Category Archives: humor in children’s books

Ode to Steig

steig painter

Spring induces a feeling of joy, and in that spirit I offer this ode to William Steig. Steig was born in Brooklyn in 1907 and lived until 2003.
He was famous for his work in the New Yorker and for his many wonderful children’s books including Dr. DeSoto ,steig doctor desoto

Sylvester and the Magic Pebble,steig sylvesterShrek,

steig shrekand Zeke Pippin.

steig zeke pippin

He was famous for his drawings and his language. Steig loved wordplay and even letter-play.

steig fn l

He came from a family of immigrants with strong (Socialist) political views. It was a wildly creative family. His parents, brothers, in-laws, wives, children and extended family painted, wrote, sang, made jewelry, drew and expressed themselves in myriad ways, as did Steig. He stitched…

steig stitcheryand he carved.

steig sculpture

Recently I spoke to students in Pocatello, Idaho. Over a few days and many talks I realized the nugget of what I wanted to say to them: that creativity is a habit, not a gift. Sometimes people say “I don’t have a creative bone in my body.” But creativity isn’t a bone – it’s a muscle, and it grows stronger with use. Steig’s creativity,empathy, and wit were limber and strong.steig carnival Steig was a follower of Wilhelm Reich and believed in unleashing his energy,  sometimes sitting in an orgone box in order to do so.
His work vibrates with energy. He evokes a wide range of emotions, often starting with but not always ending with humor.

steig eternal sea

steig insect

steig turkeysteig axolotl

 

I am grateful for all of his work, but most blissfully for his images of bliss. Who could not love this painting of a Sweetheart, a Swain, a Swine and Some Swans?

steig sweethearts

 

If you are hungry for more Steig you can read The World of William Steig, written by Lee Lorenz.

steig gorky rises

Another Alice

R Steadman-Through The Looking Glass 1

A few weeks ago, Maria Popova published a post in her wonderful Brain Pickings blog featuring the illustrations by Ralph Steadman from a 1972 edition of Lewis Carroll’s Alice In Wonderland.

Before you go any further, read her post. Then come back here. Then go read more of her posts if you haven’t already.

I didn’t know Steadman illustrated Alice In Wonderland, but I should have,  because I own a copy of his Through The Looking Glass, also published in 1972, that I bought on a trip to England in 1975 (Steadman’s Alice In Wonderland is mentioned on the book jacket flap, but what 15-year old reads  jacket copy?). It is one of my Most Valued And Beloved Books. Here are more of my favorite images:

R Steadman-Through The Looking Glass 2The Jaberwock, with eyes of flame. Steadman is also a political satirist.

R Steadman-Through The Looking Glass 3

R Steadman-Through The Looking Glass 4

R Steadman-Through The Looking Glass 5Notice how he uses the gutter split to advantage. Perfect for a story set in a world of reflection.

R Steadman-Through The Looking Glass 6

R Steadman-Through The Looking Glass 7

R Steadman-Through The Looking Glass 8 Steadman takes the commonly accepted view that the White Knight is Lewis himself.

R Steadman-Through The Looking Glass 9

When I was first starting out as an illustrator, nearly thirty years ago, I tried out pen and ink as a medium, a la Steadman. The image below was for The Clinton Street Quarterly, a small publication from the 80s out of Portland, OR. It is humbling to look back that far in my professional history, but take it as a tribute to my love of Steadman’s work.

Chodos-Irvine Marcos

Beginning and Endpapers

Golden Book endpaper

When I was looking though my books from childhood, this image from the endpapers for The Golden Book of Children’s Literature, pulled me in again, just like it did when I was young. People who live to read (can you find them all?) is the world this book invites us into. And that got me thinking about the special place endpapers hold in books.

