Tag Archives: picture book art

Duncan Tonatiuh’s picture book life

In this”their picture book life” installment, I bring you the wonderful picture books of Duncan Tonatiuh, award-winning author/illustrator. In my mind, his books expand the boundaries of the form by using new, unexpected story techniques, something I absolutely love and admire. His books ask questions directly of readers and bring the past right into the present and into kids’ lives. They experiment and enlighten. And they always do so in Tonatiuh’s distinctive illustrative style, which is inspired by “Pre-Columbian art, particularly that of the Mixtec codex.”

He’s lived in both Mexico and the U.S. so many of his books explore Mexico’s history and influential figures, as well as Mexican culture in the states.






Funny Bones: Posada and His Day of the Dead Calaveras (2015). Perfect for learning about Day of the Dead, this book explores the life and art of Posada and how he developed his skeleton or skull calaveras drawings. It also expands boundaries of the picture book form with sections that outline specific artistic processes and funny calaveras poems interspersed within the story.  Its many layers are supremely effective.


“I try to make books about things that I’m passionate about

–social justice, history, art…”

                                                 (From NBC.)




Separate is Never Equal: Sylvia Mendez & Her Family’s Fight for Desegregation (2014). I’ve blogged about this title a couple of times before (here and here) because I think it’s so terrific and important, particularly because I live in California. It tells how the Mendez family fought for equal, integrated education in a case that preceded Brown vs. Board of Education by ten years.


“I think kids are extremely intelligent.

But I think that sometimes we don’t give them the credit they deserve.”

                                                     (From NBC.)



Pancho Rabbit and the Coyote: A Migrant’s Tale (2013). This allegorical story follows a young rabbit who desperately misses his father and sets out to follow and find him by undertaking a treacherous journey. The author’s note in the back matter sheds light on the true experiences of undocumented immigrants who cross the border in search of a better life.


“As I spent more time away from Mexico,

I began to miss things that were around me when I was a kid.

I also became interested in issues that affect people of Mexican descent

on both sides of the border.”

                                                                                                                       (From The Horn Book.)


The Princess and the Warrior (2016). The combination of text and art really shine in this riveting story and I dare you not to tear up at the end.



Dear Primo: A Letter to My Cousin (2010). Tonatiuh’s first children’s book in which two cousins, one in the US and one in Mexico, exchange letters and learn about one another’s lives.


“I think it’s very important for children to see books where they see themselves.

When they see a book where they see their culture represented

and different things that they can identify with, I think they are much more motivated to read, to write and,

just in general,

to realize that their voices, their stories are important.”

                                                                                                                       (From PBS.)


Diego Rivera: His World and Ours (2011). A biography of Diego Rivera followed by a fascinating exploration of how he might portray our world today and encouragement to readers to make their own murals, inspired by Rivera’s legacy. This is something Tonatiuh does brilliantly with non-fiction: invites the reader directly into the story to participate and imagine how it might affect their own lives.



DANZA! Amalia Hernández and El Ballet Folklórico de México (2017). I adore the illustrations of all kinds of dance and performances in this one! Ami, dancer and choreographer, is known for creating “ballets based on the folkloric danzas from the different regions of Mexico.” Her company still performs in Mexico City as they’ve been doing for fifty years.

I hope you’ll check out Duncan Tonatiuh’s books!



You might also be interested in my last Their Picture Book Life on Kyo Maclear.














tokyo digs a garden + interview with jon-erik lappano and kellen hatanaka

Groundwood Logos SpineTokyo Digs a Garden by Jon-Erik Lappano and Kellen Hatanaka.



This cover is everything for me. Wow and wow. That’s Tokyo. And that’s his cat Kevin (who likes ice cream). And that’s the garden that grows. Isn’t it wonderful?







(Click image(s) to enlarge.)

This is a story about cities and nature with a boy, a grandfather, and a cat at its center.

It echoes fairy tales with its magic. With the way the boy is mysteriously chosen by an old woman. And, of course, the three seeds she gives him. The way they contain a wish.

And I love how we are never told what Kevin’s wish is. But we know. Because he’s heard those stories from his grandfather about a time with salmon and streams, a time that’s now gone. That’s been eaten.




“Cities had to eat something, after all.”


“Gardens have to grow somewhere, after all.”

This pair of lines serves as bookends. Cities do have to eat! Gardens do have to grow! How can we make the two work together, the book asks? Can we get used to a new way of life in cities? What would happen if nature took over us the way we’ve taken over nature?



Nature taking over doesn’t, in the end, feel apocalyptic. It feels pretty cool. Like something we can work around and learn to like (rowing to work and sloths in the elevator, for example). And the story never feels like a treatise. It feels like a flight of fancy about how the world could be.

