Have you ever seen a flower? I mean really . . . seen a flower? I mean way down in the clover with your face down in a flower? Have you ever seen a flower using nothing but your nose? Breathe deep . . . what do you see?
HAVE YOU EVER SEEN A FLOWER?
By Shawn Harris
Published by Chronicle Books (May 4, 2021)
Can you tell me the origin story behind Have You Ever Seen a Flower? SH: "There’s a Hermann Hesse short story called Iris where the narrator ventures into a flower and finds some existential truth there. I think that’s what got me thinking about a flower as an entry point to the natural world. I was also reading one of Knausgaard’s season books, where any crumb or bit of tchotchke he focuses on leads to a revelation. So I thought I’d try my hand at choosing some specific thing with the idea of eventually talking about bigger ideas. Flowers seemed worthy muses. They’re good at attracting attention. By design, the attention of bees, but it works on humans too— that’d be useful in designing a cover later and getting people to notice the book. Anyway, I just kept looking deeper, and asking questions, and the lines I was writing started giving me ideas for exciting page turns and reveals, and that’s when I had a hunch it might make for a good picture book."
From A Polar Bear in the Snow to such a riot of colors! Can you explain how you chose your color palette? "Every book has a different soul, and so do different mediums. That’s the first match I try to make when I start experimenting on a project. I get a lot of ideas from drawing with kids, and I like to use materials that a lot of kids have access to. My niece was into colored pencils, and she had a rainbow-tipped one that we got really into. I combined that with a neon pink, and a few others (I only used 6 or 7 colors in the book), mixing my own colors on the page rather than using too many secondary colors. Though I tend to press overly hard, so I went through a lot of my select colors. When it came time to print the book, we substituted normal magenta ink for a neon pantone, which was tricky to color correct, but it gives the book that extra dialed-up-to-11 pow."
Who are some other illustrators you admire for their use of color? "I have a special love for preseparated colors, especially hand-separated (mostly pre-digital) art like Marc Simont’s 3-color art in the early Nate the Great books, and Tomi Ungerer’s The Three Robbers and Zeralda’s Ogre. Christian Robinson is probably my favorite contemporary palette maker. Look at that Nina cover!" Are there other picture books you love about the wonder and connection to the natural world? "Brendan Wenzel’s They All Saw a Cat is always an inspiration. Carson Ellis’s Du Iz Tak? is a wondrous invitation to live amongst the bugs. A new favorite that came out last year is On the Day the Horse Got Out by Audrey Helen Weber. Sneakily naturalist."
What contemporary picture books do you hope will become the classics of the future? "All of those I just mentioned, and Cátia Chien’s new one with Derick Wilder, The Longest Letsgoboy, and everything Klassen and Barnett do, especially together, like the shapes books (Circle is my favorite). Also School’s First Day of School by Adam Rex & Christian Robinson, The Old Truck by the Pumphrey Brothers, Wild by Emily Hughes, and Thank You, Omu! by Oge Mora."
What would be on your list of 100 best picture books of all time? "I keep rolling my previous answer into the next question, so many of those books I just mentioned, plus already-crowned classics like The Stinky Cheese Man by Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith, In the Night Kitchen and Outside Over There by Maurice Sendak, as well as Sendak’s version of E.T.A. Hoffman’s Nutcracker, Fortunately by Remy Charlip, back to Sendak—his books with Ruth Krauss like Open House for Butterflies, and A Very Special House—The Little Island by Margaret Wise Brown and Leonard Weisgard, George and Martha by James Marshall, The Amazing Bone by William Steig, and The Three Robbers by Tomi Ungerer, to name a small bundle."
What picture books coming out in 2022 are you most looking forward to getting your hands on? "The new Barnett/Klassen joint, a retelling of The Three Billy Goats Gruff. Also Jon is doing a retelling of a lesser known folktale called The Skull. That might come out the following year though, I’m not sure. Beatrice Alemagna has a very good Gianni Rodari story coming out this year, Telling Stories Wrong. Also, Isabelle Arsenault illustrating The Mouse Who Carried A House on His Back by Jonathan Stutzman, and Carson Ellis illustrating This Story is Not About a Kitten by Randall de Sève."
Moon cannot see but he hears sounds that other horses ignore: the eggshell crack of a meadow lark hatching. Clara does not speak but she hears sounds that other children ignore: the hum of the oven when her mother bakes muffins. Both the foal and the little girl live with challenges. Both also have special qualities, which are recognized by friends who are open to seeing them.
