Category Archives: their picture book life

leo lionni’s picture book life


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.)


MD_LionniL_Portrait_640Lionni made over 40 books and won the Caldecott Medal four times.

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.

Alexander broom


Alexander and Windup Mouse


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.”

mary lyn ray’s picture book life

Mary Lyn Ray. Picture book author. Conservationist. Huge inspiration.

Ray’s books are special to me. And I doubt I’m alone in that. They’re special period. Lyrical, lovely, connected to the earth and community.

I consider her the Barbara Kingsolver of children’s literature. Wendell Berry comes to mind too.

Many well-known picture book creators are author/illustrators, for good reason. So when an author on her own is well-known, someone illustrators want to partner with, that’s a big deal. It means they know how to do it just right.




Pumpkins: A Story for a Field illustrated by Barry Root (1996).

A man, a field to save, and magic. With pumpkins, of course. It has all the ingredients of a modern day fairy tale.

(I posted about Pumpkins last fall with my staple pumpkin muffin recipe that I really need to make again.)





Go to Sleep, Little Farm, with art by Christopher Silas Neal (2014).

In which everyone prepares for sleep in their own way.







CHRISTMAS_FARM_BOOKChristmas Farm, also illustrated by Barry Root (2008).

A woman and a five year old neighbor start growing trees. Five years later, the trees are ready to spread good cheer. And so are they.


Stars, illustrated by Marla Frazee (2011).

A poem that thinks like a kid. It’s perfect. Stars in the sky, in your pocket, on the calendar to mark a special day. Stars. Are and Is. Beautiful.







Welcome Brown Bird, illustrated by Peter Sylvada (2004).

Leave it to Mary Lyn Ray to write a book about the migration of birds that is poetic and moving enough to make you cry. (Me cry, anyway!) Two boys in different parts of the world both listen to the same brown bird singing in different places, at different times of year. Both are connected to that bird even though they will never know each other. Goosebumps.



Mud, illustrated by Lauren Stringer (1996).

Celebrates all things spring, especially squishy brown mud to play in.


DEER_DANCER_PICTUREBOOKDeer Dancer, also illustrated by Lauren Stringer (2014).

A young dancer is told to hold her head like she wears antlers. To listen with her cheekbones. Then she meets a deer who shows her how. These two make a beautiful dancing pair out in the green grass, in stillness and leaps and circles.






Mary Lyn Ray’s wonderful books touch on  seasons, nature, and animals. And using those elements, each of her stories hits home.



wolf erlbruch’s picture book life



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.


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Here is a sampling of his work:


thebigquestionThe 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.



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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).


duckdeathandthetulipI 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…”

There have been stage adaptations of Duck, Death, and the Tulip as well. Puppets! Here and here, for example.


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.)

mary blair’s picture book life (+ giveaway)

If you haven’t heard of Mary Blair (1911 – 1978), you’ve seen her work. In fact, if you’re familiar with “It’s a Small World” at Disneyland, you know her style. Those striking colors that don’t follow rules. The doll characters that came straight from her illustrations. The flat cut-outs and patterns.

slide_342214_3537635_freeAside from working with Disney on conceptual art for animated films (Cinderella, Peter Pan, Alice in Wonderland), Blair illustrated children’s books. Five of them. All Little Golden Books in the 50s and 60s. And those five books are in a compilation! A Mary Blair Treasury of Golden Books! It’s glorious and I’m giving one copy away at the end of this post! Stay tuned.



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Mary Blair in her home studio. Credit: Courtesy of the nieces of Mary Blair






Baby’s House (Little Golden Book Classic) written by Gelolo McHugh.

Looking at Blair’s illustrations, I see joy, whimsy, and imagination. Even in the more restrictive era in which she lived, I see a disregard for shoulds and an embrace of coulds.

The baby in Baby’s House plays with dolls and flowered hats AND balls. In fact, I really can’t tell what gender baby is. Which is a good thing!







I Can Fly written by Ruth Krauss (who will get her own post here one day for sure!).

This one is full of coulds and cans! In fact, the I in the book, the little girl, can be like any animal she pleases. My favorite detail is how her outfit and hairdo always mimic the animal she’s mimicking. Look at that white ruffly dress sticking up in the air!


Golden Book of Little Verses written by Miriam Clark Potter.



goldensongbookNew Golden Song Book by Norman Lloyd.



The Up and Down Book.

