This year BookExpo goes virtual, with the New Picture Book Showcase panel—live online Friday, May 29 at 4 p.m. ET—highlighting six upcoming picture books that encourage young readers (and parents) to shift perspective, slow down, and be thankful. PW spoke with the panelists about their featured stories, delving into their inspiration and hopes for each title.

T.L. McBeth, author and illustrator of Randy, the Badly Drawn Horse (Holt), says the idea for the titular character evolved slowly, first appearing as a sketch in his notebook one night. “My wife and I play this game where one of us draws something and the other tries to re-draw it in their own style. She drew a wonky looking horse, and then I copied him.” Later, flipping through sketchbooks, the absurd drawing of a horse made him laugh, so he spruced it up and posted it on Instagram. Right away, he received an email from his agent asking for the ridiculous horse’s story. “As goofy as he is, he really has a ‘star quality’ about him,” McBeth says.

“First and foremost, I hope Randy will make kids laugh because it’s a very silly story,” McBeth says, but he also hopes Randy inspires kids to come up with their own unexpected characters to write stories about. “When you’re a kid who is just starting to draw, your work might not be as perfect as you’d like. Randy’s adventure eventually leads him to find the beauty in his own flaws.”

Nina Mata, who previously collaborated with Olympic gymnast Laurie Hernandez for She’s Got This, teams up with LeBron James for I Promise (HarperCollins), a picture book inspired by the values and initiatives of his foundation’s I PROMISE campaign in Akron, Ohio, which is dedicated to uplifting youth by providing keys to future success.

Mata signed on for the project after seeing photographs of kids participating in the program and reading the manuscript. She says she was taken by the pledges about being kind, being a leader, trying your hardest, and not giving up, but she was especially interested in the kids she saw in the photos. “I’m a big advocate for diversity and inclusion,” she says. “I want to make sure that kids see somebody like them, so I make it a point to include as many kids as I can in every book that I do. Having this platform as an artist who makes books, I want to change the narrative for all kids.” Mata adds that I Promise is a good book to read at the beginning of the school year. “The energy is there. We wanted it to be as fun, engaging, and bright as possible,” she says.

Debut author Jorma Taccone of The Lonely Island fame, a comedy trio known for its SNL digital shorts and comedic feature films, partners with Caldecott Medalist Dan Santat for Little Fox and the Wild Imagination (Roaring Brook). The story was inspired by Taccone’s son, who, as a toddler, often said to him, “Now I will put you in a mail truck and throw you in the ocean and then a shark will eat you all gone.” Taccone says he originally approached the project as a novelty of sorts, or “spoof of The Runaway Bunny,” the sweet tone replaced with “your kid wanting you to get eaten by a dinosaur.” But, he says, it became a deeper story about a parent and child connecting.

“As [Taccone] was shaping the story, it became more heartfelt,” Santat says. “There’s a beautiful patience to this story that I think a lot of parents will relate to. You realize these are moments that are precious, so you do what you can to cherish them.”

Taccone’s collaboration with Santat began unconventionally, with Taccone emailing Santat for advice about writing picture books—at Taccone’s mother’s suggestion. After corresponding for weeks, Santat introduced Taccone to his agent, the book was picked up, and Taccone requested that Santat illustrate. “It was very surreal,” Santat says with a laugh.

Turtle Walk (Greenwillow), written and illustrated by Matt Phelan, was also inspired by the author’s experience as a parent, when he and his toddler regularly took hour-long walks around the block in their neighborhood. The idea of a long, slow walk with family stuck in Phelan’s head, until it came together with the idea of turtles. In the book, a family of turtles begins a slow, steady walk in spring, which stretches through seasons to deliver them, during winter, to a snowy hill that’s perfect for sledding.

Phelan says he’s interested in picture books for very young readers, noting that like his previous books Druthers and Pignic, Turtle Walk employs repetitive cadence. “I wanted to create the picture book version of slow cooking,” he says. “The rhythm of the repeated words will, hopefully, slow readers down. I hope the children that read the story get to slow down, too.”

Publisher and editor Arthur Levine pulled from his own experience growing up in an observant Jewish family during the Christmas season in his predominantly Christian town for his picture book, The Hanukkah Magic of Nate Gadol (Candlewick). “As a child, I couldn’t help but be overwhelmed by Christmas. It’s a time of year that I felt total erasure. Every store and town block was decorated for Christmas, all of the commercials were about Christmas, and all of the television shows had Christmas specials.” It struck Levine that, as wonderful as Hanukkah is with its traditions, it didn’t have any “non-religious mythology”: no version of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer or Frosty the Snowman that were simply beloved traditions. “Now that I’ve grown up and I have a son,” Levine says,” I wanted to do a tiny bit to address that imbalance and create some mythology adjacent to Hanukkah, but not about it.” He adds that “as corny as it sounds,” he hopes readers find “another angle on joy that brightens up their holiday season” within the book’s pages.

Spring 2018 Flying Start author Jessica Love brings back the much-loved character Julián from her award-winning picture book debut, in Julián at the Wedding (Candlewick), which began with Love thinking about gender expectations for girls, specifically “good girl behavior” that begins “so early and so insidiously.” She says the story itself, however, began with a specific tableau: “A little kid at a wedding, under the table with smuggled cake, surrounded by adult feet and fancy shoes.” Pulling from her exploration of gender roles and inspired by “the feeling of [how] joyful and thrilling it was to be a little kid at a grown-up party, when all of the rules of normal behavior are suspended,” Love introduces an adventurous flower girl to the mix, exploring the ways in which perfection stifles fun.

Love says that while she’s not trying to teach children lessons with her books, she is sometimes “trying to teach grown-ups a lesson.” With this new story, Love hopes it reminds parents to “be vigilant of what they ask of their children.”

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