Endpapers are the opening and closing of a book. They can be as simple as a well-chosen tint of colored paper stock to set the mood, and palette of a story, or they can provide another surface for the illustrator to use in their storytelling. I like including illustrated endpapers in my books. In fact, when I was hoping to win my first picture book illustration contract, for BUZZ by Janet Wong, I included a description of the endpapers in my initial notes to the editor. She told me later that that helped convince her that I was the right artist for the job.

Some endpapers are purely decorative, yet still reflect the book’s theme, as in Maud and Miska Petersham‘s charming endpapers for The Poppy Seed Cakes, by Margery Clark.

The Poppy Seed Cakes-Petersham

And Eric Carle‘s endpapers for Bill Martin, Jr.’s Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? (“I see a red bird looking at me.”)

Brown Bear-Carle

Others serve to book-end a story, as in this array of “photos” from Marla Frazee‘s A Couple of Boys Have The Best Week Ever.

Best Week Ever-Frazee

Best Week Ever-Frazee 2

I took this approach for my own Best Best Friends, which takes place during business hours at a preschool. The cubbies are full when everyone arrives,

BBFfirstendpaper

and empty (almost) after they leave.

BBFlastendpapers

Endpapers can also be a handy place to put interesting but extemporaneous information that could otherwise bog down the story, as in Virginia Lee Burton‘s Mike Mulligan And His Steam Shovel,

Mike Mulligan-Burton

plus extra funny stuff, like in Laurie Keller‘s The Scrambled States of America Talent Show.

Scrambled States Talent Show-Keller

Chris Raschka and Vladimir Radunsky instruct you on proper dining etiquette in their book, Table Manners, and use the endpapers to advertize the advantages of observance, before and after.

Table Manners-Raschka Radunsky 1

Table Manners-Raschka Radunsky 2

Some illustrators use the endpapers to extend the story to it’s fullest possible extent. In David Small‘s illustrations for Sarah Stewart‘s The Friend, they function as prelude, setting up the scene of the lonely little girl in the big house,

The Friend-Small

and as epilogue.

The Friend-Small 2

Keith Baker‘s endpapers for Hide and Snake begin and end the game where we have to find the snake hiding amidst the other patterns.

Hide & Snake-Baker 3

The colored bands continue to the title page,

Hide & Snake-Baker 1 copy

and carry through to the last page where we see that the turquoise line that reads as the ground throughout the book is actually toothpaste. Ha, fooled again!

Hide & Snake-Baker 3

And as if the rest of the book isn’t beautiful enough, Peter Sís‘s exquisite endpapers for The Tree of Life: Charles Darwin could function as separate, additional picture books in and of themselves. I mean really.

Tree of Life-Sis 1

Tree of Life-Sis 2

Unfortunately, endpapers are often left out of later editions of books if they go to paperback or board book formats. While these editions are more affordable than hard cover, it’s a shame that the endpapers are seen as expendable. It’s like getting a hamburger without the bun.

Nevertheless, when you set out to illustrate a picture book, keep the endpapers in mind as part of the whole package. Who knows, it might even get you a book contract some day.

Imprints

Looking through my old books for my Fairy Tales post last month was an enjoyable, but somewhat eerie experience. I feel as though those books imprinted themselves on my brain on some deeply primordial level. The thoughts and ponderings I had in my head as a child are still there, just waiting for the right images to make them pop back up again.

Now We Are Six by A.A. Milne, “decorations” by Ernest H. Shepard, causes this phenomenon to happen. I found this copy at my parent’s house recently.

Now We Are Six book

When I read this book now I hear voices. Well, not actually voices, just one voice – my mother’s – with the same intonation and cadence she used as she read the poems to me before I could read them myself. This is especially true with those that are my favorites, the ones that I must have made her read to me over and over again.  For example, this one.

Shepard-Now We are Six-The Good Little Girl

The answer to the question was deliciously obvious and thrilling to me. It  echoed what I often heard.

Here is an image that I remember staring at and wondering about. It’s from “The Little Black Hen”.

Shepard-Now We are Six-Little Black Hen

…But I’ll lay you a beautiful

   Eastery egg,

If you’ll show me the nettle-place

   On your leg.”

