Picture books are books with pictures, of course, which is what makes them so special. And sometimes those pictures take on something extra special in a story.
Sometimes the words wouldn’t make sense without the illustrations. Sometimes illustrations enrich the story or add another thread to follow. They can give us clues. They can contradict the text so readers have an inside track on what’s really going on. And they can reveal something essential that would be invisible in the text alone.
Here are some examples in which the visual is vital to the storytelling.
Lizard From The Park by Mark Pett is a wonderful example. See that boy with glasses in the bottom left on the subway? He’s a parallel to Leonard—he too has his own lizard. In the end, the two boys meet. But if you’ve been following the illustrations closely, you’ll be waiting for it.
Super Jumbo by Fred Koehler. This book hinges on the difference between text and images. Is Jumbo really as super as described?
A Dark, Dark Cave by Eric Hoffman, illustrated by Corey R. Tabor. You and the characters are in a dark, dark cave. Until an illustration reveals where you all really are—in your imagination. It’s a wonderful and surprising technique.
The Great Paper Caper by Oliver Jeffers. This one offers visual clues to the mystery of where the trees are disappearing to. Like that bear over there!
Mummy Cat by Marcus Ewert, illustrated by Lisa Brown. A mummified cat wakes up and reads a dark, devious history on the walls in this story in a story.
I Can See Just Fine by Eric Barclay. Another example of illustrations telling a contrasted tale from the text. Paige claims she can see just fine. But can she?
Happy Birthday Madame Chapeau by Andrea Beaty and David Roberts. There is an adorable girl you might not notice the first time around, but she has the most important supporting role. She makes the whole thing sing (“Happy Birthday”).
The Whisper by Pamela Zagarenski is about visual stories. So that fox may never get a mention, but he is integral nonetheless.
Night Animals by Giana Marino. Just follow the possum. It will tell you everything you need to know just by its eyes.
Sam & Dave Dig a Hole by Mac Barnett, illustrated by Jon Klassen. A gem of an example in which we (and the dog!) know more than the characters. (Thanks to Heather for bringing this one up in a previous post comment!)
Be a Friend by Salina Yoon. The girl on the swing is someone to keep an eye on. I love how she subtly mirrors Dennis in earlier illustrations before she mirrors him for real.
It’s Only Stanley by Jon Agee. The visuals are fun throughout here, but it’s the ending that they truly earn. You’ll see. It’s out of this world.
No Such Thing by Ella Bailey shows the reader stuff the main character can’t see. And I love that!
I don’t want to say too much about this book because it’s full of surprises. But I think it’s safe to say it’s mischievous, brave, and oh so much fun!
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A Hungry Lion plays with our assumptions, with page turns, with wordless or nearly wordless spreads, and with a spunky narrator. And then it turns everything on its head. Possibly more than once.
The beginning spreads set up a pattern. There’s an assortment of animals. And it’s dwindling. We can all imagine who the culprit is. Just look at his fangs! His angry orange mane!
Look how he hums, innocently, but how pig looks quite nervous nonetheless. But need she be? That is the question this book asks. One of them anyway.
Here’s a surprise I referred to! A cake and party surprise, one of the best kinds! Oh, but the story doesn’t end there. Not at all. There are more surprises in store, along with an answer to the question of who’s king of the animal kingdom after all. It might have less to do with fangs and an angry orange mane than was first assumed.
Those dwindling animals as cake toppers immediately came to mind for this picture book craft. There’s even a cake in the book itself! So, cake it had to be. As such, I enlisted the help of my dude, Todd Davis, to whip up a lion cake with a ribbony mane. Because he’s the guy to ask for stuff like that. Come see what we made!
That’s a hungry lion cake. And that’s a dwindling assortment of animal cake toppers.
What you need:
A cake! If you make it like we did, you can go homemade or boxed in terms of cake and frosting. For eating, buttercream is best (and mentioned in the book). We used three cake layers for the base/mane, and one layer for the face.
Three 9 ” cake pans
One or two 6 ” cake pans
A spatula or butter knife
Decorating tips (104, one small round one, and a large round one—or whatever you choose)
We made our animal cake toppers first. We eyeballed the animals in the book to draw them, colored them in, and cut them out imprecisely. We taped one or two to each slender cake candle, and done! This is a great thing to do while your cakes bake. And when you’re ready, mix your food coloring with frosting (it takes a lot of red to make that deeper orange) in three separate bowls (two oranges and one black for face details).
Frost between layers and stack them, then frost the entire surface area. Next, decorate, face first! Frost with orange and add features. Play! Our nose is made from part of that extra small cake we made and set on the face. But you can do it however you like. For the mane, Todd used a 104 petal decorating tip and went around and around with it making a thick squiggly line.
