The Formal Inventiveness of Kids’ Picture Books

Last week I got involved in Twitter back-and-forth with a few folks (Alan Haverholm, Eric Orchard, and whomever operates the Hooded Utilitarian’s Twitter account–Noah Berlatsky, maybe?) about the differences–or lack thereof, argues Noah–between cartooning and illustration and it got me thinking about children’s books.

I don’t have some big, overall point here vis-a-vis the formal distinction between comics and illustration… but one thing I’ve noticed during the myriad hours I’ve spent reading to my daughter is that children’s book illustrators seem to do a lot of formal experimentation–and they seem to do it in a fun and lighthearted way that’s a lot different than the sorts of things that come to my mind when I think of formal experimentation in comics.

Here’re a few examples:

Rupert – by Mary Tourtel

I’m not sure exactly where Rupert falls out in some Scott McCloud-esque definition of comics… but I really like how Rupert presents a single story, but offers two different ways to read that story. You can choose to either read the little rhyming couplets beneath each panel or you can read the non-rhyming prose below.

Lilly’s Purple Plastic Purse – by Kevin Henkes

There’re lot of kids’ books that do this, but I enjoy how the author/illustrator here is fine with just mixing up elements of comics with the more standard children’s book layout. Sometimes there’s prose under a big image, sometimes there’re sequences of images that you read as comics, sometimes there’re in-between things like word balloons within single illustrations. The only thing similar to this I can think of in comics is Posy Simmonds’s work, which mixes up blocks of straight prose with comics sequences.

Press Here – by Hervé Tullet

This one’s a little difficult to describe with just page scans, so you’ll have to check out the video. Each page of the book asks you to perform some action–pressing something, tilting the book, shaking the book, etc.–and then the following page’s illustration seems to have “responded” to that action. I’ve never seen anything like it. It’s amazing.

William and the Magic Ring – by Laura Robinson

This is another one you kind of have to see in action… but basically, you have to read the book in the dark via flashlight. Each page has a few lines of the story at the bottom, but the illustration that accompanies it is an elaborate cut-out that you shine the flashlight through, projecting the illustration onto a wall or the ceiling.

The Adventures of the Three Colors – by Annette Tison and Talus Taylor

I did a whole blog post about this one a while back, but you can see the basic idea of the book from the images above. The story is about a boy trying to paint with only three colors and the book uses a series of images printed on transparent overlays to basically show you how CMYK printing works (although it’s never really stated as such).

Anyway… I could go on with other examples (and I haven’t even gotten into pop-up books), but you get the idea. There are of course lots of inventive things going on with comics–a recent fave of mine is Jason Shiga’s amazing Meanwhile–but I think it can be helpful sometimes to look outside of one’s medium for inspiration. There’s a lot of cool stuff going on with children’s books, people!


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