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Show Me a Story!  Why Picture Books Matter

Conversations with 21 of the World’s Most Celebrated Illustrators

Ed. Leonard S. Marcus

Somerville, MA: Candlewick Press, 2012.

The decision to design the cover of this book with a Mo Willem’s illustration was pure genius.  It’s brilliant, and, though I admit it does not take much to make me buy a book, the fact that this one had a Mo Willems cover sealed the deal.  As one of the illustrators interviewed in this collection, his was the interview I most wanted to read, and, predictably, it endeared him to me even more.  Here he is on bookmaking:

I’d rather be a craftsman than an artist.  An artist waits for an audience to understand his or her work.  But a craftsman tries to understand the audience.  (266)

In our family’s reading experience, Willems is a consummate craftsman.  He gets kids, and they see themselves in his world.  They can also recreate his world.  He says that it’s important to him that “a five-year-old be able to reasonably draw the characters in my stories.  The books themselves should be merely a point of entry for their own creations based on copying my characters.” (269)  Again, be still my beating heart.

This book was a delight to read from beginning to end.  I met illustrators I’d never heard of before (Mitsumasa Anno, Chris Raschka), and learned fascinating things about old favourites.  Maurice Sendak was predictably glum and insightful about the terrors of being a child, but there was wonderful new material about his last book Bumble Ardy.  William Steig was surprisingly prickly, and I’m impressed at how hard Marcus worked to get answers out of him.  James Marshall, whose books I love, but whose photograph I’d never seen, looks remarkably like Viola Swamp, and his interview is worth the price of admission alone.

A surprising number of illustrators stressed the importance of imperfection, mistakes, and inadequacy.  In response to a question about her tendency to show parents in unguarded moments, Helen Oxenbury says,

It’s almost the opposite to a television commercial, where everything is perfect and the mother produces white clothes out of the washing machine.  I find that awful because it’s not true, and because it makes people dissatisfied and feel inadequate.  In We’re Going on a Bear Hunt, when the bear is finally found, it’s the dad who runs like hell to get away, ahead of the children, which of course is meant to be comical.  I think it’s very important to show the child that parents are only human.  To show that they have weaknesses is perhaps not a bad thing. (160)

This is a wonderful note in the books vs. digital entertainment debate, especially given that many of these illustrators also trained in design: commercial art.  The questions posed about process and training and inspiration are intelligent, and I think that sums up my joy about the book.  The interviewer and illustrators speak to each other as professionals, and the reader gets a glimpse into the professional side of picture book making, into the enormous amount of work that goes in to making the apparently effortless images that fill our children’s book world.

We had, sadly, to cancel a planned trip to Boston in the spring, but, as fate would have it, this book has given me more to add to the agenda when we do eventually get there.  My reason for wanting to take the trip was 95% to get to the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art in Amherst, but thanks to the interview with Robert McCloskey, I now know that there is a statue of his Ducklings in the Boston Public Garden to add to our itinerary.

The interview with Carle, though, is dated from 1996, with a postscript from 2009, when the museum was still being planned, and if I have a criticism of this collection of interviews, it is that some of them are quite dated.  Given that many of the interviews do have postscripts, it would have been better to have all of those postscripts as up to date as possible.

Nevertheless, this collection, and the illustrations from the artists’ sketchbooks, taught me an enormous amount about picture book illustration, and, most importantly, has led to many trips to the library to seek out more from old favourites and discoveries of illustrators who are new to us.

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