“You can start having strange thoughts in trees”;
Or, Curiously Good Books from Around the World

h1 October 13th, 2011 by jules

“Curiously good books from around the world,” I should state right off the bat, is the slogan of sorts from Gecko Press, a New Zealand-based publisher of English versions of award-winning international children’s books. (Their books are distributed here by Lerner Publishing.) I freely lifted their words, because precisely what I’m doing here at 7-Imp today is taking a look at some curiously good books from around the globe—from various publishers, Gecko Press and beyond—that have been imported here. The image opening this post is from French illustrator and artist Laëtitia Devernay’s The Conductor, but more on that below.

One of the reasons I love to keep my eye on what picture book creators on the other side of the world are doing is because it’s often wildly different from the picture books we see here in the States. Many of the books you’ll see below, for one, tackle some pretty heavy subject matter (death, conformity, oppression), and while we have picture books like that here in the U.S., let’s face it: We don’t see them often. At least we don’t see it done in the same way as some of these international artists and illustrators, though I suppose it could be argued that at least one of the titles below isn’t necessarily a book for children. (If anyone wants to discuss that, I’m game!)

Let’s get right to it. There are quite a few titles to highlight below and lots of art to show. Enjoy.

* * * * * * *

Well, I opened with Laëtitia Devernay’s The Conductor, so let’s take a look at some more of the illustrations from it.

This picture book was first published in Switzerland in 2010, and Chronicle Books here in the States released a U.S. edition in September. Gorgeous thing, this book. In a tall, slim volume which could serve as a case study in line for illustration students, we are presented a wordless adventure involving a conductor, dressed to the nines, in a forest. The illustration opening this post is one of the first few spreads in the book, our master of music pondering the trees before him.

He then climbs a tree, spreads his arms, and gets right to work, creating music out of nature. Leaves that resemble graceful birds flee from the trees and soar into the air. The conductor, giving his attention to every tree around him, releases all the foliage, forging an often Escher-like symphony in the skies and eventually leaving the trees bare of any green. After bowing, he descends the tree, the leaves flying back to their homes.

The conductor then plants a seed, and growing from the ground is a new piece of life with “leaves” very much resembling the sort of bird that came to life after the leaves from the various trees merged in the air.

Oh gracious, it’s difficult to describe, so let me just show you some art from it! Better yet, perhaps you can find your own copy, by hook or by crook, and come back and tell me what you think of it.

You can see more art from the book at this link, as well as mention of the fact that it won the Bologna Ragazzi Opera Prima children’s book award, though I’m not sure when. I’m assuming within the past year or two. Also at that link is text that I can only assume is from the award folks, describing why they like the book, why they see it as a children’s book, and why they awarded it such an honor.

* * * * * * *

I’m really rather in love with the artwork from this book, Songs from the Baobab: African Lullabies & Nursery Rhymes (The Secret Mountain, October 2011), first published in France in 2002. As you can see, it’s a multi-media offering: A book, along with a CD — and the CD comes with a printable PDF file of song lyrics, translations, illustrations, and notes.

Now, it just so happens I’m a fan of world lullabies, but that’s not the kind of thing I typically cover at 7-Imp. I will say that it’s exquisite music, well-produced, and the notes on each song—the country from where it comes, lyrics, and background on the lullaby itself and its meaning—are fascinating. (The book even closes with a handy map of Africa for the child reader.) The songs were collected by Chantal Grosléziat and the musical arrangements done by Paul Mindy. Both children and adults sing on the CD, and it’s beautiful.

It is, however, illustrations that I like to gab about here at 7-Imp, and I’m taken with the highly-stylized, richly-colored artwork from French illustrator Élodie Nouhen. Very impressionistic in style, she employs a multi-media approach, even incorporating what looks like twisted wire into many of her illustrations. She uses broad paint strokes on a primarily dark palette, occasionally striking out with vibrant yellows and reds.

