I’ve been thinking a lot lately about why we create for children, due to this week’s celebration of what would have been Roald Dahl‘s 100th birthday. So many adults and children (including myself!) flooded the internet and Instagram with praise and admiration for Dahl, a man who (according to The New Yorker) was not so much of a good person as a great writer and creator of stories. Roald Dahl’s books touched me personally after having spent most of my middle grade childhood in England. When I eventually returned to America, there was always a slight culture gap that these books helped me to bridge. He is still a hero and someone who inspired me to be a writer for kids. Seeing the immense love for Roald Dahl reminded me of a quote by contemporary children’s author, Mac Barnett, another favorite:
“Too often we tell kids pleasant stories devoid of truth, and stories without truth are not good stories. Our audience deserves more from us. —Mac Barnett”
Why do we write or illustrate for kids? And why is it so important? In my opinion, the best books for children are tellers of truth. Kids crave truth, and all forms of it. The creation of a great children’s book combines story with illustration to convey an idea that touches and inspires a child. When that happens, anything is possible. I personally believe that the most important reading you will do in your entire life is when you are young. It helps to form our perceptions and opinions when our minds are malleable and sponge-like. That is the time that we must read what is true and good and miraculous. I’ve collected a few wonderful examples of the art of truth below to illustrate (pun!) what I mean:
“In this modern world where activity is stressed almost to the point of mania, quietness as a childhood need is too often overlooked. Yet a child’s need for quietness is the same today as it has always been—it may even be greater—for quietness is an essential part of all awareness. In quiet times and sleepy times a child can dwell in thoughts of his own, and in songs and stories of his own.” —Margaret Wise Brown
The Dead Bird by Margaret Wise Brown with new, lovely illustration by Red Cap artist, Christian Robinson. We took a look at this one in Arlo’s Book Club. It’s a remarkable illustrative achievement that couples the innocence of childhood with the harsh lessons of the world. Margaret Wise Brown’s lyrical writing is juxtaposed with the playful, artistic work of Christian Robinson. This is the perfect story to appeal to the emotional maturity of children and to convey the beauty and sadness of the world around us.
Seasons by Blexbolex. This design-heavy book is almanac-esque and may seem like an odd choice for this post, but once you start flipping through the pages, you will see what I mean. Blexbolex uses graphic imagery to convey a tongue-in-cheek definition to words—each correlating to a season. The illustration defines underlying details that mostly children will relate to, using their ability to see such fine details that adults usually gloss over—even words that are seemingly unrelated. For example, in the fall section of the book, Blexbolex’s word is “STUBBORN” and he defines it with an illustration of one lonely, foliage-filled, orange tree in a row of ones that have already lost their leaves.
Jane, the Fox, and Me by Fanny Britt, with illustration by Isabelle Arsenault. Another one that I recently checked out at the library is the magnificent graphic novel written by Fanny Britt, with illustration by Isabelle Arsenault. Originally written in French, this is the most raw and truthful rendition of what it feels like to be a middle-school aged girl that I have ever seen. Combining vibrant, life-like illustration (most of which is imagined by the young girl in the story) with a story-line that relates love, puberty, body issues, self-esteem, and hope for the future, this is definitely one that needs to be on everyone’s shelves. Bonus: It may also inspire younger kids to pick up classic literature that they haven’t read before!
A Color of His Own by Leo Lionni. Finding oneself is no small feat. In fact, most adults I know are still trying to do it. Leo Lionni (a selection from our Master’s Showcase) created a story that is deceptively simplistic. It speaks philosophical truth on so many different levels, specifically about personal identity. I feel like we need to revisit this book through each milestone we come across, most specifically our college years. I like to take away the simplest lesson: when you feel as if you have no place, rely on those you love to see you through.
“I don’t want to write for adults. I want to write for readers who can perform miracles. Only children perform miracles when they read.” —Astrid Lindgren
Pax by Sara Pennypacker with illustration by Red Cap artist, Jon Klassen. One of the reasons that I spent some of my childhood in England was because my dad was a Special Ops helicopter pilot, flying in the Middle East just after the first Gulf War. People have asked me about how I felt as a kid, with my dad in harm’s way so far away. In reality, I don’t remember much of it. I remember that kids had different accents then I did. I remember that my friends from America and I wrote letters (this was long before email!) and I remember that we had to give my dog, Scout, away. War is heavy and hard and long–but the things that children remember about it are very different from what grown-ups remember. And those things are no less heavy. This beautiful story was just nominated for the National Book Award and is wonderfully complimented by the soft, heartfelt illustration of Jon Klassen. The story is about a boy and his fox, who are separated due to the subtle hint of a war. Our perspective of war is seen through the eyes of the child in one of the most realistic ways I have ever seen. It’s just lovely.