I love Blair’s progression to these super bold, graphic, even sparer illustrations in this one.  It’s like she’s turned up the volume on her earlier pastels but they’re still distinctively hers.

If you’re lucky enough to be near San Francisco before September 8th, you can see the Walt Disney Family Museum’s exhibit all about Mary Blair! How I wish I could visit.



The giveaway part!



a Rafflecopter giveaway


I’ll contact the randomly chosen winner by email for your mailing address.

(Open to North American residents only—sorry about that, far flung international readers!)

Best of luck and I hope you’ll check out my first two Their Picture Book Life posts if you missed them!




shaun tan + rules of summer giveaway



Shaun Tan is truly a picture book hero of mine. His work is mysterious and deep and dark and beautiful. It hits so close to home and one never outgrows it. In fact, you may have to grow a bit to fully understand it.


Let’s talk about his picture books, okay?


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My favorite: The Red Tree.

I’ve written about this one before. According to Shaun Tan, the story is “emotions as landscapes.” Specifically, feelings of depression, overwhelm, alienation, and confusion.




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Those feelings become Tan’s signature settings: strange, mechanical worlds. He also leaves small clues in the paintings. In this case, the tiny leaf on every spread foreshadows the red tree to come. See the tiny orange-haired girl above? And that red leaf by the fire hydrant, on the gutter?

Tan’s works may be dark, but each concludes open-ended. There’s room for a red tree to magically sprout. There’s room for what comes next.


“There is always a glimmering tentacle of hope.”

—Shaun Tan


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Most celebrated: The Arrival. A wordless graphic novel meets picture book that portrays an immigrant experience in a way that looks like fantasy but captures the feeling fully and realistically.



 “…a story about somebody leaving their home to find a new life in an unseen country, where even the most basic details of ordinary life are strange, confronting or confusing – not to mention beyond the grasp of language.”

—Shaun Tan




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Made into an Oscar-winning animated short film: The Lost Thing. Here too, there’s so much to the setting. Layers and layers of visual clues. We recognize the story the (now grown) boy is telling us; it’s familiar. Even the place is familiar despite its cold, strange menace.





A boy who collects bottle tops is a likely candidate to notice something else out of place. Something huge, but that no one else sees or can see. It’s a lost thing and it belongs with other lost, magical, wonderful things that very few notice. Especially after they grow up.


“‘the lost thing’: a vague sense of forgetting something important, losing the inspirations of childhood, or being worn down by the pressure of adult pragmatism and cynicism.”

—Shaun Tan

The Lost Thing might be childhood, or the curiosity of childhood. It might be kindness or connection. It might just be a lost thing. (In this one, readers can search for tiny squiggle-like arrow shapes on each page.)


Lost & Found CoverI highly recommend, Lost and Found: Three (2011), which is an anthology of: The Red TreeThe Lost Thing, and The Rabbits, with Tan’s commentary at the back. All three titles are not available individually in the U.S., so it’s a great way to get three in one! Plus, The Rabbits, Tan’s collaboration with John Marsden, is incredible.







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Tan’s latest: Rules of Summer (2014). Two boys (brothers) and 16 rules. The first: “Never leave a red sock on the clothesline.”





“Ideally we might study this story in a similar way to dreams, looking for some waking insight within irrational play.”

—Shaun Tan

While some rules seem more random than others, there are commonalities. There’s always some threat of consequence (e.g. creepy red rabbit and black birds throughout). And there’s always some dynamic push-pull going on between these two boys, one clearly older than the other.

For me, the absence of parents is important. It feels like these two characters live in a precarious, unpredictable world (perhaps all children do to some extent.) Because of that, their relationship is that much more important. And more fraught. They are everything to each other.



The older brother protects the younger, instructs him, punishes, shuts him out, and betrays him. In the end though, always hope, in this case in the form of a rescue and the most scrumptious summer fruit parade that would make Wayne Thiebaud proud.

Not to mention Tan’s trademarks: vast, desolate spaces and bizarre machines and creatures and layers and layers of paint.


(And check out my first Their Picture Book Life post on ISOL!)

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Thanks to Scholastic for images! You can check out Shaun Tan’s website and he’s got a blog too, with process work, paintings, and more.



Scholastic has generously provided one copy of Rules of Summer to give away!

Enter to win by leaving a comment on this post! It’s that easy.


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I’ll contact the randomly chosen winner by email for your mailing address.

(Enter until Monday, July 21 at midnight; open to North American residents only—sorry about that, far flung international readers!)