There’s an elegance required for picture books that rely on visual concepts and bold design to tell a story and communicate ideas. The illustrator must avoid a certain amount of visual clutter, for one. Two new picture books on shelves — Stephen Savage’s Sign Off and Fiona Woodcock’s Hello — are imaginative, exceptionally designed adventures in graphic storytelling.
In an opening note in Sign Off, newly on shelves, author-illustrator Stephen Savage pays tribute to the graphic artists who created the “round-headed sign characters in the 1970s” (he specifically names Roger Cook of the design firm Cook and Shanosky Associates), the simply-designed people in solid black that you see on road signs all across the country. You know, like this.
It is such signage that Savage uses to tell the inventive story in this, his latest picture book. On the book’s first spread, we see a deer-crossing sign on a moonlit night. Turn the page to see the same scene — but now the deer stretches up on his back legs to nibble on the leaves hanging above his head. That’s right: The characters on these signs are in motion. And it’s an entertaining ride for readers. (And, save for the presence of the words on the standard “children at play” sign, this one is wordless.)
The person on the tractor-crossing sign rides right off of it and into the grass; a wheelchair-rider on an accessibility parking sign rolls right off and zooms across the top of the car parked near it; the humans of a pedestrian-crossing sign, which sits under a flowering tree, move positions, and on the next spread we see one of them kneeling, offering one of those pink flowers to the other (because someone’s in love); and so on.
This is all laid out in bold graphics; crisp, elemental shapes and simple, effective lines are the name of the game. In a Q&A about the book, Savage has said that he is a fan of “modernist, minimalist design.” That’s clearer than ever here. Savage has a larger story to tell—this is wise; otherwise, the book would be merely clever for clever’s sake—and for that story to make sense, the characters on the sign and their forward motion need to be the focus.
And that larger story he’s telling—which is a joyful, mischievous one—involves the rising sun and a seesaw. The folks on a seesaw sign not only walk off of it; they also bring their seesaw with them. They follow all of the other sign characters who have stepped out of their road-side dwellings, including the deer, who has finally stepped away from his bright yellow sign. They eventually climb atop one another in order to remove the yellow circle from a stoplight sign, place it atop one side of the seesaw, and catapult it into the sky. The sun has now risen, ready for a new day.
Expect peals of delight from the young children taking in this story with big eyes, children who will then see road signs in refreshing, new ways. Not to mention: You know how we have an entire movie franchise about what toys do when their humans aren’t watching? Well, what about road signs? What do they get up to at night? Now we know. Captivating.
With the same sibling pair we met in Look, Woodcock once again encourages young readers to seek and locate patterns — this time, we are searching for double-L words and shapes. On the title page, the girl stands with a lemony-yellow sun behind her, her legs casting the shadows that form the two “L”s in the book’s title. It’s a happy summer day, and the two head to an amusement park, where the two “L”s in “gallop” are made from the poles on the carousel horses they ride; the “L”s in “chilly” are formed from the umbrella poles at the shore, where the two dip in the water; the “L”s of “jellyfish” are the tentacles of the smiling creature the boy sees under the water; and the last two letters in “nightfall” are composed of the telephone poles behind the siblings, who are roasting marshmallows at a small fire.
Woodcock, like Savage, has an overarching story to tell—the summer adventure, at turns thrilling and relaxing, that is a visit to an amusement park at a beach — and her smart design and wordplay serve that larger story, as they should. As with last year’s book, she renders her textured, candy-colored artwork via hand-cut rubber stamps and stencils; it’s a visually appealing journey the children take. Maybe, just maybe, Woodcock will do even more of these picture books, which are engaging adventures for language-loving children of all ages.
Julie Danielson (Jules) conducts interviews and features of authors and illustrators at Seven Impossible 0.Things Before Breakfast, a children's literature blog primarily focused on illustration and picture books.
HELLO. Copyright © 2019 by Fiona Woodcock. Illustration above reproduced by permission of the publisher, Greenwillow Books, an imprint of HarperCollins, New York.
SIGN OFF. Copyright © 2019 by Stephen Savage. Published by Beach Lane Books, am imprint of Simon & Schuster, New York. Illustration above reproduced by permission of Stephen Savage.