Category: Blog

Quotes on Two Mice

My new picture book Two Mice came out in September. It is making quite an impression among the international intelligentsia.

Here are some comments, and I’ll keep updating as more will come by:

TWO MICE are better than one.“—Walter E. Disney

Sergio Ruzzier’s TWO MICE is mousetastic.” —Beatrix Potter

I just ♥ how in TWO MICE Mr. Ruzzier lets the pictures tell the story.” –Randolph Caldecott

The most learned, acute, and diligent student cannot, in the longest life, obtain an entire knowledge of TWO MICE.” –Sir Walter Scott

“If one cannot enjoy reading TWO MICE over and over again, there is no use in reading it at all.” Oscar Wilde

TWO MICE is, like, wow. Just… wow.” —J.M. Barrie

No man remains quite what he was when he reads TWO MICE.”  —Thomas Mann

Within the covers of TWO MICE are the answers for all the problems men face.” ―Ronald Reagan

1, 2, 3, 3, 2, 1… That’s insane! TWO MICE is blowing my mind!” —Leonardo Fibonacci

TWO MICE is fabulous!” —Aesop

A thorough knowledge of TWO MICE is worth more than a college education.” —Theodore Roosevelt

“There was a good book called Two Mice,
That offered this piece of advice:
When leaping o’er cracks
You should never be lax— 
Lest you wind up with less than two mice.” —Edward Lear

“OMG, look at those tiles. The perspective! How does he do it?!” —Piero della Francesca

“Look deep into TWO MICE, and then you will understand everything better.” —Albert Einstein

“I can’t believe those TWO MICE like veggie soup.” —The Subway Pizza Rat

“The first and almost the only book deserving of universal attention is TWO MICE.” –John Adams



Second Star for Two Mice! (One each.)

Julie Roach writes on the Horn Book:

Using only two-word phrases (“One house / Two mice / Three cookies”) and a simple repeating number pattern (one, two, three; three, two, one; one, two, three), this clever book (with an extra-small, preschooler-perfect trim size) creates a fast-paced adventure for listeners and new readers alike. Expressive, mildly mischievous pen-and-ink illustrations in soft colors develop details and drama that the words leave out. For instance, in the pictures, when the two mice “share” three cookies, the spotted mouse gets two cookies, while the plain mouse, miffed, gets only one. Before long, the mice venture out to sea (“Three boats / Two oars / One rower”), and this time it’s spotted mouse who does all the work, while plain mouse takes it easy in the boat’s stern. Soon the situation grows dire — “Three rocks / Two holes / One shipwreck.” They nearly become a raptor’s dinner before managing “One escape.” The two work together as a team after this near-
disaster, and “Three carrots / Two onions” lead to a final nourishing “One soup” that both mice are happy to share — equally. Sometimes the pattern leaves the reader with practical questions: how did “One nest / Two eggs” hatch into “Three ducklings,” for instance? But trying to fit together all the pieces is part of the fun, and the book’s creative focus on pattern in plot leaves plenty of room for readers’ imaginations to play a strong role.

One Star for Two Mice!

Kirkus says:

The deceptively simple counting story of two mice, their adventure, and friendship. One morning in Ruzzier’s imaginative and colorful world, two mice wake to explore. The tiny window above the bed beckons: water, mountains, and sky are waiting for these two. Starting before the title and ending on the copyright page, minimal text says all that is needed: “One house / Two mice / Three cookies. / Three boats / Two oars / One rower. / One nest / Two eggs / Three ducklings.” New readers will soon notice the number pattern and slow down to see how the droll illustrations extend the story. For instance, the mouse with one cookie has an angry expression and a rather tightly curled tail, while the loose-tailed mouse looks gleeful as it chows down on two cookies. The sunny rowboat scene is not so sunny for the mouse who has to manage the two oars. By the time the two buddies return to their home, all is forgiven when the delicious soup is served. (And, in a visual nod to Sendak, it is clearly “still hot.”) The small trim size and careful attention to details give this book enormous appeal; the decorative floor tiles, ornamental feet on the kitchen table, and mismatched stools fit right in with the red hills and ever changing sky. The simplicity of the text means that the earliest readers will soon be able to pick it up and will return to it over and over. One story. Two mice. Three cheers. Lots to love.

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“A Letter for Leo” in Japanese!

Here’s the jacket of the forthcoming Japanese edition of A Letter for Leo, published by Mitsumura (which already published my Amandina a few years ago). The blue band is the obi, the traditional paper strip that wraps the book jacket. Yumiko Fukumoto translated the text, as she did for Amandina and The Room of Wonders. (Click on the image to enlarge it.)


For the Fear of Failing

I wrote this piece for this year’s illustration issue of The Horn Book. They graciously let me post it here as well.


