Category Archives: Illustration

Books with illustrations we particularly liked

Day 137 – Roxaboxen

“Marian called it Roxaboxen (she always knew the name of everything.) There across the road, it looked like any rocky hill – nothing but sand and rocks, some old wooden boxes, cactus and greasewood and thorny ocotillo – but it was a special place.” Indeed, it is a special place – and the story of “Roxaboxen” by Alice McLerran and Barbara Cooney is a very special book. It is a lovely tribute to the joy of unstructured outdoor play and to the power of a child’s imagination to create elaborate, magical worlds of adventure out of a pile of sticks, stones, and old discarded boxes.roxaboxen

Although Marian names the place, she shares it with her sisters and their neighbors – and around this group of children an entire city eventually appears, built on the foundation of their cumulative imaginations. There is a mayor (Marian, naturally), streets are marked off with rocks, houses built out of old boxes, and little Frances marks her fence with desert glass. There is buried treasure everywhere in the form of pebbles(!) – the currency which fuels the economy of Roxaboxen. There is even a bakery next to two(!) ice cream parlors, and everyone keeps trying both kinds of ice cream, because in Roxaboxen you can eat all the ice cream you want.

Everyone in Roxaboxen has a car (all you needed was a round thing for a steering wheel), but beware: if you speed, you must go to jail and stand among the cactus. For some reason, quiet little Anna May is always speeding…as though she likes going to jail. Of course, if you had a horse (a stick and bridle) you could go as fast as you wanted. There are wars on Roxaboxen, and a cemetery in case anyone dies, but the only occupant of the cemetery is a dead lizard. Sometimes, especially in winter, when the weather is bad and the children are in school, Roxaboxen is quiet…but even so, it is always there waiting.

And so it goes, from one season to the next, until one by one the inhabitants of Roxaboxen move away. But none of the children ever forget – and Roxaboxen has not forgotten them. In fact, more than fifty years later, when Frances returns to that magical hill, she sees the white stones still bordering Main Street and the desert glass still marking the location of her house…amethyst, amber and sea green.

This book has quickly become one of our all-time favorites. We love the idea of creating an entire world out of a lonely, deserted hill; it is a perfect example of the magic only children’s imaginations can work. Ms. McLerran’s prose is poetic, and Ms. Cooney’s artwork – as we have come to expect – enhances the joyful and carefree feel of the story as well as the humor. I particularly enjoyed the childlike logic that created a world where cars are subject to speed limits, but anyone with a “horse” is able to speed to their heart’s content…and yet, there is still a resident of Roxaboxen who feels compelled to drive a car and speed anyway. The accompanying picture of little Anna May standing stoically in jail among the cactuses made us all laugh out loud.

We have always enjoyed watching our girls at play in the yard, acting out stories created out of whole cloth inside their own heads and I wish we had the opportunity to see it more. It feels like unstructured play is an increasingly uncommon luxury for children. And yet, I whole heartedly believe that this kind of play is the foundation for both intellectual development and emotional resilience. The author’s note in the back of the book informs the reader that Roxaboxen is a real place (of course it is!). Ms. McLerran wrote the story with the help of her mother’s childhood manuscripts, the memories of relatives, and with letters and maps from the “city’s” former inhabitants.  This book made us all want to head out to the countryside, and let our girls run free to create a brand new magical world all their own.


Day 135 – A Seed is Sleepy

As part of our May focus on flowers, seeds, and gardening, today we read a fantastic reality-based picture book by Dianna Hutts Aston and Sylvia Long: “A Seed is Sleepy”. Like their collaboration on “An Egg is Quiet”, “A Seed is Sleepy” is a true work of art, blending poetic text with vibrant and detailed watercolor illustrations to introduce younger listeners to the world of seeds – where they come from, their many different shapes and sizes, and the remarkable ways in which they ensure that they will grow into the plants they are meant to become.

sleepyAlmost every page of the book ascribes a human characteristic to seeds, and uses that characteristic to help explain a seed’s journey. It’s an engaging and clever approach. A seed is secretive because it does not reveal itself too quickly, a seed is adventurous because it must strike out on its own in search of a less crowded place to put down roots, and a seed is generous because it gives the baby plant a seed coat to keep it warm, etc. The flowing cursive font and the pictures work together to enhance the poetic feeling of the book. On each page you can also find short paragraphs of additional information, in smaller block lettering, placed between the illustrations – and each of the seeds or plants shown are labeled in the same font for easy identification – not unlike a handwritten and lovingly prepared field guide.

