Subscribe to The Horn Book

Whaddya SAY to taking chances?

Checking a fact about Joan of Arc, I found myself on the Wikipedia garden path, cruising through various manifestations of the saint on stage and screen. That led me to The Miracle of the Bells starring Italian actress Alida Valli, who, it turns out, was once married to Oscar de Mejo, a painter who did a few deeply weird children’s picture books for HarperCollins in the 1980s.

I wonder if picture books can still be that weird. Even Chris Raschka has calmed down. There was (comparatively) a lot of money in picture book publishing back then, so publishers could afford to take more risks. I’m wondering where the risk-taking is today (you’d think YA, but you would be wrong)  but am guessing that publishers would tell me that publishing itself is enough of a risk!

Proclaimers, it’s up to you.

Roger Sutton About Roger Sutton

Roger Sutton has been the editor in chief of The Horn Book, Inc, since 1996. He was previously editor of The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books and a children's and young adult librarian. He received his M.A. in library science from the University of Chicago in 1982 and a B.A. from Pitzer College in 1978. Follow him on Twitter: @RogerReads.



  1. I don’t know…I’d argue that David Wiesner is deeply weird; his is just weirdness that has been embraced.

  2. Katie Bircher Katie Bircher says:

    I once (in Arcata!) saw a screening of THE PASSION OF JOAN OF ARC accompanied live by composer Richard Einhorn’s score VOICES OF LIGHT.

    It was gorgeous — and an example of risk-taking — but a very intense experience. Joan of Arc is fascinating.

  3. Roger Sutton Roger Sutton says:

    I guess I need to think about what I mean by weirdness as I don’t find Wiesner weird at all.

    Katie, I have that film with with the Einhorn score on dvd–it’s great. Miracle of the Bells is far more conventional but terrific in its melodramatic way–Valli plays a movie actress who literally DIES to get her Joan on screen.

  4. I LOVE Wiesner, but I definitely think flying frogs and fish taking pictures of themselves very weird. How do you feel about Mother Reader’s Weird Ass Picture Book category: I had forgotten about Clara and Asha, which I definitely think is a weird, weird book. The Crows of Pearblossom is another fairly recent weird book (to me).

    However, thinking about my vintage collection at home, I think about books like Switch On the Night (the original art) and I think I agree with you. I’m going to have to go back tonight and see what else I can find.

  5. I also don’t find Weisner’s books weird, but probably there cannot be a mutual agreement on what “weird” means.
    Weird is a weird word.

  6. Roger Sutton says:

    For me, weirdness involves the presence of some kind of inscrutable element–no matter how carefully you look or read, there’s something left you can only guess at. Weisner’s books can be brilliant, but they are very nailed down.

    And yes, Sergio–the weirdest thing about the word weird is that it looks right even when you spell it wierd, which I frequently do!

  7. And I just realized I spelled Wiesner “Weisner”! This is getting weirder and wierder.

  8. Ooh. I think about this a lot, but you’ve made me realize I’ve never quite nailed (in my head) what “weird” or “risky” is to me, though I feel like European picture-book creators do it more.

    I almost feel like “risky” or “weird” can be considered anything devoid of sentimentality, since sentimentality in children’s books is assumed a necessity/given by many. Not that this is how we *should* define “weird,” but how it ends up being defined by default in this country? Am I making sense? For instance, William Bee’s Beware of the Frog. WEIRD (to many).

    I’m curious: What was “weird” about de Majo’s books? Now I wanna see them.

  9. Maybe there are more publishers in France or Germany, compare to the U.S., that are a little more inclined to leave some things unexplained. In the U.S. what you often hear is ” it’s not clear why the character did this” or “why is that object there?” And this comes from editors but also from reviewers, librarians, etc. The same thing happens with most Hollywood movies, and not just movies for children.
    Please, let us have a little bit of uncertainty, here and there, otherwise life can get pretty boring.

  10. Roger Sutton Roger Sutton says:

    And I’m as guilty as other reviewers when it comes to objecting to weirdness. Like Tomi Ungerer: Maurice Sendak and fancypants publishing have tried for decades to make Americans like Tomi Ungerer and we just won’t.

  11. Thank you for helping me define “weird” – inscrutable and without sentimentality – perfect. Jules & Sergio, “weird European” is my favorite picture book category!

    Wiesner = fantasy = not weird
    Raschka, A Ball for Daisy = so not weird
    Raschka, Arlene Sardine = weird

  12. Rebecca Hachmyer says:

    Can you point me to the discussion where we explore this fairly self-aggrandinzing “Proclamation”? Does this give anyone else pause?

  13. Roger Sutton Roger Sutton says:

    Why the churl, Becky? If anyone wants to create and publish books that stem from artistic nerve rather than consumer trends, I’m all for it.

  14. Daphne Lee says:

    Has anyone read The Gardens of Dorr by Paul Biegle? I find this book weird. I also find The Glassblower’s Children by Maria Gripe weird. Or rather, weird is one of the words I have used to describe these books, probably referring to the supernatural elements within them. They are dark, unsettling books sunk in a deep sense of melancholy. I guess, in Malaysia anyway, they are considered too weird to work as children’s books.

  15. Rebecca Hachmyer says:

    Oh Roger, you know I bleed churl.

