Category Archives: their picture book life
Thao Lam is one of my favorite makers. Her picture books are inventive, original, resonant, and risk-taking in a way that pops in terms of both style and meaning.
A paper collage artist, the art Lam creates is textured, patterned, and fresh. For some books, it’s colorful and a bit wacky. For The Paper Boat, it’s muted, grounded, and striking, with familiar imagery on captivating backgrounds for dramatic compositions and combinations. Her stories are fresh and oftentimes deeply personal whether about a concept, creativity, or Thao herself in one of my all-time favorite picture books that was jaw-dropping when I first read it and remains a total inspiration for its content and for showing what this special form can become.
The latest: The Line in the Sand (2022)
“The most enjoyable part of bringing this story to life was creating all the little monsters…I intentionally made The Line In The Sand a wordless picture book because misunderstandings are often due to a lack of communication. By not including text, readers are now left to their own interpretation of the situation; will they be right or wrong? Or do they just have a different perspective?”
—Thao Lam from this interview on Owlkids.
The memoir: THAO (2021).
“This one I wrote for me so I could cleanse my head of all the issues with my name that I had dealt with. I’ve been lucky that every time I write a book, it’s also something that somebody else has dealt with or taken an interest in.”
—Thao Lam from this interview with the CBC.
Another true story inventively, movingly told: The Paper Boat: A Refugee Story (2020).
“I was two when my family fled Vietnam, so I have no recollection of our journey across the South China Sea. My mother often tells the story of her mom leaving a bowl of sugar water on the table to trap ants in the house. My mother, then a little girl, would sit there for hours and rescue them. On the night of our escape she got lost in the tall grass. Spotting a trail of ants in the moonlight, she followed them to the river where a boat awaited: the ants my mother rescued as a little girl saved her in return that night. These images of kindness and karma woven by my mother were the only facts I knew about the war and our escape. They helped shape me and guide me through life. This story with the ants and the sugar water became the cornerstone of The Paper Boat.”
—Thao Lam from this interview with Open Book.
The imaginative, magical companion for a new-to-towner: Wallpaper (2018).
“The inspirations for my stories come from taking a walk, on the subway, standing in line at the bank—anywhere where you’re forced to wait that’s when my imagination kind of runs wild. The way the story starts for me is that I get an image in my head and with that image I start asking questions. If I find myself asking a lot of questions about an image, I would start plotting it down. I call it a ‘brain dump.'”
—Thao Lam from this in-studio video with Owlkids.
The goofy one with a fresh perspective for us all: My Cat Looks Like My Dad (2019).
The first one: Skunk on a String (2016).
In honor of this post and Thao Lam’s picture book life, Owlkids is giving away all five of her picture books to one lucky reader! Enter in the rafflecopter below!
Big thanks to Owlkids Books for images and books for our giveway winner! (North America only.)
You might want to check out my WALLPAPER + Paper Creature Craft post if you’re in the mood to make something fun!
Welcome to R. Gregory Christie’s picture book life!
R. Gregory Christie has illustrated so many books for children that I can’t possibly include every one in depth in this feature, so you’ll find snapshots of many of them from his website below. I mean, wow, right? So many beautiful books, so much African American history, so much variation and yet key elements that connect the pieces and paintings in his body of work.
Christie’s art is sensational—more specifically, it’s striking in terms of emotion and impact. The expressive faces he paints, the signature stretched-out figures, the engaging perspectives and compositions, the vivid background colors. All of it comes together in paintings that if I had to pick one word to describe, I would use dynamic. They move, they emote, they dance, they gesture, they transport and convey.
He’s an NAACP Image Award winner, a Caldecott winner, has garnered the Coretta Scott King honor six times, designed the USPS Kwanzaa stamp in 2013, delivers lectures, and teaches art workshops to kids—among other notable accomplishments and meaningful pursuits.
You’ll find his work not only in picture books but in many publications and venues. He got his start creating art for jazz records after attending New York’s School of Visual Arts. His first picture book, an anthology, The Palm of My Heart: Poetry by African American Children edited by Davida Adedjouma, was published by Lee & Low in 1996.
And you can find his prints and stationery at his other website, Gas-Art Gifts (“GAS” stands for “Gregarious Art Statements”).
Freedom in Congo Square written by Carole Boston Weatherford (2016). This extraordinary book portrays enslaved Africans in New Orleans as days of toil count down to one afternoon off, Sunday, which is spent in Congo Square for music, dance, and sharing news, a place that embodied freedom. “Congo Square was freedom’s heart.”
