Sunday, May 26, 2013

Show Me a Story!: Why Picture Books Matter: Conversations with 21 of the World's Most Celebrated Illustrators by Leonard S. Marcus, David Wiesner (Foreword)

I read picture books as a living to rambunctious kiddies, but when it comes to the illustrations I'm a dodo bird. Text I get. Artwork I don't. A mom said her kindergartener had to read some book I was reading about a tiger and a wheel, "I have no clue what he was talking about, but can I have that book?" She inquired. That kindergarten read aloud had me toodling through the text sounding like a dodo bird with the kids, "What the heck is the illustrator doing here? Ooh, I really like the dreamy feeling, but did she use the computer to get that funky background? Or maybe it's a collage? Isn't it surreal? I think that's the idea. Oh heck... why are there little wheels on every page? Hmmm... I do recognize she's using watercolor." You get the picture. The beauty of kindergarteners is they love chittering librarian dodo birds. And I love them. Leonard Marcus interviews 21 illustrators who have had a big impact on the development of children's literature. His goal was to find out how these people decided to become artists and what experiences prepared them for a career in illustration. This book isn't for everyone. You need to have some interest and background knowledge of illustrators, publishers, art, and writing. The illustrators explain their techniques, typography, and apprenticeships, as well as, mention famous artists, designers, editors who influenced their work.

Take illustrator, Vera Williams. She went to Black Mountain College and studied under Josef Albers who was a part of the Bauhaus movement in Germany. The Bauhaus movement in the early 1900s believed in the combination of craft, art, and technology and was the precursor to the International Style found in architecture. I have some knowledge of Bauhaus furniture and architecture, but I think her illustrations look more folksy and would have never made the connection on my own. When William's describes how her studies influenced her painting specifically with color and light value to create a spontaneity in her work, I began to see the Bauhaus influence through the combination of craft and art. She explains how she purposefully makes her illustrations reflect how a child would paint and I started to appreciate more what she did in her picture books.  

Sections like Vera William's get more into technique than others. Each illustrator is like eating a different flavored Ben & Jerry's ice cream cone. James Marshall would be "Coffee, Coffee, BuzzBuzzBuzz", Maurice Sendak would be "Americone Dream", and Mo Willems might be "S'mores" because I always want some more Piggie and Elephant books. Marshall tells some hilarious stories and is quite outrageous calling teachers "cockroaches" because nothing can destroy them after spending a day with kids. His interview shows his wit so prevalent in his books. Maurice Sendak is quite a character whom the other illustrators refer to as being influential in their works. He took the children's book from a sentimental Victorian past to what you see today. Sendak pushed boundaries and saw children as more knowing and aware of the world around them. Mo Willems says, "Failure is funny" and discusses how he tried to imitate in his pigeon books Sendak's, "Where the Wild Things Are," manipulation of the audience's response through design. One of Willem's favorite characters was Charlie Brown because he was miserable but funny, not like "...Mickey Mouse and pals always merrily dancing around like they were on lithium." 

Leonard Marcus introduces each author and gives a summary of their strength as an artist in the field before launching into a question and answer format. I wasn't sure I would like this but found his questions really interesting and the answers unexpected. Sometimes he'd ask such a sophisticated question about the work I wasn't sure if it was the illustrator answering. Other times, such as with the William Steig interview, Marcus compares his book, "Amos & Boris" with William Blake's, "The Tyger." Steig was so flattered and excited never thinking of the two as connected.  It is obvious Marcus did a ton of research before his interviews. The chapters conclude with great quotes from the illustrators for the most part. Interviewers are stuck with what the person being interviewed says and Marcus shows tremendous writing and interviewing skills with the great chapter-ending quotes.

I didn't expect to get library lessons from this book, but got ideas for either author studies or more indepth read alouds. The artists discuss things that they've done when going on school visits or teaching art to kids such as Lois Ehlert's fish aquarium made with plastic milk cartons to complement the book, "Fish Eyes." While reading Tana Hoban's interview she talks about New York school children being asked what they saw on their way to school, to which they replied, "Nothing." The children were given cameras and it opened their eyes to what they passed everyday when going to school. I wonder if I give kids an iPad on their first day of library and have them take photos of what they see if we can put together a book or photo display that ties in with curriculum and gets them to notice their surroundings in a different way. I love this type of book. It turns my dodo brain into an electrically charged force field. Maybe "force field" is too much of an exaggeration, but it does make me excited about teaching. Elementary librarians should read this book. No excuse.

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