Here are some of the illustrations from the book:

(Click to see entire spread from which this comes)

(Click to see entire spread from which this comes)

(Click to see entire spread from which this comes)

(Click to see entire spread from which this comes)

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In April of this year, over at Kirkus, I discussed the Anna Hibiscus series of chapter books, all about a young African girl, living in a commune with her huge family. The series is stellar in many ways and went on to get a 2011 Boston Globe-Horn Book Honor in the Fiction category.

The books are written by Atinuke, a Nigerian storyteller, who spent her childhood in both Africa and the UK and now lives in Wales, and illustrated by British artist Lauren Tobia. We have Kane Miller to thank for publishing them here in the States. In June of this year, both author and illustrator brought us Anna Hibiscus’ Song (also from Kane Miller), this time with bright, full-color illustrations from Tobia. This one, all about Anna’s happiness in being with her family, sings with joy. So does Anna, for that matter. (Deciding to imitate the birds at the book’s close, she “opens her mouth wide” and sings a tribute to her family.)

“Uncle Tunde and Anna Hibiscus dance and dance around the car. And oh! Oh! Oh! Anna Hibiscus’ happiness grows and grows!”
(Click to enlarge)

“‘Mama! Mama!’ cried Anna Hibiscus. ‘I am so happy, I think I am going to EXPLODE!’ ‘Then sit quietly,’ smiles Anna’s mother. ‘I still still and quiet when I am happy.'”

Those not already familiar with the series meet in this picture book all of Anna’s family, including her aunts, uncles, and cousins. As I wrote at Kirkus earlier, though her life in Africa is culturally different, what makes these books work is the universality of Anna’s inner world, one full of exclamation marks and joy. (Who says you always need a problem in every narrative?) This picture book is no exception, though naturally the text isn’t as detailed as with the chapter books. “Effervescent” is what Publishers Weekly calls it: “Focusing on the tight bond between the characters, Tobia accentuates Anna Hibiscus’s outsize personality and loving rapport with her family. Readers will easily identify with Anna’s glee—’I am so happy, I think I am going to explode!’—and find it infectious.”

“Anna Hibiscus sits so still that the birds fly back into the branches and start to sing. THAT’S IT! thinks Anna Hibiscus. She opens her mouth wide. And a song comes out.”
(Click to enlarge)

* * * * * * *

I’ve never seen a picture book quite like this one before. German author/illustrator Wolf Erlbruch’s Duck, Death and the Tulip was originally published in Germany in 2007, and Gecko Press brought us this U.S. edition last month, translated by Catherine Chidgey.

This certainly isn’t for everyone (what children’s book is?), but I like it. I just read the School Library Journal review, and I really like how they describe it, so here’s what the professionals have to say: “This book tackles a difficult subject with eloquent, yet unapologetic candor. The subject matter may frighten small children, and adults likely will take pause at the bluntness, but the story is heartwarming and incontrovertibly portrays Death with a compassionate personification. The surrealistic yet modest synthesis of collage and drawings is true to the simple elegance and poignancy of the text.”

Yup, Death is a main character. Here’s how the book opens:

“For a while now, Duck had had a feeling. ‘Who are you? What are you up to, creeping along behind me?’ ‘Good,’ said Death, ‘you finally noticed me. I am Death.'”
(Click to enlarge)

“[T]his is not a book about friendship,” adds that SLJ reviewer. “[I]t is a book about life’s most pitiless inevitability.” True. But what Erlbruch refuses to do is sugar-coat the matter or even, really, give any easy answers whatsoever. No one knows what happens when we die, he seems to be saying. (Note the tree spread below; it’s right after that moment that Duck says, “Let’s climb down. You can start having strange thoughts in trees.” And every time Duck has a question about death or relays what he’s heard of heaven or hell, though neither word is used, Death slyly skirts answers altogether, leaving much to the elusiveness surrounding it.) But it’s all handled with a lovely subtlety and poignancy, too. And mystery.