The illustrations? They’re delicious.


Big thanks to Groundwood Books for images!



I was lucky enough to have both author and illustrator answer some interview questions!

First up, author Jon-Erik Lappano!

This Picture Book Life: Please tell us about naming your main character Tokyo and how that relates to what you envisioned for the setting of the book. What significance does Tokyo have to you? 

Jon-Erik Lappano: There’s definitely a backstory with Tokyo. I first came up with the idea for the story while working as a landscaper in the centre of Toronto, Canada, transforming tiny backyards and rooftops into mini-ecosystems. The gardens we designed in the early years were heavily influenced by Japanese aesthetic, as the owner of the company had spent time apprenticing in Tokyo. One of the first projects I worked on was designing and installing a small pond with a bamboo water spout. I was taught about the art of Suiseki, which translates to “stone appreciation,” and spent hours carefully placing boulders to frame the water feature. I so wholeheartedly embraced the process, that my boss affectionately referred to me as “To-chan,” a nickname you might give to a younger brother named Tokyo. 

bambooThe name has reverberated in my head since then. I had the title for at least a decade before I had written anything down. Tokyo Digs a Garden was always there in the back of my mind, scrawled on notebooks with accompanying doodles of Tokyo and his wild urban garden.

I loved the contrast in naming a small, thoughtful boy after the world’s largest mega-city. I also felt Tokyo was a really unlikely name for a main character, which added to the general weirdness of the story.

Fun-fact: Kevin the cat is based on a stray (and well-fed) cat named Kevin that hung out in my apartment for a few weeks around the same time. I’m sure he’s still out there, somewhere, roaming the alleyways of Toronto.

TPBL: Why did you want to write this book?  

JL: I’m an environmentalist at heart, and I’ve always worked in sustainability (formerly as a journalist, a youth educator, and now leading the communications of a Canadian environmental non-profit). I wonder if the reason for our ill-treatment of our environment begins with the disconnection we draw between ourselves and the ‘natural world.’ I never understood that separation — we’re a part of it.

I wanted to write this book to convey the idea to children that our cities are also natural places. They’re teeming with the wild, we just need to let it out a bit. 

Screen shot 2016-04-21 at 1.10.08 AMWe shouldn’t have to retreat to the wilderness to discover a love of nature. We can cultivate an environmental ethic in the cityscapes where many of us live. Weeds push through cracks in pavement, birds nest in windowsills, and people (animals) set up shop in concrete and timber and steel and glass. The point is, we’re all part of the same ecosystem; ours just looks starkly different and has typically destroyed whatever lies in its path – but it doesn’t have to be that way, and earth is not so easily defeated. With an increase in green urban design, biomimicry and low-carbon infrastructure, I think we’re starting to get that.

Tokyo Digs a Garden is less about living in harmony in nature (although that’s certainly important), and more about understanding that the wild is waiting beneath the bricks and concrete of our cities. The ecological memory of what our cities once were is just beneath the surface, and the wilderness will absolutely return and flourish, if given the chance.


TPBL: I love the way Tokyo’s parents are only mentioned in passing, to further the story of how the garden is changing the city. How did you decide to have his grandfather be Tokyo’s co-star?

JL: Tokyo is a child of working parents, which I felt was a likely indicator of his family’s economic status (being in a tiny house that has been swallowed up by the pace of growth). It made sense to me that he’d spend most of his days with his grandfather. I’m a parent of two wonderful, imaginative, and wild young children. My partner Stephanie and I are lucky to get to spend a lot of time with them, but we love that they also learn from others in their lives.

There is a richness and depth to intergenerational relationships that can’t be passed on from parent to child. They are relationships that are often short-lived and important to cherish. I think this is especially true when gaining knowledge of our environments (natural or built). When things change as fast as they do, it’s important to be able to time-travel through the stories of our elders. We’re pretty wrapped up in instantaneous time. Stories from close to a century ago at least root us to timelines that are closer to the natural rhythm of things. Tokyo’s grandfather can tell stories of the way things used to be – not to go back, but to put their lives in context.

Only Tokyo and his grandfather have the space and time to let their imaginations run as wild as the garden they plant: one stems from the boundless possibility of childhood, the other from the visceral imagery of nostalgia. This kept lines of reality blurred in the story, which made it a lot of fun to write: did the garden really grow or is it an imaginary pact between the two generations?




TPBL: What was your favorite thing about first seeing Kellen Hatanaka’s illustrations? How did they surprise you or further tell the story in a way you admired? 

JL: I’m a huge fan of Kellen’s work. My home office is plastered with his prints. Getting the opportunity to collaborate with him was so exciting.

