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Winding Oak's Bookology Magazine

Show, Don’t Tell

Show Me a Story!I am frequently reminded in our Chapter & Verse meetings that people read a book, look at the illustrations, but may not consider the illustrations. Study them. Wonder about them.

Unless an illustrator sits at your elbow as you turn the page of a picture book or illustrated book, explaining the motivation and technique behind each illustration, the reader can never really know what was occupying the illustrator’s mind while creating the book. But I don’t really want to know. How about you?

I enjoy the process of wondering. I like making up my own stories for the why and how and when and where something was created. And still … when I find out more about the illustrator, their work becomes a richer, more satisfying experience for me.

In Leonard Marcus’ new book, Show Me a Story: Why Picture Books Matter (Candlewick Press, May 8, 2012), he has interviewed twenty-one children’s book illustrators, talking over their backgrounds, their reasons for doing what they do, and their interactions with critics and readers, adults and children.

This is not a formal review. It is an enticement. I noted some of the passages that provided depth and meaning to me, thoughts that will help me consider illustrations with more insight in the future.

A word. These are not all recent interviews. A number of deceased illustrators are included. It’s a focused look at their work at a point in time, sometimes with a more recent follow-up interview included.

Mitsumaso Anno describes the results of two groups of children who drew a wheatfield. One group observed the field, then had to go indoors to draw because of rain. The other group drew on a sunny day, watching the wheat field while they drew. Which group do you think produced the more interesting art? (p. 16)

Eric Carle’s interview reveals a good deal about his background in graphic design and advertising. I found that illuminating and I know I will look at his work with a new consideration for having read this. I also found his collaboration with Bill Martin, Jr., intriguing. He shares that Bill said about his own process, “I usually do the rhythm first before I do the words.” I have never thought of this approach. (p. 21) I read his interview several times, integrating more information each time.

Parents reading this book will be intrigued by Lois Ehlert’s revelation that “… when I speak to young people, I say to them, ‘Find a spot that’s your own. It doesn’t have to be big. But find a place where you can create, whether it’s drawing or writing or whatever.’ One of the main ways that my parents encouraged me was simply by not discouraging me—by letting me have that spot in our house.” (p. 82)

James Marshall’s interview is very funny, light-hearted, and serious, all at once. He talks about the picture book: “How to move it. When to stop it. How to pace it. What to leave out. All sorts of little tricks. Never to have the action going into the gutter. A picture book becomes a whole world if it’s done properly. I’m very surprised that sometimes people don’t understand this, or realize that the picture book is a true art form.” (p. 124)

Robert McCloskey shared “People—adults as well as children—so often don’t realize what they’re looking at. … Our understanding of cause and effect is disappearing because people are doing so much looking without evaluation. Television adds to this, with all the tricks they can do (he was interviewed in 1991). Seeing is really a decision-making process, a matter of evaluating what is around you. And children cannot develop that ability so well as they can by learning to draw.” (p. 151) Educators, take note.

I hope this whets your appetite. Peter Sis, Kevin Henkes, Tana Hoban, Maurice Sendak … these are only a few of the well-admired illustrators included in this book. Search it out. You’ll feel rewarded.

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