Column: First Books

More Treasured Illustrators

by Kathie Johnson

In my last column, I highlighted several illustrators of children's books whom I like. There are many more, so here are a few of them. But first, I'd like to mention a recent find—a delightful book by Eileen Christelow, who writes and illustrates children's books. She has done a book called What Do Illustrators Do? She tells the stories of two illustrators, both of whom are thinking about how to illustrate the tale of Jack and the Beanstalk. They go in different directions, though both take inspiration from their pets and children. The book explains how illustrators make changes, work with the book designer and editor, make decisions, and so forth. This is a wonderful book to help kids appreciate the work that goes into a good picture book.


Now, on to the illustrators. First, I'd like to highlight Aliki. She did many books from the "Let's-Read-and-Find-Out" series of simple science books. One example is Digging Up Dinosaurs, which describes how scientists find dinosaur bones, how they preserve them, and how they mount them for museums. The illustrations are simple but detailed, with dialogue balloons that keep the text feeling active. A different sort of book of hers is Ah, Music!, which is full of color and motion. An amazing amount of information is in this deceptively simple-seeming book.

Aliki's book My Visit to the Aquarium is perfect to read in preparation for a trip to an aquarium or to use afterward to remember and understand what has been seen there. It follows the experiences of a boy as he goes through the exhibits and talks about them, and the colors and motion of the pictures are riveting.

Aliki has also done several biographies, one being The Story of William Penn. Here she uses basic, almost stick-like figures and simple text to tell the story. In contrast, A Medieval Feast is rich and detailed, with wonderful information about how the food was gathered, how it was prepared, all the work that had to be done before the king appeared, and then the feast itself and how people ate.

Aliki has written many other books, on a great variety of subjects. I have at least 40 of her books, all of which provide rich information at an easy-to-understand level.


Lois Ehlert does simple books for the very young, and you can often tell that a book is by her just by the bright, primary colors used. Growing Vegetable Soup shows the process of planting and caring for vegetables, which are then turned into delicious soup. Each page is brilliant with color and simple forms.

Fish Eyes imagines going into the water and traveling to the ocean to see many different brightly colored fish, which are then counted. In the counting part, the eyes are holes, with the colors of the fish on the next page showing through.

Red Leaf, Yellow Leaf tells the story of a tree from the standpoint of a child, from the time it begins growing, through its time in the nursery, to the time it is planted in the child's yard, and then as the child follows it through the seasons. This book is both beautiful and informative, with Ehlert's characteristic large print.


Brian Wildsmith uses varied styles of illustrations. In the two books Birds and Fishes, he shows various animals emerging out of bright backgrounds, and he gives their group names, such as "a party of jays" or "a battery of barracuda."

Pelican is one of his original stories. It tells of a boy who finds a strange egg that hatches into a pelican and has to be taught how to fish. The illustrations vary from simple to detailed and colorful, showing the life of the boy's village. The book's layout includes half-pages, so that parts of pictures are concealed for a time. Goat's Trail tells the story of a goat who wanders down a mountain to a village, gathering other animals behind him and causing some problems in town. The pictures—of an old European town center—bring the place to life. There are "holes" in each page, for looking through doors and other openings at various scenes.

Wildsmith has also done some biblical books. The Easter Story is so well told and beautiful, with a gilded look to the pages, that a local church has used it, projected onto a screen, for its Easter sunrise service, to which non-Christians often come. Exodus is also done in this rich, detailed style, with dramatic illustrations. When the people cross the Red Sea, you can see the fish caught up in the water piled up on either side. Manna looks like snow falling.


Demi is another writer-illustrator who has a wide variety of books. She specializes in Chinese subjects, but is not limited to them. Her illustrations are rich, often using gold, and her styles vary widely. For example, she has done two contrasting biographies. Alexander the Great is a large book, with gold-framed pictures in the center of the pages and text at the sides. The figures all seem to be suspended in the air, except when (beautiful) historic buildings are included. A wonderful map at the end shows Alexander's route. The Adventures of Marco Polo is a small book, with tiny, brightly colored pictures detailing many things that Polo saw along the way and in China.

Demi has done many Chinese tales, including The Greatest Treasure, which has large circular illustrations and a brief text. This is a story that can inform a child's life. A rich man is full of worry, while his neighbor, who is poor, works hard, but then plays his flute while his family dances. The rich man is irritated by the noise and decides to give the poor man money, so he will be too busy to make music. For a time, it works, as the poor man counts his money, and the illustrations here become dark and sad. But he eventually realizes his error, especially when his wife reminds him, "He who has heaven in his heart is never poor," and he gives the money back—with flutes. The Magic Boat has longer text, about a boy who shows kindness and is rewarded with a magic boat. It is taken from him by a trickster, but because of his kindness to others, he is helped to retrieve it. The Emperor's New Clothes tells the Hans Christian Andersen tale re-set in China, with fold-out pages that are full of delightful pictures. Demi has many more books at several reading levels, all of which are lovely to look at.

Again, I am at my word limit and will stop here. The next time I come to this topic, I will include suggestions from readers. 

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.

more on childrens books from the online archives

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