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One of the best ways to expand your knowledge of children's books, from both writing and illustration perspectives, is to get your hands on as many as possible. We'll explore what works and what doesn't, focusing on books that are created by writer/illustrators.

A Scanimation Picture Book

by Rufus Butler Seder
Workman Publishing Company 2008

One of the most inventive ideas to come along in quite some time, SWING! is a cross between animation and picture books. With a simple turn of the page, we see a batter really swing, a soccer player actually kicking a ball and an ice skater truly spinning. Rufus Butler Seder's scanimation technique creates movement on a static page. He combines this magical technique with spare text and lots of onomatopoeia - quite appropriate for a book about movement: whom! whoosh! whack! can you swing a baseball bat?

The scanimation illustrations are in black and white, but the large text is bold and colorful. To add more eye-appeal, the edges of each spread are bound by blocks of jewel tone colors.

Curious to know the secret of Seder's ingenious scanimation, I dissected a page. Every spread is constructed of several layers, similar to a pop-up book might be. The movement is created by a single drawing that incorporates each segment of the action superimposed on top of one another. The drawing is broken up by vertical lines. A sheet of acetate with thick, black vertical lines is laid over the drawing and attached across the top and bottom on a different layer. When the page is turned, the drawing stays stationary as the acetate "scans" across the drawing. The small spaces between the black vertical lines of the acetate reveal one part of the drawing at a time. The eye blends the images and creates movement, in much the same way as a flip book. But each page of SWING! self-contains the entire "flip."

Seder's previous scanimation book, GALLOP!, is a number one New York Times bestseller. GALLOP! shows various animals in motion, including a horse galloping and an eagle flying.

I give Seder's books two thumbs up for inventiveness, enjoyment and just pure fun! – J.W.

Five For a Little One
by Chris Raschka
Richard Jackson Books, Atheneum Books for Young Readers,
Simon & Schuster, 2007

A delightful concept book using a limited color palette engagingly for the young. "Little One" is an ebullient bunny rendered in a variety of marks, all vibrant and textured: one fuzzy ear, one dry-brushed; a fuzzy torso and marker feet. The "Five" being referred to are more than the numbers, but also the senses Little One explores with child-like curiosity - smell, hearing, taste, sight, and touch. Raschka is brilliant at creating a multi-layered character and story with a frugality of words, marks and colors.

Some of the words are little big, but I think with the help of an adult and the context of the book, the meaning is evident to the child reader. The book itself is told in rhyme and the beat is consistent. The senses are encouraged by strong verb usage. The descriptive for hearing: “Happy ears, pay attention!/Did we mention sounds surround you?/Catch the honking, barking, singing./All that ringing will astound you.”

The senses are delightfully portrayed with colorful potato cuts. The child-friendly representations (flowers and toy cars are two examples) of those senses are broken down into elemental shapes, quite pleasing to the eye as well as easily comprehensible to the viewer. All the way throughout, Raschka uses texture effectively, with a great contrast and legibility against the whiteness of the page. Little One is vibrant for the comparison.

Raschka brings Mum and Dad in for the recap of numbers and senses. Surprisingly, and yet in a totally satisfying way, Little One is a true replica of both Mum and Dad. The images are stand alone, with no words. Little One shares newly discovered senses alternately with Mum and Dad, leaving room for the reader’s little one to do the same.

Page-turning, joyous, elegant in its simplicity and expression, this was a joy to read. And read again. And again. -A.W.

Hotel Deep; Light Verse from Dark Water
by Kurt Cyrus
Harcourt Children’s Books, 2005

A little sardine is separated from his school and the adventure begins. The illustrations are jewel-toned and highly detailed, whether the sea life is rendered realistically or has more of a humorous edge. The illustrations alone would make this book a must-read. Whether Sardine is dipping past the perils of a sea snake, or marveling at the oddity of a flounder, the viewer gets the same rapt feeling looking at the illustrations as snorkeling in Aruba.

