Tag Archives: illustrating children’s books blog

One Hundred Lilies

Last month I confessed to a bout of nerves before starting on a new picture book project. I have gained some calm as I have delved into defining the imagery for the book. I am no longer on the shore. I am wading in.

Of the two primary characters in the book (a dog and a child), it is the dog that I have been working on the most so far.

I have a dog. He is a rat terrier. My initial drawings for Lily were based on him.

But they were rejected for not being cute and cuddly enough. I admit, Nik is a bit angular and bony and he doesn’t have much of a tail.

So I drew a dog very unlike Nik; a furry pooch with a more expressive tail (as I showed you in my last post).

That Lily thankfully got the go-ahead.

Even though Lily the dog appears in less than half of the imagery, I want to be sure of what she looks like and how she moves. The best way for me to do this is to draw lots of character studies. This is how I familiarize my brain with characters so that I can draw them without having to actually see them. I mostly draw characters from my imagination and then seek reference to augment the drawings. It may seem like an ass-backwards approach, but it’s how I feel most comfortable working.

I have drawn a lot of children. Usually I do about five to ten studies per character before starting on illustrations for a book. But I have not drawn a lot of dogs, so I set myself a goal of one hundred Lily drawings. Here are a few of them.

After I had drawn about seventy imaginary Lilies, I thought it was time to find a real dog to look at. Then one day, while walking in the park with Nik, I met Romeo.

I introduced myself to Romeo’s family and they let my take photos of him. Those pictures helped get me up to my three-digit goal.

Now I feel like I know this Lily. She becomes more real to me, each time I draw her.

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Kay Nielsen: An Appreciation

k-nielsen-poltarnees-coverWhen I was cleaning off my parents’ bookshelves, I came across a book, Kay Nielsen: An Appreciation, by Welleran Poltarnees. It was stashed between two larger art books. It must have been my mother’s, although I don’t remember her buying it. It was in a clear plastic bag with her name on it. Was my mother a fan of Nielsen’s work? She must have been. Like mother, like daughter.

I’ve been enamored of Kay Nielsen’s illustrations since I discovered them in my teens at my local bookshop. It was Kay Nielsen, edited by David Larkin (I bought it then and still have it). This was in the 70s, when illustrations of his were being re-popularized along with others of the “Golden Age of Illustration” such as Arthur Rackham and Edmund Dulac.

k-nielsen-poltarnees-frontispiece

Kay Nielsen: An Appreciation was issued by The Green Tiger Press in 1976. It is bound in hand-marbled paper. The interior is printed on heavy stock, with full color images tipped in. Along with both full and single color illustrations, there is commentary on the illustrations by Poltarnees, an autobiographical statement from 1939 and a 1945 interview by Jasmine Britton, the supervising librarian for the Los Angeles school system at that time.

k-nielsen-poltarnees-22-23

It is clearly a labor of love. I understand why my mother kept it sealed in a plastic cover.

Although I loved Nielsen’s work, I never bothered to learn more about who he was. In fact, for many years I assumed Kay was a woman. Of course, now such research is simple to do if you have a computer and a blogpost to write.

Kay Nielsen was born in Copenhagen in 1886. He attended art schools in Paris, then moved to London in 1911. He became celebrated and successful for his wondrous, dramatic paintings in books such as Powder and Crinoline and Hansel and Gretel.

k-nielsen-in-powder-and-crinoline-rosanie-or-the-inconstant-prince

k-nielsen-in-powder-and-crinoline-felicia-or-the-pot-of-pinks

kay-nielsen-hansel-and-gretel

k-nielsen-hansel-and-gretel

My favorite book of his is East of the Sun West of the Moon,

k-nielsen-east-of-the-sun-west-of-the-moon-the-lassie-and-her-godmother

k-nielsen-east-of-the-sun-west-of-the-moon-the-three-princesses-of-whiteland

particularly the image below, which resonated with my angsty teenage soul.

k-nielsen-east-of-the-sun-west-of-the-moon-the-three-princesses-in-the-blue-mountain

It surprised me to learn now that the illustrations I so admired were all produced between 1912 and 1925. He published one book in 1930. He moved twice to the United States, first in 1936, and again in the 50s after returning to Denmark. He worked for Disney for a few years, contributing to the “Ave Maria” and “Night on the Bald Mountain” sequences in “Fantasia”, where his influence is clear.

k-nielsen-sketch-for-night-on-bald-mountain

night-on-bald-mountain

But his style fell out of favor after the second world war and there were long dry spells where he and his wife had to rely on assistance from friends.