I love how this book introduces children to all the different things that a seed can be, or the different ways they can behave, in such an artistic and engaging way. I also appreciated the little nuggets of information, including an anecdote about the oldest known seed to actually sprout: a date palm seed found in the remains of an ancient palace in Israel. The book is a wonderful combination of fact and art. There is a bit of a magical quality to it as well – which fits with the magical fact that a single seed has everything necessary to grow into a giant tree, all packed inside a tiny seed coat. While the cursive font may be challenging for some younger readers to follow on their own, they should still have fun picking this book up just to examine Ms. Long’s illustrations – I certainly enjoyed looking back over it again as I was writing this review.


Day 129 – You Made Me a Mother

For Mothers’ Day, we read an adorable new book called “You Made Me a Mother”, by Laurenne Sala and illustrated by Robin Preiss Glasser. First published in March of this year, “You Made Me a Mother” is short on text but long on moving imagery. In this sweet picture book, Ms. Sala provides a tear-jerking tribute to the magic that is motherhood, making it a perfect fit for our Mothers’ Day read aloud.

made a mother“You Made Me a Mother” is written in the first person, with a mommy talking to her little one about how much having a child has changed her life for the better. The narrative takes the reader from the excitement and apprehension of pregnancy, to the “big fat love” of a mommy holding her baby for the first time, to a day somewhere in the future when that same little baby will finally be ready to “let go” of her mommy’s hand. Along the way, Ms. Glasser – whose style you may recognize from her work on the Fancy Nancy books – creates wonderfully expressive scenes that fit the text perfectly.

Ms. Sala succeeds in capturing the feelings I feel are most special about motherhood. I loved the mother’s realization that she would spend her life doing things to make her little one happy, and the feeling of magic she experiences when she hears her little on say her name and take her hand. I know both feelings quite intimately – as well as this one: “If I could, I would open my heart, and love would rain down all over you. And you would giggle. And I’d do it all over again. And we would walk hand in hand. Until you let go.”

Even though it has been over 12 years since I first became a mother, every time I look at this book I am lump-in-my-throat reminded of just how overwhelmingly magical becoming a mother truly was/is. Thank you Ms. Sala and Ms. Glasser for expressing my feelings so beautifully and in a way that allows me to easily share them with my children on Mothers’ Day and everyday.


Day 124 – Miss Rumphius

Another day and another wonderful storybook about wildflowers for National Wildflower Week. Barbara Cooney’s timeless classic, “Miss Rumphius”, is a modern day fable that tells the tale of how fields of lupine came to blanket the coast of Maine. Although the protagonist in Ms. Cooney’s book is fictional, like Lady Bird Johnson in yesterday’s storybook, Alice Rumphius seeks to make the world a more beautiful place through the gift of wildflowers. It is an enchanting and inspiring tale, made even more so by Ms. Cooney’s trademark old-timey illustrations which made us wish we could be inside the book with Miss Rumphius.

rumphiusWhen Alice Rumphius was a little girl, she would sit on her grandfather’s knee as he told her of faraway places, and Alice would tell him, “When I grow up, I too will go to faraway places, and when I grow old, I too will live beside the sea.” “That is all very well,” he would tell her, “but there is a third thing you must do…You must do something to make the world more beautiful.”

