Sometimes you can tell at first glance that a picture book is going to be special. The art is invariably the driving force—so gorgeous, so unique, that it immediately separates the book from the pack. There are times when, on cracking the cover of one of these books, I discover with disappointment that the storytelling isn’t up to the illustrations’ standard. But more often than not, the beauty is enough to carry a simple tale for the required duration. (Still the gold standard since I’ve started covering kids’ books, to my mind: Jerry Pinckney’s Caldecott-winning The Lion and the Mouse.)
Last year, I came across a book that enters this rarefied air, one that also happens to be perfect for Mother’s Day: Nikki McClure’s Mama, Is It Summer Yet? Its call-and-response-style text alternates between a boy asking the title question during the months before summer and his mother’s various answers (e.g., “Not yet, my little one. But the buds are swelling. Soon new leaves will unfold.”), until summer finally arrives on the last pages.
But the art…the art! This self-taught artist’s dazzling illustrations, as she explains in an author’s note at the end, are made of cut paper: McClure drew images on black paper, then cut them out with a knife to create lacelike images. The result is arresting, like folk art depicting modern scenes, and vaguely reminiscent of some of Maurice Sendak’s early work. And the effect, in combination with the unaffected words, is hypnotic, evoking a sense of peace and calm. This is an ideal bedtime read for the youngest readers, and of course it’s especially apropos this week—at least until those little ones are ready to come up with Mother’s Day gifts of their own.
Photos: Whitney Webster