Jasmine Britton arranged to have Nielsen paint a mural for the library of the Los Angeles Central Junior High School in 1941.

k-nielsen-the-first-spring-mural

He painted another for the Wong Chapel in the First Congregational Church of Los Angeles. His final work was a mural for Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington.

He died in poverty and obscurity in 1957 at the age of 71. Services were held at the Wong Chapel. His wife died little over a year later.

Tastes change. Thank heavens that tastes change back again, and that the work of artists who were once considered out of fashion can be brought back for new viewers to appreciate. I found several sites with information about Kay Nielsen. If you want to learn more and see more wondrous images, I recommend this piece by Terry Windling.

In The Study Rooms at the V & A (Part I)

W Crane-babys bouquet sketch fly detail

This morning, a moving company loaded our London belongings into a shipping container. For the next month we will be traveling while our stuff makes it’s way to our home in Seattle.

Since we decided to move back to Seattle from London, my sightseeing to-do list has become an imperative. At the top of the list has been scheduling a date at the Victoria & Albert Museum’s Prints and Drawings Study Rooms.

The Victoria and Albert Museum of art and design (V&A) is a monument to humanity’s creative efforts, and for nearly two years it has been a short tube ride from my home. I have gone there numerous times, but never feel I have seen all that is on display.  I always look forward to discovering something new.

Inner courtyard at V&A

Scheduling an appointment was much easier (and less intimidating) than I expected. Rather than surly guardians of culture, the staff are like friendly librarians. I was afraid that I had waited too long and there would be no sessions available for months, but I got an appointment for the following week. The hardest part was deciding what to request out of the some 750,000 objects in the museum’s prints and drawings collection.

There were five of us waiting at the assigned meeting point outside the V&A National Art Library entrance that morning. We were led by a museum guard through a cordon into a wing of the museum usually closed to the general public.

into the V&A

We trailed behind the guard through hallways lined with boxes and filing cabinets, past offices and copy machines. We rode an elevator and climbed three flights of winding stone steps worn down to a curve from decades of traffic. The old plaster walls were chipped where displays had once hung.

V&A red stairways

The circuitous journey seemed designed to make sure we could never find our way back. One of the others in the group said something about leaving a trail of breadcrumbs.

The study room itself is large and bright with several long tables. We checked our belongings into lockers before entering. Pencils, paper, computers, phones and cameras are allowed. NO pens.

V&A study room

The first item I had requested was waiting for me. The staff demonstrated how to properly handle the artwork. At first I was afraid to touch anything, but they assured me that the items could withstand my gentle examination.

Thus began one of the highlights of my time in London.

I spent the morning looking at an original textile design by C.F.A. Voysey,

CFA Voysey-birds and berries design

a box and sketchbook of Randolph Caldecott drawings,

R Caldecott-studies of women in coats

and an incredibly beautiful pencil and watercolor “dummy” for A Baby’s Bouquet by Walter Crane.

W Crane-Babys Bouquet dummy cover

I refreshed myself with lunch in the William Morris room in the museum café

V&A cafe Morris room 2

and repeated the convoluted journey back to the study rooms to continue with sketches for Winnie The Pooh by E. H. Shepard,

E H Shepard-WTP in tree sketch

and drawings by Arthur Rackham.

A Rackham-sketch detail

Whenever I go to the V&A, I feel happy and excited, but this day was special. This was a Thrill. I couldn’t get over the fact that, not only did I have the opportunity to look closely at drawings by some of my illustrative heroes that are rarely seen, but I could actually touch their work. It was amazing. I was on a high. For the next three days, anyone I spoke to heard all about it.

But that is all I will tell you for now. This is a teaser of sorts. I will continue this post in five weeks when it’s my turn again. By then I will be back in Seattle (just barely). In the meantime, you can peruse the 1,165,712 objects and 624,590 images from the V&A’s full collection online. Have fun!

