It was 1963, and I was terrified on my first day at school (primary!). I sat on the hard grey mat and the teacher read Horton Hatches the Egg to the class. I became so engrossed I didn’t even notice my mother slip out. That loyal elephant helped me get through that watershed day without too many waterworks. My other favourite Seuss characters were the Pale Green Pants and the Zizzer Zazzer Zuzz. Seuss pushed the English language to the limit. Ever wonder why Green Eggs and Ham is so repetitive? Seuss only had a 50 word vocabulary list to work with, but he created a classic. By the way writers, his first book was rejected 27 times.
Posts Tagged ‘picture books’
The classic picture book Calico the Wonder Horse — The Saga of Stewy Stinker by Virgina Lee Burton was published in 1941. I adored this comic-book style cowboy adventure as a child mainly because of the bad guy. Stewy Stinker is so low he steals Christmas presents from children but in the end he repents. This picture of him crying out his rottenness always made me feel sorry for him:
The word ‘Stinker’ was censored from the book in the 1940s as it was considered inappropriate for children. Burton was one of the great illustrators and the idea for Calico from seeing her sons engrossed with comic books. The wonderful design, cartoon framing and action scenes of Calico are worthy of a modern graphic comic: the flash flood and stagecoach crash are gripping highlights. But it’s that haunting image of Stewy that will stay with me.
Sylvester and the Magic Pebble by William Steig was banned in 1969 in many states because it depicted police as pigs (even though they were kind pigs). The brilliantly absurd plot has Sylvester the young donkey trapped inside a boulder while his parents search frantically for him. It’s about a child’s fear of separation – Steig’s version of his favourite book, Pinocchio, about a boy trapped in a piece of wood. The ending is typical Steig: the child reunited with loved ones in with hugs and tears. When he was 15 years old, young William ran away to sea after an argument with his father:
When I finally got home, my mom and dad hugged and kissed me and we all cried. We were a very emotional family.
That touch of reality in a child’s life is a child’s comfort. The child gets the sense that this person who wrote this book knows about me and knows the world can be a troubling, incomprehensible place. Maurice Sendak
Outside Over There is my favourite Maurice Sendak picture book (and his) – haunting, comforting, uncompromising – nobody else combined the real and the unreal so brilliantly. In his last interview, Maurice Sendak talked about how his stories reflected his childhood (but what a curmudgeon he’d become). Outside Over There is a tale of separation and siblings that features a creepy ice baby (pictured).
Sendak’s books can also be exuberant (In the Night Kitchen), spiritual (Dear Mili), and funny (Pierre, a cautionary tale). I like his vision of atoms dancing to form molecules from the first book he illustrated (when 19 years old), Atomics for the Millions:
The classic Ferdinand by Munro Leaf (1936) remains one of the most influential children’s books (it’s never gone out of print) because of its simple but powerful theme. The tale of a bull who likes to smell flowers instead of fighting was seen as a pacifist text at the time of the Spanish Civil War. Ferdinand is a reflective, laid-back character who bravely chooses to be himself instead of following the aggressive crowd.
No wonder the book was
- banned by Franco
- burned by Hitler
- used by Stalin to name a gun
- a favourite of Gandhi
- made into an Oscar-winning movie by Disney
In contrast, Munro Leaf also wrote books which reflected the strict child-raising style of the time. His 3 and 30 Watchbirds (1941) condemns behaviours such as shoe-scuffing, primping, mumbling, moaning, fidgeting, sassing and wasting food. Some of it is in the spirit of war-time frugality, some is just a tad excessive:
Grammar Can Be Fun is slightly more tongue-in-cheek and warns children against slack language such as “gimme, wanna, gonna, and ain’t”.