Max's Boat Pick:
MIDNIGHT & MOON
Written by Kelly Cooper and illustrated by Daniel Miyares
Publisher: Tundra Books (February 8, 2022)
The illustrations for Midnight & Moon are so lush and breathtaking. What was your starting point and / or inspirations? "That’s so kind of you! Thank you so much! To begin with I needed to do a lot of background research. There’s a tenderness to the story and such an emphasis on the friendships. I wanted to be clear about where the characters were coming from. Also, the horses! I spent time going to horse barns and watching riders and their horses before Covid shut most things down. Then I would drive around the area I live and spot horses in pastures to observe and photograph from the road.
When it came to making the art, I started with some ink, a brush, and newsprint paper. I started sketching out the book with these materials in a gestural way. I wasn’t sure how I was going to make the finished paintings, but I suspected that the ink and brush would give me an emotional quality that felt right. Once I had my sketches I just inched towards incorporating color. Then I tried some gouaches for my finished art experiments and that was where I landed. The book has sweeping landscapes, close in intimate moments, changes of season and time of day. I wanted an approach that would preserve the energy and movement of horses through all of those scenarios. I hope that comes through in the finished book."
For those who love Midnight & Moon, can you recommend a few other titles you think they might also enjoy? "Sure thing! A couple of titles that I love that might have connection points are: A Boy and a Jaguar by Alan Rabinowitz, illustrated by Cátia Chien and The Silver Pony by Lynd Ward. A Boy and a Jaguar is based on Alan’s life and how his deep connection to animals helped him navigate his stuttering. Alan’s dedication to wildlife conservation and his journey are so inspiring, but also Cátia’s artwork is magical as usual.
The Silver Pony is an oldie but a classic on my shelves. It’s about 175 pages long and it’s a wordless book. It tells the story of a boy who befriends a majestic winged horse on his farm. They have adventures all over the world and form a sweet bond. It was published in 1973 I believe so it’s got some quirks to it, but it’s still wonderful."
What did you love reading to your kids at age 3? At age 5? "My children are now 13 and 10 years old. For my daughter her all time favorite was Antoinette Portis’s Not A Box. We’d read it every night before bed for years. She also loved Chloe, instead by Micah Player. For my son it was a book illustrated by my friend Bob Kolar and written by Margery Cuyler called The Little Dump Truck. They also both loved Paola Opal’s books, Saffy, Ollie, and Totty when they were real young. Oh, and also anything by Sian Tucker. We had The Little Boat, Going Out, and The Little Train."
What contemporary picture books do you think will be the new classics of the future? "This is a really tough question for me to answer. I spend most of my time trying not to worry about picture book rankings. It seems like the books that have gotten major book awards are going to be in print for quite a while. So does that make them classic? Then there are the books that are on the bestseller lists week after week. Is a classic made by how many copies have sold? I’m not sure.
Some books that I have on my shelf that I consider classics are King Mouse by Cary Fagan and Dena Seiferling, Ocean Meets Sky by Terry and Eric Fan, The Last Resort by J. Patrick Lewis and Roberto Innocenti, and The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse by Charlie Mackesy. Maybe what’s classic is specific to each reader? I’ll go with that."
What would be on your list of 100 best picture books of all time? "Peter’s Chair by Ezra Jack Keats would be one I’d put on my 100 best list."
A thoughtful little Rabbit sets out to find the perfect gift for his Nana. He knows she will love anything he brings her but Rabbit wants this gift to be extra special. As he travels on his quest, Rabbit encounters an assortment of creatures-a crow, a smiling full moon, a stickler (whatever that is), a big fish, and a volcano. Each is certain they offer the best advice but nothing they suggest seems right for his Nana. It's not until Rabbit reaches the highest peak, that he finds exactly what he's been searching for.
Pick by Bob Shea, Chez Bob:
A GIFT FOR NANA
By Lane Smith
Publisher: Random House Studio (April 12, 2022)
Can you tell me the origin story behind A Gift for Nana?
LS: "The character of Nana is based on my mom. Everyone called her Nana and she was a big kid at heart. I know I became a children’s book creator due to Mom’s influence. Growing up, our house was filled with toys and dolls and stuffed animals. Hers, not mine.
When I was around eight years old I saw Mom admiring a big jar of striped peppermint sticks at a store. It looked like something from an old candy shoppe or apothecary. That Christmas I set out on my bike (this was in the 1960s when a kid was safe to roam unaccompanied). I rode through rocky fields and past the giant rusty Sunkist lemon factory and over hills and on back roads until I finally arrived at the store. I pulled out all of my saved-up change and bought that big candy-filled jar. I wasn’t thinking ahead, the ride home took twice as long trying to pedal and balance the jar on my handlebars. But I eventually made it and on Christmas day Mom (Nana) couldn’t believe I remembered that jar.
