I Love It When An Illustrator Surprises Me

h1 December 16th, 2010 by jules


(Click to super-size spread. No. Really. You must. It’s gorgeous.)

I ask you, O Best Beloved 7-Imp Readers: Are you following the Top 20 Children’s Books of 2010 this week over at 100 Scope Notes, brought to us by two intrepid school librarians (with most excellent taste, I might add, not to mention a keen eye for kickin’ children’s lit), Travis Jonker and John Schumacher? It begins here, and you may have just heard me cheering loudly over today’s post, numbers 5 to 1. I can enthusiastically get behind the picture book titles on that short list.

Today I offer up no Best-Of list of my own. I figure lots of really smart bloggers, such as Travis, are out there with many of those lists in this twilight of 2010, but I do want to highlight a picture book title released by Candlewick in November that makes the Illustration Junkie in me happy. (Yes, I’m consumed by this addiction, though I don’t do things like pore over illustrations in lieu of feeding my children. Most of the time they get fed, though—after a while without a well-executed picture book—I do get a bit twitchy.)

Anyone remember this post from July of this year? That was illustrator Kevin Waldron (originally from Ireland, studied illustration in London, now living in New York, and very much likes tea and cake, as stated at his site), his picture book debut in a title he also penned. As I wrote in that post, Mr. Peek and the Misunderstanding at the Zoo (published by Templar, a Candlewick imprint) was released in May (the first U.S. edition) and it very much had a ’60s, sort of Inspector Clouseau vibe. Kirkus described Waldron’s digitally-created art as “a delightful cross between Calef Brown and J. Otto Seibold.”


“‘Oh, woe is me! You’re getting very fat,’ Mr. Peek says to himself, noticing the bulge in his jacket. The hippo overhears and thinks the remark is intended for her!”
(Click to enlarge spread.)

Well, in his new illustrated title (also the first U.S. edition), written by the great Michael Rosen, Tiny Little Fly, Waldron shakes things up with an altogether different style.

You really must hold this book in your hands. Waldron’s illustrations, rendered in pencil and painted in gouache (and digitally enhanced), are big and bold and will wake you right up. This is the jaunty, rhyming tale of Tiny Little Fly, who pesters a great big elephant, a great big hippo, and the great big tiger you see in the spread opening this post. Each creature does its best to shoo away the fly—with lots of invigorating snatching, swooping, tramping, crushing, squashing, and rolling—but each time the resourceful fly gets away. Are you thinking what I’m thinking? Yes, the tinier listeners in your lap or listening at your story time will find this one super special empowering, the notion of the small guy outwitting the massive ones. As Mary Harris Russell points out in the Chicago Tribune, Rosen and Waldron reverse the more conventional association of size and power in the animal kingdom.


(Click to enlarge spread.)

And, speaking of story times, Rosen’s text in this one is simply fun to read aloud, a text that almost sings and certainly invites younger readers to join in the repeated refrain of “My, oh my, Tiny Little Fly!” (and elsewhere). Waldron’s sprawling spreads are simply gorgeous, not to mention immediate and eye-opening, given how he places the reader inches away from these ginormous creatures and places us right smack dab in the middle of the action (even, at one point, right at the elephant’s feet). Waldron doesn’t even think for one second about holding back in terms of perspective. You want to reach out and touch these jungle creatures in these highly textured illustrations. And I find there’s a very subtle humor to his work. In this particular case, even the line he uses to depict the determined fly’s movement is funny to me. Eventually, the animals get so flustered by Tiny Little Fly that they require a bold fold-out spread, just to make room for their bumbling attempts to capture the insect. Often, in picture books, you see superfluous use of such a technique and are left yawning, unimpressed. But this fold-out moment is exactly what should happen at this point in the tale and will make you ooh and aah, indeed. (Currently, the home page of Kevin’s site features some art from the book, as well as this wonderful fold-out-spread moment.)

As my remarkably uncreative post title tells you, I love it when an illustrator surprises readers. This is one thing I love about the work of contemporary illustrator David Ezra Stein (who visited me with quiche in 2008): He switches up his style just enough with each new picture book to surprise you, yet you still know it’s the inimitable Stein. (I still think a Caldecott is in that man’s future. Think this could be his year? Who knows, but I digress.) So, yes, I did a double-take when I saw this new illustrated title from Waldron, given the very different vibe of Mr. Peek, but it’s a good kind of surprise. And I very much look forward to what Waldron brings us next.