“Growing up I actually, I didn’t have that close of a relationship with books. I actually struggled to read. And, so I was definitely drawn to books with pictures. I just loved that so much could be communicated with just an image.” —Christian Robinson
School’s First Day of School by Adam Rex with illustration by Christian Robinson. I’ll finish off with something light-hearted but equally wonderful. This one tells the story of a brand new school and his reservations about what the school year will hold and whether he will be liked by the kids who come through him every day. This one is heartwarming and is perfectly applicable to what lots of kids are going through right now. School is a scary place, man. It’s full of people who are different from us, just like the rest of the world. They have different expectations, goals, likes, and dislikes (and political opinions!) and we must learn to come to terms with that, find peace with it, and thrive.
Every once in a while, a picture book comes along that truly makes a difference in the spectrum of children’s literature and all of those who read it. We are lucky enough to be privy to the artist of one such book: Red Cap artist, Christian Robinson, half of the dream team that created 2016 Newbery Medal winner, Last Stop on Market Street. Christian Robinson and the book’s author, Matt de la Peña, were recently interviewed on MPR (Minnesota Public Radio) about the importance of diversity in children’s books. If you’ve got 45 free minutes, you should most definitely settle down with a cup of tea and listen to the show. Matt and Christian chat with MPR about what it means to create a diverse books in terms of both class and race, and what books have dealt with these subjects well in the past.
While a moralistic story like this runs the risk of being heavy-handed, especially when written for children, this one is not. The writing remains subtle and relies on Christian’s light-hearted illustration. With minimalist and colorful drawings and papercuts (he even references them as “lego faces,” ha!) the book accomplishes its objective while remaining soft. “I love this idea that a drawing has a life of it’s own, has integrity and should be respected, and I try to put that same spirit into my illustration,” says Christian.
And on a quirky note, he talks about injecting a bit more fun into the text with the use of dog illustrations: “any opportunity to make the world more colorful, more exciting, more fun!”
Make sure you take the time to listen to this show on MPR. It’s a delight. Great work, Matt and Christian! To view Christian’s work for Red Cap, click here.
It's Easter again! This year feels like it is already zipping by, but we didn't want to miss out on Sunday's fun, so we've whipped up an ideal Easter basket for the kiddos. The Easter Bunny is bringing a good haul this year, that's for sure, and making stops at Bergdorf Goodman and the Gap along the way (and don't forget our favorite–books!). All we need now is a giant, chocolate bunny…we'll take the ears first, please.
1. Make your own Ernest! You can make your own bunny using this Jennifer Murphy Bunny: Ernest the Rabbit Pattern
2. These pajamas from the GAP are awesome! Bunny print for your kiddo.
3. The Egg Tree by Katherine Milhous. This book was the 1951Caldecott Medal Winner and is a story about two children who discover an Easter tradition buried in their grandma's attic.
4. Get those Easter eggs dyed! Or illustrated on, or calligraphed–whatever you like. This should be the ONLY nutritious thing in an Easter basket.
5. Now comes the yummy stuff! Overdo it on these 4-Ingredient Easter Egg Oreo Truffles from Gimme Some Oven.
6. The Velveteen Rabbit by Margery Williams and illustrated by William Nicholson, 1922 A beautiful existential story about little boy and his toy bunny who wants to be made “real.” This one always brings tears to our eyes.
7. Here Comes the Easter Cat by Deborah Underwood, illustrated by Claudia Rueda. A funny tale about a Harley-riding kitty who wants to know why the Easter Bunny gets to have all the fun.
8. Jacks! Fun for hours, especially on a sugar high.
9. Reese's Peanut Butter Egg–because, of course!
10. We love this snuggly bunny! Bashful Plush Chime Bunny from Bergdorf Goodman.
We are ever-so-excited to be interviewing Red Cap artist, Christian Robinson in the artist spotlight today! He is the illustrator of Harlem's Little Blackbird, which was nominated for an NAACP Image Award in 2013, and most recently won the Ezra Jack Keats Award for his work in Rain!. Christian currently lives in San Francisco where he works mostly in the medium of paper-cuts and animation. His illustrations make us so happy! We're honored to have him in the interview hot seat.
We absolutely love your illustrations and papercuts–what is your favorite medium to work with?
Thank you! Paper cut-out might be my favorite. I love the texture and simplicity of collage. Cut-outs force me to design simple and rely more on basic shapes to communicate.
Did you always draw and create? Did you always want to be an artist as a child?
ALWAYS! As a child I wanted to be a paleontologist, Jurassic Park convinced a whole generation of kids that you could have a pet dinosaur. Later on I learned how to bring dinosaurs back to life with animation!
What is or has been the biggest inspiration for your work?
Epic question! So many things inspire me. Children's book illustration and graphic art from the 50s-60s, nature, simplicity, cities, children's art, animation, fine art, music, I could keep going.