You won’t be hungry after eating this cake! And you will be satisfied after reading this book, making this craft, or both.
This cover is everything for me. Wow and wow. That’s Tokyo. And that’s his cat Kevin (who likes ice cream). And that’s the garden that grows. Isn’t it wonderful?
(Click image(s) to enlarge.)
This is a story about cities and nature with a boy, a grandfather, and a cat at its center.
It echoes fairy tales with its magic. With the way the boy is mysteriously chosen by an old woman. And, of course, the three seeds she gives him. The way they contain a wish.
And I love how we are never told what Kevin’s wish is. But we know. Because he’s heard those stories from his grandfather about a time with salmon and streams, a time that’s now gone. That’s been eaten.
“Cities had to eat something, after all.”
“Gardens have to grow somewhere, after all.”
This pair of lines serves as bookends. Cities do have to eat! Gardens do have to grow! How can we make the two work together, the book asks? Can we get used to a new way of life in cities? What would happen if nature took over us the way we’ve taken over nature?
Nature taking over doesn’t, in the end, feel apocalyptic. It feels pretty cool. Like something we can work around and learn to like (rowing to work and sloths in the elevator, for example). And the story never feels like a treatise. It feels like a flight of fancy about how the world could be.
This Picture Book Life: Please tell us about naming your main character Tokyo and how that relates to what you envisioned for the setting of the book. What significance does Tokyo have to you?
Jon-Erik Lappano: There’s definitely a backstory with Tokyo. I first came up with the idea for the story while working as a landscaper in the centre of Toronto, Canada, transforming tiny backyards and rooftops into mini-ecosystems. The gardens we designed in the early years were heavily influenced by Japanese aesthetic, as the owner of the company had spent time apprenticing in Tokyo. One of the first projects I worked on was designing and installing a small pond with a bamboo water spout. I was taught about the art of Suiseki, which translates to “stone appreciation,” and spent hours carefully placing boulders to frame the water feature. I so wholeheartedly embraced the process, that my boss affectionately referred to me as “To-chan,” a nickname you might give to a younger brother named Tokyo.
The name has reverberated in my head since then. I had the title for at least a decade before I had written anything down.Tokyo Digs a Garden was always there in the back of my mind, scrawled on notebooks with accompanying doodles of Tokyo and his wild urban garden.
I loved the contrast in naming a small, thoughtful boy after the world’s largest mega-city. I also felt Tokyo was a really unlikely name for a main character, which added to the general weirdness of the story.
Fun-fact: Kevin the cat is based on a stray (and well-fed) cat named Kevin that hung out in my apartment for a few weeks around the same time. I’m sure he’s still out there, somewhere, roaming the alleyways of Toronto.
TPBL: Why did you want to write this book?
JL: I’m an environmentalist at heart, and I’ve always worked in sustainability (formerly as a journalist, a youth educator, and now leading the communications of a Canadian environmental non-profit). I wonder if the reason for our ill-treatment of our environment begins with the disconnection we draw between ourselves and the ‘natural world.’ I never understood that separation — we’re a part of it.
I wanted to write this book to convey the idea to children that our cities are also natural places. They’re teeming with the wild, we just need to let it out a bit.
We shouldn’t have to retreat to the wilderness to discover a love of nature. We can cultivate an environmental ethic in the cityscapes where many of us live. Weeds push through cracks in pavement, birds nest in windowsills, and people (animals) set up shop in concrete and timber and steel and glass. The point is, we’re all part of the same ecosystem; ours just looks starkly different and has typically destroyed whatever lies in its path – but it doesn’t have to be that way, and earth is not so easily defeated. With an increase in green urban design, biomimicry and low-carbon infrastructure, I think we’re starting to get that.
Tokyo Digs a Garden is less about living in harmony in nature (although that’s certainly important), and more about understanding that the wild is waiting beneath the bricks and concrete of our cities. The ecological memory of what our cities once were is just beneath the surface, and the wilderness will absolutely return and flourish, if given the chance.
TPBL: I love the way Tokyo’s parents are only mentioned in passing, to further the story of how the garden is changing the city. How did you decide to have his grandfather be Tokyo’s co-star?
JL: Tokyo is a child of working parents, which I felt was a likely indicator of his family’s economic status (being in a tiny house that has been swallowed up by the pace of growth). It made sense to me that he’d spend most of his days with his grandfather. I’m a parent of two wonderful, imaginative, and wild young children. My partner Stephanie and I are lucky to get to spend a lot of time with them, but we love that they also learn from others in their lives.
