Not Just for Kids: Indoor pleasures in 'In,' 'Home' and 'Small Person'

In Nikki McClure's 'In,' a boy in his PJs finds a world waiting within

We grown-ups can be a house-proud lot, with our real estate obsessions and home improvement preoccupations — but children, with their treasured possessions, random collections and ability to conjure expansive worlds within the confines of their rooms, may be the most devoted nesters of all. A handful of recent picture books invites young readers to consider the many comforts of home.

"I only want to stay in," Nikki McClure writes in the opening pages of her warmly evocative book "In" (Abrams Appleseed: $16.95, 36 pp, ages 2-8). "In my pajamas. Inside. In. In. In."

McClure — a veteran of the Olympia, Wash., music scene, including the early '90s Riot Grrrl movement, and the author and illustrator of books such as "Apple" and "How to Be a Cat" — here uses the bold yet beautifully delicate black-and-white paper cutouts for which she is well known to wonderfully nuanced effect.

Brightened by swaths and splashes of sunshine-golden yellow, the book's pages follow the adventures of a small boy in striped pajamas who, loyally accompanied by his toy giraffe, turns a basket into a rocket ship and sets out to explore "innerspace." There, milky mint tea and marmalade-slathered popovers await, and books can be enjoyed contentedly in a lap or the bathroom. Eventually, outdoor adventures beckon, offering raindrops to march through, puddles to splash in, branches to peer out from and owls — "lots of owls" — to contemplate at nightfall, until it's time to return, cold and wet, to the warmth of home and bed. "In. In. In."

McClure's is a world where adult practicality is glimpsed only in the margins — a hand holds a pair of shoes here, a teapot there — and childhood imagination takes center stage. In this world, an ordinary household item like a colander can transform into a hill, a helmet or hiding spot, "every kind of owl" may gather to be examined by flashlight, and a pint-size pajama-wearing person has the freedom to travel wherever his curiosity and creativity take him, knowing that, when ready, he can always return home.

Of course, home can mean different things to different people … or animals … or mythical creatures, a point plainly and prettily made in "Home" (Candlewick: $16.99, 40 pp, ages 4-8), written and illustrated by McClure's fellow Oregonian Carson Ellis in her debut solo picture book.

"Home is a house in the country," Ellis observes, alongside an ink and gouache illustration of a cozy cottage with smoke rising from its chimney and horses galloping nearby. "Or home is an apartment," she notes on the next spread, offering an urban landscape of graffiti-decorated buildings, rooftop water towers and curtained windows through which houseplants, happy cats, a coffee cup and contemplative city dwellers can be seen.

From there Ellis — who has illustrated bestselling kids books including Trenton Lee Stewart's "The Mysterious Benedict Society," Lemony Snicket's "The Composer Is Dead," and "The Wildwood Chronicles" by her husband, Colin Meloy, and is the illustrator-in-residence for Meloy's indie band, the Decemberists — launches into the faraway and fantastical. Hewing to favored hues of deep blue, white, gray, sienna, umber, scarlet and magenta, Ellis presents homes that are boats, wigwams, palaces, "underground lairs" and even … shoes.

Ellis' conjured homes are a bit of a jumble: The moderately cluttered kitchen of a "babushka" shares a spread with the otherworldly abode of a "Moonian"; the disparate dwellings of "French people" and "Atlantians" appear on facing pages. But if Ellis allows herself to meander, as she riffs on her theme, it may be because, like the boy in McClure's "In," she has followed her imagination where it led. For her too it ultimately takes her back home.

"This is my home, and this is me," she says, before asking the reader, "Where are you?"

Home can be a room that perfectly reflects our interests, a space where we can behave as we like and arrange our "precious things" precisely as we choose, secure that "no one" will move them "one inch," as it is for erstwhile only child and newly minted older brother Elmore Green in the characteristically perceptive and funny "The New Small Person" (Candlewick: $17.99, 32 pp, ages 4-8) by Lauren Child, the deservedly beloved author and illustrator behind the "Charlie and Lola" and "Clarice Bean" books.

Elmore adores having his own room, where he can watch his favorite TV shows, line up his toys and eat "every single bean" in his jelly-bean collection all by himself, and he's not at all pleased when his parents bring home a "new person" who, while small, gets in his way. Still, once it becomes clear that the new person can't be returned, Elmore comes to learn that a good companion can make cartoons funnier, toys more fun and nighttime a little less scary. Homes can feel warmer when we share them with others.

The same can be said of good picture books.

Reiter is a writer who lives in New York.

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