It goes a little something like this for me: The book’s ending and very final spread are quite moving, I find, yet the brutally honest final illustration gives me the chills. Yes, that sums up the book well for me anyway.

Another challenging book to describe, but fortunately I’ve got some spreads to share from it:

“Before long, Death decided that he had his limits. ‘Forgive me,’ he said. ‘I really must get away from this damp.’ ‘Are you cold?’ Duck asked. ‘Shall I warm you a little?’ Nobody had ever offered to do that for Death.”
(Click on each image to see spread in its entirety)

“They could see the pond far below. There it lay, so still — and so lonely. That’s what it will be like when I’m dead, Duck thought. The pond alone, without me.”
(Click on image to see spread in its entirety)

“Snowflakes drifted down. Something had happened. Death looked at the duck.
She’d stopped breathing. She lay quite still.”

(Click on image to see spread in its entirety)

* * * * * * *

Also intense and, I think, in the category of Most Fitting for Teens is I Am Thomas from Australian author Libby Gleeson and Swiss-born illustrator Armin Greder (who now lives in Australia). Published this month by Allen & Unwin, this is the story of an older boy/young man who is finding his way — finding “the courage we all need to find our passion and be ourselves,” the publisher likes to say.

And boy howdy it’s intense, as you can see from the compelling illustrations below. With the people surrounding him depicted as bland, angry, and uniformly the same on many levels (notice the dark clothing on all), the author and illustrator seem to be making more of a statement about conformity—rather, attempting to avoid it—and asserting one’s individuality.

In fact, the sparsely-worded spreads not shown below tackle things such as the military, politics, and organized religion — with “join us” being the repeated refrain expressed in various ways.

“But Thomas would not” are the book’s final words, followed by three wordless spreads depicting his decision to follow his own path.

Take a look at some of the illustrations:

“I am not the child I once was.”
(Click to enlarge)

“I am not the child my brother is. I am not the student they all are.
I do not walk the streets they do.”

(Click to enlarge)

“I lie in the shelter of my headphones, sometimes silent, sometimes spitting angry words across the empty spaces. ‘You are heading for failure,’ they say.
‘You will amount to nothing.'”

(Click to enlarge)

‘We are so ashamed.’ ‘You must do as you are told.’ ‘Show respect.’ ‘Do your homework, attend all classes, answer politely, clean your room, make your bed, wash your hair, clean your nails, clean your shoes, clean your teeth, grow up, do as we say, think like us, be like us.’
(Click to enlarge)

“do as we say think like us be like us
(Click to enlarge)

* * * * * * *

Also worth noting quickly is that Candlewick released in July the U.S. edition of Libby and Armin’s The Great Bear, originally published in Australia in 1999.

This is a beautifully-illustrated story—on a primarily dark, night-time palette—of one bear’s release from tyranny. He’s a circus bear and is accustomed to prodding and poking and chain-yanking — until one day he lashes out and flies into the night-time sky to his own freedom.

Closing notes in the book tell the story of the close collaboration between author and illustrator while working on this title, most unusual in publishing these days. Armin even writes:

One of my principles is that if an illustration only repeats what the text is already saying, then either the illustration or the text is superfluous. And all along, Libby’s text in the second part of the book was such that I could not avoid this conflict. I put it to Libby to drop the words in that part of the book altogether and let the pictures carry the story on their own. She saw the point immediately and forever the nonpossessive author, said yes.

Kirkus described this one as “[s]ubtle—yet spectacular and deeply moving.” (That might describe many of these imports featured today.)

* * * * * * *

On a much lighter note, I’ll now turn to the work of French author Sylvie Chausse and French illustrator Anne Letuffe. Now, two of the picture books on which they collaborated here below were released in 2009 by Berbay Publishing in Australia. And I tend to focus only on new titles here at 7-Imp (though I just recently saw these), but I wanted to quickly note these two books anyway, as I’m quite taken with the multi-media artwork of Letuffe.

