Salina Yoon’s Penguin and Pinecone is this year’s NYSRA Charlotte Award winner for primary grades.
The New York State Reading Association picks books from various genres for different grade levels. After hearing or reading the books, students vote for their favorite. Curious to see what kindergarten and first grade children consider a great book, I decided to review Penguin and Pinecone.
The theme is friendship’s endurance through separation in time and space. Penguin discovers a pinecone, plays with it, knits a scarf for it, and is then instructed by Grandpa to take it to its proper home. “Pinecone belongs in the forest far, far away. He can’t grow big and strong on the ice.” So Penguin embarks on a journey to take Pinecone to the woods, leaves him there encircled in a heart made of stones, and returns to the tundra. Later, Penguin wonders about and longs for his friend, so he returns to the forest to see him. Now a sturdy tree, Pinecone is happily reunited with Penguin until Penguin has to leave since “the forest is no place for a penguin.” The next page expands beyond the time frame of the story and delivers what feels like a moral: “Penguin and Pinecone may have been far apart, but they always stayed in each other’s hearts.” This is followed by a four page coda: “When you give love… it grows.” Out of nowhere a girl penguin joins the story and, just as miraculously, Pinecone, as a grown pine tree with knitted garb, is suddenly surrounded by a flock of similarly bedecked trees. This grand finale doesn’t make sense even in the internal logic of the story, but I imagine it’s a large part of what makes the book appealing to youngsters. The miraculous transformation of one into many, and the homey anthropomorphism of the trees in their handmade woolens does a good job of representing unconditional love. Take The Giving Tree, subtract the martyrdom of the tree character and the capacious greed of the human character, and I think you’re close to the theme of this book.
The epic journey from one habitat to another and from the specific friendship to the abstract musings on love are largely successful because of Yoon’s illustrations. The simple stylized figures and stark backgrounds are appealing. To signal the shift between locations, Yoon employs a dramatically different color palette. And the shifts in perspective from close-ups to long views work very well to help a story that is under two hundred words tackle a big topic, both in depth and breadth.