Category Archives: Illustration

Books with illustrations we particularly liked

Day 182 – Sea Story (Brambly Hedge)

sea-storyIs there a day summer day – or any day, really – that isn’t made better by reading aloud together about the mice of Brambly Hedge? Today’s book, “Sea Story,” is another outstanding entry in Jill Barklem’s Brambly hedge series, telling the story of Dusty, Poppy, Primrose and Wilfred who set off for the sea in Dusty’s boat, the Periwinkle to stock up on salt.

The mice set off together on a beautiful, breezy and warm summer day to pay a much-needed visit on their cousins, the Sea Mice. Along with a little bit of peril on the “high seas”, this lovely little tale has some delightful vocabulary, charming characters (with interesting names), and of course Ms. Barklem’s intricate and fascinating illustrations! We were once again quite impressed not only by the care apparent in Ms. Barklem’s artwork, but by the colorful details of everyday life that she works into the narrative – details which really help to bring her characters and the world of Brambly Hedge alive.

Can’t wait for the next time we get to pop in on Ms. Barklem’s friends!


Day 179 – Island Boy


“Island Boy” is another charming tale of historical fiction from one of our favorite author/illustrators, Barbara Cooney.

Matthais is born on Tibbets Island, Maine and his life is inextricably tied to the sea. After traveling the world as a young man, he returns to the island to marry his sweetheart and raise a family. The story crosses generations, sprinkles in some Maine history, and also includes a fascinating map in the back for children and parents alike to pore over. The ending is a little bit sad, but the book is as charming and beautiful as you would expect from Ms. Cooney. We thoroughly enjoyed it.

Day 159 – Seashore

It’s summer time – time to head to the beach! What better time to read a book called “Seashore” by Alain Greé. “Seashore” is a captivating book with pages packed full of lovely, vintage (60s & 70s) illustrations. It’s a stunning picture book, and the production quality is excellent.

seashoreThe book includes examples of things you might pack to take to the beach, games you might play at the beach, animals you might see there, food you might eat there, and so on. It’s not really a story book, although there is a bit of narrative flow to it. It is a great book for teaching little listeners sea- and beach-related vocabulary. What makes this book so great, though – and what makes me so happy to have it in our collection – is Mr. Greé’s artwork. This is exactly the kind of book that little readers (and parents) want to pick up page through again and again.

Day 158 – Hattie and the Wild Waves

Another month, another theme, and another wonderful Barbara Cooney book we are able to work into our calendar. For June, we have departed (figuratively) for the beach, and today we came across “Hattie and the Wild Waves”, a beautifully written and illustrated story about a free-spirited little girl named Hattie who is inspired by the wild waves on the beaches of Long Island.hattie

Hattie is the youngest child in a German-American family living on Long Island, presumably around the turn of the century. Hattie’s father is a very successful home-builder, and her parents frequently host big parties for all their German friends and relations. There is plenty of food, including potatoes galore (clouds of mashed kartoffeln), followed by a retreat to the parlor where Mama keeps her two greatest treasures: her rosewood piano and a grand painting called “Cleopatra’s Barge”, a masterpiece by Opa Krippendorf…Hattie’s grandfather. Hattie’s brother Vollie is determined to be a successful businessman alongside his father when he grows up, and her sister Pfiffi has plans to become a beautiful bride. However, when Hattie tells her siblings of her wish to become a painter, they burst out laughing “Dummkopf! Little stupid head! Girls don’t paint houses.” but Hattie is not thinking of houses when she says she wants to be a painter. She is thinking of “…the moon in the sky and the wind in the trees and the wild waves of the ocean.”

With her tiny hands, Hattie is not able to excel at piano (her mother says will never get past The Happy Farmer), her needlework is uneven and her french knots are grimy. Standing still to be fitted for dresses, while her sister preens in the mirror, is particularly trying for restless little Hattie. “Trying to be pretty is a lot of work,” she confides to the cook’s daughter, Little Mouse. What she does love is making pictures – especially during the summer, when Hattie and her family go to their beach house in Far Rockaway. While she is at the beach, Hattie can draw, and wonder what it is that the wild waves are saying. One summer, however, Papa buys a new vacation house called The Oaks – larger and grander than Far Rockaway but nowhere near the beach. Hattie’s siblings, Pfiffi and Vollie are both very excited, but Hattie is unsure. The Oaks is nice; Hattie has a tamed macaw who can fetch tennis balls, and she and Little Mouse can walk arm in arm in the deer park and talk about what they will do when they grow up (Little Mouse will teach and Hattie will paint). But The Oaks isn’t Far Rockaway, and Hattie finds herself wondering: what will the wild waves be saying this summer?