His illustrations brought a vibrancy and quirky humour to the story that simply wasn’t there before. His brilliant use of collage and colour added a sense of surreality to the book that I think took it to strange and exciting new places. He brought Kevin and his quest for ice-cream to life. I also love the other-worldly body types Kellen used for characters in the book, especially the old woman who gives Tokyo the seeds and Grandfather, of course. Grandfather is the coolest. I want to hang out with that guy, and eat whatever they are having for lunch on that spread.

My 2 and 4 year old daughters also love pouring over every page pointing out the endless details in the illustrations. The illustrations keep their attention, which opens up the space for storytelling.


Next up, illustrator Kellen Hatanaka!

This Picture Book Life: How did you come to work on this project and what drew you to it after reading the manuscript?

WorkABC_PLC_Square_KELLENKellen Hatanaka: Jon-Erik is actually my brother-in-law, so we’ve known each other long before the idea of publishing this book came about. I think he and I were driving back from a family gathering and we got to talking about this idea for a story he had come up with while working as a landscaper. I instantly fell in love with the story and the characters. At the time I had already published my first book, Work: An Occupational ABC, with Groundwood and was in the process of pitching ideas for my follow up. Jon-Erik had a manuscript ready to go so I suggested that I send it over to Groundwood to see if there was any interest.


TPBL: The way you transform the city from modern and full of symbols to lush and more livable is incredible. One detail I especially admire is the way the muted buildings at the start have features that give them faces, as though they’re the things that are alive in this place rather than the people. Machines are “eating” a tree by cutting it down with utensil-shaped implements. And the billboards! A hamburger billboard changes to one featuring veggies. Will you talk about your intent and process with some or all of those elements? 

KH: The city’s transformation is one of the most important aspects of the book and one of the most difficult challenges that I faced while creating the illustrations. I wanted to make sure that there were clear visual cues to communicate the transition from the congested city to the lush Utopian landscape. The obvious change is that the vegetation becomes over grown and wild, but I wanted the change to feel more severe than just the introduction of a few plants to the roof tops. Starting with a greyed-out, dingy landscape really helped to communicate that the new city was a bright, sunny, and clean place.

Working with another person’s story I feel a great obligation to do their work justice. I was particularly concerned about the line “city’s have to eat something after all.” I love that imagery and I wanted to find a way to capture that sentiment without being too heavy handed. I knew that I wanted to represent the image of the city eating in a literal way, but at the same time I wanted the hints to be subtle. I like the fact that you might not notice all of the visual references to food right away.

TPBL: Who are some of your favorite picture book illustrators right now/big influences of yours?

KH: There are so many amazing picture book illustrators out there that it is really difficult to narrow it down. Jon Klassen, Oliver Jeffers, Chris Haughton and Joohee Yoon are a few of my favorites. My influences and inspiration come from a wide variety of art, design and random imagery that I come across day to day.


Huge thanks to both Jon-Erik and Kellen for stopping by!

Garden photos credit: TS Garden Design


please, mr. panda + tea icing donuts from thirsty for tea!

22323647Please, Mr. Panda by Steve Antony (2014).

The premise is simple and the words are few. The characters are all black and white animals and the only color in the palette is from that bright, poppy box of doughnuts.



This is a manners book, but done funny with a dose of edge. Come see!




Just look at Mr. Panda! His gloomy eyes. The slight smudge of his shape. His “Doughnuts” cap! He looks like an apprehensive offerer. It’s like he already knows what’s going to happen.


Screen+Shot+2015-05-07+at+12.25.19And what happens is every animal he approaches doesn’t say please. They’re kind of an entitled (to doughnuts) bunch. And that’s the pattern of the book, with slight variation. Mr. Panda asks an animal if they’d like a doughnut and they respond with “I want the blue one and the yellow one” or “No, go away” or “I want them all! Then bring me some more.” No doughnuts for those guys.




Then, brilliantly, a new animal shows up. A lemur, who turns the pattern and even the orientation of the illustrations upside down! A lemur who says please and thank you and gets all the doughnuts. That last spread with the polite lemur in the box of doughnuts, bright pastry rings on his tail tells us that if you’re a nice lemur, you get doughnuts. Which is a pretty good deal.



One exuberant treat and one straight-faced panda. And the need for PLEASE.


Please Mr. Panda images from Steve Antony’s website.  




My talented friend Bonnie at Thirsty for Tea is a seriously creative cook and tea connoisseur in addition to being one of my favorite people. Her blog recipes are always gorgeous and full of fun!

For our Please Mr. Panda collaboration, she made a box of donuts, just like Mr. Panda’s! To a tea!

