Column: A Thousand Words
by Kathie Johnson
The illustrations in children's picture books can be wonderful. Often, it is the cover illustration that draws us to a particular book. We hope to see more delightful illustrations inside, in addition to a good story. It's tricky to talk about the subject of children's book illustrations, because there are so many great illustrators. In this column, I will only touch the surface, with a few of my particular favorites. I hope readers will chime in. Tell me your favorite illustrators, or those of your children or grandchildren. Perhaps they can be shared in a later column.
The art of illustrating a children's book is fascinating. A good illustrator has to absorb the words on each page and plan pictures that bring those words to life. I remember one artist-illustrator who used to come to my library with her son. While she was working on one book, she gave a little class to interested families. She brought the initial text, then showed us how she developed her work, matching her paintings to the action on each page. As the editor made changes, she also had to adjust her illustrations.
I like several "busy" illustrators. Peter Spier is a favorite, with his many colorful details. The books for which he has also written simple text, such as Oh, Were They Ever Happy! and Bored—Nothing to Do, are delightful, joyous romps with a family of active kids. His book Rain has no words at all, yet tells a compelling story of a rainy day and night. Other wordless books of his include the beautiful Dreams, in which two children imagine whole worlds in the clouds, and Noah's Ark (mostly wordless), which gives you a sense of the busyness and abundance on board the ark, the mess left behind after the animals leave, and a lovely rainbow scene.
Spier has also illustrated books like The Fox Went Out on a Chilly Night, which he sets in a New England farm village. His book People is a wonderful introduction to world cultures, although the first page includes outdated data, which you can skip. Some of his books include more text, such as Tin Lizzie, which tells the story of a new Model T moving into a changing world. He follows the car and the changing landscape around it for fifty years. All his books have a happy, upbeat atmosphere.
Another "busy" illustrator is Steven Kellogg. His illustrations generally include lots of people and lots of color, humor, and action. He did a delightful series about Pinkerton, a Great Dane with a vivid imagination, who tends to get into trouble but always comes out all right. Kellogg has written and illustrated a number of books about tall-tale heroes, including Mike Fink, Pecos Bill, and Paul Bunyan. He has also retold some fairy tales. Some he has told in traditional style; others are wildly different.
He has a number of books that I categorize as "easy fantasy." Among these are Can I Keep Him?, in which a boy finds a number of pets, including, at the end, a dinosaur; Ralph's Secret Weapon, in which a boy rescues people from a sea serpent; and The Mysterious Tadpole, in which the title creature grows into a Loch Ness monster. The Mystery Beast of Ostergeest is a charming re-telling of the blind men and the elephant. The people in a small village have never seen an elephant and ponder what it could be like. Blind "scholars" approach the animal in various ways, with their different views resulting in a great argument. Kellogg has also illustrated other people's books, including the funny series by Trinka Hakes Noble about Jimmy's Boa, and Susanne Williams's "Library Lil."
A third "busy" illustrator is Graham Oakley. His Church Mice series has become a favorite in some families. One family continued to check out the books with delight from the time their children were quite small until they were older teenagers. These books are set in an English village, where a church has a large number of mice and one mouse-friendly cat. The mice serve the church in their own way and are treated well for the most part, but they also end up having adventures in interesting and very funny ways. The pictures are great fun to look at, with their detailed depictions of English village and church life. Oakley also did some books that include foxes (The Foxbury Force), one with chickens, and at least one that could be considered science fiction.
On the quieter side, I enjoy Kim Lewis. Most of her books are set on an English sheep farm. There are not a lot of words, but lovely, warm pictures. Little Baa tells of a young sheep who gets separated from his mother. Floss tells about a border collie, who also appears in Little Baa. In Emma's Lamb, a lost lamb is brought to the farmhouse, and young Emma cares for him, plays with him, and then (a bit reluctantly) helps him find his mother. In First Snow, a mother and her young daughter (about three years old) leave the farmhouse to feed the sheep on a hill some distance away. It begins to snow and they must return to the farmhouse, but little Sara has left her teddy behind and is reluctant to leave the hill. A farm dog comes to the rescue, bringing the teddy to her. Lewis has written several other books, all tender and full of family love and love for the animals on the farm, clearly shown through the illustrations.
Jerry Pinkney is another illustrator for whom I have great respect. Unlike the illustrators above, he usually illustrates other people's books, although he has adapted some tales in gorgeous fashion, such as The Little Red Hen and The Ugly Duckling. He specializes in using his richly colored, atmospheric style to illustrate African American tales, and stories by African American writers. He often teams with Julius Lester, producing books like John Henry, the story of the legendary rail-laying man who competed with a steam drill. The pair also did a lovely version of the banned Little Black Sambo. Theirs is called Sam and the Tigers, and is filled with humor and excitement. In addition to the books he did with Lester, Pinkney has illustrated the books of Patricia McKissack (Mirandy and Brother Wind), Valerie Flournoy (The Patchwork Quilt), Robert San Souci (The Talking Eggs) and many more. I buy almost anything he has illustrated.
A Treasury of Beauty
I find at this point that I am at my word limit, with at least six more illustrators to talk about, so they will have to wait for another column. In summary, I would say that good illustrations in children's books are a treasure. They not only enhance the story, but are beautiful and valuable in themselves. They can help a young child begin to develop a sense of beauty. •
Kathie Johnson has always had a love for children's books. She collected many as a teacher and began sharing them with other teachers. In 1986, she opened a children's library in her home, and it has continued to expand over the years. Many home-schooled and schooled children borrow books from it, and she takes great pleasure in finding the "right" book for a child. She attends First Presbyterian Church in Berkeley.