The Prince of Peas was first published in 2007. Michael Sedunary has adapted this English version of the title, a play on the classic fairy tale, The Princess and the Pea.

As I said, Letuffe’s artwork is striking: Full of a not-too-cloying whimsy, she laces these spreads with peas, maps, utensils, fabrics, drawings, collages, and photos. It’s busy, but it works.

Take a look here:

(Click image to see spread in its entirety)

* * * * * * *

Also from the same duo, 3 Little Culottes was first published in 2004 (this English adaptation is by Jo Horsburgh and Michael Sedunary) and showcases more of Letuffe’s exuberant multi-media illustrations, these with a bit more breathing room than the ones in The Prince of Peas. And this time she adds such things as wool, fruit, threads, tires, plants, and stones to her spreads.

“Culottes” are trousers. In this case, they are very swish “woollen culottes of fine French design,” which suddenly disappear one night. The three pigs—Lucette, Paulette, and Marie-Antoinette—set out to find them, and it’s probably no surprise to say that some wolves are involved. But I won’t ruin the storyline for you.

Here’s some of the art from within. Enjoy:

“In a quaint house of straw / the three pigs espy / a toothy old lady / making fresh apple pie. / She’s wearing a hat / that looks really queer; / it’s got holes on both sides / — that’s one for each ear!”
(Click to enlarge spread)

* * * * * * *

One more from Berbay Publishing, which specializes in translating children’s titles into English:

Three Sardines on a Bench, a wee tiny book with a slip cover (designed to be not unlike the experience of opening a can of sardines, come to think of it), puts the very quirk in quirky.

Originally published in 2008 (and also adapted into English by Michael Sedunary) but released this year in Australia, it’s a short and sweet, think-outside-of-the-box tale from French author Michaël Escoffier and French illustrator Kris Di Giacomo of … well, three sardines on a bench. Of course. As you can see below, each ponders what he would do if he had the time.

(Click each spread from Sardines to enlarge and see in more detail)

Di Giacomo’s art is absurdly funny. (Flying dogs and swimming forks, anyone?)

The book ends on a very funny, if warped, note. (Warped I can get behind. Always.) And that would be: “I’ve heard that if two mirrors reflect each other face to face they end up going mad,” followed by (in the next spread) “[a]nd if you put two madmen face to face, do you think they end up reflecting?” to which the other rooster (yes, rooster) in the spread replies, “I don’t know. That’s something I’d have to reflect on.”

And in the end? They’re just three actual sardines, about to be speared by a fork. Heh. Straight talk about the food chain.

On that note, till next time, and here’s to your own strange thoughts in trees…

* * * * * * *

THE CONDUCTOR. Copyright © 2010 by Laëtitia Devernay. (First published in Switzerland 2010.) U.S. Edition 2011 by Chronicle Books, San Francisco. Images used with permission of Chronicle Books.

SONGS FROM THE BAOBAB: AFRICAN LULLABIES & NURSERY RHYMES. Copyright © 2011 by The Secret Mountain. (First published in France, 2002.) Images used with permission of The Secret Mountain, Montréal, Canada.

ANNA HIBISCUS’ SONG. Copyright © 2011 by Atinuke. Illustrations copyright © 2011 by Lauren Tobia. Images used with permission of Kane Miller, Tulsa, Oklahoma.

DUCK, DEATH AND THE TULIP. Copyright © 2007 Wolf Erlbruch. (First published in Germany 2007.) Images used with permission of publisher, Gecko Press.

I AM THOMAS. Copyright © 2011 Libby Gleeson. Illustrations copyright © 2011 by Armin Greder. Images used with permission of publisher, Allen & Unwin.

THE PRINCE OF PEAS. Copyright © 2007 Sylvie Chausse. Illustrations copyright © 2007 by Anne Letuffe. Images used with permission of publisher, Berbay Publishing.

