Odds and Ends Top 5: Children's Books and Illustrated Novels
I have always loved illustrated books! When I was growing up, most of my exposure to illustrations paired with stories came through browsing children’s books in the library. There was something so powerful about the way a single illustration could convey emotion and context to a story that the text could never do. I learned that a picture was truly worth a thousand words. Over time, I began to pick my books based on the illustrations and less on the story (literally judging a book by its cover). Eventually, I found my favorites…books that, to this day, remain treasured items in my library. Below are five of my absolute favorites, for varying reasons. With one exception, each of these were discovered by the time I was 15 years old. And, for most of these books, the illustrator and author were the same person. I don’t think that is a coincidence. They're all fantastic books. If you're in need of a good read and a new world to explore, please check them out.
#5 Tales From the Loop
Number 5 on my list is Tales from the Loop by Simon Stalenhag. It is the most recent addition of those selected for this post, but I’ve been a fan of Simon’s for about ten years. Tales from the Loop, published in 2014, has a loose narrative about the construction of a fantastical piece of tech called the Loop and its impact on the surrounding area. It takes place in an alternate Sweden during the 80’s. The book is appropriate for any age, but it primarily appeals to an adult audience.
What inspires me about this book is the way Simon’s illustrations present a true slice of life, allowing readers to peek into a fantastical world that feels so real. It juxtaposes common place things and environments with elements that are truly extraordinary. If I’m completely honest, I haven’t read the book entirely. The full page illustrations alone are enough to transport me into another world. What I think is also so cool is how well Simon captures local, small town Sweden with its unique architecture, climate, and color palettes.
In the end, Tales from the Loop is like a Swedish Stranger Things in book form. I highly recommend checking out this book and others in the series…all phenomenal.
Next is a classic book published in the 70’s, called Gnomes. It was written by Wil Huygen and beautifully illustrated by Rien Poortvliet to feel like a handwritten notebook diary of the life and workings of gnomes. I was introduced to this book when I was a very young kid and I was blown away by the amazing watercolor illustrations and its academic details and notes. Like Tales from the Loop, Gnomes does not follow a story in the 3 act format we’re used to. In fact, it doesn’t feel much like a story at all. But you still feel like things are happening around you.
What impressed me most is the extensive, almost Tolkien-esque, depth and worldbuilding the author and illustrator put into a fantasy race. After going through the whole book, you come out feeling like an expert, knowing how gnomes eat, sleep, travel, and so much more. It's that level of detail that allows the reader to feel completely immersed in the world and its that level of detail I aspire to include in my own worlds and stories.
The traditional style of art makes it feel like it could have been made 10 years ago or 300 years ago...Gnomes is timeless in my eyes
#3 The Mysteries of Harris Burdick
Right in the middle of the pack is a very influential book in my library. The Mysteries of Harris Burdick by Chris Van Allsburg looks like a very traditional children’s book, albeit a tiny bit dated in its style. But, like many Van Allsburg books, it is very unconventional for a children’s book. And while it is a true children’s book, unlike the previous recommendations, it is similar to them in its unique story form. In fact, Mysteries is really 14 different stories. Each two page spread “story” consists of a single, full-page greyscale illustration on one side and a one or two sentence caption on the other. The premise behind the book is that an author/illustrator named Harris Burdick came to a book editor with short pitches for 14 stories and left the briefs in the editors care. Then Mr. Burdick disappeared and was never seen again. Van Allsburg, of course the true author/illustrator, is shown the pictures and captions by the editor and they agree to publish them in a book hoping its publication will help them find Harris.
It’s a brilliant, elaborate fiction on its own. But then add each unique story pitch and you have something incredible. While the book, as a whole, doesn’t follow any formal story structure, each spread does what any great story should do: it captures you, excites you, and keeps you anxious for what happens next. Except, in this case, you’re the one to provide the “what’s next”. The Mysteries of Harris Burdick is probably my #1 favorite single illustrated book of all time and it fostered in me a love for powerful short fiction, something that I feel hasn’t been fully tapped in illustrated storytelling.
This book usually takes a back seat to Van Allsburg’s more popular stories like Polar Express and Jumanji, but it is a storytelling marvel. Check it out!
Number 2 is Dinosaur Bob (full title: Dinosaur Bob and his Adventures with the Family Lazardo), written and illustrated by William Joyce. I bought this book and World of William Joyce Scrapbook while browsing the student bookstore at Brigham Young University as a teenager. I had never heard of William Joyce but I was blown away by his nostalgic art style and when I saw Dinosaur Bob, I had to have it. Dinosaur Bob is the most conventional children’s book on this list and its story is traditional and charming. It tells the tale of how the Lazardo family and their devoted butler found a giant dinosaur in their family travels and the trouble they got into after bringing him home. Its a tiny bit politically incorrect (by the world’s ever-changing standards), but the story holds up and is full of whimsy and charisma. It was also while reading this that my own first worlds and stories began to develop. One of which I plan to develop into something big through Wits End in the near future.
It's hard to express my love of this book without talking about the impression the author/illustrator William Joyce had on me. In his Scrapbook, which I read the same day as Dinosaur Bob, Mr. Joyce gave me a peek into the life of an illustrator. It was perhaps a little exaggerated towards the glamorous, but I was smitten! He had done all the things I had hoped to do in my profession and was living the life I hoped to live…even his workspace inspired me. Over the years, I collected more of his books and watched as many movies and TV shows were made based on his work (Meet the Robinsons, Epic, and Rise of the Guardians, among others). Without knowing him personally or witnessing his career directly, I tried to pattern my art trajectory after his. Even Joyce’s Oscar-winning Moonbot Studios was an inspiration for my own Wits End Studios.
I’m very grateful for the work of William Joyce and his many great children’s books, especially Dinosaur Bob. I highly recommend it for kids and kid-like adults.
And number 1, most definitely, is Dinotopia by James Gurney. I received a copy of Dinotopia for Christmas when I was about 13 years old and I fell in love with it! It tells the story of Arthur Denison and his son, Will, after getting shipwrecked on a lost island inhabited by humans and dinosaurs. It’s written from the perspective of Arthur as he beautifully records his travels and discoveries in words and pictures. Like Chris Van Allsburg, James Gurney claims, at the beginning of the story, that Dinotopia was discovered, not written, by him. Being in journal form, it doesn’t have a formal three act structure. The book let’s the reader explore, along with Arthur, this extraordinary world through handwritten notes, rough painted sketches, and spectacular full-spread illustrations. James Gurney is a dinosaur expert and veteran National Geographic illustrator, so the book is not only beautiful, but accurate too. Another great thing is the world continues on with three more books, all equally stunning.
I probably wouldn’t be as attached to this series if it wasn’t for the fact that Gurney has documented his process and technique so generously. I grew up with Dinotopia the story, but I grew as an illustrator with James’ blog Gurney Journey, a daily blog that serves as a priceless, yet free, resource for artists and illustrators. Through the blog and his art instruction books, Imaginative Realism and Color and Light, I was able to see how Dinotopia was made, from initial concept to storyboards to final illustrations. These have been an invaluable resources for me as I’ve worked on my own stories and illustrations through the years.