Category Archives: their picture book life
Allen Say. Where do I begin? Grandfather’s Journey was the book that introduced me to Say’s work. It hit a nerve because it’s about home and the absence of home. All Say’s books are rooted in a certain time and place. In specificity. They are beautiful, realistic watercolor paintings accompanying unadorned text. They are straightforward and they always seem true. They have compassion for their characters. They reflect on the past in a way that is satisfyingly bittersweet.
Say deals with culture in such a fluid, loving way. Culture and place are things we can leave and return to, things that will always be with us no matter where we travel or how we change. We can return to a culture or adopt parts of a new one. We can have two cultures simultaneously, always with our hearts leading the way.
Nature. Generations. Japan. California. Immigration. Family. Duality. Kindness. Moments of beauty and connection.
This is a book I fell hard for, long before I was immersed in picture books as I am now. It was a gateway for sure! Three generations. Two places. Journeys back and forth. About the book, here, Say remarks: “it is essentially a dream book, for the life’s journey is an endless dreaming of the places we have left behind and the places we have yet to reach.” Also, the way Say portrays light in these pages is incredible.
“Painting is a kind of writing, and writing is a kind painting—
they are both about seeing.”
A story of a dream of visiting a Japanese Internment Camp. A bad dream that ends with hope.
“Most people seem to be interested in turning their dreams into reality. Then there are those who turn reality into dreams. I belong to the latter group.”
A story of adoption in which a girl who questions why she isn’t with her “real” family eventually adopts a new family member of her own—a stray cat. It’s heartbreaking and poignant.
Another favorite. This one encompasses so much, as chronicling one specific life does. Alice loved music and dancing, but so many things got in the way. World War II and being an enemy in her own country, building a farm and a life with her husband, colorful fields of gladiolas in the desert. And then, after a life lived, a husband passed away, Alice can finally dance.
A celebration of Japan’s tradition of “paper theater,” an old form of storytelling that requires presence and attention (and, fittingly, one might say is a relative of picture books).
Erika is an American who sees a print of a tea house in Japan and it guides her through life. She travels there to teach after college and meets a Japanese man who drinks coffee like an American, not tea. This is part of Say’s brilliance—the way he deals with traditions. You can find new ones and discover old ones whether they “belong” to you or not.
Masako is also called May. She moves to Japan and finds herself a foreigner. In San Francisco: “At home she had rice and miso soup and plain green tea for breakfast. At her friends’ houses she ate pancakes and muffins and drank tea with milk and sugar.” In Japan: “They called her gaijin [foreigner] and laughed at her.” But then, she finds a way for herself.
This is a story of a father and daughter, a daughter who doesn’t feel quite at home with her name, Yuriko. But, in line with the themes Say returns to again and again, she comes home to her name, to herself, to her identity—as Japanese-American, as an artist, as herself.
This is Say’s illustrated biography and it also gives the backstory of where some of his stories came from. He was a boy who loved comic books and had to prove himself to his father who didn’t believe in him. He was so independent that he had his own apartment at the age of 13. But he found a sensei, and that made all the difference. In a way, the whole book is a tribute to his teacher and he even describes it in the afterword like they wrote it together. Like his stories and fiction, Say’s memoir brings tears too.
“I wasn’t a good student. It was depressing to count the years before I could be a cartoonist.”
A sequel to Drawing From Memory, this memoir picks up when Say arrives in America at the age of fifteen in 1953 and, once again, is very much on his own but in a new land, California.
“A panic came over me. But the singing crickets calmed me a little—they sounded just like Japanese crickets.”
Remarkably, he manages well in a place where he doesn’t know the culture or language well and, to some, is still seen as an enemy. There are kindnesses of a few strangers in addition to his own determination despite a father who is not just unsupportive but cruel. His own drive and talent carve his way. The most amazing part is the end, where you find out Say’s mother had been born in San Francisco and that’s where Say heads after his high school graduation. There’s that connection with his mother from the first book coming back around and that duality from all his stories. His mother had told him, “Let your dear chid journey,” a Japanese saying. He journeyed. All the way to her other home.
Because I love sharing books, especially by creators I admire, I’m giving away a copy of THE INKER’S SHADOW! Simply leave a comment on this post about Allen Say’s work to enter!
(Open to U.S. only; ends Sunday, March 20 at midnight.)
Amy Krouse Rosenthal is a prolific picture book writer. By reading her books, you know she is someone who loves language. You also know she is someone who likes to PLAY with language. She explores words and phrases in the most inventive ways. But those words and phrases are doing something else too. They are making us smile the kinds of smiles that recognize something true.
There’s a little bit of Ruth Krauss‘s understanding of a child’s mind in Krouse Rosenthal’s voice. There’s silliness. There’s smart. There’s hope.
She’s collaborated with Tom Lichtenheld, with Jen Corace, with Scott Magoon. She has done projects like The Beckoning of Lovely. She’s been a guest DJ on my favorite local radio show. She is full of creativity combined with joy.
Come see some of her books!
