When my daughter was 2, we were enjoying a nice afternoon at our local public library, but when it was time to go she wanted to stay. You can imagine the scene: A typically silent library suddenly erupts as a grimacing young father awkwardly carries his flailing, screaming, crying little one out the door. It was painful for everyone — for me, for the staff, for the patrons and, especially, for her. She was still learning how to communicate, how to respond appropriately to feelings like disappointment, anger and anxiety. When should we stay quiet and when should we roar? Four new books examine this question with the metaphorical help of large cats.
In Erika Meza’s AS BRAVE AS A LION (Candlewick, 32 pp., $18.99, ages 3 to 7), we meet a young girl and her imaginary (yet real to her) friend: a kind, cuddly and seemingly fearless lion. In numerous challenging situations — speaking to someone new, apologizing for a mess, lying in the dark at bedtime — he gives her a shot of courage. But one day on the playground, at the top of a new “high as the moon,” “rocket-fast” slide, she freezes, and when she looks at her lion she sees that he’s afraid, too. Then comes the revelation: “Maybe this is my turn to be brave.” Expressive, bold watercolor and ink drawings add tension and joy to this tale of lion-size anxieties.
The cat in Kirsten Hubbard’s DEAR STRAY (Nancy Paulsen Books, 32 pp., $18.99, ages 3 to 7) is a “sticky, scratchy, spiky” kitten picked out at a neighborhood animal shelter by a girl who is herself sticky, scratchy and spiky. She even hisses once in a while. The girl’s first-person narrative takes the form of diary entries she addresses to the stray. The two are constant companions, mirroring each other in their relationships with the rest of the family. Neither wants to sit still or be held or loved in traditional ways. They bond over their big, unsettled feelings. (The kitten visually transforms into a fierce tiger during more intense episodes of anger and sadness.) As time goes on, these feelings are sorted and understood, and moments of harmony and connection ensue. Like the main characters, Susan Gal’s art is beautifully unkempt, with lots of loose lines, brush strokes and vivid patches of color — an apt depiction of the often unbridled emotions of early childhood.
In HEDGE LION (Andersen Press, 32 pp., $18.99, ages 4 to 9), Robyn Wilson-Owen takes a different approach to representing how a child might navigate new emotional territory. Time and again, when a “busy girl” named Ida passes one particular section of bushes on one particular street as she runs around her busy town with her mother and baby sister, she notices a hedge that looks like a lion. Or a lion that looks like a hedge. Ida’s lion — whom no one else sees — stays perfectly still and quiet, and refuses to emote, or even acknowledge his own existence, despite her repeated prodding. (Scared that he might scare someone as a lion, he insists he is a hedge.) In the end, it’s a favorite book Ida shares with him that gets Hedge Lion up and roaring, at first with laughter. But the roar doesn’t stop. Every feeling he has stifled — joy, sadness, anger — comes out at once, making the myriad bird and bug friends who had been nestling happily in his mane flee. But only temporarily. (They knew he was a lion all along.) With a little encouragement and practice, Hedge Lion learns he can express his true self by “letting out roars before they get too big.” Wilson-Owen complements her slightly surreal text with intricate, wobbly, exquisitely detailed line drawings and a bright, minimal color palette featuring lots of lemon-y, lion-y yellow.
In Allira Tee’s TIGER & CAT (Berbay, 40 pp., $17.99, ages 2 to 6), illustrated in soft pastels, an anthropomorphized tiger and house cat are the best of friends, despite their differences in size and (presumably) nature. They fly kites, dance and drink tea together. Then Tiger reluctantly tells Cat he must go away to Tiger Camp for “however long it takes” to earn his stripes — the ones that “make you a real tiger.” She protests that he already is a real tiger, but he departs nonetheless and is gone for many months, during which the two miss each other terribly. Ultimately, Tiger realizes not only that he doesn’t want to be “wild,” but also that Cat was right: He doesn’t have to earn his stripes because he already has them.
Matthew Cordell, a Caldecott Medalist, is the author, most recently, of the picture book “Evergreen,” about a fearful squirrel. The third book in his early reader series, “Cornbread & Poppy,” will be published later this month.