Tag Archives: janet wong

Concept book, concept book. What do you see?

Some of the simplest picture books are concept books. Books about sound, color, shapes, seasons… ways that we categorize the world that will be new to a toddler. Concept books might often seem like just random lists, but the good ones have an underlying structure that takes more planning than it seems.

A lot has to do with the order in which information is presented. It can be an order is natural to the concept itself such as the passage of seasons or the sequence of the colors in a rainbow, but often the author has to work to impose order. A lot of the pleasure of a concept book is to see how an author and illustrator do this.

A great example is the picture book Buzz by Janet Wong, illustrated by my blog-mate Margaret Chodos-Irving. It’s a book I’ve used in my writing classes long before I knew Janet or Margaret, because what could be a simpler idea than different things that buzz? But it’s far from a random collection of buzzes.


In this case, author and illustrator explore the different buzzing sounds a boy hears as his household wakes up.

It starts with the single word: “Buzz.” as a boy sleepily looks out his window. Then a page turn.


“Outside my window a bee eats breakfast in a big red flower.”

It then moves through the boy’s morning. The buzz of the alarm clock in his parent’s room. Dad shaving. The sound of the gardener mowing across the street. There’s one “buzz” sound per page. And they are relatively peaceful, everyday buzzes. The language is mostly simple declarative sentences.

Then comes breakfast and something interesting happens. The activity level picks up and the language gets more complex:

Mommy grinds coffee Buzzzzzzzzzzz while I fly my airplane Buzzzzzzzzz over the oatmeal Buzzzzzzz and past the apple juice Buzzzzzzz—OH NO!

All this activity happens on one page quickening the pace of the story.

On the next page, there are no buzz sounds—just mild chaos. Airplane lands in juice, cup spills, mom runs to catch cup, toast pops up, clothes are tumbling in dryer and then the BUZZZZ of the dryer gets buzzing back into the story, but now with more urgency. Mom is on the move getting ready to go to work. Buzz goes her hairdryer. Grandma buzzes the doorbell to come baby-sit. Boy kisses Mom goodbye…

“so she can fly BUZZ outside”

(page turn and we see Mom hurrying off to work)

“like a busy bee.”


There’s plenty of structure here. The sequence of the buzzes matches the natural order of a morning’s activities. The pace and urgency of the story gradually escalate into mild chaos in the kitchen and Mom suddenly needs to rush to get out the door—this is the top of the story arc. Then the pace slows somewhat—not as leisurely as the beginning, but down off the peak and gradually we come in for a landing, with the closing image of the bee that perfectly rounds out the story at the same place we came in.


A consistent pattern or rhyming scheme is another way to add structure to a simple book. I wrote a  concept book Tickly Prickly, illustrated by Shari Halpern (now out of print) about how things feel to the touch. It begins with:

Did you ever have a ladybug crawl across your finger?

How did it feel?

Tickly, prickly. Fly away quickly.

Every stanza that follows asks a question about how it feels to touch a familiar animal and answers that question within a consistent rhyming scheme.

Did you ever have a fish wriggle in your hands?

How did it feel?

Slippery, slickery. Turny and twistery.

Ending with:

Did you ever have a puppy cuddle in your arms?

How did it feel?

Velvety snug. A hugful of love.

Like Wong, I had to find an narrow focus for my book. I picked the feel of  animals—not the feel of a bedtime blanket or a snowball. And I picked familiar animals—bunnies, chicks, a cat’s paw—not a hippo hide or the beak of a stork. But I could have gone in those other directions. The main thing is to have a direction, a reason for the choices.

chick-tickly-prickly(By the way, the symbols at the top of this illustration are from an iTunes app that’s available for this book.)

There’s almost no build to the march of animals in Tickly Prickly, but the middle does feature perhaps the more interesting animals that might be in an average child’s world—a horse, a lake fish, a toad. And, it very deliberately ends with the coziest emotion, snuggling with a dog.

Ending with the coziest emotions is my favorite go-to for most concept books, but there are other ways to make sure you end in a satisfying place, including the ending of a day (a built-in cozy moment with a goodnight tuck-in or hug), the reward or result of that activity (the baked cake) or going full circle.

Taro Gomi’s, Spring Is Here is a perfect example of the circular ending.


Spring Is Here is so deceptively simple. The prose couldn’t be more straightforward. It begins:

Spring is here.

The snow melts.

The earth is fresh.

The grass sprouts.

Each line is a new, two-page spread.


But not only is there a lovely trick he plays with the illustrations (you’re going to have to get this one to see what he does. It’s worth it.) he, too, creates a build as we move from flowers blooming and grass growing to a little drama in the middle:

The wind blows.

The storms rage.

And then back down into the quiet harvest, falling snow and a hushed world. Before returning to:


For more concept books to check out, I like this list compiled by the Contra Costa County Library (plus it’s fun to say all those C-words.)


The Seattle Public Library also has this list:


And here’s this from Goodreads:







Bugs Abound

The world is thrumming with insect life. In the summer I feel more aware of all the bugs around us.Paschkis Summer Birds p6When I illustrated Summer Birds by Margarita Engle I got to spend some time with insects. When I began the book I knew it would be fun to illustrate imaginary creatures and misconceptions about metamorphosis, but it turned out to be equally entertaining to draw real insects.Paschkis Summer Birds p30-31

In a field of one square mile you will find as many insects as there are people on the entire planet. The Smithsonian Institute estimates that there are 10 quintillion (10,000,000,000,000,000,000) insects on earth. That means there are 200 million insects for each human being.

Raul Dufy 1911

Raul Dufy 1911

There are roughly 900,000 different kinds of living species of insects, fascinating in their particulars. Check out the website What’s That Bug to see some of them.

