There’s been a long-standing tradition in children’s literature of editorial illustrators migrating to children’s books. Wanda Gág, Dr. Seuss, Syd Hoff, Shel Silverstein: They also created cover and interior art for magazines or newspapers. And many award-winning contemporary picture book artists carry the torch—Harry Bliss, R. Gregory Christie, Ian Falconer and Maira Kalman are only a few. Author/illustrator Paul Schmid (A Pet for Petunia) spent 17 years as a newspaper artist and says, “It is a nearly perfect training ground for an illustrator. You learn to work fast, generate large quantities of ideas, not get attached to any ideas, deal with every subject matter possible, and most importantly: communicate with pictures, not just decorate a page.”
Read last week's Seven Impossible Things on books about summer fun.
For many of these contemporary artists, it’s the New Yorker and/or the New York Times where they make their mark, then they turn to picture books or simultaneously do editorial and children’s book illustration. For instance, bringing us consistently engaging and often utterly sublime New Yorker covers (holy wow, did you see Reflections, the 2008 cover after Obama was elected into office?) is designer, author and illustrator Bob Staake, who also creates some of children’s literature’s sleekest, most sharp-witted titles, including two 2011 head-turners: the ebullient Look! A Book!: A Zany Seek-and-Find Adventure (Little, Brown) and the action-packed Cars Galore (Candlewick).
Also new on bookshelves are three picture-book titles from those who have graced the New Yorker with their work. Shall we call it the New Yorker effect? Whatever we dub it, these three illustrators’ crisp, retro, geometric styles translate successfully to the world of picture books.
First up and on bookshelves this month from Little, Brown, is the stylish picture book debut from editorial illustrator Frank Viva, Along a Long Road. Not so much a story as a case study in the use of picture book line—“This book was created as a single, continuous thirty-five-foot-long piece of art using Adobe Illustrator,” the copyright page notes—this sparsely worded tale chronicles one man’s bike journey along a single road, a smooth yellow line which propels the story with an almost palpable energy. Employing only three other shades and soothing, contrasting rounded shapes on this man’s journey, it’s an absorbing tribute to the oft-repeated notion that it’s not the destination that matters, but the journey itself.
Speaking of brilliance with line, Laura Ljungkvist returns next month with Follow the Line to School (Viking), her fourth title featuring a solid, rather Etch-A-Sketch line, which goes barreling through each spread, engaging in much curving, looping and all-around swooping. But while we wait on this one, we can pore over Pepi Sings a New Song, released in April by Beach Lane Books. This one—featuring Pepi the parrot, who lives with the boy Peter and needs a new song—is also slight on story and more like a picture-book dictionary, given that Pepi visits Peter’s friends (a baker, a musician, an artist in her studio) and names all the objects in order to accumulate new words for his lyrics. There’s an emphatically vintage vibe with Ljungkvist’s minimalist, brightly colored illustrations. And with a protagonist who straight up revels in fun, it’s a real charmer.
Editorial illustrator Stephen Savage doesn’t waste any time getting right to the story in his latest children’s title, the wordless Where’s Walrus? from Scholastic: This sly walrus is winking at us on the very copyright page. His wily plan? To escape from the zoo, gallivant around the city, and blend in by trying on different hats. This he does jubilantly—and with a zookeeper hot on his trail. The digitally created illustrations in this spot-the-ginormous-flippered-marine-mammal adventure for the youngest of children are bold with simple shapes and a muted palette, but despite the toned-down color blocks, these are images that still manage to shine from the page. Clever, mischievous fun, this is one of the most memorable picture books of 2011 thus far.
Here’s to more dynamic picture books from the training grounds of editorial illustration…
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.