Not another pirate picture book! Yes, but a beauty. Captain Slaughterboard Drops Anchor (1939) is a masterpiece of illustration by the cult novelist Mervyn Peake (author of the Gormenghast trilogy). His pirate Captain has a mid-life crisis on a weird pink island where he discovers ‘a creature as bright as butter’ who inspires him to ‘drop out’ ( NY Times says the creature looks ‘like Bob Dylan with cocker-spaniel ears’.) Peake’s son, Fabian, says his father always wanted to live on an island ‘living a bohemian life free from the pressures of modern society’. See Peake’s incredible illustrations here.
The Nativity, illustrated by Julie Vivas, is my favourite Christmas book. The pictures bring warmth and humanity to the story by showing the love between Mary and Joseph, the pregnancy and the rustic setting. Oddly, it sits well with the poetic language of the 17th century King James bible version. Vivas also illustrated the wonderful book for babies, I Went Walking.
Would it be possible to find a more ungrateful boy, or one with less heart than I have! – Pinocchio
Pinocchio by Carlo Collodi (1882) is a rare thing: an archetypal story for children. The puppet-boy is every disobedient, lazy child who must face hardships, find parental love and grow up. It can also be read as a snapshot of Tuscan society, a Christian allegory or a myth. The language of this classic has barely dated. The best recent version is illustrated by Roberto Innocenti, capturing the all the pathos and drama of the tale – his iconic artwork combines painterly detail with cinematic angles. This darkly humourous adventure is far from the sanitized Disney version (one of the most beautiful animated films).
Rare is the American child who finishes school without at least once being asked to write a story based on one of the eerie, enigmatically captioned illustrations from The Mysteries of Harris Burdick.– Meghan Gurdon
I suspect the same is true around the world; certainly of schools in New Zealand. Picture books by Chris van Allsburg are not only beautifully illustrated, the stories are open to interpretation, which makes them ideal for children to explore. It’s impossible to look at the pictures in Harris Burdick without imagining a story. It has generated a spinoff, Chronicles of Harris Burdick, wonderful short stories by writers including Stephen King, Lois Lowry and Lemony Snickett. Jumanji is van Allsburg’s other classic but my favourites are a couple of more surreal ones. Bad Day at Riverbend is a about a black and white cowboy town attacked by crayon graffiti; and in the postmodern ending the characters realise they are subjects in a colouring book! The Wretched Stone is set on a 19th century sailing ship, where a strange glowing stone makes the crew regress intellectually – is this a symbol of modern screen technologies?
This handsome, respectful volume deserves a place on the shelf … it succeeds in accurately dramatizing honeybee behavior. – Kirkus Reviews
Flight of the Honey Bee review by artist, Claire Beynon:
“Given the state of our environment, the sooner we introduce our children to bees – to their intelligence, their intricate behaviour and increasing vulnerability – the better. Flight of the Honey Bee is the perfect book to do this, combining as it does Raymond Huber’s careful language and well-researched text with Brian Lovelock’s meticulously observed paintings. Cleverly formatted, fiction and non-fiction – story and fact – are woven together as two discreet yet interconnected strands: young readers can choose their flight path.
Exquisite to look at and a pleasure to explore.
Scout the bee – named after the feisty protagonist in Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird – and her tightly-knit community of hardworking bees demonstrate these small creatures’ importance in the pollinaton of plants and the well-being of our planet. Flight of the Honey Bee is about bee behavior but it will also teach children about subtler things; wonder, beauty, the value of group functioning and collaborative effort, reproduction, risk, courage, the joys of flight – those rhythms and principles essential for any thriving community. The hum of the parts.
This book has all the essentials of a satisfying story: it asks questions and it informs. It invites observation and participation. There’s drama. Suspense. Conflict. Danger. Hope. And a happy ending. At the close of her adventure, Scout is a wily-er bee than she was when she set out from her hive on her first nectar-seeking adventure. As all characters must, she grows through her experiences. We come to care about her and her safe passage home.