So for years I thought nettles left pinfeather-like spines sticking out of your skin. Re-examining the picture now I think those lines are supposed to represent Christopher Robin’s fingers, but I still see them as an anomaly.

Tales From Grimm, illustrated by Wanda Gág, was part of my fairy tale collection. I was able to read by the time Mom brought this book home from a library discard sale.

Gag Tales From Grimm book

Gág’s drawings are comfortingly lumpy and solid with the pleasing line textures common in illustrations from the 30s and 40s. They make me happy.

Gag-Tales From Grimm-The ListenerGag-Tales From Grimm-The Long One

Years later I saw Gág’s Millions of Cats for the first time and it was like visiting with an old friend. Familiar face but different outfit.

Gag-Tales From Grimm-Hansel and Gretel ending

As you can see, these books have been well loved over the years.  The Golden Treasury of Children’s Literature, edited and selected by Bryna and Louis Untermeyer, was new when it came to me in 1967, a gift from my brother and his wife.

The Golden Book

They wanted me to be a good girl too.

Golden Book Inscription

I’m afraid it has fared the worst of the three. It has been literally loved to pieces.

Golden Book in pieces

This book is a candy-shop sampler of so many masterful storytellers and illustrators. Over thirty authors including Rudyard Kipling, C. S. Forester , J. R. R. Tolkien , Lafcadio Hearn, Oscar Wilde, Lewis Carroll, Louis Slobodkin and of course Milne, Grimm, Hans Christian Andersen and Aesop.

The illustrators include Gordon Laite (I studied these hairdos very, very closely. How did Cinderella manage them?).

Gordon Laite-Cinderella's sisters

Adrienne Ségur made Thumbelina’s environment exquisite but terrifying.

Adrienne Segur-Thumbelina

W. W. Denslow, the original illustrator for Frank L. Baum’s The Wizard of OZ.

Denslow-Oz

Charles Harper’s Bambi. Geometric and precise.

Charlie Harper-Bambi

The Provensens’s illustrations for Aesop’s fables. They make it look easy.

Provensens-Never Cry Wolf

As well as Robert J. Lee, Lilian Obligado, Tanako Tanabe, Eloise Wilken, Jean Winslow and others.

All of these books have influenced the images I create today, even if I don’t consciously think about them doing so. The graphic quality, the stylization. It’s all in there.

These words and pictures speak to me like no others can, still and always. Perhaps my girls will feel the same way some day about Imogene’s Antlers and Ooh-la-la, Max in Love.

Shepard-Now We are Six-Have you been a good girl

A Tale of Two Foxes

My fox sisters celebrated a new edition in May and it seems like a good time to tell their story.

The first, eponymous, Zelda and Ivy book was published by Candlewick Press in 1998: three short stories about two fox sisters in one picture book format. Both the text and illustrations seemed to drop into my lap: gifts. But with further thought, I realized this material had been trying to become a book for a long time.

We all experience moments when life is larger than usual, moments full of emotion and humor that we recognize as the stuff of story. I gathered a critical mass of such times from childhood home movies and conversations with my sibs. I wanted to make a picture book that carried our growing-up experience: our neighborhood parades, and fairy dust and, maybe most importantly, our relationships. I am the middle of five children. I know what it is to be a bossy, imaginative big sister and an adoring, gullible little sister. I was pretty sure sibling rivalry could fuel the drama.

2.fam.photo620

I first worked with this material in a project called Summer Shorts. Here’s the dummy.

3.coverSumSh

It included four short stories about a family with five human children. It made the rounds at publishers and was roundly rejected. Years passed while I sold other projects and got started in the picture book world.

Meanwhile, Pierr Morgan, a NW illustrator, showed me this cool medium called gouache resist (directions: http://www.lmkbooks.com/fun/gouache.php). I liked how the reds popped. Why not revisit that sibling rivalry material – only with fox characters? I simplified, reducing the cast to two.

