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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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