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Picture Books & Paper Theaters January 17, 2014

Posted by ccbooks in Analysis.
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Like any other form of visual art, there is a wide range of media used for picture books. Most people are familiar with the paper collage illustrations of Eric Carle; some love the watercolors of Jon J Muth, others love the woodblock and pencil drawings of Erin Stead. This year there were several titles that all used a format I haven’t seen much of in picture books:  paper drawings (and sometimes other objects) arranged into layered compositions, almost like a toy theater. The stories are very different and the technique achieves a different effect in each, but all are beautiful and unique

You Are Stardust by Elin Kelsey, artwork by Soyeon Kim

stardustAccompanying a text that is an extended meditations on the many connections between humans and the natural world, these illustrations feature three-dimensional crystal forms of paper and cutouts of trees and animals alongside cutouts of children. Many of the spreads resemble grade-school dioramas, with animal cutouts dangling on strings in front of a paper background. Kim includes dried flowers, handmade papers with rich texture and painted acetate to flesh out her detailed landscapes of our world. Some pages are close-up views of earlier spreads, inviting the reader to closely examine the visuals, just as we are more closely examining our world and ourselves through the text.

My Father’s Arms are a Boat by Stein Erik Lunde, illustrations by Oyvind Torseter

fatherIf Kim’s illustrations are lush compositions crowded with life, the pages of My Father’s Arms are a Boat begin quiet, spare, and white. Composed almost as a film, with interior and exterior views, and various angles, the furniture in the spreads looks like it came from an ultra-modern dollhouse, with simple lines and pale colors. Objects and the father and son in the story are more detailed, if clearly two-dimensional. Tilted angles to some of the spreads convey the uncertainty felt by the young narrator, while the stylized snow and trees of the exteriors have the distinct feel of a stage set. If the cool colors and sharp angles feel distancing at the beginning of the story, by the end the pen and ink detail and carefully chosen lighting have brought us into the world of the family and we know, along with the narrator, that everything will be alright.

The Mighty Lalouche by Matthew Olshan, illustrations by Sophie Blackall

laloucheIn some ways the most classic book on this list, The Mighty Lalouche is set in Paris and tells the story of an underdog mailman who becomes a boxer. Although the story is set in France, the illustrations are actually done in a Japanese style called ‘tatebanko’. Blackall painted the backgrounds and figures individually, then assembled them into very shallow dioramas and photographed them for the illustrations. The shadows are visible, giving depth and definition to the characters (literally) and making you feel as though you could step into the setting, while also giving you an appreciation for the time and effort that went into painting and cutting out so many little details. Blackall talks a little about the process in this interview. I have my fingers crossed that this gets a Caldecott nod at the end of the month!

Stardines Fly High Across the Sky by Jack Prelutsky, illustrations by Carin Berger

stardinesThe illustrations for these poems differ from those of the above books in that they are more contained and much more surreal. Unlike the previous texts, which have paper spreads taking up the entire page, many of the illustrations by Berger are contained within their own boxes, similar to the shadow boxes of Joseph Cornell. Yet they still layer paper cutouts, giving dimension to the flat and occasionally (as in ‘PLaNdaS’) exploding out of the box and onto the rest of the page. Berger uses a variety of papers and ephemera, giving the spreads just as much of an old-fashioned feel as Lalouche, while still holding onto the playful and witty style of the text.

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