4.UrZ&Iart619

From their debut at critique group, these characters seemed to have the juice. When Zelda and Ivy was published,  it received lots of starred reviews and SCBWI’s Golden Kite honors in illustration and text.

1.coverZ&I

I was invited to do a sequel. Then a third.

5.coversZ&IbndandXmas

When the fourth book, Zelda and Ivy The Runaways, came out in 2007, it had a leaner look. Candlewick’s marketing department had advised these stories belong in the early reader canon – thus we downsized to the standard 6 x 9-inch ledger size. That year ALA chose it for the Geisel Award. It was the same year my friend Kirby Larson won the Newbery for Hattie Big Sky. We were both in the ballroom in downtown Seattle when our awards were announced. Pretty exciting.

6.coverRunaways

Two more Zelda and Ivy titles have followed, and the earlier ones were reformatted from picture book to ledger.

7.coverZ&IKeepSec

By the time I got to the sixth book, I knew Zelda and Ivy’s world as well as my own.

8.coverBigPic

As of May, all titles six are officially part of Candlewick’s Sparks series for early readers; each published as a slim paperback that fits easily into the backpack of a young reader.

9.backpack6

Having More Fun

Merry Widow Merry Widow Persistent Faces - William Steig

Merry Widow
Persistent Faces – William Steig

I enjoyed posting some of my favorite fun picture book illustrations so much last month that I am revisiting the topic this week, only this time, I am pulling some well-loved images from sources outside of children’s books – more artists whose work conveys humor and playfulness.

william steig_putty

Putty
Persistent Faces – William Steig

Many of these images have a doodle-like quality. The topic of doodling deserves an entire post of its own, which maybe I will write someday, but I think doodling has a universal appeal because of its apparent fearless exploration of goofiness.

Sphinx - Saul Steinberg

Sphinx – Saul Steinberg

Saul Steinberg’s work has a sardonic wit.

March-April - Saul Steinberg

March-April – Saul Steinberg

Ben Shahn’s images laugh a little more quietly,

alastair reid Ben Shahn-Both Ways

Words That Read Both Ways
Ounce Dice Trice – Alastair Reid, illustrated by Ben Shahn

but still express a wise sense of humor.

alastair reid Ben Shahn-Bug Words

Bug Words
Ounce Dice Trice – Alastair Reid, illustrated by Ben Shahn

John Rombola I imagine sharing a cigarette with John Waters for some reason.

 Rombola by Rombola - John Rombola

Rombola by Rombola – John Rombola

 Rombola by Rombola - John Rombola

Rombola by Rombola – John Rombola

The circus also inspired Alexander Calder. The Seattle Art Museum had a Calder exhibit a few years ago. I don’t think a museum exhibit before or since has ever put me in such a happy mood.

Circus Lion - Alexander Calder

Circus Lion – Alexander Calder

Josephine Baker. Ooh la la and hallelujah.

Josephine Baker wire sculpture - Alexander Calder

Josephine Baker
wire sculpture – Alexander Calder

Even his large mobile sculptures evoke playfulness.

Yellow Whale  sculpture in wire and metal- Alexander Calder

Yellow Whale
Wire sculpture – Alexander Calder

Inuit art also seems to contain a lot of humor. What is it about all that ice and snow? The long summer days? The long winter nights?

The Enchanted Owl-Kenojuak

The Enchanted Owl – Kenojuak

Judas Ullulaq "Transformation"

Transformation
Inuit sculpture – Judas Ullulaq

And here is a contemporary Japanese printmaker continuing the 17th – 19th century tradition of Okubi-e (bust portraits of Kabuki actors).

tsuruya kokei_bando tamasaburo

Bando Tamasaburo V as Ochika in “Ikite iru Koheiji”- Tsuruya Kokei

When I was in Japan as a teenager I saw Tamasaburo perform. He is actually quite slender and graceful. I don’t know if Tsuruya Kokei intended parody or was just tweaking composition and form, but it’s makes Tamasaburo look like a high comedienne.