Duck! Rabbit! by Amy Krouse Rosenthal & Tom Lichtenheld. In which unseen characters have an argument about what animal they’re looking at. It’s a wonderful way to play with the idea of different and many and varied visual interpretations of the same thing.
this plus that, illustrated by Jen Corace. This one looks at life as a series of non-literal math problems. It teaches as it plays and explores. Some examples of its wisdom: “good days + bad days = real life.” “Practice + practice + practice = mastering.”
Spoon and Chopsticks by Amy Krouse Rosenthal and Scott Magoon. The first, a book about longing to be something other than what you are and discovering that being you is pretty cool. The second, a book about finding your independence in order to be an even better companion. And don’t worry, they’re both hilarious too!
Little Pea, Little Oink, and Little Hoot by Amy Krouse Rosenthal, illustrated by Jen Corace. Each of these is a little animal with a problem every kid can relate to—in reverse. Little pea must finish his sweets! Little Oink must mess up his room! And Little Hoot’s greatest wish is to go to bed early. A way to play with the stuff littles have to do.
I Scream, Ice Cream by Amy Krouse Rosenthal, illustrated by Serge Bloch; The OK Book and Wumbers by Amy Krouse Rosenthal, illustrated by Tom Lichtenheld. The first explores “wordles” that sound the same but mean different things. The second takes the idea of OK and makes a character out of it. The third? A gr8 book of word-number brain teasers for the math and language arts crowds.
Exclamation Mark, illustrated by Tom Lichtenheld. You don’t have to love punctuation to get a kick out of this smart, funny book. The real story is in finding joy in who you are.
Awake Beautiful Child, illustrated by Gracia Lam. This gorgeous book, just out from McSweeney’s, is a child’s day told through A-B-C phrases only Amy Krouse Rosenthal could write and illustrated with Lam’s retro/pastel/inviting artwork. Artful Book Creation!
I have to admit: this is my new favorite AKR book! There’s a sheen to the pages that perfectly complements the magic of the text. First, a boy, then a girl, scenes of home and life all told in three word phrases: “Afraid But Courageous.” “Always Be Curious.”
You just have to see and read it to know how truly special it is. And as a bonus, kid readers are encouraged to hunt for all the things portrayed in the book that start with A, B, or C. Apples on the table! Cactus in the bedroom! Blocks on the floor!
And like all McSweeney’s kids’ books, the jacket folds out to a large-sized poster.
I’m giving away one copy of Awake Beautiful Child to celebrate AKR’s picture book life!
Taro Gomi is a Japanese picture book creator whose works have spread across the world and into many languages. He has hundreds of books under his belt.
They’re distinguished by his one-of-a-kind visual and verbal style that makes for colorful, playful books.
More like games sometimes than books, Gomi invites us to engage with patterns and things out of place, questions and mind tricks. Gomi’s books are simple and smart and so much fun!!
Some of my favorites?
My Friends/Mis Amigos (1989;2006).
A girl learns things from what’s around her: animals, books, teachers, and friends. It has a bit of an I Can Fly quality and a super sweet ending.
Spring is Here (1989;1999).
This one features all the seasons with that calf as star and has a wonderful zooming in and out quality.
Everyone Poops (1977;1993).
While everyone poops, not everybody loves this book. But I do.
Here’s Gomi’s insight into its origin:
“…I got [to the zoo] before it opened, so most of the cages weren’t cleaned yet. There was a lot of poop around. It was a cold winter morning, and steam was coming out from each pile as the morning sunshine streamed down on it. It was such a vivid scene. I was so impressed that on my way back home, I made up my mind to draw a book about poop. However, when I brought a draft of Minna Unchi to the publisher, the editors had an argument about whether or not to publish it. But there was one woman who loved the book and convinced the others to do it. When the book was published, I received an incredible response from children who said, “I look at poop, too.” I think they were so surprised and happy that some strange man drew a book about poop–something their parents had scolded them not to talk about. But they had also seen this weird thing coming from their bodies. Or, if there was a baby at home, they’d seen poop in its diapers. It was a funny, curious, and interesting thing for them. One boy who loved the book sent me cards entitled “Today’s Poop” almost every day for six months. There were many kids like that.”
Santa Through the Window (1995).
I love this one because of the non-traditional Christmas colors—hot pink instead of red. And for the way Gomi plays with the idea of Santa making mistakes. Gomi is always questioning the status quo and making us think, as he does with the guessing game aspect of this book.
Who Ate It? (1991).
This is a book but also a game. You are asked who ate the cherries and then shown a picture of elephants. But if you look closely, one of them has a cherry-stemmed tail. It’s delightful! (And it shows Gomi’s ability to challenge and amuse perfectly.)
I Lost My Dad (2001;2005).
A lift the flap book that follows a boy looking for his father in a shopping center and all the red herrings he sees instead.
Play All Day (2010).
Gomi has many doodle, scribble, and activity books. This one has the extra special element of characters and worlds you can punch out and create your own stories with.
You might be interested in my last Their Picture Book Life installment too: Ruth Krauss!
Or my 15 fabulously interactive books for kids featuring one of Taro Gomi’s!