When she grew older, Alice (“Miss Rumphius” by now) did travel to faraway places – tropical islands, tall mountains, jungles, and deserts – making friends everywhere she went. And, eventually, when her travels were through, she did settle down in a quaint little house by the sea. However, while two out of three might not be bad for some people, it is not enough for Miss Rumphius: she cannot be completely happy until she has succeeded in making the world more beautiful. She is initially at a loss, since the world is “already pretty nice”, what more can she add? Then, one fine spring day she is surprised to discover a patch of lupines that have sprouted from seeds blown from her garden at home…and inspiration strikes! She hikes along the coast spreading lupine seeds wherever she goes and next spring…there are lupines everywhere! At last she has accomplished the most difficult task of all.

We love this story. I have adored Miss Cooney’s illustrations ever since reading Oxcart Man to our oldest daughter when she was still very little, and they are used to great effect in Miss Rumphius. The charming houses of the fishing village, the tall ships docking at the harbor, the fields full of flowers, even the illustrations of Miss Rumphius’ far-flung travels – they all made us wish we were there…wherever “there” was in each picture. We were also inspired by Miss Cooney’s tale to do some wildflower planting of our own. Knowing that this book was coming up, we placed an order for two big bags of lupine seeds…and while I felt as though I may have gone a bit overboard initially, after reading the book I wish I had even more seeds to spread about. I had better get to work, too, if I want to start making the world a more beautiful place.


Day 120 – A Tree is Nice

In honor of Arbor Day on April 29, we read “A Tree is Nice” by Janice May Udry and illustrated by Marc Simont. A lovely cover illustration, and an atypically tall and narrow layout drew us to this book immediately. Inside, the simple but delightful prose from Ms. Udry shares multiple ways in which a tree can be special. The Caldecott Medal-winning illustrations from Mr. Simont picture in enchantingly abstract detail all the wonderfully fun activities described in the text. It’s a combination that makes for a great read-aloud, and it’s an attractive book for inspiring beginning readers.tree is nice

As Ms. Udry reminds us, trees are wonderful for so many reasons: leaves whispering in the breeze or providing soft piles for play in the fall; limbs for climbing and playing pirate ship or for hanging a swing; trunks against which to sit in the shade and rest…even (in some cases) apples for snacking! Perhaps best of all for Arbor Day, if you plant a tree and you tell people about it, they will wish they had one and will plant a tree too!

Mr. Simont’s drawings, alternating vibrant color (especially in fall) with black and white, look sort of like rough sketches – which adds to the charm. In fact, as a veteran doodler, the drawings looked to me like exactly the sort of simple but compelling work that might inspire a budding artist to pull out their own sketch book and go to work. We loved all the life and activity taking place around the trees, and I was particularly fond of the tree growing from the rocks by the sea; it made me wish I were inside the book myself.

All in all, this is a beautiful little book about subjects we love – trees and playing outside. I believe now I will step out and have a go on the swing hanging from the live oak in our own front yard!


Day 115 – Swan: The Life and Dance of Anna Pavlova

For April 24, the beginning of National Dance Week, we read a beautiful book about one of the most famous prima ballerinas of all time: “Swan – The Life and Dance of Anna Pavlova” by Laurel Snyder and illustrated by Julie Morstad. With poetic prose and graceful illustrations, “Swan” is less a traditional biography and more of an enchanting ode to Ms. Pavlova’s love of ballet, and to her burning desire to share that love with the world. Ms. Snyder and Ms. Morstad combine words and pictures to create a true work of art befitting of the book’s subject matter.swan

We are first introduced to Anna as her mother is whisking her off on a snow-covered evening to see the ballet, and that is where we see Anna fall in love. As the dancers perform, Anna’s feet “wake up” and “there is a song, suddenly, inside her.” From that point forward, Anna can not stop dancing. Eventually she begins formal training, and when she finally sets foot on a stage “Anna becomes a glimmer, a grace. Everyone feels it…the room holds its breath.” We are told that Anna shouldn’t be this good, her legs are too long and her feet are all wrong, but “Anna was born for this.”

