Monthly Archives: April 2013


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

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.


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

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?

The Pleasure of Flying Crooked

A Cabbage butterfly....

A Cabbage butterfly….

April is not just  “the cruelest month” (according to T. S. Eliot.) And it’s not just the “Oh-to-be-in-England” month (according to Robert Browning….) It’s also National Poetry Month ( according to whoever names these things.) In honor of NaPoMo, I offer up this poem by Robert Graves. It’s not just about how a butterfly flies, but how poems and poets do.


The butterfly, a cabbage-white

(His honest idiocy of flight)

Will never now, it is too late,

Master the art of flying straight,

Yet has – who knows so well as I?-

A  just sense of how not to fly:

He lurches here and here by guess

And God and hope and hopelessness.

Even the acrobatic swift

Has not his flying-crooked gift.



My advice this month if you’re just starting out with poetry? Lurch a little. Come at the world hiccup by hiccup, fly sideways, fly crooked. It’s a gift.

Talking process with my sister Kate

“Approach everything as an experiment, not a masterpiece.” That’s my younger sister Kate’s advice. And she’s taken her own advice over the past seven years as she’s transitioned her career as a landscape architect to that of a pastel painter.

Much of her work is, not surprisingly, about landscape. Her plein air paintings of the vineyards and soggy bottomlands, the fields and hills around her home near Corvallis, Oregon, are a result of many, many hours outdoors, catching a certain light on her subjects.

But recently she gave herself a still-life assignment: paint a weekly bouquet of flowers before they were past their prime. “You have to let yourself give it a try,” she said. “Not all results are successful.” Here are some that worked.


Bouquet #5


Flowers for Jane


Sunflowers for Jane. Juried entry in the Northwest Pastel Society National Show this May at The American Art Company Gallery in Tacoma.

I remember reading in Art and Fear about a pottery instructor who let his students chose how they wanted to be graded: either by their best single pot or by the weight of all the pots they created that semester. It turned out the best pots were thrown by the group who were graded on poundage. You have to create lots of work to get to the good stuff. That’s what Kate is doing.

Most writers I know have had that experience of the gift story – a text that seems to be born whole, dropped into their laps. But I don’t know anyone to whom this has happened who hasn’t been working at writing daily.

Looking ahead, Kate plans to turn her eye and hand to painting architecture, specifically the lumber mills in her part of the world. She expects it might take three weeks of concentrated work before she has anything she feels is successful. Recognizing that makes it easier to get started.

p.s. you can see more of Kate McGee’s work at: