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guest post by sophy henn! elements of an A+ picture book: Henri’s Walk to Paris
Remember when I did a post on Where Bear? and dissected how it made such a perfect picture book? Well now, its creator (and all around lovely, talented, generous person), Sophy Henn, is back to look at a classic picture book and tell us what makes it A+ from an illustrator’s perspective. I’m so delighted to have her take!
Over to Sophy!
I have bounced around from book to book trying to settle on one to talk about for this, my very first guest blog post ever! I truly love picture books, and still can’t believe I am lucky enough to work in the industry. I have to confess to avoiding current picture books as much as possible. There are so many utterly beautiful books out there, it can be a bit intimidating!
So when choosing a book to talk about, I looked to the classics, then to my book shelf, then wildly around various book shops and then back to my book shelf. I narrowed it down to two, then changed that two a few times, and after a quick round of eeny meeny miney mo, here we have my choice for discussion…
Henri’s Walk to Paris. Illustrated by Saul Bass, Story by Leonore Klein (first published 1962; republished 2012).
SETTING THE MOOD / OPENING CREDITS
A bold and sparse cover can be such a delight when seeking out a book amidst the jam packed jostle of the picture book shelves. Henri‘s Walk to Paris certainly has that clean graphic quality of many of Bass’s film posters, but gives us enough information to draw us in.
The cover, endpapers and title page work together to create the opening credits of the story, like one of Bass’ film title sequences, with the same simple shapes, heavy text and strong sense of movement.
MINIMAL USE OF IMAGERY / GIVING US SPACE FOR IMAGINING!
The opening spread warms us up to Henri’s interest in things outside his immediate existence.. Henri is an inquisitive and curious child, gobbling up all this praise of Paris, so of course…who wouldn’t want to live there?
But his pink feet poking out at the bottom of the huge book he’s reading give us a visual clue as to where all this information will lead!
It is the second spread that really lays the foundations of Henri, our main character, and of the book’s visual language. He has big ideas but also strong roots and through the simplest of shapes and the clearest of copy, we understand this immediately.
It is already apparent that this book has a clear narrative and strong, direct imagery, but there is much left to our imagination, lots of space to fill in the gaps. What does Henri look like? What do Henri’s friends look like? What does anyone look like? (Marvelously we tend to only see people’s feet through the book – another nod to walking.)
I really enjoy picture books that leave room for the reader to invent and explore, and this is a wonderful and quite extreme example of that. Though the images in Henri’s Walk to Paris reflect the text, it’s the boldness of the layouts that give the images their punch. Which brings me to…
CONTRASTING LAYOUTS TO EMPHASISE DIFFERENCE
Henri is from the small town of Reboul and is rather excited by Paris with its hustle and bustle. When telling his friends of their differences, the simple but utterly effective layouts convey this completely, in a visual language a child would clearly understand, well traveled or not!
So, back to The Walk. Henri decides he really must visit this Paris, so, as any practical child would, he packs a lunch and leaves.
Klein acknowledges a child’s solution to a problem in often the most direct way with this part of the story line. Something I am in complete agreement with.
THE READER KNOWS MORE THAN THE PROTAGONIST
Through a wonderful striped spread (again very reminiscent of Bass’s animated film credits), we see how Henri is unwittingly about-turned, and starts walking back the way he came, none the wiser.
How deliciously empowering for a child to now watch the rest of the story unfold in on the secret that our lead character is blissfully unaware of.
So now Henri, who has been moving consistently from left to right in our story is now moving from right to left. Sometimes the simplest visual clues are the most effective.
BACK TO THE BEGINNING
And as Henri passes through familiar and sometimes identical spreads from the beginning of the book we know we are coming ‘home,’ though through a clever and literal twist Henri does not. Even when he sees familiar feet! How satisfying to come full circle, even if our protagonist doesn’t realise!
Bass’s use of type in his final spread leaves us in no doubt as to the theme of this book: Home! What does home really mean? Family, friends, a sense of familiarity and good soup on the stove mean home to Henri, and who wouldn’t be happy with that?
There is a directness to Klein’s writing that I really love; her clarity matches Bass’s . They both seem to distil what they want to convey down to the minimum and as someone who also likes to do that (advertising background again!) there is always the risk the book will appear too sparse, cold even. But by putting home, with the love and comfort that represents, at the heart of this book we have a wonderfully warm story with a gentle humour that bounces between the words and the text, succinctly reminding us (like another foot-focused story), there’s no place like home!
Thank you Sophy, for your willingness to guest blog and to offer so many wonderful insights into what makes this picture book tick! What an honor to have you here.
Sophy’s next book, POM POM GETS THE GRUMPS will be out in the U.S. in December and is out in the UK now!