Ruth Krauss (1901 – 1993). She was a woman who understood children. You can tell from her books. She knew how to truly be imaginative in her writing, to be limitless, to be playful.
But her words. Her stories. Come see!
Open House for Butterflies (1960), pictures by Maurice Sendak.
Krauss’s work is often defined by being non-linear and non-story like and this is a great example. It’s a text that flows Edward Lear-like and is totally free from convention. And yet there is substance along with charm. It acts, I think, the way a child acts, going from this to that without apology, making observations, sometimes sweet and sometimes silly. Oh and it’s subversive too, showing us how children know more than we think.
A Hole is to Dig (1952), pictures by Maurice Sendak.
Another collaboration with Sendak and my very favorite book of Krauss’s (and one of my favorites ever), it’s like the prequel to Open House. It’s a magical perspective on the world.
Ursula Nordstrom wrote in 1964:
“Yes, I think A Hole Is to Dig was something new. It came from Ruth Krauss’ listening to children, getting ideas from them, polishing some of the thoughts, exploring additional “definitions” of her own. It really grew of out children and what is important to them. (A brother is to help you.) Some of the definitions seem quite serious to children but those aren’t the ones the adults smile over and consider “cute.” For instance, “Buttons are to keep people warm.” Adults think oh isn’t that darling, but it makes perfectly good sense to children. “A tablespoon is to eat a table with” seems a pretty dumb joke to adults, but it knows most children out, they think it is so witty. A Hole Is to Dig was the first of all the Something Is Something books, and has been mushily imitated ever since it was published…”
“Dogs are to kiss people.”
“Hands are to hold.”
“A Hole is to dig.”
“Toes are to dance on.”
“Eyebrows are to go over your eyes.”
“A hole is to look through.”
The Backward Day (1950), pictures by Marc Simont.
A boy decides it’s backward day and dresses accordingly, underwear on the outside of his pants. He walks backwards, he says “Goodnight” instead of “Goodmorning.” One thing I love is how his parents play along with it and engage the idea instead of mandating something different, something normal. Krauss is nudging us to accept kids’ invitations to playfulness.
The Happy Day (1949), pictures by Marc Simont.
This is a book about the mice and snails and bears all waking up from winter. They sniff and smell and run and then, on the last page, they all get a wonderful surprise. That’s it! And it’s that good.
I’ll Be You and You Be Me (1954), pictures by Maurice Sendak.
This is a compilation of poems and bits of text, all of which have to do with friendship. A girl who loves a stuffed elephants. Siblings. A tree and bugs. All kinds of camaraderie.
The Carrot Seed (1945), pictures by Crocket Johnson.
This is a classic for a reason. It was ahead of its time and still so timely. A perfect book for anyone who needs to persist, especially despite naysayers. It also shows Krauss’s honesty about the world yet demonstrates a belief in possibility.
To Ruth Krauss and her imagination! Do you have favorite of hers, one that’s listed here or not?
You may also enjoy my post on Mary Blair’s picture book life!
David Small. There are six pages of his books in my library’s online catalog and that doesn’t include all of them. He’s an illustrator and an author and he’s been working in the field of children’s books for over 30 years.
He’s from Michigan. He has an MFA from Yale’s Graduate School of Art. His work has appeared in places like The New Yorker and the NY Times. He’s won two Caldecott honors and a Medal (The Gardener and One Cool Friend; So You Want to Be President, respectively).
His graphic memoir, Stitches, was a finalist for the National Book Award. It’s hauntingly good and true and sad and hopeful. I loved it and can’t recommend it highly enough.
His first picture book was Eulalie and the Hopping Head.
He’s also collaborated with kidlit greats like Jane Yolen.
There’s a loose and carefree quality in Small’s work, which is done in watercolor, pen, ink, and pastel. His lines are prominent and masterful.
Even in the saddest illustrations, there’s often a hint of joy or, always, humanity. That’s the word that most comes to mind for me when I consider Small’s illustrations. Humanity.
From Imogene’s Antlers.
He does humor or poignancy well and his illustrations have a classic, timeless quality; they can look old or new.
From Elsie’s Bird.
From The Quiet Place.
I posted about it here. I love how personal the story was for Small and how it portrays a girl whose family doesn’t “get” her strange affliction, but she’s okay with it. (Brings to mind the very recent, Hug Me, in that way.)
One Cool Friend by Toni Buzzeo, pictures by David Small. These characters are two of my favorite picture book pairs.
The Library by Sarah Stewart, pictures by David Small. Ahhh. This is a book for book lovers. A classic.
The Gardener by Sarah Stewart, pictures by David Small, a great example of one of Stewart’s epistolary stories.
The Quiet Place by Sarah Stewart, pictures by David Small. Another beautiful story told through letters.
Glamourpuss by Sarah Weeks, pictures by David Small just came out and is hilarious! My favorite spread is the second one, in which Small has included a couple of black and white photographs that fit the outrageous mood of Glamourpuss’s owners, Mr. and Mrs. Highhorsen, perfectly!
Check out my last Their Picture Book Life feature on Sophie Blackall too! (I go girl, boy, girl, boy in case you were wondering.)