I know it's hard to write a picture book manuscript. Some of my favorite people do it, and it seems like a labor of love, with the emphasis on the labor. The very economy of the form means that every phrase, sometimes every word will be examined and held up to the light and chipped at like a tiny gem. Page breaks are a factor. Pace. There's space in a picture book - literally - page real estate, that lets you insert beats and pauses. It's probably more like writing music than it is like writing a book.
But I gotta admit, it's the art that wins me over. I'm so shallow. I think that working on a picture book is probably a uniquely satisfying experience for an artist, especially an artist who specializes in illustration. It's really the only context I can think of in which an illustrator gets to run their own narrative. Their images can reinforce the text or, by opposing it, add perspective or reveal the narrator's blind spots.
When you've got, say Patrick McDonnell interpreting a Sherri Duskey Rinker script, as in Silly Wonderful You, you'll get deadpan sight gags to accompany the already amusing text. Yuyi Morales might take some of Sherman Alexie's narrator's dialog in Thunder Boy Jr. and put it in speech bubbles coming from other characters, making the story seem to be told by the whole family. (That's a really cool choice for that book BTW, gives it kind of a mythic oral-history feel.) An article in Publishers Weekly tells the story of that book's creation, and weirdly, the two creators pretty much say exactly what I wrote in the first two paragraphs of this post.
I love pencil lines like the beautiful clean gestural ones of Viviane Schwarz and Ross Collins and Julia Sarcone-Roach. I love goofy energy and tiny dots for eyes that are somehow magically expressive!
In short, I just love picture book art. Here are some recent standouts.
There's a Bear On My Chair by Ross Collins
You don't know Ross Collins because he's a Scotsman and only a few of his picture books have been published in the U.S. I know Ross Collins because I was one of the like eight people on Goodreads who read a greatly funny, imaginative book full of purple and orange called Doodleday in 2011. When he draws people I think of David Small or Michael Emberley and when he draws animals, like in this book, gosh there's almost a Jessica Ahlberg thing.
Anyway, the genius of THIS book is that there is a bear on the chair, and a mouse doesn't like it. Every page (until the end) features a variation of these 4 minimal elements: bear on chair, solid background color, mouse (sometimes with props), and a bunch of text with a lot of words that rhyme with "bear." Repetition with variation, done well, is a testament to a creator's wit, but more importantly this structure is a SCREAM for little kids. They just think that's the funniest damn thing.
The Dead Bird by Margaret Wise Brown, illustrated by Christian Robinson
From "The bird was dead when they found it," to "They put flowers on its grave every day until they forgot," this book, originally published when like Leonardo daVinci was in grade school, totally rules the Picture Books About Death That Don't Use Stupid Euphemisms or Talk About God category (and weirdly, we are experiencing kind of a glut of books like that right now). The new illustrations by Christian Robinson inject a little bounce into the calm text.
Silly Wonderful You by Sherrie Duskey Rinker, art by Patrick McDonnell
Kids love to hear about what they were like as babies and toddlers - and love to hear about the havoc they brought into our lives.
Thunder Boy Jr. by Sherman Alexie, illustrated by Yuyi Morales
Oh my stars what a fantastic pairing of author and illustrator. Yuyi adds so much energy to this story of a little boy who doesn't want to be a 'junior' - not that it was lacking in energy to begin with. Her colors and textures spark and shine, and she picks unexpected perspectives from which to look at a scene. I always like that about her work - suddenly we are watching the characters from the corner of the ceiling, like in a Hitchcock movie, the better to catch a facial expression or understand the blocking.
And what to say about Sherm's text? He is just one funny and thoughtful fella no matter what he's writing. So great.
Oh but HEY Little Brown Books for Young Readers - this is YUYI MORALES and SHERMAN FRICKIN ALEXIE. Buy the nice paper! tsk.
Gordon and Tapir by Sebastian Meschenmoser
*cue the Odd Couple theme song* -- Gordon the penguin is super neat. Tapir is a massive slob. As roommates, they get on each other's VERY LAST NERVE. So Gordon moves out. But they miss each other. So they talk on the phone a lot and come to each other's parties.
It's brilliant. They do NOT move back in with each other, because sometimes not living together is the right thing to do, and the prevailing picture book narrative that best friends sometimes disagree but parting ways is never the right answer is just bullshit. You don't have to see this as a divorce book, but it certainly works as one.
AND THE ART. IS UNBELIEVABLE. Read it a hundred times or else you'll miss everything the mice do.
The Story of Diva and Flea by Mo Willems and Tony DiTerlizzi
Marvelous illustrations reminiscent of The Aristocats may be enough incentive for little kids to muscle their way past a few big words and a fair amount of French to enjoy this innocuous first chapter book about taking risks. NB: there is a super-long video of Mo telling the dramatic story of how he came to write the book and to select Tony DiTerlizzi to illustrate it, and of Tony being a good sport and smiling a lot. If you like that kind of thing.
Hoot and Peep by Lita Judge
Another Paris book! Above the city's crooked rooftops, sibling owls have some kind of minor altercation. You know what? I don't even care. I will love anything Lita Judge puts her hand to - her animals have eyes and expressions and gestures that are so charming and so natural - and in this case it's all in that Maxfield Parrish palette of browny golds and dusky blues. This video of her sketching in Paris and especially the peek inside her sketchbooks? Irresistible.
Ballerina Gets Ready by Allegra Kent and Catherine Stock
I am a sucker for a ballet picture book, and even more of a sucker for a ballet picture book about a REAL, GROWNUP dancer (she has her own apartment and her own cat!), done in a grownup illustration style. I know kids who CRAVE all that - it's kind of the same impulse that makes them love Barbie. I am also a sucker for any book that sends me down an Allegra Kent rabbit hole. Did you know that woman joined the New York City Ballet at the age of 15? And at 19 was promoted to principal dancer? That is NUTS.
Also, I'm really surprised nobody's done a reality show of women who date a lot and drive flashy cars and have houses with pools and call themselves baller-inas. Somebody's gonna do that in, I swear, 3...2...
I Want a Monster! by Elise Gravel
Extra points for:
- cute endpapers
- Latina main character
- teaching the monster not to poop in Papa's shoe
- fun activity in the back!
And it's not really in French, I just found this illustration from the French edition and I thought maybe we just had a little theme going.
Chuck and Woodchuck by Cece Bell
Woodchuck is the perfect wingman for his buddy Chuck, doing thoughtful good deeds for our narrator, Caroline, until Chuck can work up the nerve to speak to her. Sweet but not sugary, a great story for a shy kid or for anyone who loves one.
Excellent Ed by Stacy McAnulty, art by Julia Sarcone-Roach
“All the Ellis children were excellent at something. Except Ed.” While Elaine excels at soccer, Ed (who may or may not realize that he is a dog) slobbers all over the ball. Ernie bakes exquisite cupcakes - Ed eats them. The kids even surpass Ed at the sweetly dim doggie skills that he claims for his own - breaking stuff (Elaine breaks a scoring record), losing things (the twins lose baby teeth), and forgetting stuff (the family ballerina forgets to be nervous and aces her audition).
Pop-eyed, pointy-muzzled, slightly scruffy Ed is all tail-wagging ecstatic energy in warm, relaxed pencil lines with acrylic, watercolor and crayon colors in glowing greens and yellows. Smart correlations between what Ed isn’t allowed to do and what he turns out to be really excellent at wrap this warm fuzzy story of a close-knit African American family and their pet up with a bow. Ed joins the pack of irresistible picture book pups that includes David Shannon’s Good Boy Fergus! and Chris Raschka’s Daisy (A Ball for Daisy).