Eventually, Pfiffi is married, Vollie becomes a successful business man, and Papa and Mama and Hattie all go to live in a hotel that Papa has built. Sometimes Hattie can draw, but often (too often) her time is taken up with shopping or playing cards with her mother. One night, however, Hattie sees a woman at the hotel sing her heart out on stage and realizes that it is time for her to paint her heart out. The next morning, a stormy day, Hattie goes to the Art Institute and then to Coney Island. The rides are shut down, but the fortune teller booth is open, and Hattie’s fortune card tells her that she will make beautiful pictures…and then the wild waves crashing on the beach tell her the same. When Hattie tells Mama and Papa what she will do, Mama smiles and says “Just like Opa”…but Hattie replies “no, just like me”.

We love this book, both for the beautiful old-timey illustrations we have come to expect from Ms. Cooney, and for the inspiring nature of the story. Not only does the book remind listeners to be true to themselves, but it stresses the importance of family and paints Hattie’s story against the backdrop of an immigrant family reaping the rewards of their hard work and living out the “American Dream.” After studying German for many years in high school and college, I also enjoyed reading aloud all the German words and phrases that Ms. Cooney worked into the text…it’s an acquired taste, but for those of us who have acquired it…it’s fun!

Day 157 – Paddle to the Sea

“The Canadian wilderness was white with snow. From Lake Superior northward the evergreen trees wore hoods and coats of white…There was no sound. Nothing moved.” A young, native American boy sits in a cabin near Lake Nipigon, carving a man in a canoe out of a piece of wood. After painting the canoe and adding some lead for ballast, he inscribes on the bottom: “PLEASE PUT ME BACK IN THE WATER. I AM PADDLE TO THE SEA”. So begins the epic tale of “Paddle-to-the-Sea” by Holling C. Holling, a captivating Caldecott Honor storybook originally published in 1941. This fascinating tale provides a lesson in geography and history through the journey of a little man in a wooden canoe (“Paddle”) who manages to make his way, with a little bit of help, from the side of a snow-covered hill in Ontario, through each of the Great Lakes, up the St. Lawrence River, and all the way across the Atlantic Ocean to France.paddle

In the course of his travels, Paddle spends some time dammed up in a pond with beavers, he narrowly escapes being run through a sawmill, and he sees the great iron freighters being loaded with ore in Duluth, Minnesota. He passes by fishing villages, witnesses a shipwreck in the midst of one of Lake Superior’s legendary storms, and travels the length of Lake Michigan on a freighter, all the way to the steel mills of Gary, Indiana. Making his way back up the coast of Michigan, he watches a forest fire in the Upper Peninsula, and wends his way through Lake Huron, where he is picked up in a motor boat and carried to the entrance of Lake Erie. He passes over Niagara Falls, through Lake Ontario, the St. Lawrence River and out to the Grand Banks – where he is picked up by a French fishing boat for his journey across the ocean.

Along the way, through twenty-seven one-page chapters and several years, Paddle encounters people who pick him up and help him along his way – staying true to the request carved into the bottom of his hull. In nearly every chapter, there are maps in the margins showing Paddle’s progress, as well as beautiful, intricate, full-page illustrations facing each page of text. Mr. Holling also weaves all kinds of nuggets of information into the text – historical and geographical.

This is an amazing book. It may be a little bit long for a single evening’s read-aloud – it’s certainly a bigger bite to swallow that our typical picture book selection so far this year. It’s worth it, though. You may be able to split it over a couple evenings, although I predict that the story will be too compelling to put down. The idea that you can put a little canoe on a snow drift above a little creek and that he will eventually make it all the way to the ocean is sure to capture the wonderment of young and old alike.

As a bonus, I suggest watching this adaptation from 1966 by the National Film Board of Canada. I remember watching this film when I was in elementary school (not all the way back in 1966, by the way – how old do you think I am?). The story stuck with me in the back of my mind for years because the concept is so fascinating, but I had forgotten that it came from a picture book. When we discovered “Paddle-to-the-Sea” at the library, it clicked and I was thrilled to have rediscovered it! Needless to say, I had to get my own copy, which I am looking at right now.

Day 150 – Have You Seen Elephant?

