I would have liked to have met Maurice Sendak. As impatient and uncompromising as he seems to have been, he took this stuff seriously in a way that I feel like I recognize - and he knew it was all folly at the same time.
I will wager that almost every person involved with picture books has learned something from Maurice. I know I have. In the Night Kitchen taught me to look at all the stuff inside the pictures; Where the Wild Things Are, with its expanding and contracting picture area, taught me to look at the page as a whole; and his illustrations for the Little Bear books showed me that animal characters need not be cartoonish or unrealistic to be endearing.
It is a fitting coincidence, therefore - a random tribute - that this past week was a particularly good one for illustration in picture books. Here are the ones I brought home to share and savor with my sons, not a line of 'ordinariness' in any of them:
When Dads Don't Grow Up by Marjorie Blain Parker, pictures by R.W. Alley
R. W. Alley manages to draw both clearly and delicately, his tiny lines inking in perfect expressions and gestures. I went through this book a second time just to watch what all the hands were doing - clenched or spread, grasping a tiny teacup, a toy train, a golf club. I'll always pick up anything illustrated by Mr. Alley.
NOTE: I better see a "When Moms Don't Grow Up" out of these same people next year - I am a little tired of dads getting all the credit for being the only possible parent who could ever be fun. Even though - I hate to admit it but - that's usually how it works in my house, too.
Just Ducks! by Nicola Davies, illustrated by Salvatore Rubbino
In second grade, each of the kids in our school has to pick a bird. They learn about the flamingo, the bald eagle, the seagull, and they write a story, sculpt a nest, and design puzzles and quizzes that educate their classmates about their particular bird. For that project, my son Zhou ended up with the mallard duck, and ever since, he feels a special kinship.
So little man was delighted with this book, in which a little girl observes the ducks that live on the river near her house. Her day is compared to a day in the life of the ducks, and interesting facts about mallards are interspersed with the narrative.
Salvatore Rubbino, who has something of a specialty in illustrating environment - his previous books, A Walk in New York and A Walk in London, are kids-eye travelogues of those cities - here applies his gestural, painterly watercolor style to the observation of birds. He gets it so right. Flapping, preening, flying, quacking - his big watery sweeps of paint prove that you don't have to be precise to be accurate.
Arthur's Dream Boat by Polly Dunbar
It is one of the subtler contradictions in art (in Art) that in order to achieve a casual, smooth grace in watercolors, one must wield the brush with consummate sureness and control. Polly Dunbar is one of these artists - in each of her books, her characters have a loose-limbed funky liveliness that might make you not notice just how good she is.
In Arthur's Dream Boat, a spirited little boy's tale which, in the spirit of our Sendak tribute, just happens to feature a boy and a boat and a bout of yelling, Ms. Dunbar adds what looks like hand printed patterns and textures, as well as a little collage, to her coarse pencil or pastel lines and lovely washes.
When Blue Met Egg by Lindsay Ward
Blue is a little ditzy. She's a small blue bird who lives in Central Park, and yeah, I think she may be a little ditzy even compared to other little blue birds. She mistakes a snowball for an egg, for example, and then goes flying all over Manhattan trying to find its mother.
Lindsay Ward does a number of things really well, and they all work together to keep this tale sweet and domestic even amid the landmarks and skyscrapers of its city setting. First of all, she's a whiz with a pencil. Assured curves and expressive squiggles define little birdies and trees, while buildings and other manmade structures display confident draftmanship. Found paper, including Holorith cards and graph paper, ledger pages, maps and crosswords contribute to contour and grids of windows. Scraps of newsprint are included in Blue's nest.
I think it is this tension between the fragile but beautiful nature in Central Park and the solidity of the surrounding buildings that makes When Blue Met Egg just a little more epic than the story would have been in any other setting.
Night Knight by Owen Davey
Here's me, writing an art-appreciation post about picture books that I find to be particularly well illustrated, raving on and on about this one's line and that one's mastery of the brush. Making a big stink about texture and use of materials. And what I am not admitting is this: in fact, I prefer these organic art techniques. I do. I have a prejudice against digital art.
With many exceptions, of course. If you're doing perfect shapes with perfect computer-generated gradients, and that's your thing, that is ok. Craig Frazier's art embraces its machine-assisted precision - without obscuring the hand of the artist. But that is because the hand of the artist is, um, Craig Frazier's. Lotta people cannot pull that off.
To a certain extent, that same caveat extends to digital painting. Pat O'Brien picked up a tablet to do the illustrations for You Are the First Kid on Mars, and those paintings are good paintings, because Patrick O'Brien is a spectacularly accomplished painter. However. I just don't feel like the painting tools are up to scratch yet. The brush tools cannot yet convincingly simulate the tiny textural variations that occur when paint interacts with a surface. Use of smudge tools can result in an unappealing, over-smooth texture. Blends are obvious, graceless, and flat.
What Owen Davey does - well according to the front matter of Night Knight, all his illustrations are done in digital media, but what Owen Davey does is not obvious, not graceless, and if it is flat that is because it suits him to be flat.
If he wants certain of his pages to recall paper dolls, and others to resemble tapestries, well then these are wonderful choices for a delightful little linear story with one-to-one imaginative interpretations of the mundane actions a kid undertakes at nighttime. Our knight climbs a ladder up a tall tower to get into bed? My boys saw that and delightedly cried, "Bunk bed!"
It is so excellent to me to see someone making art on a computer and avoiding the things that the drawing/painting programs do not do well. I hate being a snob. So I am thrilled to see Owen Davey's hand-drawn lines, which keep the pictures homey and accessible, and his abbreviated, warm palette. Owen Davey resists using Copy and Paste to excess, meaning that the bark of a tree doesn't end up looking like something out of Second Life. If it's all about mastery of the tools, then Owen Davey is to whatever he's using as Steve Jenkins is to cut paper.
House Held Up by Trees by Ted Kooser, illustrated by Jon Klassen
Another artist who reportedly works in digital is Jon Klassen. But look - he is another artist who does not seem to work in digital painting. The color fields that Jon Klassen works with have a layered, accidental, cloudy-spattery-powdery texture that always give his work a hand-hewn quality.
In this case, his sparse, earthy palette matches the prairie quietude of Ted Kooser's words as if they were born together. Jon Klassen and Ted Kooser both see that there is a place where "gritty" and "soft" are not incompatible - in this book, Kooser's plain language is worn smooth, like boards; and Klassen fills the clean wind with seeds sifting from the trees. Where Kooser is precise in his description of the house, Klassen gives us a tight shot from an unexpected perspective. Paragraphs that describe the passage of time are matched by wider views that emphasize the house's isolation.
I at first thought that this book was really too sad for kids, describing as it does the dispersal of a family and the decay of their house. But this melancholy is in the end countervailed by the slow miracle of the house's departure from the earth, cradled by the trees. It may take the right reader, and the right situation, but there will be appreciation of this book.
And maybe this is the ultimate lesson we can take away from Maurice Sendak's work and words: children are emotional beings, but not necessarily fragile ones. Sorrow, fear, anger, loneliness - these are not to be hidden from children. Just because they're small doesn't mean they're going to break, and just because they cry more often than we do doesn't mean we should try to isolate them from things that might make them cry.
I still wish I'd had the chance to meet you, Mr. Sendak. You'd have intimidated the crap out of me but that's not an experience I'd want to have missed.