Illustration Matters: Friendship and Ferocity
with Ceccoli and Karas

h1 March 6th, 2008 by jules

So, I’m not so sure about this “Illustration Matters” title for this new series of sorts I’m trying out, but since I have no brilliant replacement for it, I’ll forge ahead . . .

Now, just feast your eyes on this lovely piece of art work (used with permisson from Random House) from illustrator Nicoletta Ceccoli:

This is from The Girl in the Castle Inside the Museum by Kate Bernheimer, released last month from Schwartz & Wade Books. This is Bernheimer’s first children’s book. She’s the Editor of the literary journal, Fairy Tale Review (really, how great is that and why haven’t I heard of it before? If other bloggers have talked about it, well, I’ve missed it, what with me being perpetually behind on my blog-reading, it seems. Anyway, maybe I’ll talk a bit more about this fabulous publication on Poetry Friday). In this profile of her at, she talks about reading children’s books to her daughter and getting discouraged. She also talks about how writing one was the hardest thing she’s ever done, thereby helping fight the prevalent notion that writing for kids must be easy — “I wanted it to be really accessible, almost effortless, to the reader; to get it to feel that way took a lot of effort. I didn’t want it to talk down to the child at all, and I didn’t want it to talk up to the adult either . . . I didn’t want any winks to the adult.” I, for one, am glad she tried her own hand at one. It’s a beguiling thing, this book. “I wanted it to be a book that you might read as a child and remember as an adult,” she said in the aforementioned feature. I think she might have succeeded.

Being the “fairy tale expert” she is, as the feature put it, it’s not surprising that the book greets us with a “once upon a time . . .” There once was a girl who lived in a castle in a museum. In the first spread, Ceccoli gives us a close-up, aerial view of this castle, then zooming out a bit to a museum room (evidently, the Museum of Strange and Wondrous Random Things). The girl in the castle in the museum, we clearly see now, is inside a display, as you can see in the above spread. Children visit, straining their eyes to see the fabled girl in the castle. With a jolting — yet welcoming and effective — immediacy, Bernheimer then directly addresses the reader: “There, through that window, right there. Do you see her?” And, even though her castle home is beautiful and exotic (and “full of music and grace”), she is lonely. She dreams at night in her tower in her castle inside the museum. “And {w}hat does she dream of . . . ?” She dreams of visitors — only to wake to further loneliness.

The girl, though, suddenly has an idea, this very brainstorm serving as the book’s biggest charm: She hangs a frame next to her bed, and it’s solely for the child reader to put to use. Paste an image of yourself there, the text suggests, so that the girl will never have to be lonely again (that alone will probably discourage many librarians from purchasing it, which is unfortunate, since it’s one handsome book). “Now in her room and in her dreams, inside the castle inside the museum, inside this book you hold in your hands, you keep her company in a magical world. Do you see her? She sees you.” The End.

In the wrong hands, this would be creepy, no? (The review over at Strollerderby has the post title of “Creepy in a Good Way”). But Bernheimer infuses it with a magical whimsy (there, I said “whimsy,” though I think it’s so over-used in children’s-book reviewing that it almost loses its meaning anymore). And Ceccoli’s illustrations — which will very much please fans of the ethereal, the dream-like, the haunting, the fantastical — are spellbinding. As Gwynne Watkins at Strollerderby put it, “there’s a dark side to {Ceccoli’s} whimsy, a Roald Dahl/Neil Gaiman/Tim Burton side that kids and adults alike are drawn towards.” Watkins adds,

Ceccoli creates a fantasy museum of Escher-like labyrinths, clockwork birds, Victorian doll-fairies, and ephemera floating through the air like dust mites. The story is open-ended and mysterious: we never learn how the girl came to live in the museum, only that she’s lonely and needs the reader’s friendship. If the reader is a child who’s spellbound by detailed illustrations, he won’t mind returning her feelings.

* * * * * * *

Now, switching gears big-time, look! It’s the fearsome, formidable BIG BAD BUNNY — sent to us from G. Brian Karas.

