Designer books

I've noticed a trend in the picture book industry recently where publishers are favouring books written and illustrated by one in the same person. In my opinion writing and illustrating are two very different skills and few people can do both well. One obvious exception is Maurice Sendak, whose picture book Where the Wild Things Are remains unsurpassed in terms of its use of exquisitely pared down, rhythmic text combined with haunting imagery. I recall reading that Where the Wild Things Are began life as 'Where the Wild Horses Go' and the story went through multiple rewrites and rejections by publishers before it became the book we know today. Sendak has recently gifted his life's work to the Rosenbach Museum and Library in Philadelphia and they have a fantastic online exhibition that you can view here.

In today's post I want to look at three recent picture book titles (shown above) that are part of the recent proliferation of books that I would describe as 'designer' - all three are big on graphics and layout but two out of the three fall short in my view when it comes to the story.

Taeeun Yoo's book the little red fish tells the story of a young boy who accompanies his grandfather to a library in the middle of a forest and takes along his red fish in a bowl. The fish disappears inside a book and JeJe has to dive inside to retrieve it.

The illustrations are atmospheric and enchanting but the plot just doesn't work for me. Why is there a library in the forest and why would JeJe take his fish to the library? The book is too self-consciously trying to emulate the style of Maurice Sendak with its narrative about journeying to an imaginary realm but it misses the mark I think because it lacks what Sendak describes as 'the other story' hidden behind the surface narrative. The book was Yoo's graduate thesis for her master's degree at the School of Visual Arts in New York, which suggests to me that the visual was privileged over the textual in the creation of her book.

Brooklyn based Laura Ljungkvist's book Follow the Line is all about design and there is no denying that she designs incredibly well - the colour combinations, line drawings and layout of the book are visually eye-catching and exciting. The premise is that you follow the line through a single day as it travels through cityscapes, across and beneath the ocean, up in the sky, through the countryside, into a forest and on to a village where the line ends in a house late at night where everybody is sleeping.

It's not that I object to the concept of the book but it lacks the necessary impetus that a successful follow-through story requires, like Eric Carle's, A Very Hungry Caterpillar, for instance, where the caterpillar munches its way through foliage, fruit and other yummy goodies and transforms into a butterfly in the final spread. Laura Ljungkvist's book attempts to make up for its narrative shortcomings by encouraging kids to play observation games with the images but the overall result is a book that is mighty good looking but beyond that largely forgettable.

The same cannot be said for the third book I want to discuss: Leonardo the Terrible Monster by Mo Willems. What a cracker of a story combined with brilliant illustrations and wonderful use of typography and page space. The story is about a little monster called Leonardo who desperately wants to be scary but he just isn't.

He devises a plan to find the perfect candidate to scare and settles on a quivering wreck of a boy called Sam.

But the plan backfires because although Leonardo thinks he has successfully scared the living daylights out of Sam and made him cry, in fact Sam's tears have been caused by the antics of his mean big brother, a stubbed toe, a cockatoo that pooped in his eye, his lack of friends and a tummy ache. Leonardo responds to Sam's emotional outburst by deciding that instead of trying to scare Sam he'll become his friend. And that's just what he does.

This picture book covers all the bases as far as I'm concerned. It's funny and moving and beneath the surface we find the 'other story' - a narrative about accepting your innate character and Leonardo's realisation that he is a terrible monster because there is nothing monstrous about him at all.


Lies said…
I confirm. More over, the expert Lieveke confirms. Leo is a whopper and NEVER lets down. We've read it 854 times now. Still she has that expression 'I wonder what will happen to Leonardo now...'. We both yelp the 'tuna-salads' out loud in close harmony. Don't know 'bout the first of the book, but the second we found rather boring, the expert toddlered off to do some more interesting fairy-ing and I yawned. There's one in this series in a house, which we found equally sedating and sleep-inducing. Ah we are stern book reviewers. X

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