Cyrus tells of Sardine's adventure in rhyme that works on quite a few levels: telling little Sardine’s tail, er-hem, TALE, imparting bits of correct details about life under water, and the occasional gallows humor of the fish-eat-fish world. And the rhyme itself is done well-- no easy feat.

The eye is led through the pages not only with the lavish illustrations but the rollicky layout of some of the text. The only way I think this could have been improved is if the lettering were larger and the color had been coordinated to the illustrations. The mechanical layout of the typeface (the cover was lettered by the legendary calligrapher John Stevens) was occasionally a tad hard to read and stilted in comparison to the words themselves and the illustrations.

But the benefits and joy of reading the overall text and viewing the art far outweigh the occasional awkward typeface placement. Any of the larger words that might trip the reader are fun to wrestle with.

The scary subject is deflected with humor, maintaining a real distance from the sardine. The effect is more observational of all the glitter of ocean life. Cyrus uses great sound verbs and imagery as well as often referencing the reader (“wouldn’t you?”) maintaining a high level of reader involvement.

This is not an easy bedtime book, but one that would be greatly enjoyed as a leisurely activity read. -A.W.

Snow Music
by Lynne Rae Perkins
Greenwillow, 2004

The text sings, the illustrations dance. Or is it the other way around? Perkins has a delightful ear for the sounds of winter, from breath or snowfall to the more clangorous din of traffic. The text and illustrations work together in not only the auditory, but also visually. The whimsical layout of the text sometimes mirrors the illustration, sometimes intersect each other. But both work together with a high level of interest, urging the reader to turn the page.

The musical text never overloads the senses as the reader journeys through the wintry scene in search of a runaway dog. The author/illustrator uses creative onomatopoeic concoctions for some of the indescribable sounds, such as snowfall (“peth, peth”), as well as varied uses of the illustrative page to keep the visuals on par with the text. Perkins uses an active tympani of words to keep the story moving to a satisfying resolution.

This is the perfect read on a snowy day…“Soft as our nests when day has gone, Snow came singing a silent song”.. -A.W.

The Dot
by Peter H. Reynolds
Candlewick Press, 2003

The Dot is a little square picture book with a big, hot, vibrant orange dot on the cover. Inside, it's nothing less than an exploration of the origin of creativity. It deftly and gently explores the urge to make art; a heavy topic, but Peter Reynolds makes it an entertaining tale. "I just can't draw!" says Vashti. Her sensitive teacher shows her a way to explore making art without getting hung up on details. Her first step is to get Vashti to make a mark on the paper, the second step is to have her sign it, and the third is to frame it; there's the art market in a nutshell.

The children I read this book to were fascinated by different ways of making a simple dot into a picture, especially when Vashti makes a dot by NOT painting a dot. I watched comprehension dawn in a six-year-old's face and turn to glee – what a great explanation of negative space!

I love the ink, watercolor, and tea illustrations. They're in The New Yorker school of shaky ink lines and splashy washes, but the colors are subtle and the expressions effective. The sure, casual handling works perfectly with the story. Nearly every illustration is a round spot – a dot, in fact.

The act of creation is very much present in these pictures. The text is hand-lettered, and the ink and watercolor (and tea) let you see exactly how each illustration was drawn. Vashti is full of life and energy, a giant personality inside the frame of a little square book. Her pride at the school art show surrounds her, literally, in a golden glow. The colors are complex and subtle – maybe it's the tea.

Peter H. Reynolds is the illustrator of the Judy Moody books by Megan McDonald, as well as the founder of FableVision Studios. He has written and illustrated two books previously, The North Star and Sydney’s Star.

This book inspired me to head right back to my drawing board with a new vision, and might do the same for you and your child. It's dedicated to Mr. Reynolds' 7th grade teacher, who must be very proud. – S.B.