    I am ALL for disregarding commercial trends in favor of creative expression. And there is no doubt that there is a huge amount of artistic talent in that group. I am confident that they will continue to mature as storytellers. Nonetheless, that “Proclamation” rubs me the wrong way.

    If the “Proclamation” had been presented as a living document or as a call to arms to others in the industry I think it could have become an interesting statement. Instead it feels like a new clique showing up to declare: “We are here to save the picture book.” I don’t read any regard in it for those who have been creating “fresh, honest, piquant, and beautiful” works for decades. (And frankly, several of those proclaimers do enough borrowing to make me wonder if they are falling prey to imitation or if they just are failing to “know our history” as well as they intend.)

    This “Proclamation” reminds me of myself as a young buck at Simmons (or more accurately of myself talking shop with my colleagues at our favorite dive bar after class at Simmons): I didn’t even know what I didn’t know. There was so much I had to learn—and still have to learn– about picturebook form, its history, and the history of the industry. Thank goodness I had a mentor to look over my work back then–in which I made bold claims and sweeping generalizations about the world of book reviewing–and to say “this is fascinating stuff, Becky, but most of it isn’t true!”

    So maybe it is fine for this group of artists and writers to believe that THEY will save the picturebook. But I hope that the mentors and old hats out there are giving them opportunities to gain a little perspective. It will show in their work. Most of all, I hope that those who forged the path for this new, enthusiastic generation get their books faced out too.

  16. I just bought Oscar de Mejo’s “The Tiny Visitor,” if anyone cares to take a peek:

  17. As an author/illustrator of between 30 and 40 books, I wish I could say that I got to indulge my inner weirdness more often in my work. For my own edification/amusement/enchantment I have always found European picture books to be more up my alley than American counterparts, but as an American who wants to make a living pursuing my craft and get published on a somewhat regular basis, I often end up jettisoning the weirdness from my work, or having editors smooth out the strangeness from my manuscripts when I try to leave a little in. Nothing wrong with that, it just makes for a more commercial book to follow the tried, the true, and the predictable. I have a fairly big pile of manuscripts that are way too weird to get published–and by weird I mean that the characters and events take unexpected turns into the realm of what I can only call dream logic, and not everything turns out nicely or happily in the end. But the Barnes and Nobles of this world apparently don’t want to see much of that. At the same time, though, stuff like “The Arrival” is pretty darn weird, and won a lot of praise from many corners. So maybe some “weird” is just more universally likeable than others. “Beware of the Frog” is a great title and I just requested it from my library. I hope it’s as weird as it sounds!

  18. The weirdest book I’ve seen out lately was “We Need A Horse” from McMullen’s (leave it to the new McSweeney’s children’s imprint!). I was initially attracted to its “weird” – i.e. unusual and fresh – look, but was ultimately turned off by its “weird” – i.e. nonsensical – storyline. I’m all for taking risks, but the story should still easily communicate something… and if this went right over my head after several readings, it probably doesn’t speak to children, either. I wanted to like it for being non-traditional, but instead I got the impression that its market was hipster/literary parents, not kids.

    My point is that yes, children’s books should take risks, inspire grown-up conversation, and push boundaries – but the ones that are ALSO clear and resonate with their audience will be successful, both commercially and artistically.

  19. Annie Silvestro says:

    “Beware of the Frog” is fantastically weird! One of my favorites. Another weird picture book, in my opinion, “DeZert Isle” by Claude Ponti.

  20. …and I think “Hush Little Alien” is sweetly weird! Just wish I could find it in print to order replacements for my public library!

  21. Yes, resonating with an audience is most important! I ordered “We Need a Horse” from my library but have yet to see it. I got “Beware of the Frog” and found it quite enchanting until the end, when the sweet lady ate her partner and caretaker, the frog. It was definitely weird but simultaneously unsatisfying in terms of storytelling and did not make sense emotionally.. Weird and good can be compatible, but don’t have to be! And hipster-oriented picture books are definitely not cool. Unless, perhaps, hipsters get eaten at the end of the story. Then I am all for it. Thanks to AGM for remembering “Hush Little Alien”, one of my early books and yes, sadly long out of print. As for weird, I think Sendak’s “Outside Over There” is very strange and otherworldly. I tried to read it to my three kids when they were little and didn’t manage to convince them of it’s considerable merits!

Comment Policy:
  1. Be respectful, and do not attack the author, people mentioned in the article, or other commenters. Take on the idea, not the messenger.
  2. Don't use obscene, profane, or vulgar language.
  3. Stay on point. Comments that stray from the topic at hand may be deleted.

We are not able to monitor every comment that comes through (though some comments with links to multiple URLs are held for spam-check moderation by the system). If you see something objectionable, please let us know. Once a comment has been flagged, a staff member will investigate.

We accept clean XHTML in comments, but don't overdo it and please limit the number of links submitted in your comment. For more info, see the full Terms of Use.


  1. […] in February, Roger Sutton had a great discussion at his Horn Book blog about “weird” picture books, asking folks where the risk-taking […]

  2. […] “Weird-Ass Picture Books.” Just two years ago, Roger Sutton, Horn Book editor, started a great discussion about weird books and risk-taking in publishing, a conversation that reminds us all how hard it is […]

Speak Your Mind