I don’t like to experiment.

I know it sounds pusillanimous, but I’m just being honest: I don’t like to experiment because I am afraid of failure.

But at least two times in my life – at the very beginning of my artistic life – I found enough courage and determination to take risks. I was a fearless teenager then.

Being already passionate about picture books and comic strips – in particular those of Maurice Sendak, George Herriman, Elzie C. Segar, and Charles Schulz – it was clear to me how important would be to master pen and ink, if I wanted to be in that business.

Maurice Sendak

Maurice Sendak

George Herriman

George Herriman

Elzie C. Segar

Elzie C. Segar

Charles Schulz

Charles Schulz

Each of those artists had a very sophisticated and personal way of using the pen, and I wanted to find my own.

I remember going to the stationary store to buy my first two nibs, one very flexible and the other stiffer; then returning home and try them on the paper, keeping my hand from trembling; realizing I had to go from upper left to lower right to avoid; understanding how different pressures produce different lines; learning what kind of paper had the best surface for the kind of line I wanted to make.

In time, I did find my own way with pen and ink, which became my favorite and, for a few years, my only way of drawing. Most comic strips, at least the dailies, were in black and white, and I knew that even Sendak’s illustrations for Little Bear – a crucial source of inspiration for me – were colored mechanically. Because of all this, I didn’t think the lack of color in my drawings would be an obstacle in my future career as an illustrator.

Of course there was a hidden reason why I didn’t use color: the fear of failure. I had a fascination for Hieronymus Bosch, medieval frescoes and illuminations, so how could I not realize how important color can be for an artist? In fact, I had timidly attempted one or two small acrylic and a few oil pastel paintings, with very disappointing results, at least according to my overpowering superego. Those painful experiences kept me from seriously trying for years.

Once I became more conscious of the necessities of a professional illustrator, I couldn’t hide anymore, and had to face the challenging task of finding myself a method to add color to my pen drawings.

The most natural way to do that is watercolor, and so one day I went to an art store, bought a few half-pans of Schmincke watercolors, a brush or two, some Arches paper, and began testing the technique and my own resilience. For what concerned the techniques, I was set.

Maybe one day I will venture into buying a new kind of nib, or a new brand of watercolors, or even be audacious enough to try a paper with a slightly smoother surface. Who knows. For now, more than twenty-five years later, I’m still recovering from that initial double stress.

Judging the 2014 Bologna Children’s Book Fair’s Illustrators Exhibition. Part three.

Here’s Anna Castagnoli‘s third post on her experience on being a judge for the Bologna Children’s Book Fair’s Illustrators Exhibition. I apologize for any shortcomings in the translation, which would be solely my fault.

If you want to see the original post in Italian, go to Anna’s blog, “Le figure dei libri.”   


Salumeria Tamburini in Bologna

Day 3

The large hall was changing appearance; we were now moving around fewer tables. Some had been cleared to leave room for the final selection. In the back, staff members were carefully placing in folders the works discarded the previous days.
The exhibition was to include about eighty illustrators. Among the 160 piles survived from the earlier selections, we had to choose roughly seventy (ten, the ones with four stickers on, had already been put aside). We began with the discussions: the job of a judge is not to have opinions, but rather to translate into clear language every little thought, taste, or feeling.

The level of the discussion was very high. We had persuasive arguments, which we were sharing with passion. We were all so good at defending our ideas, that we ran the risk of getting stuck. After discussing the third work, we decided to take a break. Isabel Minhos found the right words to get us started again: our goal was not make one’s opinion prevail over the others’, and it was not a tragedy if we eventually had to leave out one judge’s favorite illustrator. We could not have our personal dream show.
That’s when I understood that we were a group, and that we were to select the show as a group, in a way putting aside our selves. The exhibition would have been precious because it would mirror something that none of us could have predicted before our getting together. And that’s how it went.


An illustration changes when paired with a text

We started to spread the drawings on the floor and make up stories based on them, to see if those images would have worked in a kids’ book, knowing that a text changes considerably the perception of an image. Sometimes there was no way to see what story would have worked with the the images: “They’re too much like postcards,” one of us would say, “rather than moments of a possible story.” “Could they be paired with a poem?” another would ask, without being too convinced. “What if we moved these to the non-fiction category?” “No, they’re not descriptive enough. We can’t. Let’s go to the next.”

An illustration is not a poster nor a painting to be hung on a wall.

The images had to have the right qualities that make an illustration an illustration: not a poster, or a painting for a museum, or a picture for a trendy magazine. In a book, each single image is a moment of the story. In a way, a book illustration needs to be an incomplete passage (the rest of the illustrations in the book will complete it).