Anna’s career takes off, she performs for years to adoring crowds, and she is wined and dined by royalty, but there is still something missing. Anna knows that “somewhere, there are people who haven’t heard the music,” so she sets out to “feed (the world) beauty.” She travels the globe performing in venues from bull rings to rickety old dance halls…and “when people throw flowers, Anna tosses them back. It’s enough just to dance.” Sadly, on one of her many trips she is caught out in the snow and catches a chill…”a rattle she can’t shake,”…and try as she might, she can not spin away.
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The poetry of Ms. Snyder’s writing paints a beautiful impressionistic picture that hints at specifics of Anna’s life but focuses more on providing a window to her soul. That felt right to us. There is a very helpful Author’s Note at the end that does fill in some of the details, and I highly recommend it. For a Philistine like myself – previously unfamiliar with Ms. Pavlova – it was fascinating to read about how her oddly-shaped feet inspired her to invent her own ballet shoes (shoes which provided the template for the shoes that ballet dancers use today) and how she took what had been an art form strictly to be performed for the wealthy and shared it with everyone, even dancing on the backs of elephants. I also read elsewhere that the title refers to the dance for which she was most known, “The Dying Swan”, which was choreographed just for her in 1905…and then performed by her all around the world.
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I would be remiss if I did not talk about Ms. Morstad’s artwork, which is just as important a piece of the puzzle in “Swan” as the writing. We are big fans of Ms. Morstad’s work (see “This is Sadie” and “When Green Becomes Tomatoes”), and her elegant style is tailor-made for Ms. Pavlova’s story. I particularly enjoy how she subtly captures Anna’s awe upon seeing her first ballet, and the graceful, flowing way that she shows Anna moving through every page thereafter.


Day 112 – This is Sadie

Sadie is a little girl with a big imagination whose days are never long enough for all her adventures, and “This is Sadie” by Sara O’Leary is her story. The book is clever and exuberant, and Ms. O’Leary’s characterization of the imaginative and playful little Sadie (named after her own grandmother) rang true for us. Julie Morstad’s brilliant illustrations are a perfect fit, enhancing the feeling of childlike, carefree joy that Sadie exudes.

For Sadie, a big cardboard box in her room is really a tall ship with which she ventures out on great journeys of exploration. Through the day she pretends to be the Mad Hatter hosting tea, a boy raised by wolves, a mermaid, or a hero in a fairy tale. She climbs trees to chat with birds, uses her wings (because “of course” she has wings) to fly high in the sky before coming back home. Sadie can create amazing things out of all kinds of pedestrian things … boats out of boxes, and castles out of cushions – she’s got that kind of an imagination. More than things, however, she likes stories “because you can make them from nothing at all.”sadie

This is another book that I have been looking forward to reading simply because of the cover – the picture of the little girl with a fox mask just looks too verdant and playful to pass up. (I did think it was interesting – as an aside – that when you pull the dust jacket off, the picture of Sadie on the cover loses her mask). We found a lot to enjoy in this darling book. Our oldest daughter liked the fact that Sadie chooses to be the hero in her fairy tale. I enjoyed the way in which Sadie “cleans” her room by shoving everything under the bed, or acknowledges that “old people need a lot of sleep”…while hammering and listening to records in her room early in the morning. In both cases, actually, the humor is played up because what she is really doing in the picture is not referenced in the text… This goes back to my comment above that Ms. O’Leary’s characterization of an imaginative little girl rings true; it feels as if the words on the page are exactly what Sadie is thinking in that picture. Our consensus favorite scene however, was when Sadie is playing in the pool, spending a “perfect day” with friends…some of whom live on her street and some of whom live in the pages of books.

I am very happy to have this book as part of our collection and look forward to reading it again (and again!). It’s the kind of book that makes me smile, because of the little precocious and creative girl Sadie is in the book, and because of the way in which facets of Sadie’s personality remind me of our own little (and not so little) girls.

Day 109 – Oh No!

