I ended last week's post by observing that genius finds a way. What makes me so certain? Children's books do. Sure there's plenty out there that's uninspired, or only marginally inspired. But there are also books that take your breath away -- books that make me certain that genius is still doing what it has always done -- making readers gasp, sigh, giggle, and swoon.
Earlier this summer, I attended an exhibit called Once Upon A Book at the San Francisco Center for the Book. Illustrator Thacher Hurd curated the exhibit, which featured the works of six illustrators: Remy Charlip, Maira Kalman, Elisa Kleven, David Macauley, Chris Raschka, and Brian Selznick. Those are six of Hurd’s favorite illustrators, and coincidentally they are six of my favorites as well. (In fact, anyone who has ever seen me present at a school has heard me talk about my fantasy of doing a book with Chris Raschka. Raschka and Dashka – wouldn’t it be perfect?)
Thacher was interested in how other illustrators work, and so the focus of the exhibit was on process – what do illustrators do when they work? What are they thinking about? How do they experiment? As a writer of picture books, I was fascinated by those questions too.
Thacher read us a quote from Remy Charlip, whose book Arm in Arm absolutely delighted me as a child, on the subject of page turns -- something it behooves both writers and illustrators to think about:
A book is a series of pages held together at one edge, and these pages can be moved on their hinges like a swinging door. They could also be half-doors, doors with windows, double doors, like fold-outs, doors with attachments, pop-ups, textures or moving parts, and shaped doors.
Of course if a door has something completely different behind it, it is much more exciting. The element of delight and surprise is helped by the physical power we feel in our own hands when we move that page or door to reveal a change in everything that has gone before, in time, place, or character.
A thrilling picture book not only makes beautiful single images or sequential images, but also allows us to become aware of a book's unique physical structure, by bringing our attention, once again, to that momentous moment: the turning of the page.
Walking through the exhibit with Thacher and several other children’s book enthusiasts this summer, I saw Kalman's drafts and Selznick's sketches and a three dimensional carousel that Kleven made years before she wrote her latest book, A Carousel Tale.
I learned that Selznick works in quarter size and then has his illustrations blown up so that he can open up the space between the lines. Macauley does his drafts on cheap tracing paper, with little interest in archival preservation. Raschka does complete, illustrated dummies of his books, some of which have never found a publisher. Below is one such book, about the avant-garde jazz musician Sun Ra.
Check out Thacher's incredible videos to learn more about these artists and how they work. They are some of the most innovative, exciting artists working in any genre, and it's a treat to peer inside their minds.