Below is a photo of a Panamanian mola that I bought a number of years ago. It is a modern take on a traditional art form. Usually the motifs include bird and animal forms. This is the only one I’ve seen about a hairstyle.

Mola - artist unknown

Mola – artist unknown

And in response to Julie Paschkis’s last Beastly post on this blog, here are a couple of my favorite prints by Jose Guadalupe Posada. Scary funny.

Sol en Escorpion - Jose Posada

Sol en Escorpion – Jose Posada

I think I spied one of these bicyclists the last time I was in Brooklyn.

Calaveras de Ciclistas - Jose Posada

Calaveras de Ciclistas – Jose Posada

And speaking of Julie Paschkis, here is a drawing she made on a piece of paper from my notebook while we were at an SCBWI talk many years ago. She is the Queen of doodlers and her work also makes me smile. I kept the drawing (it was my paper after all…) and it hangs in my studio to remind me to let loose and have more fun when I am working (and not get my neck all twisted around like that).

doodle in pen and ink - Julie Paschkis

doodle in pen and ink – Julie Paschkis

Beastly

Last week Margaret wrote about joy and humor in children’s book illustrations. Those images made me smile. She made the point that you need to feel joy to paint joy. I would add that you can also feel joy when drawing or looking at images that are ghastly, beastly and bad. Sometimes a smile turns into a cackle.british struwwelpeter

This week I have been painting some gruesome creatures and thinking about why it is such fun to draw them.Julie Paschkis, Balance

Possibly the beasts are a form of self portraiture without shame. I don’t want hair sprouting from my elbows but I like to paint it.

This Russian lubok from 1760 shows a woman being punished for lust. For me the moral lesson is undermined by the beauty of the image.lubok 1760

Likewise when J.G. Posada shows the fate of a girl who is slandered.j.g. posada

Victor Vasnetsov’s Grandfather Water Sprite beckons, and seems to come without a lesson.victor vasnetsov

The word Zwerg in German means gnome or midget. Here is Der Zwerg Nase by Lisbeth Zwerger. Is he rolling along forward or backward?lizbeth zwerger

Sometimes the monsters are a revelation – these Unclean Spirits Issuing from the Mouth of the Dragon, Beast and False Prophet were painted in 1255.unclean beasts

Or they can be your own family. Here is Loki’s Monstrous Brood, painted by Ingri and Edgar Parin D’Aulaire.d'aulaire loki's brood

Maurice Sendak said that he modeled the Wild Things on his older relatives. The Giant Snorrasper is from 1962.sendak giant snorrasper

As Edward Gorey knows, the dark side can be delightful. And it won’t go away even if you want it to.

edward gorey

Having Fun

Clark One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish - Theodore Geisel

Clark
One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish – Theodore Geisel

As I have been working on the illustrations for BOOM BOOM, I have been thinking about humor in children’s book illustrations – what amused me when I was a child and what I find funny now. I’m sure there is a common thread from one to the other, but I’m not going to delve too deeply. As E. B. White said, “Analyzing humor is like dissecting a frog. Few people are interested and the frog dies of it.”

Sometimes the images act as punch lines to the text, while in others the joke is delivered on a separate plate from the words. Many are visual puns. What I see as a constant is the amount of fun the illustrator appears to be having. In the best comedy for children, I believe joy, humor and art are a trio act, with joy having the leading role. Have you ever tried to illustrate a children’s book when you are not in a good mood? Unless you are drawing trolls or  gargoyles, cheer up or take a break.

To demonstrate, I’ve put together a small collection of some of my favorites, old and new. I have no idea if the artists were grumbling or grinning when they worked on these books, but they must have been giggling at least a little by the time they were done.