* * * * * * *

TINY LITTLE FLY. Text copyright © 2010 Michael Rosen. Illustrations copyright © 2010 Kevin Waldron. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA on behalf of Walker Books, London.

MR. PEEK AND THE MISUNDERSTANDING AT THE ZOO. Copyright © 2008 Kevin Waldron. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA.

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11 comments to “I Love It When An Illustrator Surprises Me”

  1. Thanks for recommending Tiny Little Fly. I just called Anderson’s Bookshop and ordered it. :) -John


  2. Love TINY LITTLE FLY, especially the tiger with its green eyes and orange and black and white. It reminds me of a papier mache tiger my grandmother used to have in her apartment. She picked it up on her travels (in Asia somewhere), and its head was suspended on a hook so it bobbed around and terrified me whenever I visited. Makes me want to dig out my paints…


  3. This looks marvelous!


  4. Jules, this looks like a wonderfully written and designed book with wonderful illustrations by Kevin Waldron, a hard-working and inspired illustrator. My only complaint is that his work is inspired by very clear antecedents and I cringe when I see it published and praised as fresh or original. I know, we all are standing on the shoulders of giants!
    Maybe if he dialed back the faux old and tattered paper texture style I’d be a little more sympathetic. Actually, illustrators respond to very complex forces as they figure out how to get their work to market and make a living. So, perhaps instead, my querulous and cranky comment here is aimed more to the publishers: What’s with the tattered and retrograde that we find so charming and safe? Real books have to get loved to look this way.


  5. Rob, interesting. I guess that’s a question for a publisher to weigh in on.

    When I wrote that he shakes things up with a different style for this book, I meant within the context of his own career — meaning, the style for Mr. Peek is so different from this new title. Perhaps I wasn’t clear. While I like the book a lot, I’m not asserting that he necessarily breaks any new ground with it, illustration-wise (with regard, that is, to your “fresh and original” comment).

    Is your question to publishers specifically about the look of the illustrations — when you say “tattered” and “retrograde,” that is? Just trying to get clear on your question. Thanks for your food-for-thought.


  6. Oh Jules, it IS a good book and I share your delight when an illustrator pulls a rabbit out of their hat and surprises us. I regularly depend on this freedom to keep myself engaged in illustration: I’ll do whatever to keep the ball rolling and the story & characters alive. I often think of Paul Zelinsky in this regard.

    My question really was for a publisher or designer to ponder. And it’s really a larger issue that verges on philosophy: We artists use computers in some way to make or process our illustrations. It’s the workflow but I find it interesting that, as a culture, with the thousands of dollars of technology humming away at our fingertips, that artists (and their patrons) value, more and more, digitally created art that mimics decidedly lo-fi, pre-digital stylistic conventions. And with Waldron’s illustrations, this extends to the condition of the paper itself.

    My own little theory, is that we live in scary times (wars, oil spills, economic collapse, facebook, etc.) and that this “look” is basically a nostalgic decision that is meant to appeal to a certain demographic.

    OK, I’m off my soapbox; time to ponder my “kicks!’.


  7. One more thing: Candlewick is one of the absolute best American publishers I know. Their lists are great and always surprise me. So really, my “gripe” is really more of a musing on why are things the way they are.
    Thanks for letting me carry on :-D


  8. Thanks for the shout out! Also, thanks for highlighting a few books that seemed to go under the radar a bit this year. Fun to read, as always.


  9. I hear ya, Rob. I understand. Good food-for-thought, as I said. I’m not really qualified to weigh in. Maybe publisher-type folks will (though I suppose our timing is off — one week before Christmas is probably not the most opportune time!)

    Happy holidays to you and everyone else who visited this post…


  10. Thank you so much for sharing this book. Interesting thread on the retro-style illustration. Yes, it does pay tribute to that classic Golden Books art style of the 50/60s…but there is still something very original about it….the blurring and scratching adds a unique touch. The technique of starting with gouache and then digitally enhancing is interesting. I really want to get this book to take a closer look.


  11. Thanks, Don. Let me know what you think after you see it!


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