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Little Big Books: The Secrets of Great Children’s Book Illustration

“The picture book serves as a personal, private art gallery, held in the hand, to be revisited over and over again.”

Looking back on the best children’s books of the year raises the inevitable question, “What makes a great picture-book?” — a question all the more essential given the formative role picture-books play in our emotional, psychological, social, and aesthetic development. That’s precisely what the fine folks of Gestalten — who have previously brought us Visual Storytelling: Inspiring a New Visual Language, one of the best art and design books of 2011 — explore in Little Big Books: Illustrations for Children’s Picture Books (public library). The lavish large-format volume documents some of the best contemporary children’s book illustration, examining the trends, images, concepts, and materials that define the genre’s design and conceptual aesthetic today through the work of more than 100 artists and illustrators, including favorites like Rambharos Jha, Blexbolex, Bhajju Shyam, Durga Bai and Ram Singh Urveti, Oliver Jeffers, and Rilla Alexander.

‘Semidisegnitelodico’ by Philip Giordano
‘Waterlife’ by Rambharos Jha
‘A Little Lost’ by Chris Haughton
‘Y recuerda…’ (Brothers Grimm) by Juanjo G. Oller

Sonja Commentz writes in the introduction:

Attuned to these changing tastes, narratives, and market movements, open-eyed editors and perceptive publishing houses continue to play a vital role in the discovery and cultivation of budding artists — and the resulting creative process tends to be a two-way street. Often taking a welcome long-term approach and vie, outstanding editors — like Harper & Row’s legendary Ursula Nordstrom who cherished, nurtured, and defended beloved recalcitrant geniuses like Maurice Sendak and Tomi Ungerer, among others — serve as headstrong and softhearted yet pivotal enablers who can set the stage and direction for an entire generation of picture books. And yet there is trouble afoot: pandering to economic trends in the growing — and increasingly competitive — picture-book market, actual contents, creativity, and originality might lose out, right down to the point where bookstores dedicate entire pink-clad corners to a monoculture of princess books.

(Indeed, Nordstrom herself lamented half a century ago that too many decisions in children’s publishing were being made by “mediocre ladies in influential positions.” Sadly, little seems to have changed in the mainstream publishing world.)

‘The Night Life of Trees’ by Bhajju Shyam, Durga Bai and Ram Singh Urveti
‘Lady René’ by Laura Varsky
‘Her Idea’ by Rilla Alexander

In the postscript to the introduction, Commentz offers a delightful disclaimer:

It order to really appreciate the depth of a story, its accord of image and text, narrative and spell-binding atmosphere, and to grasp just how some of the more radical an abstract samples truly work, there is no quick fix or detour. Just get the book, grab a willing child, find a seat, and read the entire story together: turning the pages, cover to cover. And then start again at the beginning!

‘No Man’s Land’ by Blexbolex
‘Along a Long Road’ by Frank Viva

In one of the interviews included in the volume, celebrated English illustrator Martin Salisbury — who co-authored the wonderful Children’s Picturebooks: The Art of Visual Storytelling — offers some practical guidelines to the art of the picture book and addresses the most pervasive pitfalls of the creative process:

There are many common mistakes made by those setting out to create a picture book for the first time. The first is the belief that it is easy. More than most areas, picture-book creation suffers from the ‘I could do that’ perception. There are many obvious mistakes, e.g., trying to write a narrative or sequence in words and then illustrating it in a way that means the words and pictures are saying the same thing. usually, the process of ‘writing’ or making a picture book has to be one that involves thinking about words AND pictures right from the start. A very common mistake is to make perfect pictorial double-page compositions and then ask yourself, ‘Right , now where shall I put the words?’ Right from the start, the words need to be an integral part of the shape of the layout — a visual element that is as important as anything else that appears on the page. The spread’s composition should seem ‘wrong’ before the text is added.

[…]

The process of ‘reading’ pictorial narrative from left to right (in the West at least) means that the rhythm, pace, and ebb and flow of the picture book need to be plotted carefully around this format and the act of page-turning within it — a form of stage direction if you will. In a way, the picture book becomes a theater where the maker is the director, stage manager, actor… and in total artistic control!

‘La fata Però nel bosco dei pini Perché’ by Simona Mulazzani
‘La Reina Mab, el hada de las pesadillas’ by Cristian Turdera
‘Plein soleil’ by Antoine Guilloppé

Salisbury stresses the formative role picture books play in cultivating aesthetic literacy:

After all, this is often a child’s first introduction to the visual arts: the picture book serves as a personal, private art gallery, held in the hand, to be revisited over and over again.

‘Stuck’ by Oliver Jeffers

‘Mac & Mamma’ by Gerry Turley

On the psychology of children’s response to picture books, Salisbury makes an important distinction between picture books and digital media and echoes Maurice Sendak in turning an eye towards censorship:

One of the problems of trying to research young children’s responses to imagery is the fact that they don’t have the language to express what they are experiencing. And of course they are just like us, individuals — with equally individual tastes and responses. But it seems clear that they develop the ability to process pictorial sequences very early on. In fact, this seems to be an ability that we — quite often — have to relearn as adults! My guess is that, even if everything in the images is unfamiliar, children are making their own sense of things. on a basic but important level, a picture book will allow time for the eye to travel around the page and explore shape, color and form. The key thing is that the speed is not dictated externally, as with many screen-based media.

[…]

Children seem to have a limitless capacity to absorb and handle all manner of thins that we might worry about. In recent generations, we have become much more protective and censorious. While we would not wish to return to the days when children’s books promoted the chopping off of thumbs if they were being sucked, I think a lot depends on the done with which such cruelty is portrayed. Roald Dahl’s enormous popularity reflects his complete absence of patronizing language and joy in the ‘incorrectness’ that children adore. I think we could afford, certainly in the West, to be a little less protective.

‘Een griezelmeisje’ by Isabelle Vandenabeele
‘Rikki-tikki-tavi’ by Isidro Ferrer

Salisbury offers a thoughtful meditation on the future of picture books in the digital age, emphasizing the increasing allure of children’s books as exquisite artifacts:

Of course, one of the main preoccupations right now is the role of downloadable apps and e-books in the picture-book market. At the moment, no one seems to know quite what their impact will be, but everyone is running around saying, ‘We should be doing something.’ One thing, however, is clear: printed picture books are becoming increasingly beautiful in their production with ever greater attention to the physical, tactile, ‘holding’ quality of the books as artifacts, in gloriously varied sizes and shapes. This process is carving out the territory of the book as a beautiful thing; a thing distinct from the screen that provides us with information but doesn’t allow us to own, feel, or interact with tit in the same way. Until very recently, most picture book apps were rather banal in their conception, concentrating on trying to shoehorn commercially proven books into an alien format with minor digital bells and whistles. It reminds me of the period immediately after the arrival of Photoshop when everything looked the same as designers decided they were no illustrators. Once the people who were most resistant to it (i.e., the ones who weren’t seduced by technology ) began to learn to use the program, however, things started to get interesting.

Complement Little Big Books: Illustrations for Children’s Picture Books with Children’s Picturebooks: The Art of Visual Storytelling, which examines the present as well as the past of the genre, including the legacy of such icons as Maurice Sendak, Dr. Seuss, and Bruno Munari.

BP

Hermann Hesse on What Trees Teach Us About Belonging and Life

“When we have learned how to listen to trees, then the brevity and the quickness and the childlike hastiness of our thoughts achieve an incomparable joy.”

Hermann Hesse on What Trees Teach Us About Belonging and Life

I woke up this morning to discover a tiny birch tree rising amidst my city quasi-garden, having overcome unthinkable odds to float its seed over heaps of concrete and glass, and begin a life in a meager oasis of soil. And I thought, my god*, what a miracle. What magic. What a reminder that life does not await permission to be lived.

This little wonder reminded me of a beautiful passage by Hermann Hesse (July 2, 1877–August 9, 1962) — one of the most beautiful I’ve ever read — from his 1920 collection of fragments, Wandering: Notes and Sketches (public library).

For me, trees have always been the most penetrating preachers. I revere them when they live in tribes and families, in forests and groves. And even more I revere them when they stand alone. They are like lonely persons. Not like hermits who have stolen away out of some weakness, but like great, solitary men, like Beethoven and Nietzsche. In their highest boughs the world rustles, their roots rest in infinity; but they do not lose themselves there, they struggle with all the force of their lives for one thing only: to fulfill themselves according to their own laws, to build up their own form, to represent themselves. Nothing is holier, nothing is more exemplary than a beautiful, strong tree. When a tree is cut down and reveals its naked death-wound to the sun, one can read its whole history in the luminous, inscribed disk of its trunk: in the rings of its years, its scars, all the struggle, all the suffering, all the sickness, all the happiness and prosperity stand truly written, the narrow years and the luxurious years, the attacks withstood, the storms endured. And every young farmboy knows that the hardest and noblest wood has the narrowest rings, that high on the mountains and in continuing danger the most indestructible, the strongest, the ideal trees grow.

Trees are sanctuaries. Whoever knows how to speak to them, whoever knows how to listen to them, can learn the truth. They do not preach learning and precepts, they preach, undeterred by particulars, the ancient law of life.

A tree says: A kernel is hidden in me, a spark, a thought, I am life from eternal life. The attempt and the risk that the eternal mother took with me is unique, unique the form and veins of my skin, unique the smallest play of leaves in my branches and the smallest scar on my bark. I was made to form and reveal the eternal in my smallest special detail.

A tree says: My strength is trust. I know nothing about my fathers, I know nothing about the thousand children that every year spring out of me. I live out the secret of my seed to the very end, and I care for nothing else. I trust that God is in me. I trust that my labor is holy. Out of this trust I live.

When we are stricken and cannot bear our lives any longer, then a tree has something to say to us: Be still! Be still! Look at me! Life is not easy, life is not difficult. Those are childish thoughts. . . . Home is neither here nor there. Home is within you, or home is nowhere at all.

A longing to wander tears my heart when I hear trees rustling in the wind at evening. If one listens to them silently for a long time, this longing reveals its kernel, its meaning. It is not so much a matter of escaping from one’s suffering, though it may seem to be so. It is a longing for home, for a memory of the mother, for new metaphors for life. It leads home. Every path leads homeward, every step is birth, every step is death, every grave is mother.

So the tree rustles in the evening, when we stand uneasy before our own childish thoughts: Trees have long thoughts, long-breathing and restful, just as they have longer lives than ours. They are wiser than we are, as long as we do not listen to them. But when we have learned how to listen to trees, then the brevity and the quickness and the childlike hastiness of our thoughts achieve an incomparable joy. Whoever has learned how to listen to trees no longer wants to be a tree. He wants to be nothing except what he is. That is home. That is happiness.

Artwork by Bryan Nash Gill from his book Woodcut.

* As Anaïs Nin wrote in her correspondence with Henry Miller, “I spell ‘god’ with a small ‘g’ because I do not believe in him, but I love to swear by him.”

BP

Waterlife: Exquisite Illustrations of Marine Creatures Based on Indian Folk Art

From walls to paper, or what the eye of the octopus has to do with swans and women’s role in the arts.

I’ve been a longtime fan of independent Indian publisher Tara Books, who for the past 16 years has been giving voice to marginalized art and literature through a commune of artists, writers, and designers collaborating on remarkable handmade books, including I Like Cats, Do!, and Tara’s crown jewel, The Night Life of Trees. But now comes what’s positively the most exquisite book I’ve ever held in my hands: Waterlife (public library) by artist Rambharos Jha, who explores the marine wonderland through vibrant Mithila art, a form of folk painting from Bihar in eastern India.

‘The Lobster’s Secret’
‘Crocodile Smile’
‘Snake Festival’

Jha writes:

I was born in the culture-rich district of Darbanga, in the Mithila region. But my father moved along with all of us to Madhubani, where he started work in a government-supported art and cultural project. This project sought to breathe new life into local art traditions and also to help artists earn a living. Since women had traditionally decorated walls and courtyards, they participated in this project in large numbers…

Living as we did in Madhubani, I had a chance to look at what they were painting. I would spend hours watching them work. I had not known of this art earlier and wondered why I was drawn to it, and what purpose there could be in my being attracted to these lines and shapes? Mixing colours and ideas, the women drew pictures that took hold of my mind.

Jha eventually learned to draw himself, initially drawing on stories from Hindu mythology and eventually moving on to more secular subjects, pursuing his own creative impulse but remaining deeply inspired by tradition.

Mithila art was originally painted on the walls of houses during festival season, but in the late 1970s, it migrated from walls to paper.

The book comes in a limited edition of 3,000 hand-numbered copies and, like all handmade Tara gems, is screen-printed by local artisans in Chennai using traditional Indian dyes, whose earthy scent you can smell as you leaf through the thick, textured pages.

Waterlife was among 10 books I curated for the TED 2012 Bookstore and is, without a shadow of exaggeration, among the most beautiful books I’ve ever laid eyes on. The screen does it no justice whatsoever.

BP

250-year-old Natural History Illustrations of Some of Earth’s Strangest, Sweetest, and Most Otherworldly Creatures

An illustrated celebration of the living wonders of land, sea, and sky by a self-taught young man who went on to become one of the greatest natural history artists of all time.

If the legendary nanogenarian cellist Pablo Casals was right, as I trust he was, that working with love prolongs your life, and if Walt Whitman was right, as I know he was, that an intimacy with the natural world is the key to robust mental and physical health, then the English naturalist and pioneering ornithologist George Edwards (April 3, 1694–July 23, 1773) owed his longevity, which eclipsed the life expectancy of his time and place by decades, to the extraordinary creative vitality with which he reverenced nature in his work.

The Female Zebra. (Available as a print and as a face mask.)
The Male Zebra. (Available as a print and as a face mask.)

Born into a humble family and raised under the tutelage of clergymen, Edwards awoke to the wondrous world of natural history art and science as a teenager by an improbable turn of chance. When a wealthy relative of the merchant with whom Edwards was apprenticing died, it was decided that the man’s colossal book collection was to be moved into the apartment where the young man was boarding. Inconvenienced as he was by the spatial assault of tomes, Edwards suddenly had access to the equivalent of a private university library — more knowledge than the vast majority of his peers could touch in a lifetime. Day after day, night after night, he found himself absorbed in these rapturous portals into poetry, astronomy, classical sculpture, and natural history. Suddenly, the life-path he had been set on — the pursuit of wealth through commerce — seemed so small and so impoverished of imagination.

The Yellow-breasted Toucan. (Available as a print and as a face mask.)

Barely out of his teens, Edwards left England to travel through the Continent, determined to broaden his mind. When he returned a month later, he wandered London for two years, young and unemployed and unemployable in his restive longing for something grander than mere money-work. He left again, not sure where to or what for, but as he wandered the fjords of Norway away from human habitation, watching the seabirds, watching the sky, watching the subtlest seasonal changes of the trees and flowers, something awoke in him, something was answered.

The Black-and-blue Titmouse with Pomegranate Blossom. (Available as a print and as a face mask.)

Upon returning to London, he devoted himself to learning everything the era’s science could teach him about the living world, of which nothing enraptured him more than the feathered wonders of the sky. The more he read about the anatomy and natural history of birds, the more he fell under the spell of their science and their splendor. He spent his limited means on the best bird paintings he could find, studied them closely with a savage admiration, then began making drawings of his own. Without formal instruction, he proceeding only on the wings of his enthusiasm and the encouragement of fellow natural history painting enthusiasts.

The Red-beaked Toucan. (Available as a print and as a face mask.)

So began a lifelong devotion to making sense of nature and giving shape to its enchantments. In his late thirties, on the recommendation of the founder of the British Museum, who had been commissioning him as a natural history illustrator for more than a decade, Edwards became librarian of London’s venerable Royal College of Physicians — a post he held until the final years of his long life.

The Bush-tailed Monkey. (Available as a print and as a face mask.)

A self-taught artist, a scientist a century before the word scientist was coined, George Edwards would be remembered by his friends as a man “of a middle stature, rather inclined to corpulence, of a liberal disposition and a cheerful conversation,” a man of great politeness but entirely unaffected, “free from all pedantry and pride.” He would be remembered by history as the father of British ornithology and one of the greatest natural history illustrators who ever lived.

