Ages 10-14), Noah Morin and his two best friends, Ryan and Sam, navigate the usual shoals of middle school — dances, picture day, and girls both intriguing and indifferent — while trying to avoid one large unspoken danger: “The Thing That Happened” to Noah’s pretty, popular older sister, Emma. Easygoing Noah and his parents dare not question the strict vegan diet Emma now imposes on the family, as long as she eats something, nor do they mention what her thick layers of clothing may be hiding: a relapse into her eating disorder. With all the compassion of her acclaimed middle-grade novel “See You at Harry’s,” Knowles explores a family in crisis. Noah’s parents attend to high-maintenance, troubled Emma while unwittingly marginalizing Noah, who takes refuge in his art and friends. Knowles skillfully captures the banter and vulnerability of boys this age. As his friends squabble and his worries for Emma increase, Noah often finds himself alone but for the company of the school’s mascot, a hairless cat named Curly, and the family dog, the Captain. Slowly, Noah starts to recognize and ask for what he needs. As this clear-eyed, gently humorous novel evolves, Noah begins to take in what’s “good and new and hopeful” and to understand deeply that we’re “all just human, trying to live another day” — insights that may prove key to his own (and the reader’s) resilience during tough times.
Brendan Wenzel, Tonya Bolden and Jo Knowles will be at the National Book Festival on Sept. 24 at the Washington Convention Center.