Category Archives: their 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.)
Sophie Blackall is an illustrator extraordinaire and I’m so glad she’s lent her talents to picture books.
Non-picture book people may know her from her book, Missed Connections. It’s an extraordinary compilation of Craigslist yearnings illustrated as only she could illustrate them. (You can buy prints of those goodies in her etsy shop.)
Or you may know her from her NYC Subway poster. The elementary school set certainly knows her from the series Ivy & Bean by Annie Barrows with artwork by, you guessed it, Sophie Blackall. Lastly, she’s partnered with organizations trying to eradicate measles and rubella in children.
For our purposes, it’s all about those PICTURE BOOKS. She’s been a part of, like, dozens of them.
Blackall lives in Brooklyn by way of Australia. She uses Chinese ink and watercolor. Her PEOPLE are expressive, exaggerated, whimsical yet realistic. And one thing to love about her work is how diverse it is in terms of the people she portrays. All kinds!
Her use of PATTERNS is wonderfully bonkers.
Over time, it seems to me, her illustrations have gotten more and more honed: the people and action without distraction of context. But she puts all the perfect, engaging details in there! A shark puppet here, a butterfly backpack there; a knit tea cozy, a jade bowl. MINIMAL, YET DETAILED. Yeah, she’s good.
And boy does she know how to dress characters! Everybody looks awesome in her work. Dapper and FASHIONABLE, always. (Even if you’re a wild boar, your clothes will be pretty nice—albeit dirty.)
Finally, Blackall plays with SCALE in a way that makes picture books really shine. Big then small. Zoomed out, then in.
And I must mention her masterful POLKA-DOTS! Easy to spot in almost every book. (She also hides a whale in most books, another fun thing to spot!)
Ruby’s Wish by Shirin Yim Bridges, illustrated by Sophie Blackall (2002).
Are You Awake? by Sophie Blackall (2011).
The Baby Tree by Sophie Blackall (2014).
And Two Boys Booed by Judith Viorst, pictures by Sophie Blackall (2014).
The Mighty Lalouche by Matthew Olshan and Sophie Blackall (2013).
Meet Wild Boars by Meg Rosoff and Sophie Blackall (2005).
Pecan Pie Baby written by Jacqueline Woodson, illustrated by Sophie Blackall (2010).
Red Butterfly: How a Princess Smuggled the Secret of Silk out of China by Deborah Noyes, illustrated by Sophie Blackall (2007).
Big Red Lollipop by Rukhsana Khan, illustrated by Sophie Blackall (2010).
Jumpy Jack and Googily by Meg Rosoff and Sophie Blackall (2008).
“Illustration is one of the oldest and most enduring forms of communication.
Our ancestors drew on walls to record triumphs and tragedies, to leave messages and to tell stories. We have photography and film now to document reality, but DRAWING IS MAGIC.
Take out a marker and begin to draw in a rowdy kindergarten class, and children will fall silent, mesmerized.”
And if you’re looking to be more inspired, read her whole post on Why Picture Books Matter.
Oh, and by some magical happenstance, she’s got a new book out TODAY! A Fine Dessert by Emily Jenkins.
Leo Lionni. We know him for Swimmy and Alexander and the Wind-Up Mouse. We know him for his delicate, childlike torn paper illustrations in beautiful, often muted colors.
He was born in the Netherlands and lived in Italy, working as a painter. He moved from Europe to New York because of World War Two. There, before making his first picture book, he was an art director for ad agencies and Fortune magazine.
That first picture book was Little Blue and Little Yellow and he was 50 years old when it was born. I love that.
Little Blue and Little Yellow, the first of many, started from a story Lionni told his restless grandchildren on a train. He tore bits from Life magazine to illustrate it. (His grandchildren weren’t the only passengers who listened to the tale.)
He won the AIGA Medal in 1984 for his contribution to design.
He was also a trout fisherman, just in case you wanted to know that, too.
Illustrations from Fish is Fish (1970)
Here’s Lionni, from the introduction to Frederick’s Fables:
“What tempts, excites, and motivates me is the underlying unity of the arts,
their many surprising connections and cross-references,
and the central poetic charge they share.”
Illustration from Swimmy (1963)
Lionni’s stories are truly fables, illuminated with his signature cut paper collage or pastel drawings. The characters are animals—mice, fish, frogs, snails—and they have stories to tell. To each other and to us. Stories of discoveries. Of kindnesses. Of sharing.
Always a character telling stories to another. Stories of another world. Stories that create community and connection.
Illustrations from Alexander and the Wind-up Mouse (1969)
So often there are doubles in Leonni’s work. Alexander the mouse and his wind-up mouse friend. The two fish in Fish is Fish where one becomes a frog. Birds that can fly and a bird who can’t. And with each pair, there is curiosity about the other. Wishes and imaginings and often coming back to being content with who they already are.
Illustrations from Frederick (1967)
Frederick is an archetypal Lionni dreamer. A poet. A storyteller. One who sees things and tells others about them. Many characters in Lionni’s books are that way. Perhaps because that’s who Lionni was himself.
After his death in 1999, this NYT tribute says the following about Lionni’s artistic journey:
“Seeking a way to combine his applied and fine art work, he hit upon children’s books as the perfect means.
There he found the key to unlocking decades of personal fears, joys, insecurities and loves,
by presenting them through animal metaphors.”
Wolf Erlbruch worked as an illustrator for advertising, but began a career in children’s books in the late 1980s. He does NOT shy away from deep, dark subjects! Like death. In children’s books. Of course, I love them.
And my favorite pieces of his illustration style are the way he captures gestures and his use of white space. Or the opposite, the way a figure will fill a page.
Here is a sampling of his work:
The Big Question (2004).
The actual question is never stated. Instead, we get answers from different people (and animals and objects) in this book. But it’s clear the question they’re all answering is, “Why am I here?”
The answer is different for each of them, for themselves and as it relates to a child asking a question like that.
A pilot is here “to kiss the clouds.”
A bird, “to sing your song.”
The stone, “simply to be here.”
And mommy says, “you’re here because I love you.”
Duck, Death and the Tulip (2007).
I know, dark right? That skeleton looking figure? That’s death. Death with a capital D actually. But I have to say, I love that figure. Creepy, yes, but not exactly menacing. That tilt of the head. The line of a smile where the jaws meet. There’s a friendly old woman quality to Death as Erlbruch portrays him.
The way both characters gesture is the wonderful thing about this book. Duck with its long neck, beak turned this way and that. The friendship that develops between these two.
They warm each other. Death is not cruel or threatening. Death is just there. Always there. For every duck.
“When you’re dead, the pond will be gone, too—at least for you.”
“Are you sure?” Duck was astonished.
“As sure as sure can be,” Death said.
“That’s a comfort. I won’t have to mourn over it when…”
The Miracle of the Bears (2001).
And now, from death to procreation. I know, right?! A bear wants to know how to become a Papa Bear.
Various animals give Bear many different answers (all wrong). In the end, he meets a girl bear. And he vaguely kinda sorts get the idea that that’s how he can become a Papa Bear.
Mrs. Meyer, the Bird (1995).
This is a book for a worrier. About a worrier. Mrs. Meyer.
But then Mrs. Meyer finds a baby bird who needs her help and she discovers what focusing on something else’s wellbeing can do for your own worry (e.g. occupy it).
She cares for the bird. And then, well I don’t want to spoil it, but let’s just say Mrs. Meyer flies!
Do you have a favorite of his? Have you seen Erlbruch’s books before? If not, enjoy the journey on which he takes you!
See other picture book lives I’ve spotlighted. (I’m going girl, boy, girl, boy, btw.)