Funny sidebar: thirty years later my wife Molly and I were at Nana’s house for Christmas. Molly saw a candy jar and reached in for a stick. Nana said, 'Uh, you probably don’t want to eat that.' Yes! It was the same candy jar filled with the same candy. She put it out every Christmas. I can’t believe its contents had never been raided by ants.
Anyway, we lost Mom a couple of years ago. A Gift for Nana was the only book I’ve written that was not a struggle. It seemed to write itself and I only realized halfway into it that I was retelling that Christmas candy story but with a giant carrot instead of a giant candy jar and with a rabbit filling in for Nana. The mind is a weird thing."
You've once said that it's the best time ever for kid's books. "Now, it’s kind of a given that books not be too sugary and have a nice design and look." One perfect example, in my opinion: A Perfect Day. What are some other picture books that you think define what you've described? "Thanks for mentioning A Perfect Day. It’s a favorite book of mine. Well, I would not limit it to a specific book but the folks who I think are doing consistently handsome, smart books, the folks whose new books I always check out are (off the top of my head):
Bob Shea, Phil Stead, Kadir Nelson, Julie Fogliano, Jory John, Sergio Ruzzier, Laurie Keller, Corinna Luyken, Peter Sis, Juana Martinez-Neal, Erin Stead, Christian Robinson, Kate DiCamillo, Sydney Smith, Jon Klassen, Kevin Henkes, Mac Barnett, Carson Ellis, Julie Morstad, Loren Long…
I know I am leaving out a lot of folks and will hear about it later."
What do you think the best picture books do? Is there a book that you think does this
particularly well? "I will buy a book with great illustrations even if the story is not so great. I rarely buy a book with a great story but mediocre art. I guess that’s why they call them picture books. But the best books have both great art, story, and if you are really lucky, design. Those books are rare if you ask me. This leads into your next question…"
What contemporary picture books do you hope will become the classics of the future?
"Chez Bob by Bob Shea
When Green Becomes Tomatoes by Julie Fogliano and Julie Morstad
This is Not My Hat by Jon Klassen
Nicky and Vera by Peter Sis
Just a few recent ones that come to mind."
What would be on your list of 100 best picture books of all time?
"Well, any website called Max’s Boat has to start with Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice
Sendak. In my opinion, still the greatest marriage ever of perfect pictures and perfect words.
Other Best Picks are:
Swimmy by Leo Lionni
Sylvester and the Magic Pebble by William Steig. (Actually, every Steig book.)
The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats
The Tenth Good Thing About Barney by Judith Viorst and Erik Blegvad
Aesop’s Fables selected and adapted by Louis Untermeyer, with pictures by Alice and Martin Provensen
Arnie the Donut by Laurie Keller
The Carrot Seed by Ruth Krauss and Crockett Johnson
The Shrinking of Treehorn by Florence Parry Heide and Edward Gorey
The Snowman by Raymond Briggs
Goodnight, Gorilla by Peggy Rathmann
I could easily add another 20 books to that list."
What picture books coming out in 2022 are you most looking forward to reading? "I don’t have access to the trades and try not to look at industry blogs so I don’t really know what is coming up but one book that I do know about and one that I have been waiting for and that I finally got my hands on yesterday is The Art of Alice and Martin Provensen. A book about my favorite illustrators of all time. Their work is glorious and the book features a lot of original art. Amazing.
(My only quibble: the work is reproduced so small. It’s like looking at an exhibition catalog. I literally used a magnifying glass to study the beautiful textures and brushstrokes. Fact is, only art lovers, fellow illustrators and animators will be buying this book so why not issue it in a large format at twice the price?"
Do you have a favorite bookstore and / or library? "I am lucky to live near a great bookstore: The Hickory Stick in Washington Depot, CT. It’s a quaint little shop with a fantastic children’s book section run by really smart and friendly people. If anyone ever wants a signed book by me call them up. Next time I have to run to town for bread or birdseed I will be happy to pop in The Stick and doodle one up.
My favorite library would have to be the one I carry in my memory. It was in Corona, California in the 1960s and I can still close my eyes and walk its carpets. I can go left to find Eleanor Cameron’s Wonderful Flight to the Mushroom Planet. I can go right to find Ray Bradbury’s books. In the back are How to Draw books and in the 500s of the Dewey Decimal System, lots of books on animals. I grew up in that library."