 

 

 

 

A New Childhood: Picture Books From Soviet Russia

The New Childhood entry poster House of Illustration

Last week I returned to House of Illustration to see their current show – A New Childhood: Picture Books From Soviet Russia.

It is an excellent, eye-opening exhibit. I snapped a few subversive shots to share with you.

Before the October Revolution of 1917, children’s books were beautifully illustrated but expensive. Only children of the upper classes were regularly taught to read. Children’s books were not for the masses.

bilibin feast cakeIvan Bilibin, 1895

After the end of the Tsarist regime, fairy tales were considered irrelevant. Children were reimagined as “builders of the new egalitarian future.” New children’s books would promote socialist beliefs and give practical instruction.

Galina & Olga Chichagova 1925-posterGalina and Olga Chichagova, poster design with text by A. Galena, 1925.

“The images of old storybooks. Out with the mysticism and fantasy of children’s books!! Give a new children’s book!! Work, battle, technology, nature – the new reality of childhood.

On the positive side, during this time there was a blossoming of creativity in children’s literature. The influence of folk art as well as past art movements and picture books from Europe converged in these new books.

Eduard Krimmer 1926-How The Whale Got His ThroatEduard Krimmer, How the Whale Got His Throat (Rudyard Kipling) 1926.

Illustrators explored new styles and techniques. The Soviet government lifted a Tsarist ban on Yiddish publishing.

Issachar Ber Ryback 1922-In The Forest coverIssachar Ber Ryback for In The Forest (Leib Kvitko) 1922.

Books were considered valuable tools in disseminating new ideals. Publishers flourished.

Eduard Krimmer 1925-NumbersEduard Krimmer, Numbers, 1925

Vera Ermolaeva 1925-Top Top TopVera Ermolaeva, Top-Top-Top (Nikolai Aseev), 1925

Absurdism proved useful in communicating the regime’s ideas.

Iureii Annenkov 1918-The FleaIllustrations for The Flea (Natan Vengrov) by Iurii Annenkov, c. 1918

Konstantin Rudakov’s work was humorous and zany, but considered “bourgeois dregs” by Nadezhda Krupskaya, noted theorist and Lenin’s wife. Some of his books were banned.

Kostantin Rudakov 1926-TelephoneKonstantin Rudakov, Telephone, 1926

Picture books would show children how to build the future.

Evgenia Evenbakh 1926-The TableEvgenia Evenbakh, The Table, 1926

Aleksandr Deineka 1930-ElectricianAleksandr Deineka, Electrician (B. Uralski), 1930

Tevel Pevzner 1931-The Cow ShedTevel Pevezner, The Cow Shed (Evgeny Shvartz), 1931

Tevel Pevzner 1931-The Poultry YardTevel Pevezner, The Poultry Yard (Evgeny Shvartz), 1931

Georgii Echeistov 1930-What It Carries Where It Travels 1 Georgii Echeistov 1930-What It Carries Where It Travels 2 Georgii Echeistov 1930-What It Carries Where It Travels 3 Georgii Echeistov 1930-What It Carries Where It Travels 4Georgii Echeistov, What It Carries Where It Travels, 1930

Unknown 1934-First Counting BookUnknown illustrator, First Counting Book (F. N. Blekher), 1934

The circus was still popular, but the Lion was no longer portrayed as King of the beasts. Instead he was President.

Maria Siniakova 1929-CircusMaria Siniakova, Circus (Nikolai Aseev), 1929

Vladimir Lebedev 1925-CircusVladimir Lebedev, Circus (Samuil Marshak) 1925

Marshak quote

Some illustrators were still determined to show children at play and having fun. Some got away with it.

Vladimir Konashevitz 1925-Unpublished illustration-Pictures For Little OnesVladamir Konashevitz, unpublished illustration for Pictures For Little Ones, 1925

Vladimir Konashevitz 1925-MugsVladamir Konashevitz, Mugs, 1925.

Others delved further into the new reality of childhood.

Aleksandr Deineka 1930-Red Army ParadeAleksandr Deineka, The Red Army Parade, 1930

The atmosphere of experimentation ended in the mid-1930s when “socialist realism” became the assigned aesthetic ideal. Children’s books could only support Soviet approved aspirations. State censorship was enforced. Yiddish publishing was no longer tolerated and high taxes caused many Russian publishers to close. Many illustrators continued to work but ceased experimenting. Some fled to Europe. Others were arrested.