Of course, the language of the children’s book is changing. The “new wave” style about which many have complained in the past years was not solely the jurors’ fault. It was really difficult to find, among those thousands of images, a traditional narrative style. We had to find these characteristics trying to decipher new languages. We also had to evaluate illustrations expressed in “languages” we were not familiar with (in works from Iran, Japan, Korea, China, Argentina…)
We had to take the time to understand all that, and we did. Sometimes we would read the title on the back of the drawing, to get some help. We discussed a lot. There was one quality that we all considered essential: an image had to “invite you in.”

There were images one had the feeling of entering into (or falling into, since we were looking from above). Even when they had flat field of color and no perspective, they called us in and get us involved.
The world represented had its own rules: they may have been absurd, but they were coherent. Other images stayed on the paper, without creating any world. More than anything, we didn’t feel they had a soul, to use Kitty Crowther’s expression. From a stylistic point of you, it is difficult to pinpoint such mysterious quality in a drawing, but here are a few focal points singled out by Kitty, Isabel, and Errol:

– Quality of the technique
– Stylistic consistency
– Richness and diversity of the composition
– Honesty (one thing is being inspired by other artists’ work; another is copying. We would get rid of anything we would consider “already seen,” or cliché)
– Ability to experiment and research new languages
– Storytelling
– Ability to capture the reader: freshness, energy; ability to surprise, involve, even disturb the reader
– Ability to see the world from a child’s point of view and his or her need of adventure, exaggeration, deep feelings, with a specific regard to gender; we asked ourselves if there is a difference in the way a boy and a girl perceive illustration: do boys need more adventurous, less embellished images? [I don’t think so! S.R.] – A sound content: one that doesn’t try to hide or edulcorate the truth
– Attention to the relationships between the characters

We had decided that each of us could use one wild card, which we could use in order to have one illustrator in the show, even if the other three judges didn’t like the work. We saved it for the right occasion. It was more fun to explain one’s reasoning and try and make the others change their minds. Often, we would succeed. Once one found the right words, that’s it! we would all get it. The very way we looked at an image would change. It was incredible, for me, to learn so much. The other judges as well had the same feeling of growing and learn to shift  one’s point of view.
It was good to present the “yeses” to the organizers or to Deanna, who were always waiting behind us. “Is this a yes?,” they would ask, with hope. “Yes, it is a yes!” we’d answer, with great relief, almost as we had just helped a baby be born. Little by little, the table for the accepted works was getting filled with images.

Something that never tires you; that slips away…
Many images to which we eventually said “yes” to had this quality: we never grew tired of looking at them. We would gladly go back to them, again and again, to wonder about them. They were not necessarily perfect, or beautiful. They could even have flaws. Sometimes, we didn’t even really like them. But they had something that we couldn’t quite grasp, that gave them a vibration, an intensity, a strength that never wore out; in that case, we would say “yes.”


One ground for exclusion was when the presence of another known illustrator was too obvious in the image. We found: 3 fake Géraldine Alibeu, 1 fake Maurizio Quarello, 1 fake Quentin Blake (for a moment we thought it was Blake himself who sent those drawings in in order to test us), 2 fake Beatrice Alemagna, 1 fake Isabelle Arsenault, 1 fake Jockum Nordström, and 2 fake Wolf Erlbruch from Germany.
For what concerns other continents, it’s possible that some plagiarists passed through. But for the Europeans, we felt quite secure.

But… Suddenly, five giant little girls pop in front of our eyes. They are dancing, or more simply put, they stand there. They have one eye, like cyclops. They are sweet, nice, enigmatic. The technique used to create them is very similar to Beatrice Alemagna’s: similar collage method, similar colors, similar style. But in those little figures there was something original and new. We decide we want them in the show. Soon after, we ask each other: who’s going to tell Beatrice? The thing is, we thought that it was not too bad to copy a little, if what you are able to say is new and original.


Digital illustrations

The percentage of digital images was quite low, maybe 10%. For the next editions of the show, keep in mind that the Fair prefers original works, since the primary goal of the selection is an exhibition. Obviously, if the quality was high enough, we didn’t discriminate. The problem was that most of the work was poorly printed, on cheap, thin paper. If you want to submit digital pictures, print your pieces on good, matte paper, from high-res files. And do include your preparatory drawings or sketches.

Previously selected illustrators

There were a number of illustrators who had been selected in the past editions. In a few cases, they won us over. In other cases, we wanted to make sure their work had evolved since the last time: if it didn’t, we wouldn’t select them, leaving room for new artists.

We skipped lunch, eating only a few chips from a tray. There was too much work to be done. I felt like I was bursting with joy: the critical work I was doing, the debate around the language of children’s book illustration is what I most love in my job. For once, I forgot that I get weak when I don’t eat.
In the next and last post I will tell you specifically of some of the work we chose and why we found that work innovative.
And that will be it.

Anna Castagnoli