This afternoon we were thrilled to be able to sit in on another live author event at Read Aloud Revival – this time with author Candace Fleming. In her honor this afternoon we read “Oh, No!”, an infectious, rhythmic read-aloud experience that has been a favorite with our youngest ever since we checked it out of the library several weeks ago. I was hooked on this one from the very first “Ribbit-oops” of the tree frog falling into a deep, deep hole. The jaunty cadence, the repetition, the rhyming, and Eric Rohmann’s rich and humorous illustrations make this an instant read-aloud classic – in my humble opinion.oh no

Following the tree frog into the deep, deep hole we meet a squeaky mouse (pippa-eek), a lethargic loris (sooo-slooow), a clever sunbear, and a merry monkey. Oh No! All the while they are being watched by a ravenous and patient tiger who has been waiting his turn to “help” the trapped animals out of their predicament. Oh No! However, there is one more animal coming that the tiger did not count on…turnabout is fair play, as they say…Oh No!

Just flipping through the book as I write this review, I wish we could all sit down and read it aloud again. It’s thoroughly addictive – both the words and the pictures. I’m honestly not sure which I like better. The repetition and the rhyming are also great for beginning readers. I highly recommend this Fleming-Rohmann collaboration. It’s an honest-to-goodness five-star read-aloud treat!

While we didn’t hear a lot from Ms. Fleming regarding “Oh, No!” on the recent online event, we did learn that the illustrator – Mr. Rohman – is Ms. Fleming’s husband. You wouldn’t know it from their brief bios on the inside of the dust jacket, although (curiously) they both live in Oak Park, Illinois…so I guess you could “do the math”. It seems like a pretty good deal as an author to have your own Caldecott Medal-winning illustrator right there in the same house…even if Mr. Rohman has only illustrated a few of Ms. Fleming’s books. Ms. Fleming provided what I thought were some fascinating insights on how she thinks about the author-illustrator dynamic. Ms. Fleming has been writing long enough that she does actually get some say in who will be chosen to do the artwork for her books, unlike most authors. However, she has also learned to get out of the illustrator’s way once he or she has been selected: she believes it is the illustrator’s job to decide how to tell the story in pictures, and she doesn’t even like to provide feedback to her husband when he is working on one of her books. It sounds like she is typically very happy with the results, too. I particularly enjoyed hearing her description of what it’s like to see the final version of her books for the first time; regardless how she might have imagined the characters when she was writing, she opens up the book to see the pictures and thinks (and I’m paraphrasing): Of course! THAT is what they look like! I thought that was a neat way to think about a process that might seem impersonal to some.


Day 108 – Zen Ties

In honor of Haiku Day on the 17th of April, we read a fantastic book: “Zen Ties” by John Muth. Sprinkled with clever plays on words, beautiful watercolor images, and some insightful and well-placed Haiku, “Zen Ties” is a sweet and gently humorous book about compassion and friendship.Zen ties

The story reintroduces giant-panda Zen master Stillwater and his three friends Addy, Michael and Karl, who originally appeared in Mr. Muth’s Caldecott Honor book “Zen Shorts”. “Zen Ties” also introduces us to Stillwater’s taciturn yet poetic nephew Koo, who arrives at the train station at the beginning of the book. “Hi, Koo” says Stillwater in greeting – foreshadowing the charming bits of poetry that Mr. Muth, through Koo, will insert periodically throughout the story.

It’s summer time in “Zen Ties”, the weather is spectacular, and there is fun to be had playing at the park with Stillwater, Koo, and the children. Michael, however, is troubled; he is nervous about an upcoming spelling bee, and he is afraid his nerves are going to keep him from doing well. Stillwater suggests that the children come with him to bring food for his ailing friend Miss Whitaker. The children are skeptical; to them Miss Whitaker is the angry old lady on their street who is always yelling at them to get out from in front of her house. However, despite Miss Whitaker’s initial gruffness and her blue mood (she appears to be lonely and tired), the visit goes rather well; the children clean around the house and spend time painting pictures for Miss Whitaker. Stillwater suggests that Michael might like to come back the next day. When they return on the morrow, Stillwater explains that Miss Whitaker used to teach English and might be able to help Michael prepare for his spelling bee – which she does, gladly.