Visually, Flight of the Honey Bee is exquisite to look at and a pleasure to explore – each double page spread is as stunning as the one preceding it. It will be immediately appealing to young readers. I was struck by how beautifully integrated the text and images are; they belong together like honey and honeycomb. The language is tender and witty (the line about ‘sun-powder’ is a wonderful change from ‘gun-powder’); and the paintings – a combination of watercolour, acrylic ink and coloured pencils – are spectacular; compositionally bold, delicate, exuberant and information-rich. Looking at them through my adult eyes, I can’t help thinking about fractals, the mathematics inherent in nature, the ever-present background dialogue between shape and sound, pattern and colour. Children will pore over them. And they will love Scout for her feisty resourcefulness.
William Steig, (creator of Shrek) has been called ‘one of the finest cartoonists and creators of children’s books’ (Jonathan Cott). He began writing for children at 60 and his stories are often uncompromising but always celebrate the richness of relationships and nature. Steig used sophisticated language to entertain rather than befuddle. The only problem is choosing a favourite. The picture book Farmer Palmer’s Wagon Ride (1974) is one of his most playful. A farmer-pig suffers a series of slapstick mishaps, Buster Keaton-style, as he tries to take gifts home to his beloved family. I love his description of a rainstorm:
‘Harum-scarum gusts of wind … a drubbing deluge … thunder rambled and rumbled … it dramberamberoomed!’
Miss Clavel turned on the light and said, “Something is not right!” – Madeleine
You’ve written a wonderful story and identified a publisher. The next step is the most important: wait! Don’t send it off; instead, hide your story for weeks or even months. When you pick it up again it will be like turning on the light –you’ll see with fresh eyes all the lame bits glaring at you. Not waiting has been my biggest mistake as a writer – I always find things I should’ve fixed. When re-reading I often get a Miss Clavel feeling that something is not right; a scene doesn’t fit; the dream is broken and I’m jerked out of the story. A ruthless edit is needed. Illustration from the timeless Madeleine by Ludwig Bemelmans.
Nothing must be out of place. The reader must keep turning pages with no interruptions in the flow. – Darcy Pattison
Go over and over it…refusing to let anything stay if it looks awkward, phony, or forced.– John Gardner
Here are three of my favourite New Zealand picture books that give children a manageable dose of horror. Gavin Bishop’s Horror of Hickory Bay has grown on me over the years. The story of a bland family on a Canterbury beach and an amorphous beast seemed a bit coarse to me 25 years ago, but now I love the earthy monster (which has a new force in quakey times). Diane Hebley said it best:
I find this book fascinating for its masterly use of colour and design, its grim humour, its coherence of idea, text and image, and for its acceptance of the dreamworld reality.
The Were-Nana by Melinda Szymanik is a creepy delight about a visiting relative who might just be a monster. The suspense is nicely built up and the double surprise ending (true to horror traditions) is brilliant. Odd cover choice but fine shadowy illustrations by Sarah Nelisiwe Anderson.
Te Kapo the Taniwha by Queen Rikihana-Hyland is out of print but was always popular in class. It’s the story of a half-man, half-monster who was given the job of shaping the South Island. Zac Waipara’s pictures are stunning as usual.
The Awful Warning carried to the point where Awe topples over into helpless laughter.– Harvey Darton
Struwwelpeter (Pretty Stories and Funny Pictures) by Dr Heinrich Hoffman (1845) is a classic of gleefully gruesome cautionary rhymes about naughty children. Hoffman was a psychiatrist who founded an influential Frankfurt asylum and pioneered counselling as an alternative treatment to cold baths (his life was novelized in Clare Dudman’s 98 Reasons for Being). The characters in Struwwelpeter were inspired by his child patients – he’d tell them stories and draw pictures to calm them down. Hoffman was looking for a book for his three year old son and could only find ‘stupid collections of pictures, and moralising stories’, so he created Struwwelpeter. It was one of the first picture books designed purely to please children – before then children’s books were mainly religious or moral lessons with titles such as An Exact Account of the Conversion, Holy Lives and Joyful Deaths of Several Young Children. Read more about ‘shock-headed’ Peter here.