I visited Soviet Russia when I was a child in 1970. What I remember most about Moscow was how bleak it was. Saint Basil’s Cathedral rose like a glorious fantasy out of the concrete. Everything else, including the people, was grey and heavy. Our guide was afraid to answer any of our questions. People spoke to us in whispers if they spoke to us at all. They were the children who had grown up under the Soviet regime.

For those of you who aren’t able to make it to London to see this show before it closes in September, you can look for the book, Inside the Rainbow, Russian Children’s Literature 1920-1935: Beautiful books, terrible times, which inspired House of Illustration to exhibit works from this collection.

Gwen White’s Book of Toys

Book of toys038

While researching for my last post, Gwen White’s Pictorial Perspective, I discovered that she had written and illustrated other books as well. That led to research into whether I could buy any of them. Most were not available or beyond my budget, but I did find one copy of White’s A Book of Toys that was affordable. Gwen White and toys. I bought it based on that combination, and the cover, without knowing anything about the interior contents.

Book of toys037

I am happy to report that the book is as wonderful as I’d hoped. The images are simple and grand at the same time. The writing is straightforward yet playful. This is part of our heritage as children’s book illustrators and authors.

I want to share it with you here and I couldn’t decide what to leave out so I have scanned the entire book. It feels an appropriate companion piece to my earlier posts on A Book of Pictorial Perspective and Folk Toys -les jouets populaires

Book of toys003Book of toys036Book of toys004Book of toys005Book of toys006Book of toys008Book of toys009Book of toys010Book of toys011Book of toys012Book of toys013Book of toys014Book of toys015Book of toys016Book of toys017Book of toys018Book of toys019Book of toys020Book of toys021Book of toys022Book of toys023Book of toys024Book of toys025Book of toys026Book of toys028Book of toys029Book of toys030Book of toys031Book of toys032Book of toys033Book of toys034

I may have to go back to the London Museum and Kensington palace to see if any of the toys White has illustrated are still on exhibit. The museum at Bethnal Green is now the Victoria & Albert Museum of Childhood which I wrote about here.

I hope you have enjoyed reading this little book as much as I have.

(Maybe you figured this out already, but the Penguins on the cover aren’t just toys. The publisher is Penguin and the book is part of a King Penguin Books series)

Book of toys035

Gwen White’s Pictorial Perspective

Pictorial Perspective cover

My favorite books to find in used book shops are those that are fun to look through, useful, and not easily available. Gwen White’s A Pictorial Perspective is that kind of book. I found it at Foster’s Bookshop (actually a visiting friend found it but didn’t buy it – thank you, Rachel!). It was published by William Morrow and Company in Great Britain in the 1950s. According to the jacket copy, “Miss White” presents all the fascinating tricks of Perspective “in the pleasantest possible way.”

Perspective has never been my strong suit. I learned only the barest basics when studying art in college. I think the style of my work has evolved to avoid perspective. It is still evolving in that direction.

However, sometimes I can’t avoid perspective. This book will be excellent reference.

At first glance, I thought the book was a children’s picture book. The images are colorful and charming, although they did seem oddly placed on the page.

G White-A Street-image

But then I realized their placement wasn’t arbitrary. It corresponded to the line art on the opposite side.

G White-A Street-line

So if you hold the image up against a light source, (like my window), it shows the perspective used to create it.

G White-A Street-both

Each concept has a diagram and explanation,

G White-Birds Flying-line

and an illustration demonstrating its usage,

G White-Birds Flying

which you can hold to the light from either side to see how the perspective works.

G White-Birds Flying-image

Brilliant!

Gwen White writes in her introduction to the book:

Just as a study of verbs is necessary in order to speak a language, … so is a knowledge of Perspective helpful if you wish to convey a feeling of depth. It is not concerned with Flat Design or Decoration, but it enters into outdoor sketching, scenery, film backgrounds, dioramas, and many book illustrations.

For example, if you wanted to illustrate a book about rabbits in moonlight…

G White-Moonlit Rabbits-imageG White-Moonlit Rabbits-line

or pigs in sunshine…

G White-A Pig In Sunshine-imageG White-A Pig In Sunshine-line

Or mice playing…

G White-Mice PlayingG White-Mice Playing-iline

or a variety of other scenes, Pictorial Perspective will help you.

