Category Archives: their 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.)
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.”