On limited outings in my Brooklyn neighborhood, children I see riding atop their dads’ shoulders or lounging in strollers are all wearing masks. Without having much to compare it to, their sci-fi pandemic version of life is, simply, life. No telling what sort of impact all this will have on their tender psyches.
The wide-open spaces are surely getting a workout this summer with so many antsy families ready to roam free. But especially for kids still stuck inside, three timely new picture books confirm that a whole world is waiting out there: patient, green and lovely. Even non-hiking, non-camping multitaskers who equate slowing down with slacking might enjoy them. Because the great outdoors that beckons from their pages makes isolation look a lot like blissful, mask-free freedom.
The ingredients for an escape from the city are scattered around a child’s bedroom on the opening pages of HIKE (Candlewick, 40 pp., $17.99; ages 4 to 8), the illustrator Pete Oswald’s solo debut. Observant readers may guess what’s in store just by ticking off items in the room — compass, map, binoculars — but surprises await.
The child in the story could be either a boy or a girl; the gender is open to interpretation. The sense of excitement is clear, though, as Dad awakens the child early to get ready for their adventure. The car is packed, the city fades behind them at dawn and the road leads into a not so wild wilderness, with “Welcome” signs and hiking trails.
Painterly, textural illustrations, digitally rendered in a palette of greens and browns, are as soothing as a walk in the woods. Nature gets a starring role here with animals and insects close enough for the child to examine and sweeping vistas grand enough to convey the wonder a child feels facing the immensity of the world.
The closeness of the father and child is a reassuring note in most of the illustrations: a hand on the shoulder here, a hug there. There are a couple of tense moments — crossing a log over a river near a waterfall and later rock climbing — when the child is fearful. But there are no slips and they complete their mission: planting a sapling.
Visual details layer the narrative with satisfying messages that will reveal themselves over repeated readings — no small feat for a mostly wordless book.
If I knew someone who was about to go camping for the first time, Jennifer K. Mann’s THE CAMPING TRIP (Candlewick, 56 pp., $17.99; ages 3 to 7) would be the perfect gift. From sleeping bag and pillow to lantern, whistle, marshmallow-roasting fork and playing cards, Mann offers a visual checklist of what to take with you. And that’s just the endpapers.
Ernestine is invited to go camping with Aunt Jackie and cousin Samantha. Her anticipation builds as she packs supplies (stuffed Foxy is a must), tests her new flashlight and makes trail mix with Dad.
In graphic-novel-style layouts, the road trip from city to country unfolds — the girls look at comic books, play cat’s cradle, stare out the window, sing along with the radio — culminating in a full-spread illustration of the destination, a lake in the woods.
Ernestine has much to discover. Setting up camp is work. Lake swimming might include live fish. Hiking is not the same thing as walking. But there are wonderful things as well: massive trees too wide to reach around, strange bugs to study, unfamiliar foods that prove to be surprisingly tasty.
The first-person voice is on point: Ernestine loads her backpack so full of food for a short hike — supplementing the trail mix with essentials such as “leftover chips, cheese sticks, peanut butter crackers and cookies” — that she can barely climb a hill. “When we finally stop, I eat a lot so my backpack will be lighter on the way back!”
Her excitement, curiosity, hesitations and fears play out in her dialogue and keep her awake when everyone else is sleeping: “I’m boiling. I need to get my socks off! Where’s my water bottle? Where is Foxy? I’m freezing. Is anyone else awake?” The magic of the nighttime sky is just the tonic she needs; stargazing with Aunt Jackie and Samantha settles her down. By the next day, a confident Ernestine tackles a swim in the lake and helps break down the campsite.
The illustrations, a mix of pencil line drawings with digital collage and painting, are evocative and effective. Step-by-step sequences, presented in panels, deconstruct key activities like making a campfire. Mann’s diagram showing how to assemble a s’more might inspire even those who rarely leave their apartments.
“Hurry up! Hurry down. Hurry round and round … and round” is a tempo that many children recognize — at least, it was before the pandemic cleared everyone’s schedules. In HURRY UP! A Book About Slowing Down (Beach Lane, 40 pp., $17.99; ages 3 to 7), Kate Dopirak captures the frenetic pace of life and polishes it into a succinct and bouncy rhyme just right for read-alouds.
A young, bespectacled boy races through his school day, leaving his dog behind. Then, with perfect timing, the child on the run reaches fever pitch just as the text and art shut down the action with a full-page spread that shouts, “STOP.”
And the story takes a breath. Abruptly, the graphic, mixed-media illustrations by Christopher Silas Neal that were filled with kids, buildings and school buses settle down and shift their color palette to the cool side. Neal expands on the slim but pithy text to build out the boy’s world with a diverse set of classmates and the charming little houses where they live.
There’s no insistence that working hard is bad — toys are present along with books and paperwork. The need for a break is the point. So the boy and his dog slow down, take a walk, play, lie in the grass and breathe. “This is what it’s all about,” the text affirms. As night falls, they count stars and catch fireflies.
The equivalent of a deep breathing exercise, “Hurry Up!” will likely help even the most active little multitaskers unwind.
Pat Cummings’s latest books include the picture book “Where Is Mommy?” and “Trace,” her debut middle grade novel.