Many thanks to Brian for indulging my request to share one of these illustrations (Remember now, the “G” stands for “Ginormously” talented.) Anyone else remember when he stopped by 7-Imp last August and shared with us the cover for Big Bad Bunny by Franny Billingsley and just released last month by Atheneum/Richard Jackson Books? Well, I stood in a bookstore aisle last week and read it and fell in love with it. However, since for some INSANE reason I didn’t actually purchase it (I blame a momentary lapse of reason, and I’ll have to remedy this), I’ve got only my memory to go on here when telling you about it. Which may not be much, what with my mind all cluttered (that’s what young children do to one’s brain). Let’s start with the book description then, borrowed straight from the publisher:

“At home,
in the Mouse House,
Baby Boo-Boo gets no respect.

Just look at her name:
Baby Boo-Boo.

She’s no baby!

The word drives her wild in a big, bad way.

And here’s Mama Mouse calling, always calling after her,

‘Baby! Where are you, Baby?’

It’s humiliating.
Mice (and other small persons)
will understand what
Big Bad Boo-Boo does.

It’s quite naughty.”

And what this little mouse, dressed as a Big Bad Bunny, does is runs away from home. Billingsley, though, cleverly opens the book by making us think that Big Bad Bunny is a loathsome, terrifying creature of the forest — and one who has no fear (“Big Bad Bunny can go anywhere.”) See the above illustration and the terrifying teeth and claws and oh the mighty power of this creature? Yeah, that. These images, as you can see, are juxtaposed with images of what looks like a dainty mama mouse at home. Turns out, as the narrative progresses, she’s not as timid as she seems (and she “will go anywhere for Baby Boo-Boo”). And “she pursues and tames the ferocious Big Bad Bunny – with no loss of face on her child’s part,” as the Publishers Weekly review wrote, thus capturing the book’s related themes of child-wanting-independence yet mama-needing-to-nurture (or, as PW put it, “{Billingsley and Karas} grant Baby Boo-Boo and her alter ego the right to act out, at the same time assuring readers that there will always be a place for them at home”). Karas, with spot-on pacing, lots of drama, and subtle humor, allows time for the reader to be surprised by the changing perspective from ferocious bunny / fragile mama to loving matriarch in control / child needing parenting. And just one femtosecond of condescension to the child reader would ruin this book, but both author and illustrator never let that happen.

There are way too many saccharine-sweet I’ll-love-you-forever-to-the-moon-and-back-and-throw-you-up-in-the-air-or-whatever-and-fish-for-you-in-a-stream tales from parent to child. Choose this child-centered one over those any day. Boo-Boo’s just gotta strike out on her own, but your mother will go anywhere for you. And, if she’s good, she won’t humiliate you in the process.

Highly recommended. Now, back to the bookstore I go.

{And, speaking of Franny Billingsley, I still want to read this book one day. Perhaps I’ll pick that up, too.}

13 comments to “Illustration Matters: Friendship and Ferocity
with Ceccoli and Karas”

  1. I didn’t think “Girl in the Castle…” was creepy at all! It never occured to me until reading this that it could be taken that way. I know that my son loved it which is unusual for him lately with a book that is low on action. I just fell really really hard for it – and I’m not surprised to read that the author is a fairy tale expert; it has that sort of feel to it.

    I’m reviewing it in Eclectica Magazine next month; it’s one of the best picture books I’ve come across in a while.

  2. I look at the ethereal drawings, and yet I see… texture. It’s not all airy fairy, it’s got this intense detail — so very beautiful. And thank you for summarizing the text; it’s not available here yet.

    I would have read this book nightly and opened the book and talked the the girl in the castle if I was a kid. ‘Beguiling’ is the right word.

  3. Colleen, OH YEAH, I have *you* to thank for telling me about it in the first place. So, a belated thanks. I would have eventually seen it, but I appreciate your you-will-love-this heads-up.

    And, yes, it’s really beautiful. I think I would have been entranced as a child, too. I hope Bernheimer makes more children’s books. And I’m glad she’s joining the fight against the picture-books-are-easy-to-write perception. I had to try to write one for a grad course once that I took under Jack Gantos, and she’s right about it being the hardest thing I’ve ever had to write.

