Maurice Sendak once wrote that the picture book is “a peculiar art form that thrives on genius, intuition, daring.” Some of the best ones use their 32 pages to ask readers to see the world — shapes, colors, designs, ideas, objects, creatures — in fresh, new ways. I’ve three of those here today.
If you want to expand your mind by taking a look at the same thing in multiple ways (bonus: you will learn about art in India), find a copy of Beasts of India from Tara Books, edited by Kanchana Arni and Gita Wolf. This small, square, handmade limited edition picture book features a range of animals that make their home in India (snakes, tigers, bulls, lions, and the like), rendered by a variety of Indian artists. And the artists represent a range of tribes and artistic styles.
Take, for instance, the deer. Here, you see it rendered by three different artists in three different spreads: T. Mohan paints a deer in the Kalamkari Traditional style (described in the book’s backmatter as “decorative art, floral and vegetable motifs, painted or dyed on cotton fabric, using sharp bamboo sticks padded with hair or cotton”), a style whose themes include Hindu mythology, animals, and plants. And Bhajju Shyam paints a deer in the Gond Tribal style (“ritual and functional art with distinctive decorative elements, painted on walls of houses, using natural colours”), whose themes are everyday life and the relationships humans have with the natural world.
Mohan’s deer is a deeply saturated blue and looks almost cartoonish in style (by American standards), and Bhajju’s deer is rendered with fine, delicate lines; each is graceful in its own way. The third deer is from another artist, the late Jangarh Singh Shyam, who also paints in the Gond Tribal style, and it’s fascinating to compare his deer with Bhajju’s. All the art is rendered on original silkscreen prints — the animal name, as well as the artistic style, facing the animal image on each spread. And that’s it. Nothing else clutters up these pages (save a few images with patterned backgrounds) so that readers can linger over the bold colors, the finely detailed art, and the thick, textured pages.
Now let’s take a look at Look, which comes from author-illustrator Fiona Woodcock. This is the story of a pair of siblings who visits the zoo, and every word in the story contains two Os: Food. Boots. Bamboo. Achoo! Oops! And so on. Woodcock structures the book such that we see the children take a day-long adventure. We start in the morning with “food,” the Os in the word depicted via two sunny-side-up eggs in a skillet. When one child puts on “boots,” the Os are depicted via the tops of the boots in which feet are about to be placed. Woodcock uses hand-cut rubber stamps, pens, pencils, and stencils for the bright, sunny artwork and the hand-lettered text.
All throughout the book, Woodcock (who, delightfully, has Os in her name) plays thusly with typography and design (the wheels on the car that take them to the zoo form the Os in “zoom”), and it all adds up to a fresh and inviting — and visually appealing — adventure. “See you soon” says the sign at the zoo, and the children head home at the end of their exciting day for “shampoo,” “book,” “snooze,” and “goodnight.” (And “hoot” says an owl near the “moon.”) This is picture-book wordplay at its best.
I save the most difficult to describe for last, the book that will have you seeing shapes, colors, and stripes in all new ways, an inventive book that will require effort on your part. Andy Mansfield’s See the Stripes is hard to nail down. It’s a pop-up book. It’s an interactive book. It’s a puzzle book. It’s a counting book of sorts. It’s shaped like a board book and is officially for “ages 3 to 7,” but I think a three-year-old could wreak havoc on such a book (in either glee and/or frustration). Let’s just say it’s for all ages, since I myself, at the age of 46, was stumped by more than one spread.
Andy Mansfield puts you to work — bending, folding, turning, lifting, twisting, and pulling on flaps of paper in order to find some stripes. One page, for instance, asks you to find a purple stripe. There are four vertical red stripes visible, ones you can lift and bend back. Under each red stripe is a single color block. They are purple. But they don’t form a solid stripe if you bend back the red stripes. They do, however, if you keep bending and folding back the red stripes and if you hold them down with your fingers (covering up the one pesky blue block). Voila: it’s a horizontal purple stripe.
But that’s just the easy part at the beginning. A few spreads after that include small squares of various colors in an 8 x 8 grid. The paper, creased in certain spots, lifts up and folds in sections – in such ways that you can find the stripes Mansfield asks for by bending sections and sometimes even fitting them together, but only if you stick to it. Some of these are challenging to find. (General hint: Look closely to see if some squares on some pages have folds that allow you to bend them in half.)
It’s a paper- and mind-bending adventure, asking you, as these other books do, to see things in a new light — in the unique way that picture books can do. They’re daring like that.
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.
BEASTS OF INDIA. Copyright © 2017 Tara Books Private Limited. Illustration reproduced by permission of the publisher, Tara Books, India.
LOOK. Copyright © 2018 by Fiona Woodcock. Illustration reproduced by permission of the publisher, Greenwillow Books, an imprint of HarperCollins, New York.
SEE THE STRIPES. Copyright © 2016 by The Templar Company Limited. Image reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA.