This fall's offerings include tales of compassionate princesses, precocious young heroines, devout monks and a series of behind-the scenes visits with the talented artists who create those beautiful illustrations.
How many times, when reading a good book, have you wished for the opportunity to meet with the author, ask her questions about her work, her influences and inspirations? When reading or being read to makes up an important part of a child's life, it's natural to assume that his curiosity is just as intense. Who made this book? Its pictures? What led them to create this story and these pictures for me? For parents and children alike, some of these questions are answered in the book Wings of an Artist: Children's Book Illustrators Talk About Their Art (Abrams, $17.95).
This book includes images and short statements by some of the leading children's book illustrators working today. They discuss their beginnings in the field, their early interests in art and writing and their approaches to creating compelling, original and entertaining children's books. An array of artist-authors is featured, including Henrik Drescher, William Joyce, Maurice Sendak, Robert Sabuda and James Ransome -- in all, more than 20 of the most prolific and influential creators of picture books for children. On each page, an illustrator presents an image (most were created especially for this project) and a very brief statement about his work and his introduction to the world of children's book illustration. Some recount the encouragements of parents or teachers, others speak of their early imagination or the love of drawing that led them into their career.
It's a rare chance to view the styles of so many top illustrators in one place. But as with a sampler platter at a restaurant, you may find something you like, but the portions are too small to be really satisfying. Each artist's statement is only a paragraph or two -- some even less than that -- so it's hard to get a deeper sense of their philosophy. Think of it as a polite introduction.
Although its text is sparse and superficial, Wings of an Artist offers an excellent display of picture book artwork. While the artists' statements seem cursory, their art is expressive and imaginative, showing each illustrator's particular style, technique and visual interpretation. Leo and Diane Dillon give a fanciful new look to Mother Goose, Robert Sabuda's cut-paper collage dances across the page, Steve Johnson and Lou Fancher offer a beautiful and evocative illustration of nighttime storytelling, and Maurice Sendak's 16-panel illustration is the inventive, stream-of-consciousness adventure of a small girl, her doll and an evil television.
Wings of an Artist includes an activity guide with things for adults and children to do together. It will lead youngsters back into the book's pages and encourage them to think about the words and images they've come across. The guide is structured to spark discussion on issues of technique, art history, artistic terminology and personal responses to art. While the study questions relate to the specific images within the book, they can easily be applied to other picture books for children as well as to art encountered during museum or gallery visits.
This fall brings us Mercer Mayer's first illustrated children's book in 10 years. Shibumi and the Kitemaker (Cavendish, $18.95) tells the story of Shibumi, daughter of the emperor of Japan, and the very sheltered life she lives within the palace walls. One day, after having spent all her life surrounded by the safety and beauty of the emperor's gardens, Shibumi climbs a chestnut tree to look over the walls for the first time in her life. She's shocked by the suffering and squalor that exists just beyond the palace walls, and immediately sets out, with the unwitting help of the royal kitemaker, to make her father see the inequities and bring about a change. Mayer's rich, computer-generated paintings capture the sweeping landscapes, delicate patterns and tonal palette of traditional Japanese prints. Those who are familiar with Mayer's whimsical pen-and-ink drawings for his Little Monster and Little Critter books will be surprised at the complex compositions and painterly quality of these illustrations. His use of the computer has added a new depth and intricacy to his pictures.
A delightful new voice in children's books comes from Lauren Child, author of Clarice Bean That's Me (Candlewick, $16.99). The book's narrator, Clarice Bean, is a precocious little girl struggling through the circus of family life. Her mother says Clarice's older brother is "in the dark tunnel of adolescence." It's Clarice's observation, however, that "usually, he's in his room." When she fights with her brother and throws his blanket out the window and it lands on the neighbor's dog, Clarice is in trouble. (Her father tells her, "Right now you are not the flavor of the month, young lady.") Her reaction: "I am in such big trouble that I get sent to my room for 3 whole hours. Alone. I love it. Finally, some peace and quiet."
The writing is fresh and true -- the perfect voice for an intelligent young girl -- and the illustrations, also by Child, are a charming mix of ink line drawings, cut-paper collage and photographic background. Typography also plays a role in mimicking the inflections and emphasis of Clarice's pre-adolescent, observant narration.
From brothers Mark and David Shannon comes The Acrobat & the Angel (Putnam, $15.99), a retelling of an old French folktale from the 12th or 13th century. The story, written by Mark Shannon, follows Pequele, a young boy who, after the deaths of his parents, lives with his grandmother and entertains the village children as an acrobat in the city square. When his grandmother dies, he is taken in by the local monastery, on the condition that he devote his life to God and forsake his irreverent flips and handsprings. It isn't until a plague hits the city that both he and the strict brothers of the monastery learn about the true strength of God's gifts.
While the story is stark and sad -- Paquele endures some pretty severe hardships -- David Shannon's illustrations are full of life and beautifully rendered. His paintings, each framed in the shape of a Gothic arch, spring from the pages and seem to capture the soul of his brother's storytelling and characterization. Through a sophisticated use of light and composition, the illustrations have a theatrical, stagelike quality that fits well with the medieval spoken-word style of the book. David Shannon has long been known for his evocative, painterly illustrations in other children's books, as well as his editorial illustrations in magazines and other publications. Once again his knack for using color to nail a mood and emphasize focus comes through and serves him well.
Chuck Groth is an assistant professor of art at Meramec College in St. Louis.