When it comes to reading a picture book with a very young child, adults often take the role of expert, having a well-developed familiarity with numbers, letters, and colours. But two new concept picture books take on a topic that most grown readers struggle with their entire lives – moving forward in the world openly, authentically, and full of curiosity.
Ping, the debut picture book by Toronto cartoonist and writer Ani Castillo, starts with a robust maxim: black text against a white background reads, “My friend, in this life … we can only PING. The PONG belongs to the other.” This is followed by an image of a character named Ping – a small, red, vaguely human creature – playing table tennis with Pong, a taller, blue version of Ping. Some adult readers may stop there, worried this book too closely resembles an awkward therapy session. But what follows is accessible, profound, and touching.
The omniscient narrator explains the many different ways we can “ping,” including smiling, making something creative, being curious. After choosing how to send their “ping” out into the world, readers are told that they will also have a choice in how they respond to the reaction their “ping” elicits. This is the art of receiving the “pong,” which may be useful, challenging, or expendable.
The book’s message is comforting and understandable for both children and adults. Rather than taking a binary approach to describing certain behaviours as positive and others as negative, Ping simply advocates for giving and receiving authentically, while also avoiding self-loathing or blame: “Although it’s good to imagine the best possible Pong, it helps to remember that it is not up to you.”
Castillo’s watercolour illustrations are made up of simple, largely placeless scenes, keeping the focus on her words. The main character most often wears serene expressions, while remaining childlike with round, rosy cheeks. Ping is a rare picture book that would work equally well in a kindergarten classroom or as a thoughtful self-help purchase for a struggling friend.
Ping speaks to individuals on a personal level; The Little Book of Big What-Ifs asks readers to think more broadly about different perspectives. Author and illustrator Renata Liwska poses a series of hypothetical questions represented by fuzzy animal characters. For instance, “What if you make the time?” is accompanied by a serene bear meditatively raking a sand garden. “What if you go off the beaten path?” is matched with the image of rabbit revelling in a group of friendly butterflies. Liwska’s combination of pencil and digital art is peaceful and cozy, radiating a subtle, filtered glow that suggests everything will remain safe in the midst of all these big questions.
The illustrations are a highlight, but the organization of the different “what-if” situations is a bit baffling. Most of the questions are presented side-by-side in pairs, which works well when the scenarios are related: “What if you make a mistake?” shows a baby elephant peering helplessly out of a hole while “What if we all work together?” has a group of helpers coming to the elephant’s rescue. But other spreads have pairs of questions that are totally unrelated. The book finishes by following a “what-if” to its conclusion: “What if everyone shared? What if it spreads? What a difference it would make!” This suggests that the book’s overall message is to encourage imaginative and curious thinking that will ultimately benefit the collective, but this conclusion does not easily follow from the haphazard laundry list of hypothetical questions.
The quest to be one’s best self, while also considering the thoughts and feelings of others, requires introspection, self-awareness, and open dialogue. The Little Book of Big What-Ifs strives to be an introduction for children to think beyond themselves, while Ping successfully supports the journey at any age.