Eventually, the children and Miss Whitaker become fast friends, visiting frequently and enjoying apple tea together. Oh, and about that spelling bee: Michael makes it through all the way to the end and has a ribbon to share with Miss Whitaker. When Stillwater walks Koo to the train station at the end of the book, offering to dispose of his tea cup for him, Koo shakes his head:

“Nearing my visit’s end,

summer now tastes of apple tea

I will keep my cup”

I adore this book. I’m not really even sure where to start. The book is very well written – as noted below, Mr. Muth takes care to say what he has to say in the most efficient manner possible – and he manages to work in some humor in the process: “What would you do if you were in a spelling bee?” Michael asks Stillwater…”I would spell words,” he answers. Stillwater’s quiet confidence is comforting as well; you know that if you stick with him, everything is going to work out just right. Mr. Muth’s illustrations are captivating – expressive and colorful – adding heart to the story. My favorite picture was of Miss Whitaker at home alone in the evening after the children’s first visit; she is sitting in the dark peering through a magnifying glass to get a better look at the paintings the children left behind. The connection between Miss Whitaker and the children by the end of the book is inspiring; it always makes me choke up a little when Karl tells Stillwater that Miss Whitaker had been yelling at them just that morning. Stillwater asks “Why are you smiling?” and Karl says, “She was telling us to get out of the street and play in her yard”. Most of all, however, I love the sense of caring and community that shines through in this story.

About the Haiku – I did notice that Koo’s poetic interjections are not truly Haiku in the way Americans know it – with three lines of 5, 7 and 5 syllables. When I first read this book, I thought it was odd to see the obvious play on words with Koo’s name, but not see any true Haiku…as I knew it. In fact, if you read Mr. Muth’s author note (well worth the time, by the way), he makes that point that the rigid 5/7/5 structure is actually an attempt in English to “create an analog with the Japanese language”. Rather than adhering to those particular numbers of syllables, Mr. Muth tries to “have the discipline to say what (he wants) said in the fewest words. It doesn’t always work out to be seventeen syllables”, an interesting lesson in and of itself.


Day 107 – How Does My Garden Grow?

Today, in keeping with one of our monthly themes, we read another spectacular Gerda Muller book: “How Does My Garden Grow?” The book is crammed full of information about gardening, with language that is easily accessible to younger listeners. Ms. Muller (as she always does) decorates the pages with her wonderfully colorful, expressive, and comforting images. In this particular book we enjoyed the illustrations of a family working together to plant, tend, and harvest crops on the farm.garden

Sophie is a city girl, but this summer she is going to stay with her grandparents on their farm in the French countryside, where she is looking forward to doing all kinds of fun things in the garden! Over the summer Sophie learns about planting seeds, mulching, composting, and caring for the vegetables in the garden.  She learns about the impact – both positive and negative – that birds, insects, worms, burrowing mammals, and even bats (!) can have for plants on the farm. Perhaps most importantly, she gains an appreciation for the mouth-watering flavors and amazing varieties of fresh fruits and vegetables that can be grown on the farm. Even when the summer ends and she must go back to school, Sophie keeps coming back through fall and winter to visit and help around the farm. At the end of the year, Sophie is sad to be packing up all the gardening equipment for the winter, but her grandfather has a surprise present for her to help her feel better when spring rolls around: a package full of herb and vegetable seeds to start a garden in the big city!

I have had my eye on this book ever since it was placed in our April basket because of the beautiful cover image of Sophie watering plants plants in the garden – surrounded by artichokes, carrots, beets, and a towering tomato plant. Ms. Muller does an excellent job, as we have seen her do in other books, of telling a compelling story that also happens to be a great learning experience. I love the emphasis on family, on spending time outdoors, and on enjoying fresh home-grown produce. The large format of the book really does Ms. Muller’s illustrations justice – it is a stunning overall production and a joy to flip through again and again.