Only Passing Through written by Anne Rockwell (2002) is an in-depth picture book biography of Sojourner Truth with the most dramatic figurative paintings throughout that emphasize emotion and perspective in inventive, surprising, powerful ways.
Lift As You Climb written by Patricia Hruby Powell (2020). This picture book profiles the extraordinary Ella Baker who worked for voting rights, always listening to people, always lifting her voice for justice, always lifting as she climbed. In this picture book, R. Gregory Christie uses some of his technicolor backgrounds, captivating compositions, and portraits that pop off the page.
The Champ: The Story of Muhammad Ali written by Tonya Bolden (2007). A definitive and striking biography of Muhammad Ali that captures his determination and values and boasts the most captivating cover!
The Book Itch: Freedom, Truth, & Harlem’s Greatest Bookstore written by Vaunda Micheaux Nelson (2015) is the story of Lewis Michaux Sr. and Harlem’s National Memorial African Bookstore told from the perspective of his son.
I hope you’ll check out R. Gregory Christie’s incredible artwork and the incredible books he’s illustrated.
My last Their Writer’s Life feature was on Cátia Chien, which you can find here.
Today it’s illustrator Cátia Chien‘s picture book life here on This Picture Book Life!
When I think of Cátia Chien’s art, I think of textures: fuzzy, confetti-ed, rich, circled, splattered, splashed.
When I think of her art, I also think of these words: dreamy, vivid, beautiful.
Each page of a picture book Cátia Chien has illustrated is a discovery, each one varied in vibrant color and shape and experimentation and emotion. Stick around to see!
The above PBS video featuring Cátia Chien is extraordinary. I remember the impact it had on me a couple of years ago when it first came out. In it, she is honest about her childhood, her life, her experience as an immigrant and feeling like an outsider. She is honest about her process of being an artist and how making art is an act of empathy for her, and for the children she teaches.
“The feeling of actually belonging, it’s self-created. Arriving at the process of creating something from the inside out, it’s really just a validation of existing. It matters that we add to the conversation so that it’s not just one voice that’s being told in picture books.”
She has art and prints for sale at Gallery Nucleus here in Los Angeles.
Now for her picture books, starting with the newest one, forthcoming The Bear and the Moon (out September 29th from Chronicle Books and our giveaway book) as well as some special process photos of The Bear and the Moon Cátia Chien provided for us!
The Bear and the Moon written by Matthew Burgess (September 29, 2020).
This is a story of surprise. Of companionship. Of loss. And the art is fuzzy, rich, dreamy and beautiful.
Balloons are magic for children, and red ones have a literary and film history. And it turns out they’re magic for bears, too. This bear who is alone but curious and up for an adventure.
The red balloon the bear finds becomes not only a novel and wonderful mystery, but a friend. The bear shows the balloon all its haunts and habits, the way you’d tour a friend around too. The balloon is not only real, but feels animate. It’s a thing, yes, but a “wonderful thing! A squishable, huggable thing!”
Just look at those shapes and blended, muted pastel colors!
And here, the technicolor blue, the pops of white stars and constellations, the dreaminess of this evening scene as the bear and balloon sit together.
We all know what happens to balloons though. They don’t last forever. Nothing does, really.
The bear makes a mistake. Mistakes, like things not lasting, are something else universal. We all know what that’s like. The regret that follows. The blame. The despair and the wish that it wouldn’t have happened. That we hadn’t done it. That is the hard part.
I won’t give away the details of the ending of this beautiful, tender, reassuring book, but I will tell you that it’s hopeful. Because like anyone who’s made a mistake or experienced loss, the bear finds encouragement. The bear looks to nature. The bear accepts themself.
And like a red balloon and a full moon, the bear’s memories go around and around and around in an enveloping circle of comfort.
The Town of Turtle written by Michelle Cuevas (2018).
A lonely turtle has a dream and then builds it, builds a whole town, and by doing so builds a whole community. The text of this book couldn’t be more perfectly paired with Cátia Chien’s absolutely fanciful pencil, acrylic, and paper collage illustrations. The turtle’s shell and then town feel like a planet and there are galaxy elements throughout—stars and dark black space and elemental shapes. The book is a dream that mirror’s turtle’s told-of dream.
Things to Do written by Elaine Magliaro (2017).
A compilation of poems that explore things to do according to your perspective and place—a celebration of moments and nature and soaking up every small experience.
The Sea Serpent and Me written by Dashka Slater (2008).
This one is sweet-sweet-sweet and mirrors what it’s like to find, to love, and to, when the time comes, let go.