‘The book has long oscillated between being accepted as harmless hilarity and being condemned as excessively horrifying’- Humphrey Carpenter
I’m to become a grandfather this year (!) and I can’t wait to provide lots of lovely books. The best picture books are a marriage of text and illustration: they should both support and spark off each other. The plot should be focused for very young children and the pictures oddly comforting. I Went Walking by Sue Williams is a perfect first book. The words are extremely basic yet they incorporate repetition, questions, rhymes and humour. And the illustrations by Julie Vivas are sublime; leading the eye across the page in a dance of line, shape and colour. (See her gorgeous version of the Nativity too).
Max’s Bath by Barbro Lindgren is another delightful book for preschoolers. Max dumps his toys and his food in the tub and then tries to bath the dog with predictable results. Max is a classic ‘terrible two year old’ combining the utmost charm and mischief.
The picture book Seasons by French artist Blexbolex is a unique, meditative book for young children that adults will relish for it’s design. It’s a tactile treat, printed in chunky hardback on rough paper, like the old comic annuals. Each page has a single word and a subtle image to illustrate it. No garish colours here, just the quiet passing of seasons.
After reading Wolfram’s dramatic story I discovered his daughter’s wonderful art. Alexandra Milton is an animal artist and children’s book illustrator. She creates her creatures by collage, using hand-made papers with mysterious names: Korean mingeishi, Thai silk thread, Himalayan khadi, and Payhembury marbled paper. Her honey bee illustration below is warm and characterful (like bees).
I aim to celebrate all that is to be marvelled at in nature; to catch, in colour and form, a glimpse of the miracle of creation Alexandra Milton
In The Crab With the Golden Claws (1940). Herge introduced one of literature’s best characters: Captain Haddock– and one of the most faithful friendships. The drunken, cursing Captain is a perfect foil to the angelic Tintin. Herge hoped that some of Haddock’s frailties would rub off on Tintin, but as he wrote in a letter to Tintin,
…you took nothing from him, not even a tot of whisky. My wrist was seized by an Angel…
Struwwelpeter (1845) by Dr. Heinrich Hoffman has gruesome rhymes about disobedience and its dire consequences. The creepiest tale is in The Story of Little Suck-a-Thumb:
Snip! Snap! Snip! the scissors go
It sounds best in the original ‘klipp und klapp!’ of the German. Less well known is the Nazi parody version Struwwelhitler (1941). Read the full story here.
The Grey Lady and the Strawberry Snatcher is a classic picture book that almost didn’t make it. It took Molly Bang years to create it and was repeatedly rejected by publishers. They said it was ‘peculiar-looking’ and that ‘children won’t relate to an old woman as a protagonist’. The manuscript sat in a drawer for years then was re-worked. When it was finally published the reviews were pretty bad writes Molly Bang: ‘The New York Times that said that the weird-looking characters and flashy colors were an indication that I was part of the drug culture and the detailed pictures told no real story but were merely an excuse to show off.’ Then it won a Caldecott award and everything changed. Why? Because it’s a one-of-a-kind, off-the-wall book. And very creepy! I love the tiny fungi that grow where the Catcher has trod.
Draw to Live, Live to Draw –Wanda G’ag
This is Wanda G’ag (lovely bio here), one of the finest children’s book illustrators. Her masterpiece is Millions of Cats (1928) the story of a lonely old couple who attract ‘millions and billions and trillions of cats‘. The pictures flow like waves across the pages; clouds, trees, hills and cats all swept along in the flow of story. The black and white gives it that slightly unsettling folktale vibe. As a child I loved the army of cats drinking a pond in seconds, and the final catastrophic catscrap. Try to find her bizarre Nothing At All too, about an invisible dog. Here’s one of G’ag’s later lithographs (1940):