Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Behind the Books: A is for Art

Just as the English alphabet wouldn’t be complete without the letter “a,” picture books just wouldn’t be the same without artwork. Most of the time, art consists of beautiful drawings or painted illustrations. But some great books are illustrated with photos.

There are many differences between a picture book and an early reader, but one of the most important is the role of the art. In an early reader, the art supports the text. It shows the action of the story so that if a struggling reader stumbles over a word, he or she can look to the art for clues. Picture book art is very different. It adds a whole new layer to the story, sometimes introducing subplots. Neither the art nor the words can stand on its own. Both elements contribute equally to the storytelling.

The role of art in nonfiction and fiction picture books is no different. The art brings the story to life, and often enhances and expands upon the written words. Many books accomplish this deftly, but today I’m going to discuss two of my favorite recent examples of imaginative illustration techniques that make the books truly special.

Redwoods by Jason Chin
 Jason Chin and I have something in common. We both read The Wild Trees by Richard Preston, loved it, and wanted to bring the beauty and wonder of redwood forests to life for young readers. But while I wracked my brain for creative ways to do this, Jason Chin had his light bulb moment and sat down to get the job done. The result is his amazing book, Redwoods.


The text is clear and straightforward and full of wonderfully detailed information about the trees and the microhabitats they support. But the art holds the magic.

The illustrations “show” what the boy reading a book about the trees is imagining. Though we start out in a New York City, we—along with the boy in the book—are transported into the forest where climbing gear instantly appears, allowing us to scale the giant trees and take a look around.

It’s not often that I encounter a book that shares fascinating science content and simultaneously promotes curiosity and fosters imagination, but this book does it all.

The Day-Glo Brothers by Chris Barton (illus. by Tony Persani)
Like Redwoods, the text in this book is clear and simple—just right for the picture book crowd. It tells the story of two brothers that worked hard for many years to create a new kind of paint that is now used in all kinds of ways. The story is great, but the storytelling is even better and that’s because the art adds so much.

In the beginning of the book, the fun, stylized art is black and white, but as the brothers make progress, the artist introduced muted colors.

The intensity of the colors grows and grows until it reaches a crescendo at the climax—when the brothers see their day-glo paints brightly and lusciously displayed on a roadside billboard. Just fantastic! Readers can’t help but cheer as the brothers realize their dream.

Can you think of other nonfiction picture books with imaginative illustrations that add a whole new dimension to the presentation?

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