A Boy and A Jaguar by Alan Rabinowitz (2014).
This is the autobiography of Alan Rabinowitz, wildlife conservationist, who found that his ability to speak with animals was his special gift.
My Blue is Happy written by Jessica Young (2013).
An exploration of color and feelings and the way two interplay.
Thanks to Chronicle Kids, I’m giving away a copy of the latest picture book Cátia Chien’s illustrated, The Bear and the Moon, words by Matthew Burgess—out September 29th, 2020!
Simply comment below for a chance to win! (U.S. only; ends Friday, September 4th at midnight Pacific.)
I’m thrilled to present Ekua Holmes’s picture book life today! Ekua Holmes is an artist and illustrator and assistant director at the Center for Art and Community Partnerships at Massachusetts College of Art and Design. She’s shown work at numerous galleries and museums and her work is in private collections.
Her website bio starts this way: “Ekua Holmes is a native of Roxbury, MA and a graduate of the Massachusetts College of Art and Design, who has devoted her practice to sustaining contemporary Black Art traditions in Boston, as an artist, curator of exhibitions, and as an active member of Boston’s art community.”
“My sense of home is very important to me; home nourishes the essence of my art. But what is the place without the people? I treasure knowing that some of the most significant people of the last century walked the same streets I have walked all my life, touching the lives of those in both the Roxbury community and throughout the country and the world.”
Ekua Holmes received the 2013 NAACP Image Award and the following year she created a Google doodle of Martin Luther King, Jr. (You can purchase a print of her MLK collage image here and there’s an assortment of breathtaking prints available on her website as well.)
The first picture book she illustrated, Voice of Freedom: Fannie Lou Hamer Spirit of the Civil Rights Movement was published in 2015 and received many accolades, including a Caldecott Honor. (I featured it in this blog post at the time.) And since then she’s illustrated even more picture books.
And let’s talk about her picture book art! Holmes is known for mixed media collage. Collage that is vibrant. Bold. Beaming with rays of color and light, dripping with movement and energy like lava, patterned in peacock-feathered fans.
“…each book is its own universe and the restrictions of the page, accommodating text, and other things help me to stretch as an artist, and try new things on and off the page.”
—From Holmes’s interview with Marion Dane Bauer, author of The Stuff of Stars
Voice of Freedom: Fannie Lou Hamer by Carole Boston Weatherford, illustrated by Ekua Holmes (2015).
This is a remarkable book about a truly remarkable woman, a biography of Fannie Lou Hamer, beacon of voting rights activism, told in poems and sunlit collage pieces.
“I primarily use collage techniques with acrylic paint. Collaging is basically glueing things onto a surface – photos, newspapers, lace- whatever helps to tell the story. My work is made of cut and torn paper and paint. I am also a proud and committed thrifter. I am always at the flea markets and thrift stores picking up things that speak to me. Just as I was about to work on the image of the doll Fannie Lou Hamer’s mother bought for her, I ran across these two old handmade dolls at a thrift store in Salem, MA. They seemed to be just the kind of dolls that Fannie Lou Hamer would have received from her Mother. They were so authentic! It was as if the universe had provided just what I needed.”
Out of Wonder: Poems Celebrating Poets by Kwame Alexander with Chris Colderley and Marjory Wentworth, illustrated by Ekua Holmes (2017).
This picture book contains 20 poems that celebrate poets throughout history—Naomi Shihab Nye, Gwendolyn Brooks, Maya Angelou, Sandra Cisneros, Billy Collins, Rumi, and more—a compilation of words and verse and creativity, of history and wonder and heritage.
The Stuff of Stars by Marion Dane Bauer, illustrated by Ekua Holmes (2018).
Ekua Holmes illustrated this poem about the beginning and unfolding of the universe as well as you and me with mesmerizing marbled paper collage—a book that stuns and shines and connects us all to everything.
“In addition to bringing an aspect of science to children at a young age, this story reminds us that we all come from the same place and are made from the same stuff, no matter how divided the world may seem.
The story begins with the empty void of the universe and comes down to the simple reality that love fuels everything.”
What Do You Do With a Voice Like That? by Chris Barton and Ekua Holmes (2018).
Another biography, this one of Barbara Jordan, who was a congresswoman from Texas who spoke out for justice and the rights of the marginalized with her commanding voice, sharp intellect, and wisdom.
Black is a Rainbow Color written by Angela Joy, illustrated by Ekua Holmes (2020).