G White-Another BoxG White-Another Box-line

G White-View Through A Window-imageG White-View Through A Window-line

G White-A Street-imageG White-A Street-line

G White-Going Down and Round-imageG White-Going Down and Round-line

G White-A Road With Brows-imageG White-A Road With Brows-line

G White-A Greenhouse-imageG White-A Greenhouse-line

G White-A Lodge With Gables-imageG White-A Lodge With Gables-line

She called this technique of holding the pages to the light her “lift up” idea.

G White-Mice Playing-imageG White-Another Box-imageG White-A Street-bothG White-Going Down and AroundG White-A Long Straight Road-image

Even the endpapers are explanatory.

Gwen White EP2pinkGwen White EP2 blue

I tried to find out more about Gwen White, but there doesn’t seem to be much on her that is easily accessed. She did illustrate children’s books, and authored a book about patterns as well as others about dolls and toys. She was also a painter who exhibited at the Royal Academy and was ARCA (Associate Royal Cambrian Academy). She dedicates this book to her three sons. I hope to find out more with continued research.

In the meantime, I will continue to enjoy learning perspective in the pleasantest possible way.

Memento Mori

rosalyn_peggy_1961

A week ago yesterday, I received the news that my mother had passed away. She was 96 years-old and had been in failing health for quite some time, but the news still came as somewhat of a shock. How could my mother no longer exist in this world? How could I suddenly be motherless? I don’t think it matters what age your mother is when she dies, it still stuns your being to its core.

So how can we, as children’s book authors and illustrators, help children mourn?

When I was a young adult, a dear friend of mine was killed in a motorcycle accident. It was truly a shock. The sadness was so painful. Someone gave me the picture book, Badger’s Parting Gifts by Susan Varley. It tells us to focus on what we have gained from knowing someone who is gone, instead of just the loss we feel.

In remembering that instance, I wondered how many other children’s authors have approached the tender, yet terrifying subject of death. So I googled it.

The childrensbooksguide.com has a list of 25 recommended books dealing with death. Badger’s Parting Gifts is one of them. First published in 1984, it is still in print. None of the other books are familiar, but Tear Soup: A Recipe For Healing After Loss by Pat Schwiebert, sounds appealing. Maybe I will see if I can find it here in the U.K.

Death is not an easy topic to discuss at any age. There are two books (for grown-ups) that I have read in the last few years that I found useful when thinking about death and aging.

Being Mortal, by Atul Gawande, is an excellent resource for any adult who has aging parents, or who is aging themselves. As Gawande points out, getting old and dying is not something that medicine can cure. Quality of life has to be balanced with our desire to keep someone alive. Being Mortal helped me understand how my priorities may not be the same as my parents’.

Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant by Roz Chast is a graphic memoir that relates Chast’s experience of following her parents through their final years. I found it comforting to see how she illustrates many of the same difficult situations I was experiencing with both humour and affection. Children know better than anyone else how quirky their parents can be. Aging makes them more so, but it doesn’t mean we love them any less.

 

In the beginning is the word

When I teach classes on writing picture books, I tell my students that their first reader is going to be an editor and to craft their stories with that in mind. One tip I say is to get something special into the text early. A small word play, a particular truth, a fresh description, just the right rhythm–see if you can work something like that into your first few paragraphs.

Even though it may seem like editors are looking for reasons to say “no,” actually they’re dying to find something wonderful. I know because I’ve read hundreds and hundreds of picture book manuscripts, myself. Your heart leaps just a bit when you feel like maybe here’s something exceptional.

That said, they are looking for reasons to stop reading and get on to the next story in the stack still on the hunt for that special one. So your job is to give them hope.

In my class, I use a few tried and true examples. One of my favorites is the opening to Millions of Cats by Wanda Gag.

Once upon a time there was a very old man and a very old woman. They lived in a nice clean house which had flowers all around it, except where the door was. But they couldn’t be happy because they were so very lonely.

What I love is that completely unnecessary phrase, “except where the door was.” It’s so literal and childlike and would give me hope as an editor that this author sees the world with fresh, whimsical eyes.

But recently I wondered how true my truism was, so I began to pull picture books from my shelves. Not every book fit, of course, but the best did and it was clear why the editor went on reading.