The Bluejay and the Summer Red-bird. (Available as a print and as a face mask.)
The Crested Long-tailed Pye. (Available as a print and as a face mask.)
The Yellow-Faced Parakeet. (Available as a print and as a face mask.)

Although birds were his greatest passion, he depicted with equally meticulous draughtsmanship and great tenderness creatures as varied as the Indian grey mongoose, the zebra of the African savannahs, and the tiny American mud-tortoise. More than that, like the polymathic mathematician Mary Somerville, for whom the word scientist was coined a century later, Edwards intuited that a true understanding of nature requires not the conquest of any particular region of knowledge but an integration of the different regions. One of his closest and most erudite friends would recall that this self-educated polymath “seemed to have attained to universal knowledge,” conversing readily and rapturously about “almost every part of science.”

The Pig-tailed Monkey from Sumatra. (Available as a print and as a face mask.)
The Ant-eater. (Available as a print and as a face mask.)
The Small Mud-tortoise. (Available as a print and as a face mask.)

The bookseller who would acquire Edwards’s vast collection and steward his legacy would come to write of his approach to the work:

He never trusted to others what he could perform himself; and often found it fo difficult to give satisfaction to his own mind, that lie frequently made three or four drawings to delineate the object in its most lively character, attitude, and representation.

In his last major work, Edwards endeavored to distill a life’s worth of what had most awed him in the natural world to which he had devoted his days and nights. This became his bilingual three-volume Gleanings of Natural History: Exhibiting Figures of Quadrupeds, Birds, Insects, Plants &c., Most of Which Have Not, Till Now, Been Either Figured or Described — more than six hundred of Earth’s most astonishing life-forms of land, sky, and sea, illustrated in consummate copper-plate engravings, their natural history expounded in English and French.

The Crowned Eagle. (Available as a print and as a face mask.)
The Mongoose. (Available as a print and as a face mask.)
The Great Horned Owl. (Available as a print and as a face mask.)
The Elephant and Rhinoceros. (Available as a print and as a face mask.)
The Olive-coloured Fly-catcher and the Yellow Butterfly. (Available as a print and as a face mask.)

Upon the completion of this life’s work in 1764, Edwards’s vision — his great instrument of comprehension and celebration — had already begun failing and he grew unable to draw. How it must have gladdened his heart to receive an ardent letter of appreciation from Carl Linnaeus himself, who painstakingly annotated the index of Edwards’s Gleanings with the Linnaean name of each species in the three volumes.

The Black Maucauco [Lemur] (Available as a print and as a face mask.)

Many of the species are now commonly known by different names, many have grown endangered, and some are entirely unknown to the common reader, for they have gone extinct as our own species has plundered this miraculous planet in the quarter millennium since Edwards’s day, building our entire global economy on a willful blindness to the real wealth of this world: its “soil, water, forests, minerals, and wildlife.”

Working with material from the wonderful Biodiversity Heritage Library, I have color-corrected and restored (to the best of my ability and the best 260-year-old paper allows) the most wondrous illustrations from Edwards’s Gleanings to make them available as prints and face masks, with proceeds benefiting The Nature Conservancy’s endeavor to save and steward what remains of our irreplaceable living world.

The Cagui Monkey [Marmoset] (Available as a print and as a face mask.)
The Al Jerbua. (Available as a print and as a face mask.)

There is the almost unbearably sweet-looking Al Jerbua, with the pyramids of Egypt seen peeking behind it — the tassel-tailed hopping desert mouse of Arabia, now known as jerboa, which Edwards found remarkable in that while it can running at an impressive 15 miles per hour, “it hops like a Bird, on its hinder Legs, never letting its fore Paws on the ground, but generally hides them in the Furr under his Throat.” There is the cagui monkey, now known as marmoset, with its smiling face haloed by its friendly fan of black-and-white fur, crouching next to a snail so charming one wishes to take it for the marmoset’s playmate, when it is indeed its prey.

The Sloth. (Available as a print and as a face mask.)

There is the strangely humanoid sloth, sitting like a clawed, face-painted Buddha on his meditation mound. There is the “Middle-sized Black Monkey” Edwards met through a friend — a creature never previously described, “about the size of a large Cat, of a gentle nature with respect to hurting anyone,” fond of “playing with Kittens, as most Monkeys do.”

