Published by Chronicle Books. In bookstores now, and available everywhere online including on Indiebound.
Written by Florence Parry Heide and Sylvia Worth Van Clief, published by Atheneum BFYR in 2017. You can buy your copy on Indiebound here.
“Such a lovely, irreverent illustrated ode to books and why we read.” –Brain Pickings
“An affirmation of the transformative power of reading.” –Kirkus Reviews, starred review
“A book about learning to read. offers gentle empathy for kids tackling this intimidating task.” –Publishers Weekly, starred review
“Sweet, profound book… pays a sneaky tribute to the power of words and pictures to work together. Brilliant endpapers.” –The New York Times
“Effectively demonstrates the magic of reading and the power of imagination.” –School Library Journal, starred review
“Read. Share. Repeat. This one is a joy.” –Julie Danielson, Kirkus Reviews
Here is a small selection of children’s books that I personally find helpful and perhaps hope-inducing without trying to hammer a moral lesson into your head, which could be not only painful but counter-productive.
(The links are to Indiebound.org, but of course you can find or order these books at any other bookstore or library.)
Grasshopper on the Road
Little Blue and Little Yellow
Tony Kushner and Maurice Sendak
Jo Hoestlandt and Joanna Kang
Star of Fear, Star of Hope
Otto: The Autobiography of a Teddy Bear
Ruth Krauss and Crockett Johnson
The Carrot Seed
Amos & Boris
Some reviews for This Is Not a Picture Book! have come out. As usual, Publishers Weekly and Kirkus were the first ones, and they both gave my new book (my first with Chronicle) wonderful, starred reviews. More recently, School Library Journal published their own starred review.
This isn’t a book about books; it’s a book about learning to read. A duckling with a pink beak picks up a fat volume and discovers, in the irritated comment of the title, that it has no pictures. “Can you read it?” asks his sidekick, a bug. “I’m not sure,” says the duckling. “Words are so difficult.” In luminous watercolors, Ruzzier (Two Mice) shows the duckling and bug crossing into a strange, many-colored world, where unfamiliar words are represented as odd machines, blobby shapes, and bizarre creatures. When the duckling stumbles on a word he knows (“bee,” “flower”), its recognizable image pops up among the mysterious ones. Duckling and bug wander through the ever-changing landscape of reading—“There are wild words… and peaceful words”—before landing cozily in bed. Ruzzier’s story offers gentle empathy for kids tackling this intimidating task. Observant readers will note that the endpapers represent learning to read, too; the initial pair retells the story as a beginner might see it, with most of the words scrambled, while the words of the final endpapers read clearly—and no pictures there, either.
A metafictive delight of a picture book.
Alice would be pleased: despite Ruzzier’s title, there are plenty of pictures and ample conversation in this picture book. The titular book within the book, however, is illustration-free. This initially causes distress for the duckling protagonist (who oddly has a bellybutton, but that’s beside the point) who finds the book in the spreads before the title page. When a bug appears and asks, “Can you read it?” the duckling gives it a try. In a brilliant feat of page layout, the recto depicts a green landscape encroaching on the verso, with a log laid across a chasm as a bridge to the white space on which the duckling and bug stand. Their walk across the log is a visual metaphor for the duckling’s successful decoding of the text in its pictureless book. Whole worlds open up to them as the duckling reads aloud. Illustrations depict these worlds evoked by “wild words… / and peaceful words,” and the duckling ultimately declares that “All these words carry you away.” The satisfying conclusion is an affirmation of the transformative power of reading. In one outstanding design touch, the front endpapers tell the not-a-picture-book text in garbled type with transposed letters that one must strain to decode, while the text is clear in its entirety on the back ones.
School Library Journal:
In this winsome examination of the power of words, a little duckling is delighted to find a red book lying on the ground. “Where are the pictures?!” the fuzzy yellow bird exclaims in dismay upon opening it up. The duck flips through the pages, scanning the plethora of print, and begins to recognize some of the words. His interest and enthusiasm flourish as he continues, reading words that are funny and sad, wild and peaceful. His imagination takes off, and along with his tiny cricket friend, the duckling is swept away on a fantastic adventure. He tells the little insect, “All these words carry you away…and then…they bring you home.” The straightforward tale is enhanced by endpapers featuring lines of text, which are jumbled in the front and placed in order to relate the duck’s story in the back. The eclectic pen, ink, and watercolor illustrations add color and energy to the narrative. At first, the pictures are set against a canvas of white space and then slowly expand as the duck begins to envision scenes with each additional word he reads. One of the final spreads portrays the duck and his friend safe at home in his bedroom, which contains a shelf crammed with books.
I can’t wait to know what the others think!
This year I was one of the five jurors of the Bologna Children’s Book Fair Illustrators Exhibition. In the beautiful catalogue published by Corraini, I was asked a few questions on creating picture books and more.
The five jurors: Klaus Humann, Nathan Fox, Francine Bouchet, myself, and Taro Miura.
You have said in the past that there are so many obstacles and taboos when creating children’s books, that you run the risk of censoring yourself. How do you avoid self-censorship?
I was specifically referring to the U.S. market, where all my children’s books so far have been originally published.
I consider myself fortunate to have found such a fertile ground for my ideas and my style, and I doubt that I would have been able elsewhere to make my passion for picture books into an actual profession. I am very grateful to the editors who saw potential in my work, beginning with the unforgettable Frances Foster.
There is, of course, the other side of the coin. Compared to what gets published in other Western countries (Germany, for example, or France, or, perhaps to a minor degree, Italy), American books for children tend to be very tame. There are glaring exceptions, of course, but generally speaking you don’t see books that deal with issues that are considered too mature for the audience: death, sex, war, violence, depression, and so on. When books on such themes do get published, they tend to be heavily weighed down by a predictable message, and illustrated incompetently. There is the widespread belief that children need to be shielded from the reality of life. That, in my opinion, is a huge mistake, and is akin to lying. Of course I’m not suggesting that children’s books should include pornography or gratuitous violence, but if a story calls for it, one shouldn’t shy away from showing unpleasant situations. The risk of self-censorship I was talking about is always looming, and can be difficult to detect.
When writing a story, or drawing a picture, you do feel the pressure to deliver something free of possible controversy, or to make choices based on specific political agendas. But in order to produce the best possible work, the only pressure you should feel is the pressure to be true to your own voice.
When creating a children’s book, do you ever have a precise image of your ideal reader in mind?
Absolutely not. I don’t think of the reader at all. I believe that when writers think too much about who’s going to read their book, the result will be formulaic at best.
Which illustrated book would you have liked to have authored? Why?
There are so many authors and illustrators I worship and whose books I hold dear. In general, I’m drawn to unusual stories that are beautifully illustrated without trying to impress. I can’t stand authors who follow a trend and illustrators who want to show off without even possessing the appropriate skills. Warmth, sincerity, and irony are the main qualities I always look for in a book.
Arnold Lobel’s Frog and Toad stories are among the most profound, funny, endearing books I’ve ever read. The drawings perfectly match the tone of the text, at the same time melancholic and reassuring. William Steig, Maurice Sendak, Tomi Ungerer, Edward Gorey: they all have created wonderful books that keep inspiring and humbling me.
But if I have to pick one single book, it would probably be Wolf Erlbruch’s Duck, Death, and the Tulip. I’ve never seen anything like it. It’s a death dance for children. It’s original, powerful, sweet, compassionate, sad, comforting. It’s done with such measure and good taste. I would be happy if I could produce something comparable to that book.