3 LITTLE CULOTTES. Copyright © 2004 Sylvie Chausse. Illustrations copyright © 2004 by Anne Letuffe. Images used with permission of publisher, Berbay Publishing.

THREE SARDINES ON A BENCH. Copyright © 2008 Michaël Escoffier. Illustrations copyright © 2008 by Kris Di Giacomo. Images used with permission of publisher, Berbay Publishing.

18 comments to ““You can start having strange thoughts in trees”;
Or, Curiously Good Books from Around the World”

  1. oh Jules… I feel somewhat breathless. What richness in a single post. Goodness. Aren’t we lucky to be able to spend some of days reading and writing about such beautiful, moving books? I’m particularly excited to read about the books by Armin Greder. I’m a big fan of his The Island, so very interested to see more from him. Thank you for enriching my day!

  2. Wow. Some incredible choices here. The duck book looks incredible. I could feel my eyes tearing up at 6:47 in the morning. Thanks for bringing these books to my attention and ensuring further drainage of my pockets.

  3. Wow! What a wonderful post. Thanks for bringing so many books to our attention. We might not find them without your help…and what help it is!

  4. Armin Greder’s work is powerful. Check out The City and The Island, as well. I had not heard about The Great Bear — but I’ll definitely look for it. Thanks for the tip, and for sharing these other fascinating works. Love the Dadaist artistic style of Three Sardines on a Bench. Reminds me a bit of Donald Barthelme’s The Slightly Irregular Fire Engine.

  5. Thanks, all. And, Phil, yes. I have not seen those books, but I did read about them, and I’m very eager to see them now. Thanks for the reminder!

  6. Thanks for showing off these treasures!

  7. Thanks for making the world big enough to hold these books too Jules. And you did it with your usual wit and passion. A great lineup.
    Have you reviewed « Le petit homme et Dieu » by Kitty Crowther. This is an interesting French book I’d like to hear more about. Here’s one link I found in English: http://astridlindgrenmemorialaward.wordpress.com/2010/09/24/le-petit-homme-et-dieu/

  8. A big thank you from an entranced reader in San Francisco, who came across this thanks to SCBWI in Paris…I especially liked the Duck and Sardines books. Pity that I could not find the latter for purchase in English on-line…if you know, please do tell.

  9. Yea for Anna Hibiscus! I can’t wait to check out the picture book version. We’re big fans around here….

  10. We got our copy of THE CONDUCTOR late September…its amazing! We love it.

    I’ll need to check out SONGS FROM THE BAOBAB because the images look very peaceful.

  11. June, you can buy Three Sardines on a Bench on the following website:
    The books is beautiful!!!

  12. […] handful of international picture book imports reviewed at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast. Check out Duck, Death and the Tulip. […]

  13. […] But since I’m thinking about Germany today, I wanted to mention a few German illustrators whose work I like a lot. The first is Wolf Erlbruch. He’s beloved in Germany but not especially known here, although his wonderful Duck, Death, and the Tulip (Ente, Tod, und Tulpe), made it to these shores a couple years ago (scroll down). […]

  14. […] I am Thomas [Images]. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://blaine.org/sevenimpossiblethings/?p=2220 […]

  15. […] chapter book series from Kane/Miller. Anna’s appeared in a picture book as well, featured here at 7-Imp in 2011, and now she’s in a new one, Splash, Anna Hibiscus! (also from Kane/Miller). […]

  16. Great article, thanks for putting this wide variety of lovely illustration styles together. very inspiring. Cheers.

  17. […] online] Available at: http://blaine.org/sevenimpossiblethings/?p=2220 [Accessed 14th November […]

  18. […] William Steig, and Rosemary Wells. I especially admired the eastern Europeans — Helme Heine, Wolf Erlbruch, Lisbeth Zwerger, Henrik Drescher, Klaus Ensikat, and Květa […]

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