Book review: Artists' contribution to visual reading reviewed

Published: Sunday, Jan. 6 2013 3:00 p.m. MST

SHOW ME A STORY! Why Picture Books Matter: Conversations with 21 of the World’s Most Celebrated Illustrators,” edited by Leonard S. Marcus, Candlewick, $22.99, 304 pages (ages 14 and up)

Picture book images provide a child’s first story. Cinderella, Max, Pigeon, Mrs. Mallard, Sylvester and the Very Hungry Caterpillar are some of the first book friends a child meets. Castles, farmyards and snowy hillsides become imaginary playgrounds.

Children learn a “sense of story” from picture books, and even the very young adopt a story voice as they “tell” the illustrations. The picture book could be the first art to which children are exposed. That’s a great responsibility for illustrators who provide the genesis of a child’s visual reading.

“Show Me a Story!” delves into the lives and philosophies of 21 celebrated picture book artists from the past — Robert McCloskey and William Steig — to the recent Mo Willems and Chris Raschka. Augmenting the interviews, Marcus has chosen 88 full-color plates from the artists’ sketches and finished pictures to exemplify the variety of art available in their picture books.

Many American illustrators wandered into the picture book field by chance, having already established themselves in a career. McCloskey (“Make Way for Ducklings”) was a muralist, Eric Carle (“The Very Hungry Caterpillar”) worked as a successful advertising artist and Steig (“Sylvester and the Magic Pebble”) was famous for his humorous New Yorker cartoons and didn’t even begin illustrating children’s books until after the age of 60.

Why the choice of children’s book illustration is a common question in Marcus’ interviews with the illustrators. Many came from homes where parents were artists but nearly all noted that they were encouraged to scribble, draw and experiment with art at an early age. Most cited teachers who recognized their work and encouraged it.

One topic in the interviews was the “other jobs” or interests that the artists held. Some were, and still are, teachers, such as Ashley Bryan (“Words to My Life’s Song”), who taught painting to kindergarteners as well as chairing the art department at Dartmouth College. Mitsumasa Anno (“Anno’s Alphabet”) writes adult books on mathematics, philosophy and history, as well as designing covers for Scientific America magazine. Willems “(Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus!”) was a stand-up comic and a TV writer for "Sesame Street." Several are accomplished musicians and made a choice from concert-making to book-making.

Many of the artists, including Rosemary Wells (“Emily’s First 100 Days of School”) and Jerry Pinkney (“The Lion and the Mouse”), note the responsibility of being a child’s first exposure to art and story, which leads to a lifetime of reading.

Wells mentions that her “Read to Your Bunny” campaign is one of the most vital things she has accomplished, “the most important 20 minutes of the day are the 20 minutes you read to your child.”

Pinkney expressed his pleasure in making picture books by saying, “I feel that through such books, I could make a contribution to society.”

“Show Me a Story” provides insight and appreciation for artists and their art forms and is a worthwhile resource for parents, teachers and any lover of children’s books.

Email: marilousorensen@ymail.com

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