The Middle-sized Black Monkey. (Available as a print and as a face mask.)

Curiously, the three-volume series opens with the sole plant-only illustration in the entire set — the “apple-service,” which looks “like a yellowish green apple, tinged with red, on the side which is exposed to the Sun” — and with an homage to the remarkable Elizabeth Blackwell, who had depicted the “pear-service” a quarter century earlier in the world’s first illustrated encyclopedia of medicinal plants. It is a strange and touching choice for the elderly Edwards to begin his monograph, devoted to the natural history of animals, with an acknowledgement of his debt to the young woman whose work on the natural history of plants had shaped his own artistic development.

The Apple-service. (Available as a print and as a face mask.)

When Edwards died in his eightieth year, he bequeathed the fortune he had amassed by his tireless artistic and scientific labors to his two sisters.

The Yellow Red-pole and the Black Gros-beak. (Available as a print and as a face mask.)

But although he was awarded the Copley Medal — the most prestigious scientific honor before the controversial creation of the Nobel Prize — Edwards was, like all of us inevitably are, like even the greatest geniuses inevitably are, still a product of his time and place. His was an era that saw science not as an instrument for magnifying our understanding of reality but as a mirror for affirming the perfection of a religion-invented creator god. In the final years of his life, Edwards composed a striking confession, framing his passion for natural history and science as a guilty vanity distracting him from his religious responsibility:

My petition to God (if petitions to God are not presumptuous) is, that he would remove from me all desire of pursuing Natural History, or any other study; and inspire me with as much knowledge of his divine nature as my imperfect state is capable of; that I may conduct myself, for the remainder of my days, in a manner most agreeable to his will, which will consequently be most happy to myself. What my condition may be in futurity is known only to the wife disposer of all things; yet my present desires are (perhaps vain and inconsistent with the nature of things!) that I may become an intelligent spirit, void of gross matter, gravity and levity, endowed with a voluntary motive power, either to pierce infinitely into boundless etherial space, or into solid bodies; to see and know, how the parts of the great Universe are connected with each other, and by what amazing mechanism they are put and kept in regular, and perpetual motion. But, oh vain and daring presumption of thought! I most humbly submit my future exigence to the supreme will of the one omnipotent!

Dwelling as I do in the lives and letters of long-gone visionaries, I have marveled again and again at how even the farthest seers are simply unable to bend their gaze beyond their era’s horizons of dogma and possibility. And yet the horizons shift with each incremental revolution as the human animal peers outward to take in nature, then turns inward to question its own givens. The most substantive leap our species has made in the epochs since Edwards is not any particular scientific discovery or invention, but our general unblinding to the nature of reality and the reality of nature, to reality as staggering enough in its own right and haloed enough with the holiness of its shimmering complexity not to necessitate the invention of gods, superstitions, and other nursery rhymes for the mind in order for life — this life, this improbable and only and absolutely glorious life we have — to feel like enough, to feel like the living miracle that it is.

The Scarlet Sparrow and Yellow Swallow-tailed Butterfly. (Available as a print and as a face mask.)

As a lover of the history and poetics of marbling, I have also made available the mesmerizing swirls of color gracing the inside cover of the second volume of Gleanings of Natural History.

(Available as a print and as a face mask.)

For more pictorial consecrations of nature by other visionaries and pioneers, savor the stunning natural history paintings of exotic, endangered, and extinct species by Edwards’s contemporary Sarah Stone, one of a handful of women in the history of natural history to have broken the conservatory ceiling of her time; Peter Rabbit creator Beatrix Potter’s groundbreaking studies and illustrations of mushrooms, which mycologists still use to identify species; the remarkable story of Elizabeth Blackwell, who taught herself botanical illustration and created the world’s first illustrated encyclopedia of medicinal plants to save her husband from debtor’s prison; Louis Renard’s early-eighteenth-century psychedelic fishes from the world’s first marine encyclopedia illustrated in color; and the nineteenth-century Australian teenage sisters’ Helena and Harriet Scott’s astonishing butterfly drawings, which catalyzed one of the greatest triumphs of conservation in the twenty-first century.

BP

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