Here is an unscientific selection of some bugs that have buzzed through children’s books, in chronological order.

In 1807 John Harris came out with the Butterfly’s Ball. It was one of the first books made to delight children as opposed to improve or edify them.butterfly ball

The success of that book spawned The Butterfly’s Birthday in 1809, illustrated by William Mulready.Mulready Butterfly

Palmer Cox (who created the Brownies) painted this is 1890. .queerie queers 1890

Kafka published Metamorphosis in 1915. In 1927 you could have tea with Fly Ratter Tatter, illustrated by Vladimir Konashevich.fly ratter tatter

Some bugs are easier to love in art than in life. This lone cockroach and the swarming mosquitos below are from Alyonushka’s Tales, illustrated by Yuri Vasnetsov in 1935:
vasnetsov kitchenvasnetsov bear mosquitos

John Langstaff wrote Frog Went A-Courtin in 1955 and Feodor Rojankovsky won a Caldecott for the illustrations. The book teems with bugs in minor and major roles.
Rojankovsky frogRojankovsky flyRojankovsky fly pie593Rojankovsky snakeNext to come in was a little chick,Rojankovsky chick591

Wm. Steig’s Presumptuous Insect is not from a children’s book but it begged to be included.steig insect

Doug Florian is a modern master of the insect. Check out his books Insectlopedia from 2002 and Unbeelievables from 2012.drones

…I’ve got to fly now.
Don’t bug out!
Bee well!

Margaret Chodos-Irvine illustration for Buzz by Janet Wong 2000

Margaret Chodos-Irvine’s illustration for Buzz by Janet Wong, 2000

Update: Joellyn Rock sent a link to this video that she made called Pollinatrix the Pollinator. Buzz over and check it out!



For many years I have enjoyed doing yoga. I like to feel my feet on the ground,and the breath in my body. This summer I have really been savoring my yoga classes so I decided to revisit Twist:Yoga Poems , a book by Janet Wong that I illustrated several years ago. Here are a few of the pictures with Janet’s poems.                                                                                                                                                                    


Crow depends on his elbows.

You cannot always fly.

You need somewhere to rest

the weight of yourself.


Trees watch.

This is why

they grow tall,

this is why they bend and sway,

so they can see around a house,

over a hill,

beyond a fire.

Look, not just on a windy day.

See how they move.

At the tip of each branch

there is an eye.


A warrior

takes his stand,

feet planted sturdy and strong.

Before long, he sees

he is heading the wrong way.

He turns and

takes his stand,

feet planted sturdy and strong.


I looked at many Indian miniatures while I was working on the book. I was inspired by the colors, the patterns, the delicacy of the painting and the way the space was divided.  (An interesting fact I learned is that the beautiful yellow paint was made by feeding mango leaves to the cows then collecting, drying and grinding the cow urine into pigment.)

In yoga class I always felt like a phony when I used sanskrit words like drishti or namaste. But this summer a teacher explained that when you use the foreign words it slows you down and you can understand the meaning in a different and more thoughtful way. That makes sense to me. In that same way I am always trying to understand the art that inspires me and to look at it closely; the act of translation helps me twist and stretch. I want to use foreign words or imagery but still speak my own language.


Black Cats

Today is Friday the 13th.
Although I should know better I am superstitious. I would never submit a manuscript or deliver finished artwork on a Friday the 13th. If a black cat crosses my path I walk backwards for 7 steps or throw salt over my left shoulder as soon as possible. (Salt tossing is my all purpose antidote for bad luck).

Several years ago I illustrated the book Knock on Wood: Poems About Superstitions by Janet S. Wong. It was great fun to illustrate. Unfortunately it taught me new superstitions to worry about. (For example, you should never leave your hat on a bed.) Here is a black cat from that book.

Earlier this week I began a draft for this blog post. I was unable to finish it because my previously perfect computer stopped working midstream; after several hours on the help line I found out that the hard drive was broken. No amount of salt tossing could fix it. I am working on a different computer now. Even as some primitive part of my brain thinks that my computer problems were related to the date or the subject matter of my post, another part wonders how I could ever give these superstitions credence. Why should black cats be considered bad luck?

kotofei ivanovich by Tatyana Marevna

Why not black horses?

Why not orange cats?

Art from Where Is Catkin? by Janet Lord

Do you indulge in any superstitions? Can you recommend any charms or antidotes to bad luck? Can you remove the hex from my hard drive?

Space: The Final Frontier

Nature and I abhor a vacuum. I tend to fill up every bit of space with pattern and color.

But I am often drawn to art that has room to breathe in it, like this 1958 snowstorm by Selina Chonz. The space allows you to appreciate the patterns.

This next illustration was done by Lotte Schmiel in 1935. The background floats into the shapes; she allows your imagination to complete the edges of the objects.

As does Margaret (Chodos-Irvine) in this illustration for Apple Pie Fourth of July by Janet Wong. Your eye creates the edge of the tee-shirts and also connects the shirts from stripe to stripe.

Lizbeth Zwerger is a master of space. Her composition pulls your eye around the painting. All of the space allows you to notice the grace and perfection of her lines.










For a while I was taking piano lessons. My friend and teacher, Julan Chu, told me that I needed to pay attention to the rests as well as to the notes. Lately I’ve been trying to leave some rest for the eyes in my paintings, at least some of the time. This image is from my book Apple Cake, coming next fall.

The images I’ve posted here all share the quality of spaciousness. There is also a secret sub-theme. Can you guess it?


P.S. For those of you in Seattle, there are some upcoming events I would like to tell you about. We have added an Events page to this blog where you can find out about the launch party for Mooshka and other exciting activities to come.