I crush pretty hard on illustrators sometimes. I love the assured line of a Tom Lichtenheld. The expressive faces drawn by Emily Gravett. Mr. Dan Santat's mastery of movement and composition (which he wrote a post on recently). The deceptively old-fashioned-looking ink drawings of Nancy Carpenter. Patrick O'Brien, who actually paints, and who says his 3rd Captain Raptor book (with Kevin O'Malley) is in the works. David Small for his gestures. Marla Frazee of course. Sigh. Wish I could draw.
Two of my absolute all-time favorites are Jon Agee and Nathan Hale. Agee has this uncluttered, declarative style (lots of white space, authoritative lines) that harks back to Bill Peet or Syd Hoff. Not a bad thing - even after fifty years, Hoff's books still feel fresh and funny, as do Bill Peet's.
Adding to the grownup appeal, there's something very sophisticated and sly about Agee's deadpan straight men and savvy animals. Put it this way - if someone in a Jon Agee illustration is looking out of the book, making eye contact with the reader... it's not going to be the human.
Then there's Nathan Hale, whose name you always have to quantify when you google it. Nathan Hale the illustrator. That other guy couldn't draw his way out of a paper bag. So anyway, googling "Nathan Hale illustrator" will bring you to Space Station Nathan, which is right up there with 23 Glyph Street and Fug Nation as an imaginary place that I'd really like to visit. Nathan makes great, funny, loose-limbed cartoons, but what he's probably best known for are his lusciously dimensional four-color book illustrations.
Guy really knows his way around a highlight, huh? Rapunzel's Revenge and Calamity Jack, the graphic novels he illustrated for authors Shannon and Dean Hale (no relations) practically gleam. His people are always healthy-looking and apple-cheeked, his buildings have presence, his trees have texture, and his clouds billow in gentle Maxfield Parrish-y light.
Both of these guys, coincidentally, are involved with new books of animal puns (or, technically, portmanteau words made up of common nouns and animals).
The "gorvilla" in Animal House has whalepaper on the walls, floormingos underfoot, and a hampster in each kangaroom (for putting your dirty ze-bras and elepants in), plus dozens more pieces of furniture and structural features that must be kind of hard to deal with. Tough to wash the dishes if the "skink" doesn't like the feel of hot water!
My kids sunk into this book and screeched out every pun (as did at least one of the other librarians at work). The endpapers alone, illustrated with some of the items that are in Nathan's illustrations but not mentioned in Candace Ryan's text, took them an hour to get through. This is a book with a broad age range.
And if I didn't love this man already... he made the gorvilla out of LEGO too. You must visit the Space Station to see it. YOU MUST.
In Mr. Putney's Quacking Dog, it's not Mr. Putney's house that is unusual per se, but rather Mr. Putney's animal friends, who help Mr. Putney accomplish the multiple little tasks that make up his day. Waking up in the morning is easy when you have an alarmadillo, and what else do you use to measure your nephew but a goruler? Some of his friends are pets, like his quacking dog (a duckshund) and some seem to be more like neighbors, like the socktopus living in his pool.
And though the look of Jon Agee's art is unadorned and clean, he's not devoid of style. Mr. Putney has an outfit for every occasion, from the smart green Thom Browne-like suit on the cover to the black unitard he wears for gymnastics. You can tell that Mr. Putney has an unassuming but persnickety personal esthetic. High-water pants don't bother him, but he would never go out in the rain without his rubbers.
Animal House is best suited for one-on-one appreciation, while Mr. Putney would be pretty comfortable at storytime, with that big strong art that telegraphs well across a room and a question-and-answer format that encourages guessing by the listening audience.
But what truly amuses me is that even though many of the same animals are used, there's only one joke that appears in both books! See if you can find it!
*As if I didn't respect these two books already, finding animals to portmanteau with these illustrator's names was HARD. The axolotl is a freaky little endangered Mexican salamander item, and the albatross was a ship's good luck until some idiot killed it.