The Very Smart Pea and the Princess-to-be
by Mini Grey
Knopf, 2003
28 pages

According to her jacket-flap biography, Mini Grey was given her name after being born in a Mini Cooper in a parking lot in Wales. Among her hobbies are welding and playing the accordion. You'd expect a very funny, very silly book from an author/artist like this, and that's what you get in The Very Smart Pea and the Princess-to-be.

Like John Scieszka's The True Story of the Three Little Pigs by A. Wolf, this book tells a traditional fairy tale from an unexpected point of view. Most unexpected, in fact: who would imagine that a pea - a pea! - could make a convincing and lively main character. But so he - she – it - does, in spite of being a small green sphere with only two thoughtful eyes for features.

The front matter doesn't identify the medium, but the illustrations look like watercolor and gouache. Many of the spreads are broken up into smaller frames, either snapshots scattered on a table, pictures on a wall or a spread of Polaroids of unsuitable Princesses (too scruffy! Too tidy! Too grumpy! Too pink! Strange pets!). The more traditional spreads are often dramatic views from the ceiling or foreshortened views, like the semi-titular heroine arriving in a thunderstorm, with lightning entering along with her.

The Queen bears a strong resemblance to Her Majesty Elizabeth II of England, with her hair in curlers under a kerchief and little pea-like eyes. The Prince rather looks like HRH Prince William, tending towards backpacking and eco-tourism. The illustrations are heavily outlined in sepia and black, and the color has a painterly, luscious feel, intense without being garish. A bowl full of peas looks good enough to eat, and the mattresses look like a pile of hamburgers and fried eggs, limes and olives. (The pea complains, "I spent most nights in the darkness under a pile of twenty mattresses and feather beds and a princess.")

The writing is as funny and snappy as the above sentence. The gardening theme seen throughout, which we think has to do with the nature of the narrator, has a surprising twist at the end for a satisfying payoff. Every illustration is full of interesting details; it takes more than one reading to see all the layers.

This is Mini Grey's first book published in the U.S.; she is also the author/artist of Egg Drop, which I hope to be able to find soon. The Very Smart Pea is a very funny book! - S.B.

The Tale of Jack Frost
by David Melling
Barron's 2003

A little boy comes to live in an enchanted forest filled with magical creatures. This mysterious boy has a special talent— whatever he touches turns to ice. Nearby, nasty goblins are trying to take over the enchanted forest for themselves. Can Jack foil their plans?

The Story
David Melling's text is minimal, appropriate for such a visual story, and the voice is accessible and friendly. Despite the preface, the relationship among the forest, the goblins and magic is not clear. I would have liked to learn more of the forest's magic, how it manifests itself (Jack seems to be the only creature who exhibits magical abilities), and the goblins' motivation for wanting that magic. There is mention of the forest being "opened" now, but it doesn't get fleshed out. If this is a danger to the forest creatures, wouldn't they want to try and close the forest?

The Illustrations
The visual world Melling has created is fascinating. All of the forest creatures are original designs, from the snow beetles with human hands and feet to the bald, stripped fairy creatures that sport little tails. There's a cynical unicorn, a hedgehog/aardvark creature and a tall, bovine thing with interestingly coiffed fur. Even the trees have personalities. The backgrounds are every bit as interesting as the foregrounds.

There are a few visual inconsistencies (the illustrations contradict the text which states that Jack's skin is "white as snow"; the time of year is not clear— snow, ivy, sunflowers, falling leaves and bare trees all exist at the same time), but everything is drawn with such confidence and skill. Melling's style is refreshing with the perfect mix of realistic details drawn with an animated flair. The thin ink line and simple watercolor give just enough detail without being fussy or precious.

The forest's color palette is ice blues, creams, golds, and grays. The goblins are bolder with yellow greens, reds and blues. The book design is robust; there is a good mixture of double spreads, bleeds, spots, vignettes, and single illustrations that move the story along. Even the end papers are a special treat; they are covered with pre-production sketches of all the characters, showing Melling's design process.

Melling did such an admirable job creating a believable visual world— all in all, this book was an enjoyable experience. I am looking forward to his next book. - L.F.