This latest one is, so far, my favorite picture book of 2020 (and it may remain that way!). The narrator acknowledges that black is not a color found in rainbows, but sings the song of the color black and where it’s found in nature and then goes on to sing the song of Black history and people, Black artists, Black culture. “Black is a color. Black is a culture…Black is a rainbow, too.”
Ekua Holmes’s artwork here looks more two-dimensional with primary colors that pop on many pages, all the spreads full of patterns, lines, and shapes—look out for diamonds, a shape that, in some ways like a rainbow, shimmers, reflects, intersects, and connects.
Thanks to the generosity of Candlewick Press and Roaring Brook Press, we’re giving away four Ekua Holmes-illustrated picture books!! Enter below to win OUT OF WONDER, VOICE OF FREEDOM, THE STUFF OF STARS, and BLACK IS A RAINBOW COLOR! (U.S. only.)
You might be interested in my last Their Picture Book Life feature on illustrator Sean Qualls.
Today, I’m happy to dive into Sean Quall‘s picture book life! I’ve been following his career and have been a big admirer of his artwork for a long time so this is a neat chance to showcase some of his projects for kid readers and viewers.
When I think of Qualls’s work, I think of smooth yet textured layers. I think of pastels and pencil lines. I think of muted pinks and purples and blues that still pop. I think of shapes—circles and winking stars—on abstract backgrounds. Vibrant. Impacting and engaging. Dreamy. Beautiful.
Sean Qualls has illustrated 20 books for children (and I might even be missing a couple)!
He’s a painter and you can see a sampling of that work here.
He sometimes collaborates with his partner, Selina Alko. (See all of her books.) I wonder if (and hope!) they’ll keep making art for picture books together. When they make work together, Alko brings more collage into the mix.
He’s illustrated projects by Toni Morrison, Spike Lee, and Young People’s Poet Laureate, Margarita Engle.
Many of his projects have been biographies.
One of his latest collaborations with Selina Alko, Why Am I Me? written by Paige Britt, is a new favorite book of mine.
“When I work, I draw inspiration from an array of influences such as movies, childhood memories, aging and decaying surfaces, folk art, black memorabilia, golden books and more.”
—Sean Qualls, from his Brooklyn Library exhibition
Before John was a Jazz Giant by Carole Boston Weatherford, illustrated by Sean Qualls (2008).
Phillis’s Big Test by Catherine Clinton, illustrated by Sean Qualls (2008).
“After getting my kids off to school, I spend some time (usually in cafes) journaling/self reflecting. I also use that time to figure out what projects to spend my time on that day/week. Green tea is my drink of choice.”
—Sean Qualls, from this interview
Skit-Skat Raggedy Cat by Roxan Orgill, illustrated by Sean Qualls (2010).
I studied at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn for about a year and a half and then dropped out. Later, I took a few continuing education classes at SVA (School of Visual Arts) but much of my training has been trial and error.
—Sean Qualls, from The Brown Bookshelf interview
Lullaby for a Black Mother by Langston Hughes, illustrated by Sean Qualls (2013).
Emmanuel’s Dream: The True Story of Emmanuel Ofosu Yeboah by Laurie Ann Thomspon & Sean Qualls (2015).
“In the late 90’s I discovered outsider and folk artists and was inspired to go for feeling in my work rather than an academic approach.”
—Sean Qualls, from this interview with M is for Movement
Grandad Mandela by Zindzi Mandela, Zazi Mandela, and Ziwelene Mandela, illustrated by Sean Qualls (2018).
The Case for Loving, written by Selina Alko, illustrated by Sean Qualls and Selina Alko (2015).
Why Am I Me? by Paige Britt, Sean Qualls, and Selina Alko (2017).
Two Friends by Dean Robbins, illustrated by Sean Qualls and Selina Alko (2016).
Can I Touch Your Hair?: Poems of Race, Mistakes, and Friendship by Irene Latham & Charles Waters, illustrated by Sean Qualls & Selina Alko (2018).
KidLitTV has a wonderful video featuring both Qualls and Alko. It’s a very special studio visit that shows the pair painting together while they speak about collaboration, expressing yourself, facing your fears, and more.
“Each time I sit down and make a piece of art…that fear comes up, that fear of not being liked or not knowing that people will accept me or the art or what I’m trying to say. But I think it’s important to keep on creating even though you may be afraid because in the end you’re only you, you’re yourself…that’s all we have is who we are and that’s all we can really share with the world…”
—Sean Qualls on Kidlit TV
You might also be interested in my last “Their Picture Book Life” installment featuring Julie Flett.