Have you seen “Have You Seen Elephant?” by David Barrow? If you have, you will likely have noticed the very large elephant hiding behind a tiny tree while a little boy looks out and you shrugging his shoulders. It looks rather silly, right? Well, it is – delightfully so!elephant

You see, the little boy and the elephant are engaged in a game of hide and seek. “Would you like to play hide and seek?” the elephant asks. “OK.” says the little boy, “You hide.” “I must warn you, though,” the elephant cautions, “I’m VERY good.” Yeah, right. Right? But it turns out that he is very, very good…or is he? Little readers, and the boy’s dog, may be able to spot the elephant on every page (behind the drapes in the kitchen, under the comforter on the bed, holding up the TV in the living room, sitting with a lampshade on his head) but neither the boy, nor his parents, seem to see the elephant. At long last, the elephant taps the little boy on the shoulder: “There you are!” the little boy cries…before being challenged to a game of tag by a tortoise who has wandered into the picture. “I must warn you, though,” he cautions, “I’m VERY good!”

This story is tons of fun for read aloud and the artwork is playful and expressive, which serves to amplify the smiles. The combination is quite engaging for listener and reader alike – “Can YOU spot the elephant?”, “Do you think that the elephant is good at hiding…or is the boy just pretending not to see?”, “Do you think his parents really can’t see the elephant?” In fact, according to this interview with Mr. Barrow, that is exactly the kind of ambiguity that the author was going for. As an aside: in the linked interview, I also liked the way that Mr. Barrow describes the “audition” he held to identify the right little boy for the lead. I think he chose well; every time I look at the smile on the little boy’s face it makes me grin.

Oh – and one more thing: after reading over multiple reviews – and the aforementioned interview – I could find no reference to any deeper meaning in the book, although when we first picked it up I assumed that “Elephant” must be an allegory. You know: no one will talk about the “elephant in the room” even though everyone can see it? We pored over the illustrations, especially the family portraits that adorn the front and back pages of the book, and we thought we identified something. But, were we trying to read too much into it? Why were those family portraits there? I’ll leave it up to each individual reader…either way, allegory or no, this was a really fun – and funny – book.

Day 149 – Are We There Yet?

Today we read another book whose cover illustration sucked me right in. The comic-book style of the artwork, and…well…the rampaging T-Rex called out to me. “Are We There Yet?” by Dan Santat is a delightful, imaginative, and humorous book about passing the time by letting your imagination run wild.there yet

The book’s protagonist is a young boy on a road-trip to grandma’s house for her birthday party. The car trip to grandma’s is always exciting, he assures us…at least for the first 60 minutes or so, at which point he asks “Are we there yet?” and grumbles to himself “This is taking forever”. He is painfully bored. Soon, however, we begin to see all the things that can happen when your brain gets so bored that it starts to drift…

Cars on the road become a locomotive being chased by mounted bandits…and then suddenly the car is walking the plank of a pirate ship…competing in a jousting match…or passing through a time warp into the era of the dinosaurs! Ultimately, bandits, pirates, knights and ladies, and the car itself are all riding on the back of a T-Rex – making time fly soooo quickly that it actually passes them all by; when they arrive at grandma’s, the party has already been over for 43 years!!

When our hero does wake up eventually, he has arrived at grandma’s house – and the excitement returns. He runs out to get his hug from grandma and head in to the party…where we see him sitting despondently at a table in a room full of adults – one of whom is pinching his cheek. Everyone else seems to be having fun, as he mutters, “Can we go yet?”

Mr. Santat’s artwork is outstanding – full of action and expression. There are are all kinds of little details in every picture to keep children (and adults) poring over pages long after the book has been read the first time. The startled or scared looks on the faces of the parents, as the little boy imagines them experiencing each time-travel experience with him, are particularly entertaining. The story also reads like an oversized comic, with scenes taking place inside multiple frames on the same page and the orientation of the pages changing as the little boy’s imagination starts to kick in.

Aside from the innovative and action-packed “packaging”, I appreciated this story in large part because the endless cycle of “when are we going to get there?” to “Can we go yet?” is so familiar. It’s funny, because, as a father, I’ve seen this play out first-hand time and time again. At the same time, I could definitely see things from the little boy’s point of view. If you have ever road tripped with your children (or your parents!), I think this one may sound familiar to you, too.

Day 148 – Goldilocks and the Three Bears

The story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears has been a favorite of our youngest for quite a while, and we are all fans of Gerda Muller’s work, so we were thrilled to find a Gerda Muller version of this classic fairy tale to include in our May reading list. There are countless interpretations available out there. Nevertheless, Ms. Muller’s retelling of “Goldilocks and the Three Bears” is not only charming and beautifully illustrated (as we have come to expect from her), but the tale is also subtly nuanced – adding interest without veering too far from the time-tested tale that I think most of us are familiar with.

goldilocksMs. Muller’s Goldilocks lives in a caravan with her parents, who are performers in a travelling circus. One evening, when the circus has stopped at the edge of a forest, Goldilocks asks permission to go into the forest to pick flowers. After picking a beautiful bouquet, she realizes she has wandered off the forest path (of course!) and she eventually happens on the Bear family house. When the Bear family discovers Goldilocks in Baby Bear’s bed, she wakes up and dashes to the window – but the Bear family does not chase her, they are just unhappy at the intrusion. “Don’t you know that you should knock first if a door is closed?” shouts Daddy Bear. “I’m sorry. I didn’t know,” she cries back apologetically. She never sees the Bears again, but she never forgets to always knock first.