Would your heart lift just a bit with these? (I’ve posted the titles and covers in order, below.)

On a grubby little hill,
in a dreary little funk,
Mrs. Biddlebox rolled over
on the wrong side of her bunk

The birds gave her a headache.
There were creakies in her chair.
A breeze blew dank and dreary
and mussied up her hair.

What’s not to like? The perfect pacing and rhythm, and “grubby” and “dreary” and “dank” but most especially those lovelies: “creakies” and mussied.” I’d be praying that the rest of the text lived up to this start. (It does.)

It was late one winter night, long past my bedtime, when Pa and I went owling.There was no wind. The trees stood still as giant statues. And the moon was so bright the sky seemed to shine. Somewhere behind us a train whistle blew, long and low, like a sad, sad song.

Owling? That sounds intriguing, but what would grab me even more is the perfect sketch here of setting—that cold, bright, still, lonely night. Notice the pacing. The alliteration. The buried rhymes like moon and blew and long and song. I would know I was in the hands of a consummate wordsmith.

It is almost Friday night. Outside, the dark is getting darker and the cold is getting colder. Inside, lights are coming on in houses and apartment buildings. And here and there, uptown and downtown and across the bridges of the city, one hundred and five people are getting dressed to go to work.

The dark getting darker and the cold getting colder. Right away I’m interested because she’s saying things with just a bit of flair. And then, of course that very odd specific detail—105 people getting dressed to go to work. And then you remember that it’s nighttime and smile realizing that’s why the author made such a point of the darkening dark.

Harvey Potter was a very strange fellow indeed. He was a farmer, but he didn’t farm like my daddy did. He farmed a genuine, U.S. Government Inspected Balloon Farm.

No one knew exactly how he did it. Some folks say that it wasn’t real—that it was magic. But I know what I saw, and those were real, actual balloons growing out of the plain ole ground!

Okay, a balloon farm is way cool. But look at the immediate voice. “Fellow,” “daddy,” “genuine” “folks” and that wonderful U.S. Government Inspected Balloon Farm. Every word capitalized because this, after all, is real thing, right?

Oliver was a cat of middle-age, gray with tabby markings. He was a bachelor without wife or kittens and lived in an apartment in Manhattan. A housekeeper, Miss Tilly, who had been with him since kittenhood, looked after the place and prepared his meals.

A perfect description of a certain privileged type, but especially that word “bachelor” for a cat. It makes me think how you can make your character particular with just the right words. You could probably take the most mundane story and make it sing through character alone.

Rock, stone, pebble, sand
Body, shoulder, arm, hand
A moat to dig,
a shell to keep
All the world is wide and deep.

Imagine getting this as plain text? It’s not even completely clear what’s going on—what’s body, shoulder, arm, hand have to do with rock, stone, pebble, sand? And yet your heart rises because there is something so perfect about the rhythm and so deep and resonant about how that last line works.

You’ve probably guessed the title of many of these books. But here they are. And hats off to the editors whose hearts responded and turned such words into completed visions.

 

biddlebox coverMrs. Biddlebox, Her Bad Day and What She Did About It! by Linda Smith, illustrated by Marla Frazee, HarperCollins, 2002

owl moon coverOwl Moon by Jane Yolen, illustrated by John Schoenherr, Philomel Books, 1987

philharmonic coverThe Philharmonic Gets Dressed by Karla Kuskin, illustrations by Marc Simont, Harper and Row, 1982

potters balloon farm coverHarvey Potter’s Balloon Farm, by Jerdine Nolen, illustrated by Mark Buehner, Lothrop, Lee & Shepard Books, 1994

marshmallow coverMarshmallow, written and illustrated by Clare Turlay Newberry, Harper and Row, 1942

all the world coverAll the World, by Liz Garton Scanlon, illustrated by Marla Frazee, Beach Lane Books, 2009

 

 

 

 

With explanation kind…

J.R.R. Tolkien was a staunch defender of the appropriateness of fairy tales and fantasy for both children and adults but in his seminal essay “On Fairy-Stories,” he acknowledged that some stories need to be “sized” for children. “…children may hope to get fairy-stories fit for them to read and yet within their measure; as they may hope to get suitable introductions to poetry, history and the sciences…Their books like their clothes should allow for growth…”

“Sizing” your story and your writing is a common issue for children’s writers. A few writers, like Maurice Sendak, claim they don’t consider their audience at all,* but I have to believe it’s the rare children’s writer who doesn’t pause over a word concerned about its accessibility for the child reader or who isn’t modulating the level of violence and gore in their story.

