Stack Overflow: Pictures Worth Seeing
by Jonathan H. Liu
I’ve always loved picture books, even during the long period when I was “too old” for them myself but didn’t have kids of my own. Usually what caught my attention was the illustrations: picture books are generally pretty short, but amazing illustrations can hold your attention for much longer than it takes to read the words. Here’s a list of some recent books that I found notable particularly for their illustrations.
This vehicular take on Little Red Riding Hood turns Little Red into a scooter, the big bad wolf into a monster truck, and poor granny into a golf cart. There’s a lot of fun wordplay, but what I really loved about it are the illustrations. Chris Gall, also known for illustrating the Dinotrux series, uses a style that looks almost like a woodcut or etching. What I didn’t like so much was that, in this version of the story, Little Red is a boy. It just seemed an unnecessary change that doesn’t add anything to the story but some gender stereotyping.
You may know Scott Campbell from the Zombie in Love picture books, or perhaps his Great Showdowns series, both of which feature his simple-looking but expressive watercolor illustrations. In Hug Machine, a little kid marches through town, hugging anything and everything. It’s the Hug Machine! It’s a book that’ll give you all sorts of warm fuzzies.
The illustrations for this book make me think of old classics: something about the style and the color palette look like they’re from a long time ago. It’s also a longer story, with more text on each page and the illustrations framed inside a simple border. The story is about a greedy little boy who, after stealing some pie in the night, sprouts two extra mouths, one on each cheek. But it’s very bizarre–you’d expect a story in which he learns his lesson about greed, but instead it goes in a different direction, with Tom becoming a brilliant inventor and getting a whole pie to himself. I’m really not sure whatthe moral of the story is, if there is one, but it’s a fascinating book nonetheless.
Ready Rabbit is a little sock bunny who daydreams a lot. He’s supposed to be getting ready for school, but he’s too busy building a spaceship, chasing down bad guys in his stagecoach, and riding an invisible motorcycle. What’s fun about this one is that the pictures are all photographs of the little sock bunny and his various imaginative pursuits.
This is another book featuring actual photographs, but this time it’s an entire mansion full of mice. The towering mansion has dozens of rooms, each one filled to the brim with tiny little props. The 60-page book takes you on a tour of the mansion as Sam and Julia run around and have adventures. The details are incredible.
And one last book with photographs before we get back to illustrations. Nancy Rose sets up little scenes on her back porch (and hides peanuts in them), and then photographs the wild squirrels who come to check it out. The story is about a squirrel named Mr. Peanuts who invites his cousin over for a visit. If you’ve ever wanted to see photos of a squirrel vacuuming, doing laundry, and going camping, this is the book for you. (And if not, well, you don’t know what you’re missing!) In the back there’s a little section with tips for photographing wildlife, as well as a short Q&A with Rose.
Chris Van Allsburg is one of the giants of children’s book illustrations. Just a Dream, originally published 25 years ago, is still pretty relevant today. Walter is a litterbug who just wants to live in the future. When he wakes up, he finds himself (and his bed) in the future–but it’s not the one he imagined, with robots and personal jet planes. Instead, it’s more like Wall-E, with mountains of trash, rising sea levels, smog, and so on. The cautionary tale is a little heavy-handed, but the vivid illustrations may help your kids imagine the future–and a way to change it.
Tabi the mouse runs a toy store, and hopes for good homes for all of the little animal friends he cares for. But poor Max the dog is never chosen–until one day, he’s not there. The illustrations in this book look like something from long ago, down to the weathered and stained paper, and they’re lovely. The story isn’t terribly exciting, but the pictures make up for that.
Molly Idle’s fun Flora series is wordless, but Sea Rex (a sequel to Tea Rex and Camp Rex) has a few words in it. The text is just a series of rules to follow when you go to the beach, but the illustrations show two kids with a friendly T. Rex. Along the way, they discover a few other dinosaur friends, too. I just really love Idle’s sweeping, expressive lines.
Pedro the crocodile’s cousin, George the alligator, is upset because people keep mistaking him for a crocodile. So Pedro suggests paying a visit to the other end of the world, where children keep mixing them up. The story is delightfully silly, and I loved the ending. But there’s also a lot hidden in the simple-looking illustrations, which are mostly black and white line drawings with some spot color (green for Pedro and George, pink for people’s faces and hands). For instance, on Pedro’s bathroom wall is a poster (from the Friends’ Association of Soap) that states “All is well with SOAP.” The children’s classroom has all sorts of odd things on the walls and shelves, like the inexplicable “ball of rejection” poster. Maybe these little details are just there to keep the adults entertained while they read the story to their kids? If so, it’s working.
Tim McCanna just wrote about this recently, but I thought it was worth mentioning it again. It’s an excellent retelling of Cinderella in verse, but set in space, and I liked that Cinderella’s valued for her ability to repair a spaceship rather than how she looks in a pretty dress–as well as the fact that she’s more interested in getting a job in the prince’s fleet than getting hitched. What caught my attention before even reading the book, though, was that it’s illustrated by Meg Hunt, who ran the Picture Book Report several years ago. After seeing her illustrations for unpublished books, it’s great to see her work in print.
I just really like Lichtenheld’s illustrations, and Beth Ferry’s brief story in rhyme is a great match for it. Stick and Stone meet each other and quickly become friends, through thick and thin. (I must admit that part of my love for this particular book stems from a college-era hobby of comparing things to Trylon and Perisphere.)
Pool is a wordless book: a young boy goes to the pool, only to see it filled from edge to edge with loud, noisy people and their giant inflatable toys. So he dives down below them, meets a girl who has the same idea, and discovers a magical world filled with unusual fish and other creatures. The large book, lack of words, and large areas of negative space give the book a relaxed, quiet pace.
Becker’s wordless book Journey won a Caldecott Honor in 2014, and Quest continues the story. Both books are like an homage to Harold and the Purple Crayon, with a boy and a girl who can turn their chalk drawings into reality. But instead of simple outlines, the illustrations are full of color and details. In Quest, a king appears through a mysterious doorway in a city park, handing the kids a scroll and an orange crayon. They travel through the doorway to find themselves in a magical kingdom, where they set about collecting the other colors to form a rainbow, always staying just a step ahead of the soldiers who are out to capture them. It’s a beautiful book that really celebrates the power of the imagination, and a fun continuation of the original book.
Disclosure: I received review copies of these books.
About Jonathan H. Liu
Jonathan H. Liu is a stay-at-home dad in Portland, Oregon, who loves to read, is always up for a board game, and has a bit of a Kickstarter habit.