With picture books, there’s a question: Is this only for children? I am a grown woman who devours picture books because they mobilize new paths for thought. They are maps for lives constructed without fear. There’s nothing small or simple about picture books; to dismiss them is to dismiss the future. And the question of children has always struck me as a weird one anyway. Who was not ever a child? Who doesn’t speak pictures? And who, having once lived as a child, could ever believe children are unknowing or foolish or naïve?
Paula Fox, master of both adult and children’s literature (and a person who was once a kid) has said, “That is very significant for me: a child’s secrecy and horror.” It is even more than significant; it is almost everything. In the books collected below, darkness is met and understood. A reader enjoys a slow examination of a thousand fleeting things: night, day, water, comfort, birds, love, life. Yes, I read these books to my children but I also read these books without my children because the work of the authors and illustrators here is an architectural blueprint of the worlds we need to create without asking permission, without a thought for age brackets or textual rules. In that fine disregard lies possibility and profound liberty. And what could be more important than that?
- Tao Nyeu
Tao Nyeu’s wordless book, Wonder Bear, is an intense manifestation of the power of imagination, be it glad or not. There is no such thing as safety because safety serves no purpose here. Children are shot from cannons or ride sea creatures up into the night sky. The bunnies lose their cotton tails when Mr. Goat trims his hedge but luckily someone’s got a sewing machine. Danger and joy are equally met with inventiveness. Nyeu insists that anything is possible without fear. My adoration for her is refreshed by her irreverent author photo, an embroidery where we are told “The artist accidentally picked her nose while posing for this portrait.”
- Laura Carlin
Laura Carlin is a revelation. In her book, A World of Your Own, the power of creating becomes real through a series of assignments. Carlin tells us that, in her world, people still wait in lines and have to get out of bed in the morning but, luckily, the alarm clocks of her world are made from suddenly spilled bird seed and loud, squawky flocks or from bean-eating elephant farts or from screaming baboons whose tails are set on fire. What does your alarm clock look like? “In My World all factories have to be the shape of whatever they make…This one makes pencils, this one makes baked beans and this one makes spaghetti.” Her book is an architecture of the mind that asks on each page, what does construction have to do with imagination? What does imagination have to do with freedom? What do you want your world to look like and how are you going to begin building it?
- Shelley Jackson
Shelley Jackson gives her reader assignments. In her book, Mimi’s Dada Catifesto, a reader is plunged into an art history lesson but also called upon to develop her own art, her own treatise. The pages’ gymnastics are to be admired. Jackson creates wonderfully active spreads, callisthenic texts, as Mimi’s narrative (plus that of a pair of fancy, bourgeois cockroaches) appear within and around Jackson’s paintings and collages. She gives her reader prompts: Write a sound poem. Cut words from the newspaper and toss them onto a blank piece of paper. All parts sing together to confirm that art can be anything.
Jackson plants the idea that we each need to develop our own manifestos, girlifestos. “Listen, kiddo: sometimes you stare at a black dot for an hour and nothing happens. But sometimes it gets up and walks across the floor. I like bugs. What’s I’m trying to say is, Pay attention and expect the best.”
In her book, The Menino (Portugese for kid), Isol makes the familiar strange again by pointing out that it was always strange. Swept up in this miraculous birthing, living and dying, we sometimes forget how strange it all is. The Menino is about the arrival of a child in one’s life. Isol distances the child by making it alien, by telling us that it has been on a long voyage. It is sleepy. Indeed. Isol asks great questions. “Did the Menino know where he was going when his voyage began? Or did he arrive at this house by chance? Is he still dreaming?” Her jangly, offset paintings make manifest the beguiling depths of her questions.
- Giselle Potter
As Isol goes intergalactic, Giselle Potter goes microscopic in this Mandelbrot set. Her autobiographical works, Tell Me What To Dream About (a conversation between sleepy sisters), The Year I Didn’t Go To School (an account of Potter’s childhood life in a travelling puppet show) and Chloe’s Birthday (what to do with rivalry?) deal in the micro, the miniature moments of our commonalities which reflect the nature of the very universe: namely, family, art, food, dreams and beauty. Potter’s paintings are so exquisitely intimate, her adventures are so far-ranging, that to read Potter is to visit St. Johnsbury’s Fairbanks Museum or to open a wunderkammer, those tiny cabinet galleries miniature and magical enough to contain the magnificence of the whole world.
- Amy Martin
Amy Martin’s book, Symphony City, translates music into color and image. A girl travels alone through the city listening to its sounds. “There is music around every corner.” The songs the girl hears are translated into the visual: a multitude of golden birds, a sky full of paper fish, ballerinas as big as buildings. Symphony City is an extraordinary experiment that allows a reader to hear musicians’ silent music through Martin’s drawings. The book ponders the strings between solitude and family, silence and song. There is melancholy but here there really is music everywhere and I’ve always like the sad songs best. Martin’s illustrations arrive at a delirious insistence: the only way to make it home is to find one’s own way over, under and through this world of sound.