We really enjoyed the little variations that Ms. Muller inserted in her story – at least in comparison to the versions with which we were familiar. One of my favorites was the juxtaposition of the (modern) caravans and trucks from the circus outside the forest, while inside the forest there is a sort of magical time-warp to the Bear family’s old-timey cabin.  I also liked the fact that once she is far off from the cabin, Goldilocks can hear Baby Bear’s voice faintly calling out “Would you like some more porridge”?  Our absolute favorite part of the book, however, were the enchanting storybook illustrations; we really can’t say enough about them.

goldi dinosaursBonus: if you are in the mood for some laughs and are looking for another (thoroughly irreverent) variation on Goldilocks, we suggest checking out “Goldilocks and the Three Dinosaurs” by Mo Willems. It’s quite entertaining, and very “meta” – plus: Dinosaurs!

Day 147 – Go, Little Green Truck

I like trucks – especially classic pickup trucks – and today’s storybook must have seen me coming a mile away. When I saw the snazzy cover illustration with the bright green pickup truck, I was a sitting duck. I had to pick it up – and I am glad I did. “Go, Little Green Truck” by Roni Schotter and illustrated by Julia Kuo is a cute story (and a beautiful book) about family, redemption…and farmer’s markets.

little greenWhether he is hauling food and livestock around the farm, or running errands to the post office and grocery store, Little Green is about as proud as a little truck can be. Every day he works hard to help Farmer Gray and his family…until one morning Farmer Gray brings home a brand new truck – Big Blue. The Gray family farm is growing, and Farmer Gray is proud of his big new truck, which can take on even bigger jobs that Little Green could handle. Little Green is retired, and left in the meadow to rust.

Missing Little Green one afternoon, Fern Gray – Farmer Gray’s daughter – walks out to find the abandoned truck and curls up in his bed with her cat. When her father and mother find her, Fern suggests that they use Little Green to haul vegetables to the farmers market; Big Blue, she says, is too big and bumpy for the city streets. The family works together to clean Little Green, and Fern even paints some animals, foods, and flowers on him. Everybody at the farmers market loves Little Green, and he starts to feel better and better because, well, now Farmer Gray always uses Little Green for his smaller, gentler jobs, while Big Blue gets the heavier ones. Everyone has their role on the Gray farm, and everyone is happy!

We really enjoyed this story. We appreciated the focus on family, the idea of shopping at the farmer’s market for food fresh from the fields, and (of course) the trucks. Despite my affinity for the trucks, I think our oldest actually was this book’s biggest fan. She really loved the illustrations – which have a pleasing combination of vibrant colors, clean lines, and a style that is rather unique. Two (green) thumbs up!

Day 142 – Kitten’s First Full Moon

In celebration of this year’s latest full moon (a Blue Moon, no less), this evening we read what has become one of the most request read-aloud selections in our home: “Kitten’s First Full Moon” by Kevin Henkes.  A Caldecott Medal winner (2005), “Kitten’s First Full Moon” is a dazzling and wonderfully engaging book that is short on words but long on humor.

kittenKitten has never experienced a full moon before, and when she sees one for the first time she is convinced that it is a bowl of milk…meant for her, of course! Hungry and determined, she makes one unsuccessful and entertaining attempt after another to get a taste of the elusive celestial saucer, until at last she returns home, exhausted and discouraged, to find…a bowl of milk waiting for her on the porch! What a night!

This charming story of a hard-luck kitten who lucks out in the end is sure to grab the attention of little listeners…it certainly grabbed the attention of our youngest! The story is simple and easy to follow, and the bold black-and-white drawings are captivating. If the idea of a little kitten thinking the moon is a bowl of milk isn’t enough to get a smile (what a silly kitten!), then the picture of a startled kitten with a bug on her tongue…or any number of other amusing illustrations…ought to do the trick.

I can’t recommend this book enough, although I probably don’t have to; if you have seen the cover, you have probably already decided that you need to read it. It’s one more counter-example that we have found this year to the old adage: “you can’t judge a book by its cover”. Au contraire, mon frere!