It gets trickier with the notion of what adult worries and fears kids can absorb. Death, in particular, is a tough one. Oh, there are any number of dead parents littered through children’s lit, and certainly some tragic deaths like Beth’s in Little Woman or Old Yeller, and many near escapes and dangerous situations, but rarely is a child’s own death confronted head on.

Recently, I checked out two versions of a picture book by Russell Hoban, Jim’s Lion, because I was so struck by the very different sizing done by the two different illustrators. **

Hoban’s story is about a young boy, Jim, who is ill and worried about dying.

“People who have what I have, mostly they die, don’t they?” Jim says to his nurse and he worries that he won’t come back from where the doctors send him during his operation.

Jim’s nurse tells him that in his head is everything he’s ever seen or thought about, including all kinds of animals.

“One of those animals is the finder who can bring you back from wherever the doctors send you,” she says.

The rest of the story is about Jim finding and befriending his finder animal, who turns out to be a lion and who does indeed bring him back from his operation

But although the story is exactly the same, look how differently the two illustrators handled it.

Illustrator Ian Andrew’s lion is warm, wise and comforting.

andrew cover

Alexis Deacon’s lion not so much.

deacon cover

In Deacon’s version, Jim meets the lion even before the story begins in a surreal comic book type sequence that foreshadows Jim’s fears.

lion's first appearance

Contrast that with the first encounter in Andrew’s version:

first encounter

In the story, the lion (gentle or otherwise) isn’t immediately tamed and Jim has to first overcome his fear of the lion who greets him with a roar. Here’s Andrew’s roar:

roar andrews

Here’s Deacon’s roar:

roar

But isn’t just in style that the two illustrators vary. Through illustrated sequences, Deacon expands considerably on Hoban’s story taking it into a very dark vein (yes, pun intended). Deacon’s illustrations are bloody, indeed.

blood from box

lion fights bloody animals

 bloodyhands

The operation sequence in the Deacon book takes up 26 pages taking Jim through many changes from the nightmare of the operating room:

operating lights

To a turnabout where the lion is the sick one:

lion sick

And Jim protects him:

jim fights phantoms

The operating sequence in Andrew’s version closely follows the text, which simply notes of the operation that Jim closes his eyes, sees the lion and says, “Okay, let’s do it.” Then he “walked down the long curve of the beach into the dark and lion followed.

operation

The story then immediately jumps to Christmas morning, where Jim is at home: happy and well.

The Deacon version ends in the same place, but what a different journey he takes us on.

Are they appropriately sized for kids? Andrew’s version is aimed at a younger child than Deacon’s. At least based on the boy in the illustrations.  I can see a child taking comfort in this protective, powerful lion.

Even for an older child, the Deacon version is dark,  surreal and unsettling. (It reminds me of David Small’s Stitches.) The lion is not easily won over and Jim’s fight to survive the operation is clearly painful and hard. It seems perhaps YA in its bloodiness and menace, but it is shelved in the children’s section in the Seattle Public Library.

But the reality Jim faces is bloody and menacing. He will be cut open and he may die. Hoban’s story doesn’t shy away from that. And Deacon’s illustrations certainly don’t. I can imagine an older child faced with a hard reality like this could appreciate Deacon’s unflinching take on how frightening and difficult this is.

And I can see other children, not sick or facing anything like death, being intrigued and challenged by the Deacon version, as I was intrigued by the odd and sometimes horrifying art I saw in art history books when I was a kid at home.

It’s an interesting and risky way to illustrate this story. I applaud Deacon and his editors for taking the chance. Perhaps Deacon was aware of another thing that Sendak said in his Tate Modern interview. According to Sendak, “Herman Melville said that artists have to take a dive and either you hit your head on a rock and you split your skull and you die … or that blow to the head is so inspiring that you come back and do the best work that you ever did.”***

* I do not believe that I have ever written a children’s book,” Sendak said in a taped interview for the Tate Modern. And on The Colbert Report he said, “I don’t write for children. I write and somebody says, ‘That’s for children!’” My apologies to the late, great Mr. Sendak, but I don’t believe him.

