Show and Tell: 4 Picture Books About Friendship

BEST FRIEND IN THE WHOLE WORLD
By Sandra Salsbury

SHY WILLOW
By Cat Min

THE BOY WHO LOVED EVERYONE
By Jane Porter
Illustrated by Maisie Paradise Shearring

FROM ARCHIE TO ZACK
By Vincent X. Kirsch

Who is the “Best Friend in the Whole World”? Could it be a pine cone? Seen in Sandra Salsbury’s velvet-hued watercolors, these seed pods have character. Some are spiky. Some look as if they’re doing the twist, or wearing tall, thatched hats. But friendship with a pine cone seems like … a one-way kind of thing.

Roland doesn’t notice. “A quiet life of drawing, and music, and drinking tea” has left this well-dressed young rabbit desperate for company. Sometimes he walks in the woods “hoping, just maybe,” to find a friend. Compared with the sequoia-like trees that tower over him, Roland is very small, and utterly alone. Hence the pine cone. Roland gives it a name and keeps it with him while he draws more drawings, makes more music and drinks more tea.

One day, Roland finds handwritten notes stuck to the trees near his home. Someone has lost a beloved pine cone — a pine cone that looks suspiciously like Roland’s. What to do? If Roland returns the missing pine cone, he’ll lose his only friend.

Once Roland imagines how lonely the author of the notes must feel, he acts with compassion — and in doing so, makes a new friend. Who is the “Best Friend in the Whole World”? After reading this sweet, sensitive tale, children can decide for themselves.

When we first see “Shy Willow,” the title character of Cat Min’s lushly illustrated picture book, her rabbit ears are sticking straight up through the letter slot of an abandoned mailbox. She’s clearly on the alert.

Glimpses of the sketches she’s taped up inside her mailbox home hint at her state of mind. Rather than face the perils of the outdoors (snakes, cars, soccer balls and children among them), Willow would prefer to stay in and draw.

Min illustrates this portrait of the artist as a young rabbit with layered mixed-media paintings that incorporate colored pencil and watercolor. Her palette, ranging from the deepest sea-blue to bright oranges, pinks and violets, evokes a richly mysterious night; a night in which dreams could come true.

But it’s the written word that gets the action going. Although Willow’s mailbox is out of service, a letter slips through the slot. In it, a little boy named Theo begs the moon to shine into his mother’s window on her birthday.

Willow imagines how disappointed Theo and his mother will be — “waiting and staring at a dark, empty sky” — if the moon doesn’t appear. Can that compassion galvanize Willow to deliver Theo’s letter to the moon? As with Roland, Shy Willow’s brave, generous actions help her find the community she needs.

When it comes to making friends, words are powerful. Can they ever get in the way? In “The Boy Who Loved Everyone,” Dimitri spends his first morning at preschool telling every living creature he meets — right down to the classroom guinea pig — that he loves them.

Jane Porter (“This Rabbit, That Rabbit,” “King Otter”) writes most of this story in dialogue, letting readers hear the poignant disconnection between Dimitri’s kind words and the awkward silences he receives in return.

It’s no wonder Dimitri is reluctant to return to school the next day. On the walk there, his mother reassures him: When you say you love someone, they feel it, “even if they don’t say it back or show it.” She points out other ways people show their love.

When Dimitri arrives, something is different. Now the other children invite him to play, and he gets “a warm feeling.” Did his love for them spark the change, or was it the other kids’ sympathy that made them welcome him? Either way, or both, it’s a happy ending. Dimitri can enjoy school for all it offers.

In Maisie Paradise Shearring’s illustrations, the school is a bright, cheerful place, with students and staff of all skin tones, wearing a wild array of patterns and costumes. Lap readers will enjoy the busy background scenes, showing children tugging on rain boots, playing dress up and, yes, washing their hands.

The two friends in Vincent X. Kirsch’s “From Archie to Zack” do everything together, from riding bikes to flying rainbow kites. Though all the kids at their elementary school know this pair love each other, “Archie couldn’t say it. Zack couldn’t say it. But they wanted to.”

Archie expresses his love in letters, but squirrels them away on the school grounds instead of sending them. When his classmates find the notes, they make sure they get to Zack.

Zack, in the meantime, has been working on his own note to Archie.

Kirsch’s long list of accomplishments includes another fabulous book about friendship, “Freddie and Gingersnap,” and illustrations for The New York Times. Though his pen line is reminiscent of Ronald Searle’s satiric drawing for the midcentury Molesworth series, Kirsch’s candy-bright colors and generous sensibility are far from old school.

Other picture books depict the deep love of one child for another, but things can get complicated. In Thomas Scotto and Olivier Tallec’s poetic 2018 “Jerome by Heart,” Raphael’s parents scowl at his feelings for Jerome. Kirsch’s Archie and Zack bask in the smiles of everyone they encounter. What an enlightened, encouraging view of friendship.

You’d want that, wouldn’t you, even if you had to start with a pine cone?

Sarah Harrison Smith, a former editor at The Times, teaches writing at Johns Hopkins University.

BEST FRIEND IN THE WHOLE WORLD
By Sandra Salsbury
40 pp. Peachtree. $17.99.
(Ages 4 to 8)

SHY WILLOW
By Cat Min
48 pp. Levine Querido. $15.99.
(Ages 4 to 7)

THE BOY WHO LOVED EVERYONE
By Jane Porter
Illustrated by Maisie Paradise Shearring
32 pp. Candlewick. $16.99.
(Ages 3 to 7)

FROM ARCHIE TO ZACK
By Vincent X. Kirsch
40 pp. Abrams Books for Young Readers. $17.99.
(Ages 4 to 8)

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