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Book Review: Mac Barnett on Children’s Picture Books About “Nothing”



Five new picture books all contemplate nothingness. From emptiness to absence to an intangible rhinoceros, we have a whole lot of nothing to discuss, so let’s get to it.

INVISIBLE THINGS (Chronicle, 52 pp., $17.99, ages 5 to 8), a field guide to the unseen by Andy J. Pizza and Sophie Miller, starts with a magic trick. By donning a pair of “invisible ‘invisible thing’ spotting glasses,” the reader can “see the invisible.” Indeed all manner of invisible things — an echo, a dog bark, chaos, an itch — are depicted in these pages, each rendered as an adorable, colorful creature with cartoon eyes. We meet sounds, smells, tastes and sensations (“Echoes are cheeky copycats — they repeat everything you say! You’ve probably heard an Echo somewhere before, but now, LOOK, you’ve SEEN one!”) before settling into an extended meditation on feelings. The chatty narrator is a reassuring guide through some heady and heavy stuff.

Here is a book that acknowledges and respects the full range of children’s emotions, with sensitive and sometimes striking insights into melancholy, fear and the blues: “How curious that a sad song can make us feel happy?!”

“Invisible Things” is as interactive as you want it to be. Along the way, there are seek-and-finds, mindfulness exercises and discussion topics, but it also works well as a straight-ahead read-aloud.

The experience is somehow simultaneously contemplative and exuberant. It’s a winning, wholly original book.

WHAT IF ONE DAY … (Enchanted Lion, 80 pp., $19.95, ages 3 to 8), written by Bruce Handy and illustrated by Ashleigh Corrin, ponders a series of disappearances. “What if one day,” the book begins, breaking the question across a page turn, “all the birds flew away?” The answers are sometimes poignant: “Skies would be plainer,” goes the text, set against a breathtaking expanse of blue, interrupted only by a baseball in flight and a child’s arm. And sometimes they’re funny: “Worms could relax,” our narrator suggests, alongside an illustration of a few chilled-out specimens living their best vermian lives.

Just as we’re becoming accustomed to this strange, birdless world, a miracle occurs: “But there are BIRDS!” a double-page spread proclaims. Birds noisily, joyfully sing and flit about. It feels as if they might fly right off the page.

Handy’s playful text creates a satisfying rhythm — precious things are taken from us and then returned — and he introduces enough surprises to keep it fresh over the book’s 80 pages.

Corrin’s pictures are wonderful, by turns ebullient and intimate.

The cheekily titled ALL ABOUT NOTHING (Charlesbridge, 32 pp., $17.99, ages 4 to 8), written by Elizabeth Rusch and illustrated by Elizabeth Goss, is a lilting rumination on various sorts of nothings. This is a well-crafted picture book, with a carefully calibrated balance between words and images. The gnomic pronouncement, “Nothing … changes the way you look,” for instance, is grounded by an illustration of a child who’s lost a front tooth. Goss’s cut-paper pictures, which frame negative space, are well suited to the subject, a point gracefully made in the book’s finale.

Or almost finale. The last two pages present 11 paragraphs of dense prose that restates points made more elegantly, and economically, in the preceding pages.

“Backmatter” — basically a long author’s note or afterword — has become commonplace in contemporary picture books, especially nonfiction. Educators love backmatter. Publishers encourage it. But kids aren’t exactly clamoring for it.

And it’s always a bummer when a picture book ends beautifully, then suddenly turns into a textbook — it’s like a pilot who softly brings a plane in for a three-point landing, then taxis for another hour while explaining Bernoulli’s principle over the intercom.

In THE MUSEUM OF NOTHING (Minerva, 48 pp., $18.99, ages 4 to 9), by Steven Guarnaccia, two kids take a trip to the titular museum, touring galleries like the Nobody Room and the Zero Wing. The exhibits abound with allusions and visual puns (a portrait of Zero Mostel, for example, with a “0” where his head should be).

To understand everything going on in the museum, readers will have to consult the — you guessed it — backmatter: three pages of entries on everything from the painter Robert Ryman to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. It’s irksome when reading backmatter is the only way to comprehend the picture book itself.

Luckily, our two plucky protagonists get into enough mischief to keep the story bouncing along. And Guarnaccia’s drawings are lively and appealing.

LUDWIG AND THE RHINOCEROS (NorthSouth, 40 pp., $19.95, ages 5 to 8), written by Noemi Schneider and illustrated by Golden Cosmos (Doris Freigofas and Daniel Dolz), takes a classroom debate between the philosophers Ludwig Wittgenstein and Bertrand Russell and transplants it to a child’s bedroom.

It’s hugely entertaining. A boy insists that there’s a rhinoceros in his room, and his poor father, shown in several hilariously unflattering positions as he searches for the beast, is unable to prove that there’s not one.

The story succeeds as both a philosophical dialogue and a classic tale of bedtime delaying tactics. And the book itself is a thrilling object, printed on heavy stock in colors that vibrate on the page.

Marshall Yarbrough’s charming translation from the German shines, especially in the — plot twist! — excellent backmatter, which discusses the original rhinoceros debate and explains what philosophers do.

There are some lessons here for picture book makers: Backmatter works best when it deepens the themes of the book, feels incorporated into the artistic whole — and is written from the point of view of a rhinoceros.

Mac Barnett’s most recent picture book is “How Does Santa Go Down the Chimney?,” illustrated by Jon Klassen.