**Interestingly, both U.S. versions were published by Candlewick Press. I’m guessing both were originally published by Candlewick’s parent company, Walker, in the U.K. The Andrew version was published in 2001, the same year as the copyright for the text. The Deacon version was published in 2014.

***It must be pick-on-Maurice-Sendak day, because I haven’t been able to find a quote like this from Melville. But of course, I’m just googling around. Sendak probably actually read Melville.

Yoko Tanaka – Emotion In Detail

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Looking carefully at one of Yoko Tanaka’s images rewards you with details that on a quick perusal you could easily miss. They are feather-light, with the delicacy of a dragonfly’s wing.

Yoko Tanaka Magician's Elephant 2 detail

I met Yoko through Rotem Moscovich, an editor at Hyperion Publishing who saw her in New York last Fall and thoughtfully introduced us to each other over e-mail. Yoko has lived in London since 2011 and Rotem knew that I had recently relocated here.

I have enjoyed talking with Yoko and learning a bit about her process and approach to imagery. She was kind enough to consent to my featuring her on this blog, and invited me to her studio.

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There is an ethereal, dreamlike quality to Yoko’s illustrations. Monochromatic in tone, the elements emerge out of shadows as if lit by the moon. Since her paintings are often dark with a limited, earthy palette, she says she receives many jobs whose stories deal with “winter, snow, night, death, witches and magic, and children with problem parents.” She is excited that her next picture book project has “100% happy components.”

Yoko Tanaka with Magician's Elephant Chap 1

There is a sadness in many of the pieces, but there is humor as well. Each face tells a story. There are no abbreviations when it comes to elements that convey emotion. Emotion is a word Yoko uses frequently when talking about her work. It is the element she strives to communicate visually. She succeeds.

Yoko Tanaka Magicians Elephant Chap 1 detail

It surprised me to learn that Yoko first studied Law in Japan, her native country, before moving to California in 2000 to study design. She was then accepted to Art Center College in Pasadena where she changed direction to study painting, intending to become a gallery artist. Her first painting was of a large coffee cup.

She enjoys painting on a bigger scale, but that isn’t practical for reproduction, and her current studio space is small. Her illustration work is done to size or slightly larger (which is tiny for the amount of detail she includes).

It was literary agent Steve Malk who first encouraged her to pursue illustration rather than gallery work. She has been working with Steve since 2005. One of the first book contracts Steve brought to her was to illustrate Kate DiCamillo’s The Magician’s Elephant for Candlewick Press in 2008.

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Four months is Yoko’s ideal amount of time for a children’s book project; one month to sketch and three months to paint. She doesn’t like projects to go on much longer than that. One project at a time is better for her than overlapping jobs.

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Yoko says that ideas don’t come to her while she is sitting at her drawing table. Driving a car is where she prefers to do her thinking – in quiet isolation, following a well-known route. In London, she walks instead.

When she gets an idea, it comes to her fully formed, in 3-D, sometimes even with sounds and smells. She then sketches it with pencil and paper as quickly as possible. Revisions are relatively few. She will use Photoshop to add color and value for preliminaries to show clients, but her finished work is usually done in acrylic paints on illustration board.

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Yoko recently completed a cover for a new edition of The Magician’s Elephant as part of Candlewick’s reissue of five of DiCamillo’s books in their Fall/Winter 2015 catalog. The publisher wanted a brighter palette with the animal in the center of the composition, in keeping with the rest of the paperback collection.

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Yoko also showed me the art she created for the first edition of Tiny Pencil, an art-zine “devoted to the lead arts.” These illustrations are done in graphite, not her usual medium. She used stencils and chamois cloth to create the gradations of value. The images have a ghost-like quality that is both poignant and spooky.

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Y Tanaka Tiny Pencil 1 detail

Y Tanaka Tiny Pencil 2

Y Tanaka Tiny Pencil 2 detail

I am grateful to Yoko for taking the time to welcome me to her studio, and for sharing her ideas and process, as well as her time. I look forward to seeing more of her work in the future, perhaps on a gallery wall as well as in books.

Y Tanaka balcony arrangement