No one today is making picture books quite like award-winning Australian author-illustrator Bob Graham, who has been doing so for over three decades now. His latest offerings—last year’s The Silver Button, as well as Vanilla Ice Cream, coming this August—are short tales about big things. The Silver Button is about no less than the multiple wonders of life, which span the lives of many (and across miles), literally capturing a moment—one short enough for a young girl to add a final, silver button to her drawing of a duck. It is simply beautiful and always—always—leaves me misty-eyed—the happy kind of misty-eyed, that is. The Kirkus review for the book captured it well: “This apparent slice of the everyday moves quietly into the existential."
Graham’s newest book, Vanilla Ice Cream, also manages to be about the big wonders of life wrapped up in seemingly small things. In the story of a small sparrow in India, who makes his way south across the globe, Graham brings readers a meditation on life’s twists and turns—and surprising connections that can cross seas and spawn new experiences. It’s a story he says took over half a year to piece together, adding “I find that in the making of picture books it’s best to turn the clock to the wall.”
Perhaps I should say that no one is quite making such stories as well as Graham is. In just one picture book spread, he can convey more story and details (and with such relaxed, casual lines) than most novelists due in doorstops of novels. And making the small moments of life into interesting and funny and compelling books for children is something only a masterful storyteller can do.
“It’s sometimes hard to come out from behind my stories and articulate reasons for things,” Bob tells me when I ask if anything in particular compels him to write and illustrate stories about slowing down to appreciate the big picture in our busy lives, “as the stories are not written that way. I don’t go into them with a reason or issue—only that the characters will treat each other with respect and tolerance. And that their dogs can do anything they like around the house. The rest will hopefully follow.”
However, he adds, “I guess that if I am learning anything from the making of all these books over the years it is to trust my intuition and that small and seemingly mundane things around me can be scrutinized and have their own validity—and can have wider significance. When I sit at my desk with a fresh sheet of paper and pen, I have little idea of what might follow. Maybe a word alongside a picture—and then a memory. Perhaps someone walking past my window with their dog will encourage me forward. I might then be curious to know what might happen next on my A4 sheet. I see the process as like being on the beach turning stones over with the toe of my boot to see what might be under there. Sometimes a crab might scuttle away. That’s as best I can describe it all—and I let myself be surprised by the connections a story might make along the way.”
He also likes his stories to be quiet, he says. With the use of panels in many of the spreads of Vanilla Ice Cream, he animates and dramatizes these softer, more hushed moments: The sparrow’s flight from one branch to another and then down to a child in a stroller contains multitudes. “Once I have established that I am actually in the process of telling a story,” Bob explains, “it is then I know just how to tell it. In my own case, it will always involve a progression of words and pictures. They are put together naturally but with a lot of help from scissors and sticky tape (which sticks to the elbows of my sweaters—I find it while checking out at the supermarket). These words and pictures are never far apart and sometimes one leapfrogging over the other.”
So it is with the panels, he tells me, as he’s able to convey the sparrow’s airborne journey. When the sparrow reaches a toddler in a stroller on the other side of the sea, yet is startled by a dog, an ice cream cone the child’s grandparent is holding flies through the air (thereby providing the child’s very first taste of vanilla ice cream, and what a wonder is vanilla ice cream!). Graham’s aim was to “slow the pace to halt that cone in mid-air,” though he jokes that calling it a “freeze frame” might be more like it.
And it all works. It’s a wonder-filled story, intimate and powerful.
What’s next for the author-illustrator with so many devoted fans? “I have on my desk the completed pictures for How the Sun Got to Coco’s House. The story follows the arc of the rising sun from somewhere like Alaska right across a snowy northern hemisphere, oceans, cities, deserts, getting trapped briefly in the eye of a whale, waiting patiently outside an old lady’s window to be let in—until it bursts through the bedroom window of a small girl in what looks to be a mining town in Northern England. But the story is not a geography lesson. [It’s] more about the journey itself and the people touched by it. Underneath—and outside and away from—Coco’s window there are wider connections to be made. While I have traditionally found my stories not far from my desk, my boundaries seem to be widening considerably of late.”
“It’s time I got out a bit,” he adds, but we readers are happy he’s right where he is.
VANILLA ICE CREAM. Copyright © 2014 by Bob Graham. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA on behalf of Walker Books, London.
Julie Danielson (Jules) conducts interviews and features of authors and illustrators at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, a children's literature blog primarily focused on illustration and picture books.