It would be a mistake to limit your search for beautiful picture books to the children’s area in a bookstore. I found Ashen Sky in the history section at a university bookstore, among the textbooks and ubiquitous backpacked youth. Someone had the good sense to ‘face’ it out, so when the book caught my eye, it was an entirely calculated move on the part of the bookseller, with predictable results. I stopped, and then I bought.
As anyone who knows me can attest, I love crows. And magpies, and blue-jays, and really…all upstanding members of the corvidae family. These sturdy little mischief-makers are the smarty-pants of the bird world. And, in my opinion (sorry blue-footed booby), the most handsome. It’s no surprise that picture books about crows attract my attention, and three of those have made it to my shelves: Crow Call by Lois Lowry (illus. by Bagram Ibatoulline), Martha by Gennady Spirin, and Crows: An Old Rhyme by Heidi Holder.
And it’s not as if he’s carved out some quiet little niche for himself. No. He is a one-man scorched earth policy, destroying all competition in his wake. We can only hang our heads in sombre resignation whenever he publishes a book.
Tales From Outer Suburbia is the latest self-esteem killer from Mr Tan, following on the heels of the stupidly spectacular, and prodigiously lauded The Arrival, published in 2007.
It is a collection of absurdist stories, accompanied by absurdist illustrations, and every last one of them is sublime, beautiful, charming, subversive, witty, idiosyncratic, and wildly inventive. Blah, blah, blah…
It may not have the cultural impact of a Cat in the Hat, or the loopy narrative line of I Had Trouble Getting to Solla Sollew, but What Was I Scared Of is my favourite Dr Seuss book, and here’s why: it cured my viridistrouserophobia, or the fear of disembodied green pants that had plagued me since childhood.
OK, not exactly, but in this Who-sized mini-book (it was originally published as part of The Sneetches and Other Stories) What Was I Scared Of encompasses all that I love about Dr Seuss: the guileless, not quite human beasties, plants that seem strangely alert to their surroundings, whiskery black outlines, and of course, the utterly delicious Seussian wordplay. Also, the self-propelling green pants (but just in this book.)
When the great philosopher king, Frank Farian of Boney M exclaimed, “Oh those Russians!” he was not, as once believed, referring to Rasputin and the court of the Romanov Czar, Nicholas II. Indeed, the source of his exuberance was the Surikov School of Fine Art at the Academy of Arts in Moscow, which spawned a number of great Russian artists, in particular Gennady Spirin, to whom this blog is directed.
Life in the Boreal Forest is Spirin’s latest masterpiece, and not only do I share Mr Farian’s love of Russian art, in Spirin’s case I take this infatuation to an even higher degree, and I say, without reservation, ‘I wanna bear his children’, as that other great 20th century exclaimer, Catherine O’Hara of SCTV, once stated (but not in reference to an illustrator.)
Most of the picture books in my collection are feasts; pages overstuffed with visual delectables and sensory stimulants. Sometimes gluttony leads to bloat, and the only thing that will bring relief…other than the unfastening of the top two buttons of my jeans, is a cold glass of water. Sylvia and Bird by Catherine Rayner is that cold glass of water, which is not to say it’s unemotional or without visual complexity. The ice blue illustrations in this book are restorative, a cool facecloth on a weary face. When I first flipped through the pages of Sylvia and Bird in the bookstore, it was like hitting the refresh button on my brain. If only I had a refresh button on my brain.
What would you do for love? Would you give the shirt off your back? All the dimes and nickels in your piggy bank? What about a perfect blueberry muffin baked especially for you by your mom? Would you give it away to the one you love? I’m not talking about any old blueberry muffin. This is a muffin nonpareil. The bluiest blueberry muffin you’ve ever seen.
Peach & Blue is a rare book. Depending on your viewpoint, it’s a love story, a tale of friendship, or a chronicle of death. When I worked at the bookstore, it was the centre piece of my Valentine’s Day display. And no, I wasn’t being ironic. This book is not about death. It is one of the most romantic stories you will ever run across in the children’s book section of your local library or bookstore.
In my years as both a bookseller and as a reader, I have discovered a most interesting and delightful phenomenon. Books find us, not the other way around. It will call to you, like dark chocolate peanut M&M’s and HGTV.
I no longer work in a bookstore, and thus have fewer opportunities to flip through publisher catalogues and fondle freshly unpacked new releases in the shipping department, but I find the books I’m supposed to find. Or so I tell myself.
As for the books that are recommended by well-meaning friends and reviewers, well…I try to be nice. It’s that subjective thing. One person’s beautifully illustrated book is another person’s piece of sentimental shit. I am the first to admit I am a tough customer.
Why start a blog about children’s picture books?
As a former bookseller (off and on for 12 years) and sometime illustrator, I have amassed a large collection of illustrated books and half-finished book projects. It is my passion, or the one that edges me ever closer to bankruptcy.
Most people don’t want to discuss picture books beyond the level of their entertainment or educational value. (What am I saying? Most people don’t want to discuss picture books period.) For them, the illustration comes second. As long as the book is pleasing to the eye and sufficiently conveys the gist of the story, it is a success. There are many ‘successes’ on the bookshelf at your local bookstore. These are not the sort of book I collect. These are not the type of book I will be writing about.
I love beautifully illustrated picture books. It’s wonderful if the story is well told, and if it happens to be entertaining, educational and pleasing to the eye of a child, great, but this is not my concern or my focus. I don’t care if the illustrations are too complicated, obtuse, or perhaps inappropriate for a kid. (And if they are inappropriate for a kid, they’re probably worth a second look.) I really don’t care if the book is written by an underemployed and drearily didactic celebrity or Governor General’s Award winning author.
What I truly care about is whether the illustrations make me ‘suck wind’, as my former colleague in the book biz used to say. I want my knees to buckle, I want my heart to grow two sizes, I want to be filled with appreciation and awe… and awes’ constant companion, excruciating and debilitating jealousy. I want that moment in a bookstore, when I pick up a book for the first time, I am so gobsmacked by the illustrations, I can only say, in a sincere but slightly fretful voice, “I wonder how much my cat would sell for on ebay.”
Picture books are expensive.
And so…I am writing this blog for people who collect and admire children’s picture books, not because they are the necessary accoutrements of successful child-rearing (which they are), but because we know, the most beautiful, virtuoso art being produced these days is for the picture book.