Great Illustrations

picturebookpicksAs I’m sure you’d agree, the pictures are a pretty important part of a picture book. In terms of determining a picture book’s quality, the pictures are right up there with the words.

There are many terrific children’s book illustrators out there—illustrators who draw or paint images full of life and expression and humor. But sometimes I come across a picture book where the illustrations are unusual and eye-catching, and make a particularly big impact on the reader. I wanted to write about the work of some unusual illustrators whose work you should check out.

For instance, Clare Beaton doesn’t draw or paint at all—instead, she sews her illustrations. Each page is made of felt and thread and buttons and beads, and is simply wonderful. One Moose, Twenty Mice is my favorite—it’s a great counting book, with different animals on each page up to 20, and with clever little twists throughout as you search for the cat that’s hiding in each picture.

Valorie Fisher, on the other hand, makes her illustrations by creating miniature tableaux of people and animals. In Ellsworth’s Extraordinary Electric Ears, each page is a ridiculous scene full of moustache machines and ostriches attending parties and people with crazy inventions—each one an absurd alliteration that is guaranteed to make you giggle.

Other illustrators use more traditional techniques, but employ them in unconventional ways. I’ve written before about Peggy Rathman’s The Day the Babies Crawled Away, with its all-silhouette drawings. It draws you in by leaving more to your imagination than most books, encouraging you to cast yourself in the lead role.

Laura Ljungkvist’s Follow the Line also uses traditional techniques, but each page’s drawings are largely made by one long, twisty line that creates every object on each page, looping around the each of pages. The line makes buildings, faces, cars, forests… and you can spend hours tracing the line and figuring out how these illustrations work.

Leo Lionni often uses interesting techniques in his illustrations. Most people have read his book Swimmy, and have seen the wonderful ways he uses paint to evoke underwater vistas and strange creatures. But his book Let’s Make Rabbits is kind of a meta-illustration. It’s the story of a pencil and a scissors, who each make a picture of a rabbit in their own way. But then the rabbits come to “life,” and have their own story that comments on the differences between different kinds of drawings. Later, the rabbits eat a “real” carrot, and become “real” themselves, and hop away. It’s a bizarre story that seems to have a cryptic moral in it somewhere—but is really all about interrogating what it means to make art in the first place. Deep stuff for a children’s book.

For the ultimate in mixed media, you’ve got Dave McKean, who often works with the writer Neil Gaiman. I’ve written before about their fascinating, scary, heroic book The Wolves in the Walls. They’ve got a couple more, including The Day I Swapped My Dad For Two Goldfish, a story about exactly what you think. McKean’s illustrations mix drawings, painting, collage, computer generated images, and who knows what else, creating these dreamy, creepy, magical worlds that fit just right with Gaiman’s dark fairy tale stories. They’re not for the faint of heart, but they are truly terrific.

Finally, for illustrations that are somehow groundbreaking and normal at the same time, take a look at Jan Pienkowski’s Dinner Time. He uses spray paint to create these completely wild and messy illustrations of animals, which come to life in this pop up book and eat each other up. I remember reading this when I was a kid and being fascinated by the magical weirdness of the illustrations, which I was sure I could recreate myself if I could just play with some spray cans for awhile.

And that, in a way, is the thing about all of these. The whole point of children’s books (well, A whole point of children’s books) is to broaden children’s minds, give them new ideas, inspire them to create stories and art and new ideas. There are a lot of ways to accomplish that goal, but one way is to expose children to a variety of stories—as wide a variety as possible. Different kinds of stories, about different kinds of people, using different kinds of words, and showing different kinds of pictures. In commercial, mass-market children’s books there’s a lot of SAME out there these days. Make sure you go find some things that are DIFFERENT.


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