There is a richness and depth to intergenerational relationships that can’t be passed on from parent to child. They are relationships that are often short-lived and important to cherish. I think this is especially true when gaining knowledge of our environments (natural or built). When things change as fast as they do, it’s important to be able to time-travel through the stories of our elders. We’re pretty wrapped up in instantaneous time. Stories from close to a century ago at least root us to timelines that are closer to the natural rhythm of things. Tokyo’s grandfather can tell stories of the way things used to be – not to go back, but to put their lives in context.
Only Tokyo and his grandfather have the space and time to let their imaginations run as wild as the garden they plant: one stems from the boundless possibility of childhood, the other from the visceral imagery of nostalgia. This kept lines of reality blurred in the story, which made it a lot of fun to write: did the garden really grow or is it an imaginary pact between the two generations?
TPBL: What was your favorite thing about first seeing Kellen Hatanaka’s illustrations? How did they surprise you or further tell the story in a way you admired?
JL: I’m a huge fan of Kellen’s work. My home office is plastered with his prints. Getting the opportunity to collaborate with him was so exciting.
His illustrations brought a vibrancy and quirky humour to the story that simply wasn’t there before. His brilliant use of collage and colour added a sense of surreality to the book that I think took it to strange and exciting new places. He brought Kevin and his quest for ice-cream to life. I also love the other-worldly body types Kellen used for characters in the book, especially the old woman who gives Tokyo the seeds and Grandfather, of course. Grandfather is the coolest. I want to hang out with that guy, and eat whatever they are having for lunch on that spread.
My 2 and 4 year old daughters also love pouring over every page pointing out the endless details in the illustrations. The illustrations keep their attention, which opens up the space for storytelling.
This Picture Book Life: How did you come to work on this project and what drew you to it after reading the manuscript?
Kellen Hatanaka: Jon-Erik is actually my brother-in-law, so we’ve known each other long before the idea of publishing this book came about. I think he and I were driving back from a family gathering and we got to talking about this idea for a story he had come up with while working as a landscaper. I instantly fell in love with the story and the characters. At the time I had already published my first book, Work: An Occupational ABC, with Groundwood and was in the process of pitching ideas for my follow up. Jon-Erik had a manuscript ready to go so I suggested that I send it over to Groundwood to see if there was any interest.
TPBL: The way you transform the city from modern and full of symbols to lush and more livable is incredible. One detail I especially admire is the way the muted buildings at the start have features that give them faces, as though they’re the things that are alive in this place rather than the people. Machines are “eating” a tree by cutting it down with utensil-shaped implements. And the billboards! A hamburger billboard changes to one featuring veggies. Will you talk about your intent and process with some or all of those elements?
KH: The city’s transformation is one of the most important aspects of the book and one of the most difficult challenges that I faced while creating the illustrations. I wanted to make sure that there were clear visual cues to communicate the transition from the congested city to the lush Utopian landscape. The obvious change is that the vegetation becomes over grown and wild, but I wanted the change to feel more severe than just the introduction of a few plants to the roof tops. Starting with a greyed-out, dingy landscape really helped to communicate that the new city was a bright, sunny, and clean place.
Working with another person’s story I feel a great obligation to do their work justice. I was particularly concerned about the line “city’s have to eat something after all.” I love that imagery and I wanted to find a way to capture that sentiment without being too heavy handed. I knew that I wanted to represent the image of the city eating in a literal way, but at the same time I wanted the hints to be subtle. I like the fact that you might not notice all of the visual references to food right away.
TPBL: Who are some of your favorite picture book illustrators right now/big influences of yours?
KH: There are so many amazing picture book illustrators out there that it is really difficult to narrow it down. Jon Klassen, Oliver Jeffers, Chris Haughton and JooheeYoon are a few of my favorites. My influences and inspiration come from a wide variety of art, design and random imagery that I come across day to day.
Huge thanks to both Jon-Erik and Kellen for stopping by!
Heather from Tiny Readers asked me for my 10 favorite picture books (and created that cool image), so here goes! She’s going to feature this on her super inspiring instagram feed, which I hope you’ll check out and follow!
It was a (fun!) doozy choosing! I agonized for days over my choices. I had to narrow it down, so these are all published in the last 15 years. (Stay tuned for a classics edition!)
They are books I have a strong emotional reaction to. They are extraordinary in one way or another (or several all at once). They reflect my own personal tastes and obsessions, but they also feel to me like contemporary classics. They are books that have beauty as well as meaning and heart. They are books that will last and are rich when returned to.
Here goes in no particular order (with apologies to all the wonderful and dear-to-me books I’ve left out):
The Red Tree by Shaun Tan is one of my biggest influences as a writer and Tan is my very favorite creator of the form. This picture book moves me deeply each time I read it. It’s for anyone who feels like they’ve lost their way. It is sad and strange and inventive and full of hope.
