TIME IS A FLOWER
By Julie Morstad

THE DAY TIME STOPPED
1 Minute — 26 Countries
By Flavia Ruotolo

THE VOLUME
By Luis Camnitzer

ONCE UPON A TIME THERE WAS AND WILL BE SO MUCH MORE
By Johanna Schaible

The concept of time can confound even intelligent grown-ups. The thinking adult may wonder, If I find a concept befuddling, can a child ever hope to understand it? Well, yes. Children are natural philosophers. Their minds are flexible, their observational powers are keen and their attentions are driven by curiosity about the world around them. It’s a humbling truth, but your average kid will outshine your average adult when it comes to contemplating your average mystery of the universe. Time, then, is good grist for a picture book.

We’re in sure hands with Julie Morstad, one of the most gifted artists making picture books today. Her latest, “Time Is a Flower,” opens with a two-page spread that shows an inquisitive child gazing up at a cuckoo clock. The text on the verso constructs a working definition of time that is clear, concise and lovely: “Time is the tock tick tock / of the / clock / and / numbers and words / on a calendar.” Then on the recto the book opens up a trapdoor: “But what else is time?” The question propels us through a gorgeous, lively meditation on time’s many facets.

It’s remarkable how much territory this book covers: geologic time, time zones, our perception of time, time’s effect on the body, the bake time for a loaf of bread. Morstad grounds heady concepts in the observable world — flowers and butterflies serve as biological clocks — and in a child’s experience.

There is a poignant depiction of a timeout: A redhead with pigtails sulks on a stool, tiny against a background of solid black. “Time is / staying in there / to think about what you did. / Maybe you didn’t / mean to?”

Morstad takes kids seriously, which makes her the only kind of adult worth listening to. She’s also a master of picture book craft. She marshals the tools the art form has put at her disposal — composition, color, text and image — to create a rhythm that plays with time itself. The book speeds along for pages and then, suddenly, a picture arrests your attention, and time dilates.

How long did I spend looking at one ingenious illustration tracking several people (and a dog) as they aged? I don’t know. A good while.

Flavia Ruotolo’s “The Day Time Stopped” takes an insight at the heart of so many good stories — that two people can experience the same moment in completely different ways — and uses it to explain the world’s time zones. The story opens in Genoa, Italy, at 5:33 p.m. Our narrator, wearing bright yellow boots and polka-dot pants, relates an extraordinary occurrence in an appealingly straightforward fashion: “Once, just as I was taking the first bite of my popsicle, time stopped.” The following pages take us on a trip around the globe in a single frozen instant, each picture tagged with a location and the time on the ground. In Sapporo, Japan, it’s 1:33 a.m.: “Yuki’s cat was awakened by a noise.” In San Francisco, at 8:33 a.m., “Emma’s dad was reading their breakfast story.”

It’s a clever conceit, though Ruotolo sometimes, well, loses track of time. You can tell someone a secret at any time of day (Melissa tells Marc one in Calgary, Alberta, at 9:33 a.m.), but while I’m sure my dentist would say that any time is a good time to brush your teeth, it’s not really an activity I associate with 11:33 a.m.

Still, this is a delightful journey. The pictures are bright and charming. It’s fun to peek into others’ lives, and the moments we witness are vivid and full of narrative suggestion. Ruotolo’s style is simple, but her storytelling is sophisticated.

To understand what’s going on, readers must pay attention to the words and the pictures. The result is often funny. The text tells us that “Yara’s sister trimmed her bangs.” The illustration tells us the haircut’s a bad one. Right now publishers are pushing a lot of picture book nonfiction — much of it quite dreary — and this book is a welcome reminder that a story can be factual without exactly being true.

“The Volume,” by Luis Camnitzer, begins at the start of time itself. On the opening spread, the Big Bang explodes in a colorful “mess.” From that mess comes a dot, which rotates, drifts, expands and splits. The dots make lines, which become pages, which become a book — the titular volume. Eventually the lines become drawings, and finally, “best of all,” the drawings make “pictures of words.” “This type of drawing came to be known as ‘writing.’ Writing was always showing off the impressive things it could do.”

It’s an odd conclusion, this assertion of the written word’s supremacy, since the picture book is an art form that brooks no hierarchy between text and image. And while lots of Camnitzer’s sentences sparkle, his pictures function more as decoration than narrative illustration. The result is a nicely designed volume, but it’s not really a picture book.

Johanna Schaible’s “Once Upon a Time There Was and Will Be So Much More” is a marvel to hold and to behold. I’ve never seen a book quite like it. Unopened, it’s about 8 by 10 inches. The first spread shows bright magma crashing against black rocks: “Billions of years ago, land took shape.” The next pages are slightly smaller. “Millions of years ago, dinosaurs lived on Earth.” As we hurtle forward through time, we move from the geologic to the historical to the local. “Thousands of years ago, people built some very large things.” “One hundred years ago, a journey took a long time.” “A minute ago, the light was turned off.”

Each time you turn the page, the paper gets smaller and smaller, until you reach the middle of the book, printed on a two-page spread that measures 3.5 by 8.75 inches. It feels quite intimate to see a picture so small in such a big book. It’s a shooting star with the words, “Now! Make a wish!”

And then the book slingshots into the future. As the pages grow larger, and earlier compositions are cleverly repeated, the reader is asked to ponder a series of questions: “Who will you meet next month?” “What will you look back on when you’re old?”

It’s a wonderful feat of bookmaking. No mere gimmick, the changing dimensions help situate the reader in the present and enhance the book’s emotional impact. And the questions give kids plenty to think about. Like the best books, this one will live in the reader’s mind for a long time after its cover closes.

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