Please, Mr. Panda 1

No artificial colorings found in these poppy pastries. Bonnie whipped up icing that’s colored and flavored using pea flower, hibiscus, matcha, Earl Gray, and rooibos tea! (I told you she was amazing.)

Please, Mr. Panda 11

These are also on the healthier side—baked not fried and with a couple ingredients like coconut oil and flax seeds. But mostly, they’re fun and delicious and would make most creatures say, yes, PLEASE!

Please, Mr. Panda 9

Please, Mr. Panda 7

Please, Mr. Panda 12


For the recipe, more photos, and Bonnie’s take on the book, visit her blog!


applecake_juliepatchkisYou may be interested in my first collaboration with Bonnie too. Apple Cake: A Recipe for Love + Apple Cake Recipe by Thirsty for Tea.


picture books as “flotation devices”

A couple of Saturday nights ago, my dude and I strolled around, peeking into art galleries in Chinatown here in Los Angeles. I love the contemporary art scene on Chung King Road, but I didn’t expect to find anything directly related to my love of picture books. And then I did. Laura Tabbut life vests Laura Tabbut‘s show, “Flotation Devices,” at Exhale Unlimited gallery consisted of child-sized life jackets hung on the wall. But they weren’t just life jackets. Laura cuts apart classic children’s books and affixes them to each flotation device.

PingThe Story about Ping by Marjorie Flack and Kurt Wiese. (1933). 

There’s so much to love about this idea besides how cool they look as an installation:

*The way book jackets and life jackets relate as physical objects.

*And especially the way books can actually serve as flotation devices for kids (or adults). Lifesavers. Things that help us tumble along on the water instead of sinking.


SendakMaurice Sendak life jackets.


My literary flotation device as a child was Benjamin Dilley’s Thirsty Camel. No question. Did you have one? Or more?


Here’s what Laura Tabbut has to say about the origin of “Flotation Devices”:

“…This spring, my family was in the middle of selling our lake home on a tiny lake in Wisconsin. I took a break from packing books into boxes…Kayaking must be psychologically soothing, because in that small space of time in the boat, I was able to relive many fantastic summer memories, most of them with books. During our summers, we’d play on the lake all day, eat dinner, and then crash with a book in the evening. For my family and many friends this repeated pattern of playing and reading balanced our introverted and extroverted lives. It also shaped us uniquely as individuals, because the books we read informed our life choices.”

1986pelicanlakeLaura in a life jacket as a baby. 

WaterwingsI love that she fell asleep with those floaties on.

    “So the flooding of all of those memories sparked this idea that reading can be a life saver. After I finished paddling around the lake, I went to put away my equipment in the boat house and pulled out a few very haggard children’s life jackets that I could cut up to use for patterns.”

1990pelicanlakeBooks AND a float!   And here’s Laura on her childhood flotation devices:

“As a child, I initially struggled with reading. I am an auditory learner and developed hearing issues during Kindergarten. But by the end of first grade I was reading fluidly. As an adult I look back at that time and realize how that struggle was critical to who I am today. As a teacher, I am constantly reminded of the value of getting kids to read or be interested in books at an early age.”


Laura’s flotation devices as a child included:

“The Velveteen Rabbit; The Runaway Bunny; The Josefina Story Quilt; A Birthday for Frances (Laura got Frances as a nickname because of this book!); Don’t Forget the Bacon!; The Wind Blew; Amelia Bedelia; Gila Monsters Meet You at the Airport; Caps for Sale, A Tale of a Peddler, and Some Monkeys & Their Monkey Business by Esphyr Slobodkina; Little House on the Prairie.”


EmptyPotThe Empty Pot by Demi (1996). 

“When I was asked to show at Exhale Unlimited in Chinatown, I was also asked to use some Chinese children’s literature in my work. So I called my friend Beth, who is currently getting her PhD in Literacy and had taught for a couple of years in China to see what her recommendations would be.”


DragonPrinceThe Dragon Prince: A Chinese Beauty & the Beast Tale by Laurence Yep and Kam Mak (1997). 


Laura Tabbut vests with guest-1 “I had already created the Maurice Sendak life jackets; those were the first jackets to be at the gallery. For me and for many, Sendak’s children’s literature taps into my wild primal urges and desires. Sometimes these urges contrast with the ‘safety’ of a life jacket.”


If you’re in the L.A. area, Laura has another show exploring banned books for Banned Books Week at APU until September 26.


Here’s to books continuing to keep us afloat and to putting literary flotation devices in little hands!


Thanks to Laura Tabbut for images!

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.


Screen Shot 2014-09-02 at 9.13.42 PM



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.



photo 3


photo 1

photo 2



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.