Scrambled Eggs Super detail-Dr Seuss-Random 1953

The Ziffs on the cliffs and the Zuffs on the Bluffs
Scrambled Eggs Super – Theodore Geisel

Dr. Seuss tops the list. In my early reading years, the library my parents and I went to shelved their Seuss books on two conveniently low shelves. Scrambled Eggs Super was one that I picked up whenever it was available, regardless of how many times I’d checked it out already, and One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish made learning to read worth the effort.

Eloise

Here is what I have to do every French morning…
Eloise in Paris – Hilary knight

Eloise In Paris 2-Hilary Knight Kay Thompson-1957

I am all over the Etoile…
Eloise in Paris – Hilary Knight

When I was about eight I discovered Eloise on a family road trip visiting friends of my mother’s in Vancouver, Canada. I slept in their daughter’s room. She was at least fifteen years older than I and long out of the house, but her collection of Eloise books by Kay Thompson, illustrated by Hilary Knight, were still there. I poured over Knight’s exuberant illustrations for hours. Eloise is truly all over the Etoile and all over the page. Her gestures and body language are as much choreographed as drawn.

The Story of Ferdinand bull butt-Robert Lawson Munro Leaf-1936

He didn’t look where he was sitting…
The Story of Ferdinand – Robert Lawson

The Story of Ferdinand, the sensitive bull. While beautifully composed and exquisitely drafted, Robert Lawson‘s illustrations for Munro Leaf’s text are also wonderfully fun to look at.

The Bedside MAD-William M Gaines-52-59

The Outer Sanctum
The Bedside MAD – William M Gaines

The Bedside MAD 2-William M Gaines-52-59

The Outer Sanctum second spread
The Bedside MAD – William M Gaines

At about age nine, my taste in humor took a sidestep when I purchased some old MAD Magazine paperbacks. These books compiled early issues that featured artists like William M Gaines (also the magazine’s founder). He specialized in spoofing popular radio dramas from my father’s era such as “Inner Sanctum” with goofy yet surgical expertise. I think their intended audience probably wasn’t me, but take a close look at the details and you will see why I liked them so much as a nine-year-old.

I Know an Old Lady-Abner Graboff Rose Bonne-Rand McNally 1961

I know an old lady who swallowed a bird
I Know an Old Lady-Abner Graboff

I didn’t discover the work of Abner Graboff until I found a copy of I Know An Old Lady by Rose Bonne at a school library sale a few years ago, but I wish I had found him sooner. Thank you, Abner, for breaking all the rules.

And lest you have the impression that I only look at children’s books published before 1960, here are a few more contemporary works that make me laugh.

Arnie the Doughnut-Laurie Keller-Holt 2003

Arnie looked around and saw all sorts of doughnuts…
Arnie the Doughnut – Laurie Keller

Laurie Keller is funny, in both text and imagery (And in person too. I was lucky enough to meet her). She could make a stand-up comic out of a golf ball.

Polka Bats and Octopus Slacks Ed-Calef Brown-HM1998

Ed
Polka Bats and Octopus Slacks – Calef Brown

This image by Calef Brown is wonderful even without the poem that accompanies it (sorry, you will have to go get the book yourself and read it). Which came first, the image or the words? Who cares. I’m glad for both.

Insectlopedia The Walking Stick-Douglas Florian-1998

The Walking Stick
Insectlopedia – Douglas Florian

Douglas Florian is a poet who is also an artist. Or maybe he is an artist who is also a poet. Either way, he creates books with a graceful blend of sophistication and whimsy (sorry, you are going to have to go get this book too). His humor is subtle and precise and beautifully rendered.

Glasses Who needs em-Lane Smith-Viking 1991

…potatoes however…
Glasses, Who Needs ‘Em? – Lane Smith

And Lane Smith. Smith has made numerous hilarious books, but I think I like this image from Glasses, Who Needs ‘Em? best of all. Do you see what I mean?…

I hope this small sampling has made you laugh, tickled your funny bone, or at least improved your mood. If you are going to be illustrating children’s books, you might as well be smiling, right?