Click the image below for an old blogpost on things that inspire me:
Do you have a personal admiration for Josephine Baker, ie your work in Josephine: The Dazzling Life of Josephine Baker? Are there other historical figures about whom you would love to illustrate a children's book?
Yes, Josephine Baker is one of my Sheros and someone who's story inspires me. When the opportunity to illustrate a picture book about her life crossed my path I was beside myself. I'll share this story that I came across during my own research, It just shows the magnitude of Josephine's heart.
What was your favorite book as a child and why?
Are You My Mother? by P.D. Eastman. This is probably too heavy of an answer: I was raised my grandmother and probably felt very empathetic to this baby bird trying to find his real mother.
You just won the Ezra Jack Keats Award for Rain!–how did you feel when you found out that you won?
GREAT!!! Like, please-don't-awake-from-this-wonderful-dream-great!
What is your studio space like?
Well, until recently my studio was a corner in my bedroom. Josephine was created in this sunny corner. But now I work in a shared artist studio.
What other contemporary illustrators do you admire?
Lots! Beatrice Alemagna, Kevin Waldron, Jean Jullien, Jockum Nordstrom.
What is your dream job (besides what you are doing now)?
Honestly just being able to continue doing all the sorts of things I'm doing now is the dream. I want to continue making animations, hopefully some music vids. Also to write and illustrate a picture book of my own one day.
What are your favorite things to do during your free time?
Dance, laugh and movies!
If you could vacation anywhere in the world–where would you go?
India is pretty high on my list, ooh or Istanbul!
What is your favorite piece or work you have ever created?
Thats tough, considering I'm my worst critic and often times find it difficult to be satisfied with my work. although it's that same unease that drives me to want to continue to grow and create. Sorry for the non answer 🙂
And–what is your all-time favorite meal?
Dang these questions are tough! I can always eat Pupusas (El Salvadorian dish) with avocado and rice and beans on the side. Oh and fried plantains are a must!
Images courtesy Christian Robinson.
“The more that you read, the more things you will know. The more you learn, the more places you'll go” —Dr. Seuss. BUT, you don't have to take my word for it—Arlo's Book Club is here to advise you! We've gathered some of Arlo's favorite children's books for this post. Which ones do you have in your library?
What are your favorites??
Scandinavia–such a whimsical and magical place: where forests, ice and ocean collide. The magnificence of this portion of the globe breeds art and illustration that is lively and inspiring. We couldn't give up the chance to focus on a few favorites from past to present! Such a daunting task as this will obviously take more than one entry–up next, Iceland and Norway!
1. You may recognize some of these little characters, especially if you lived or traveled extensively in Europe when you were small! Tre Sandberg is a family-owned children's book and branding company dating back to the 1950s, that was initially begun by a married couple of illustrators: Inger and Lasse Sandberg. “Little Ghost Laban” is a popular character you might remember, and Little Anna and the Tall Uncle, pictured here.
2. Another one from your childhood! One of the most influential illustrators of today's fairy tales and animated films–Gustaf Tenggren. Aside from being in the inner circle to Disney's first illustration work in regards to animation–Tenggren also illustrated almost all of those Little Golden Books you love so dearly, such as Bedtime Stories, The Poky Little Puppy and Snow White (shown here).
3. This brilliant artist passed away just last week at age 90, but his work will live on, fabulously. Danish illustrator, Erik Blegvad, is the illustrator to Bed-knob and Broomstick, Hans Christian Andersen's Stories and Fairy Tales, and some of the illustrations in the original, The Borrowers (shown here). Love the “sketchy” textural aspect to his work!
4. A 20th century artist, and another legend. Kay Nielsen's work was the inspiration for the original Disney's Sleeping Beauty. If you re-watch it today, you will notice the linear aspect that none of the other early animated features conveyed. Nielsen had a knack for fairy tales, and you can find his work in the original Little Mermaid and other fairy tales.
5. We love the deliberate silliness in Tov Jansson's work. Another, slightly lesser-known artist from your childhood, Tove Jansson, was a Finland-native responsible for the wildly popular The Moomins. Jansson also dabbled in comic strips and wrote all of her Moomins books, as well as illustrated them. Shown here: Finn Family Moomintroll.
6. And how could we mention Finland without including one of our own, dear Anna Emilia Laitinen. Born in Leppävirta, a small town in Finland, she is a rising star as not only a Scandinavian illustrator, but a designer and artist as well. Check out her brand new book, Casa Di Fiaba, here.
Who are your favorite Scandinavian illustrators?
Photos as linked above
We are so excited for Jon Klassen… His first children's book, “I Want My Hat Back”, is coming out this fall. This will be the first of what we hope is a million Jon Klassen books. Jon is an amazing talent and on top of all of his artistic gifts he is funny, kind and humble. We have no doubt that his book will be a huge success!