In the back-flap bios of brand-new picture books from two of my favorite contemporary illustrators is the following line: “This is the first book she has both written and illustrated.” Until now in their respective careers, illustrators—ahem, make that author/illustrators—Sophie Blackall and Lauren Castillo have illustrated stories sprung from the minds of others. Now they’ve got their own stories to tell.
Read the last Seven Impossible Things at Kirkus on George O'Connor's Hera.
As a picture book aficionado (*cough*, addict), it’s exciting to see illustrators branch out and write their own narratives. John Manders, who brings a brisk, riotous energy to children’s books, weighs in on what the experience is like, anticipating The Really Awful Musicians (Clarion), his own author/illustrator debut set for this Fall: “[It] taught me that it's both harder and easier than I expected to write a picture book. Easier because I'd already envisioned the characters… and had no trouble writing dialogue for them—harder because it was a long process distilling a formless bunch of ideas into an economic story the picture book medium requires.”
Blackall’s debut was many years in the making, written years ago about her son when he was three—and with a special talent for midnight cross-examinations. Much has been made in the past several months of Ricardo Cortés and Adam Mansbach’s Go the F**k to Sleep, which shot to the top of Amazon’s bestseller list. Clearly, it isn’t a children’s book, though it disguises itself as one, but in Blackall’s Are You Awake? (Ottaviano/Holt), we’ve got the real deal—a funny and honest book about sleep, or the lack thereof—that will make both parent and child laugh.
In a small, square book—opening with a timid circle of darkness, nestled in generous white space and including only “Mom?” in one lone speech bubble—a mother is awakened by her young child. Thus begin the relentless questions, the mother making her best, if wearied, attempts at responses: “Why aren’t you awake?” the child asks. “Because I’m asleep,” the mother replies. “Why are you asleep?” “Because it’s still nighttime.”
Sleep? This child would rather have existential discussions, hanging off Mom in the dead of night, about why the sun isn’t up, why it’s Tuesday and What Things Are Yellow. It’s these meandering, uncontrived questions and musings, something at which children excel, that bring so much of the humor here (“Some names sound yellow to me, like Peter, and some letters and numbers, like E and 3”), not to mention Blackall’s wry yet tender ink-and-watercolor illustrations—the bleary-eyed mom doing her best to end the questions and her son, so wide awake he’s crossing his eyes at one moment and picking his nose the next.
In Castillo’s author/illustrator debut, Melvin and the Boy (Henry Holt), a young boy wants a pet, though his parents don’t. “Everyone has a pet,” he says midpout one day. He knows things are bad when pet owners flood the sidewalk in front of him, including someone with a llama on a leash.
At the park one day, he meets a parent-approved turtle. He names him Melvin (because “Melvin is a good name for a turtle”) and takes him home. But Melvin is too shy, doesn’t like pretzels, sneaks away during catch and disregards bedtime stories. The boy realizes he probably misses his friends, not to mention the water, and returns him to the park.
With gentleness and the sweet, slow pace the story needs, Castillo nails how huge such a seemingly inconsequential event is to a young child, the boy making his own decision to return the animal. And her art gets better with each book. These are textured, primarily earth-toned and boldly outlined illustrations, inviting and warm.
Here’s hoping we see more stories from both the pens and paintbrushes of Blackall and Castillo. Besides, there is one huge advantage author/illustrators have over illustrators alone, according to Manders: “How liberating to call the author a fathead without him taking it personally.”
Julie Danielson (Jules) has, in her own words, conducted approximately eleventy billion interviews and features of authors and illustrators at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, a children's literature blog focused primarily on illustration and picture books.