    TadMack, you’re right about the texture to the art work. Did you go see Nicoletta’s web site? OH MY! I immediately emailed to see if we can feature her one Sunday, but I don’t know if she understands / reads English. Let’s hope so!

  4. And, you know, for people who like to know this stuff (which I always include, but it TOTALLY slipped my mind in this post) — Ceccoli’s illustrations are rendered in acrylic paint, clay models (!), photography, and digital media.

    Karas uses his wonderful mixed-media approach. I meant to include this from the PW review: “Karas (Muncha! Muncha! Muncha!) strategically deploys mixed-media to render the id-gone-wild scenes with comic abandon, often ramping up the mouse’s Sturm und Drang so that it energizes an entire spread. The slyly delicate portraits of Mama Mouse, meanwhile, both articulate and defuse the fear that a parent may wither in the face of a child’s emotional turmoil. Together, Karas and Billingsley walk the fine line between empathy and comedy.”

    “Id gone wild.” I love it.

    That’s what happens when you’re writing a post late at night when you should perhaps be sleeping. You forget stuff.

  5. That artwork is beautiful, but what a shame about the “put something here” – why did Random house let that go by?

  6. Jen, I’m not sure what you mean, but that may be because I explained it poorly. Part of the narrative itself is that the girl, who is lonely, wouldn’t be lonely again if the reader’s pic were hanging in the empty frame by her bed (I can’t include the exact wording now, ’cause I currently don’t have the book with me). What I meant about library copies is that that part of the story may discourage librarians from buying it (will the first kid who gets the book paste his or her own pic in there, thereby ruining it for the next reader?), but who knows.

    It’s very well-done. So, I’m not sure what you mean, but — again — I might have done a poor job of explaining it. Kelly Herold reviewed this title as well. Perhaps she explains it better. 🙂

    Thanks for stopping by!

  7. I LOVE these illustrations so so much!

  8. LOVE the illustrations for the Girl in the Castle in the Museum. I thought the artwork looked familiar, and it’s probably from Horns and Wrinkles.

  9. Oh, my gosh, could that art be any more beautiful? A feast for the eyes. Thanks for sharing!

  10. The illustrations are luminous. I can’t wait to find a copy. This looks like one to linger over.

  11. […] The Girl in the Castle Inside the Museum (Schwartz & Wade, February ‘08). That review is here. I was so taken with Ceccoli’s illustrations in this title—and then I visited her […]

  12. […] G. Brian Karas in March […]

  13. […] Recognizable Style Reuse of images or image features is not the province of stock photography alone. Even illustrators reuse elements of their work. The faces on these three book covers (all by Nicoletta Ceccioli) are almost identical. I thought maybe that was just a facial pose/image that this illustrator always used, but I looked through the books she showcases on her website  and they don’t all have quite the same similarity – though her style is easy to spot. Before I consciously realized that these were all done by the same illustrator, I kept mistaking one for the other – The Joy of Spooking: Fiendish Deeds by P. J. Bracegirdle (McElderry 2008) and The Remarkable & Very True Story of Lucy & Snowcap by H. M. Bouwman (Cavendish 2008) anyway. The Girl in the Castle Inside the Museum by Kate Bernheimer (Schwartz & Wade 2008) is a picture book, so it’s harder to mix it up with the other two. Fiendish Deeds: As eleven-year-old Joy Wells, proud resident of the nearly-abandoned town of Spooking, tries to stop construction of a water park in a bog she believes is home to a monster and the setting of her favorite horror story, a man with his own mysterious connection to Spooking will do anything to stop her. Age 8-12. Reviews: 1, 2, 3, 4. Lucy & Snowcap: In 1788, thirteen years after English convicts are shipwrecked on the magical islands of Tathenland, two twelve-year-old girls, one a native Colay, the other the child-governor of the English, set out on a journey to stop the treachery from which both peoples are suffering. Age 10+. Reviews: 1, 2, 3. Girl in the Castle: Children come to visit a little girl who lives all alone inside a castle that is housed inside of a museum. Age [no one seems to agree on this]. Reviews: 1, 2, 3, 4. […]

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