When I glance over the books on the shelves of the Children’s section at my local bookstore, I am, first and foremost, looking for some dazzling, visual treat to jump out at me. That’s why I love picture books so much. The images are, in most cases, made to grab your attention. In the picture book, the artist is king! It’s a format that enables a visual artist to go nuts with color, composition, texture, etc., all in the name of appealing to the child in us all.
Writers have so much more of the bookstore focused on them, and rightly so. Words are just so difficult to right … I mean write. But as an artist, I get a special thrill out of seeing rows of picture books lined up like toys in a toy store, just waiting for children to come by and scream, “Daddy, I want that one!” – er, I mean, “Daddy, may I please have that one?”
I will watch as small children run up to a young adult novel because it has a picture of a dinosaur or mermaid on the cover, excitement beaming on their face, only to see the disappointment as they crack the book open to reveal a black sea of words. Words, How yucky!
What I love to see is the joy in their eyes when they snatch that picture book from the wall, skip to their favorite corner of the bookstore, drop down to the carpet, tear open the book (“Oops, Sorry Dad, I ripped the corner”), and delight at the visual handiwork in front of them.
Before they ever read a word, except maybe the title and name of illustrator (one can dream), they have established some kind of emotional connection to the imagery. From that point on, it’s the illustrator’s job to assist the writer in keeping the child engaged enough to turn the pages and continue the journey. Make no mistake about it, this is a HUGE challenge.
An illustrator can only hope that their images will somehow remain in the mind of a child; that as the child grows, those images will shape their view of an ever-changing world. Okay, maybe that’s a lot to ask. Maybe the best a picture book illustrator can hope for is to be a 20-minute distraction for the child so Mom or Dad can get the dishes cleaned. That’s okay, I’ll settle for that. I am, after all, not trying to change the world. I just want to entertain and have fun doing it.
Following are some picture books that dazzle me and make me as giddy as a child. I can tell, by the sheer brilliance and quality of art, that these illustrators have as fun as I do making picture books for children (of all ages)! Find these books at your bookstore or library and delight in the art. But make sure you read them as well. We wouldn’t want those brilliant writers to feel left out.
Author: Daniel Markus Pinkwater
Illustrator: D.B. Johnson
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin
D.B. Johnson has an amazing eye for design and color. The illustrations in this book are simple and complex all at the same time. Johnson is one of my favorite illustrators working in the children’s book market today. Check out his site for more incredible art.
Where’s My Mummy?
Author: Carolyn Crimi
Illustrator: John Manders
Publisher: Candlewick Press
This is a cute book! John Manders nails this one! His artwork is whimsical, fluid, and fun to look at. The character’s expressions and dynamic angles are great. Manders has strong drawing ability that shows through in his paintings. I’ve enjoyed his books for a while now. See his site here.
Jin Jin the Dragon
Author: Grace Chang
Illustrator: Chong Chang
Publisher: Enchanted Lion Books
You’d never know this was Chong Chang’s first children’s book if it didn’t say so in the book itself. His work is so masterful that you’d swear he was creating art for children’s books for many years. Strong pencil work, well-designed characters and envious use of watercolors makes this book a treat to look at again and again. There’s a lot to enjoy in this book!
Skelly the Skeleton Girl
Author and Illustrator: Jimmy Pickering
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Jimmy Pickering’s use of texture and design is excellent. I always look forward to seeing his latest projects. Skelly boasts a simple story, but a powerful art punch. The lines and design are reminiscent of the work of Tim Burton, but in a uniquely “Pickering” kind of way. The textures are what I love best about this book. See more of Jimmy’s work here.
The Castaway Pirates: A Pop-Up Tale of Bad Luck, Sharp Teeth, and Stinky Toes
Author: Ray Marshall
Illustrator: Wilson Swain
Publisher: Chronicle Books
I like Wilson Swain’s art for many of the same reasons I like the work of Jimmy Pickering. Textures and linework. But Wilson Swain takes it to another level. His work also reminds me of the work of Michael Koelsch. The thought of design and layout in this pop-up book is superb. I don’t imagine creating illustrations for a pop-up book is very easy, but Wilson Swain pulled it off really, really well and made it look easy, although time-consuming given his detailed style. It’s fun to pour over his illustrations and find things you might have missed the first time. View more of his art here.