Virginia Wolf by Kyo Maclear and Isabelle Arsenault combines the real sisters Virginia and Vanessa with an imagined case of the doldrums and the wolfish mood it can (don’t we know it!) create. It’s through art, through a whimsical place Vanessa envisions called Bloomsbury that turns Virginia from wolf to girl, from gloom to glad again. Plus, Isabelle Arsenault.
Lost and Found by Oliver Jeffers is most certainly a contemporary classic. And for good reason! Jeffers has been incredibly influential to current picture book fare. And this, one of his first, has so much charm and playfulness and an irresistible duo on that umbrella-boat.
Extra Yarn by Mac Barnett, illustrated by Jon Klassen is by two creators/collaborators at the top of their game. I love the illustrations, the sweaters, the whimsy, the knitter at the center of this fairy tale. But what I love most is the surprise twist and the ending. Oh yes.
Jemmy Button by Jennifer Uman & Valerio Vidali is exquisitely illustrated. It’s based on the true and troubling account of Europeans in the 1800s trying to “civilize” someone who had his own civilization he preferred to return to.
The Tree House by Marije Tolman and Ronald Tolman (a father and daughter) is breathtaking and original. It shows off what a wordless picture book can do. It’s about companionship: the wild huzzahs of a party with flamingoes and the calm, content days spent reading in one another’s company.
Happy Birthday, Madame Chapeau by Andrea Beaty, pictures by David Roberts is another incredible collaboration. Wonderful, fun-loving, masterful rhyme. Rich visual details. So much stuff to notice. And at its heart, a talented, solitary woman with a lot of hats and heart to share.
The Lion and the Bird is by Marianne Dubuc, extraordinary author/illustrator. And the pair of characters she’s created is endearing and enduring, the friendship they’ve found as rare as the beauty of this spare and perfectly crafted book. Just look at their matching pink cheeks!
Finally, Swan by Laurel Snyder, illustrated by Julie Morstad, a very recent pick. Julie Morstad has illustrated many very special picture books (This is Sadie, How To) and this one is so gorgeous as to make me weep. Same goes for Snyder’s poetic text that so beautifully conveys the yearning, the passion, the calling of dance and doesn’t shy away from that final scene.
Thanks for the opportunity to highlight some of my very favorite books, Heather! Here’s some more about Heather and Tiny Readers:
Heather Hawkins is a Dallas-based photographer, mother of two and a children’s book enthusiast. Recently she started a project called Tiny Readers which aims to share children’s book reviews as well as feature contributing opinions from other parents, in order to bring awareness to childhood literacy and the benefits of reading. You can check out Tiny Readers on instagram here!
A remarkable book for a remarkable woman. Just look at that cover! It so beautifully captures her spirit with vivid yet textured collage. Fannie Lou— sunlight, voice, and beacon for the other voting rights activists silhouetted behind her. She wears yellow almost every time she’s pictured throughout this gorgeously-illustrated book.
Each spread is an illustration accompanied by a first person poem telling Fannie’s story from her own (imagined combined with quoted) point of view. Every one will move you.
“My mother taught me years ago that black is beautiful.”
Beginning. 1917. Mississippi. The youngest of twenty children. Her parents, sharecroppers. Soon, her dragging cotton in the fields too. “Sharecropping was just slavery by a gentler name. The same folks still had us, had in chains.” But she had a strong, loving mother who gave her a black doll to help her feel proud of who she was.
“When you read…you know—
and you can help yourself and others.”
Middle. Marriage. Hard work. Motherhood. Fannie Lou adopted two children and then was tricked into an operation to prevent her from having any biologically.
She was introduced to her right to vote, a right not honored by any stretch. Fired. Fired at. Beat up. Still, she sang for freedom and civil rights. Fannie Lou ran for congress. She spoke to student volunteers and to lawmakers. She made a televised speech to the Democratic convention about her experience.
“The only thing they could do was kill me
and it seemed like they’d been trying to do that a little bit
at a time ever since I could remember.”
End. 1977. Fannie Lou left a legacy of fighting for justice, helping others, and making a difference by being committed and courageous.
This is a book for the older set of picture book readers (and for everyone) to learn about this important story of civil rights, in the details not just the big moments. To get a glimpse into that struggle and to see how any progress ever made is made by people like Fannie Lou. In fits and starts and setbacks and fierce determination, despite powerful opposition, to see small steps accomplished so all benefit.
You can read Hamer’s testimony about being arrested and beaten when trying to register to vote in Mississippi here.
And Candlewick has a brief video about the book, including an appearance from its author here.