Picture book surrealism

Horn Book Magazine reviewer Thom Barthelmess says, of 2013 Boston Globe-Horn Book Honor Book Black Dog by Levi Pinfold (Candlewick): "The traditional feel of the cumulative telling and the art’s surreal precision and fanciful decay combine to offer a curious metaphorical consideration of what it means to be afraid and what it takes to conquer those fears."

Surreal, eye-catching imagery can make even the most jaded picture book viewers take notice. 2013 Caldecott Honor Book Sleep like a Tiger is one of the more surreal picture books around:

Sleep Like a TigerSleep like a Tiger
by Mary Logue; illus. by Pamela Zagarenski
Primary     Houghton     40 pp.
10/12     978-0-547-64102-7     $16.99

It’s a seemingly familiar story: the child doesn’t want to go to bed; the parents insist she does. A little scootering girl “who didn’t want to go to sleep even though the sun had gone away” asks her parents if everything in the world sleeps. Her parents assure her that dogs and cats, bats and whales, snails and bears and even tigers sleep. Eventually, the little girl mimics the animals her parents have described and slowly falls asleep herself. Zagarenski’s dreamy mixed-media illustrations are as calm and comforting as Logue’s understated prose. Stylized characters, extra-pale and often wearing crowns, feet perched on a variety of wheels, live in a surreal world of giant moons and random teapots and coffeepots. Each spread invites the reader to slow down, breathe deeply, and explore the world found in the illustrations. Is there a teapot on every page? Is everything and everyone on wheels? Is the tiger carrying the sun off the page on his back? It’s impossible to see everything the first or tenth time, ensuring that parents never lose interest and that wide-awake children will have little choice but to eventually join our little girl, curled in her nest, wings folded like a bat, in a warm spot like the cat, fast asleep, like the strong tiger. Night-night. [Robin L. Smith]

From the November/December 2012 Horn Book Magazine.

And if you're looking for another book that deals with fear, Alice-in-Wonderland-style — and from an unexpected perspective — check out Mom, It's My First Day of Kindergarten:

mom, it's my first day of kindergarten! Mom, It’s My First Day of Kindergarten!
by Hyewon Yum; illus. by the author
Preschool, Primary     Foster/Farrar     40 pp.
7/12     978-0-374-35004-8     $16.99     g

“Mom, wake up!” In the art, a young boy looms large, while his mom appears small and kind of blue (as in “sad,” though she’s also pale blue from head to toe). Turns out she’s worried. Did she forget to pack his school supplies? “I have my crayons and markers…I’m all set!” Will he be late for school? “We can run!” Youngsters will giggle when she asks, “Will you be okay…you’re still so little” — the illustration shows a big, robust boy and his tiny mom, feet dangling as he pulls her behind him. Kids will get right away that the roles are reversed and that this is mightily amusing. The boy sounds exactly like a parent, telling his mom, “I like to make new friends…and you’ll make new friends, too.” Sure enough, he greets a little girl, and their moms make friends, too. Blue no more, Mom now sports a cheery yellow shirt and pink cheeks. Yum’s (Last Night, rev. 1/09; The Twins’ Blanket, rev. 9/11) breezy illustrations are spot on, the mom’s baby-boy-blue tint aptly reflecting the story’s small-child anxiety. Readers will love the last page, boy and mom normal-size at day’s end — until, that is, he inquires about taking the school bus. [Jennifer M. Brabander]

From the July/August 2012 Horn Book Magazine.

The three author/illustrators below have become nearly synonymous with surrealism in picture books. Check out their (vast!) bodies of work for much more surrealist fun; here's a classic book from each of them.

The Mysteries of Harris Burdick
by Chris Van Allsburg
Primary Houghton    32 pp.
09/84    0-395-35393-9     $14.95

One has come to expect the unexpected from the Caldecott Medal–winning author-artist, and his new book is no exception. The introduction presents a perplexing scenario: thirty years ago a man appeared at a publisher's office and "explained that he had written fourteen stories and had drawn many pictures for each one." But he had brought with him only one drawing from each story. Fascinated by the pictures, the publisher asked to see the stories they illustrated. The man disappeared, however, and was never heard from again; the only clues to the missing stories were their titles and a caption accompanying each picture. And, continues the illustration, "in the hope that someone more clever than I will be able to find the true meaning of...[the] provocative art, the drawings are reproduced here for the first time." The pencil drawings reveal the artist at his most enigmatic; richly shaded and infused with a mysterious light, they depict with technical precision scenes that range from the whimsical to the frightening. "Missing in Venice" presents a knee-weakening image of an enormous ocean liner wedging its way down a narrow Venetian canal. Another picture, captioned "He was sure he had seen the doorknob turn," depicts a person approaching a tiny door in a dark basement. No narrative thread connects the fourteen drawings, yet they are linked by individual elements of the unexplained or the supernatural. Each illustration is a separate puzzle — strange, intriguing, and tantalizing to the imagination. [Kate M. Flanagan]

From the September/October 1984 Horn Book Magazine.

by David Wiesner; illustrated by the author
Primary     Clarion    40 pp.
9/06     0-618-19457-6     $17.00     g

With its careful array of beachcombed items, the title page spread of Wiesner’s latest picture book makes it look like one of those Eyewitness books, but the following wordless story is far stranger than fact. In clue- and fancy-strewn full-page paintings and panels, a boy at the beach closely examines items and animals washed in from the sea; when a wave deposits an old camera on the shore, his viewing takes a radical shift. He gets the camera’s film developed at a nearby shop, allowing Wiesner’s bountiful imagination great play in the series of photos the boy then examines: a robot fish, an octopus reading aloud to its offspring, giant starfish with islands on their backs. And: a seaside photo of a girl holding a seaside photo of a boy, holding a seaside photo of another child, ad infinitum. The inquisitive boy’s ready magnifying glass and microscope allow him to see further and further into the photo, and further back in time, as revealed by the increasingly old-fashioned clothes worn by the children pictured. What to  do but add himself to the sequence? The meticulous and rich detail of Wiesner’s watercolors makes the fantasy involving and convincing; children who enjoyed scoping out Banyai’s Zoom books and Lehman’s The Red Book will keep a keen eye on this book about a picture of a picture of a picture of a.... [Roger Sutton]

From the September/October 2006 Horn Book Magazine.

The Arrival
by Shaun Tan; illustrated by the author
Middle School, High School    128 pp.     Levine/Scholastic
10/07    978-0-439-89529-3     $19.99

From a bleak, sunless city haunted by the threat of scaled and serpentine monsters, a man sets forth to seek a new life in a new land, leaving his wife and daughter behind. His steamship voyage with a host of refugees takes him to a strange shore indeed, a country with its own architecture, alphabet, technologies — even the pets look different. It’s the triumph of this lavish yet somberly monochromatic wordless book that readers are put right into the refugee’s shoes: we’re as out of place as he, learning the customs of the country in step with the protagonist. With him, for example, we figure out how to use the transport system, and once aloft in the steam-driven air-ferry, we sit alongside him as another passenger tells her own story of imprisonment and escape. Small, meticulously composed square panels, sometimes twelve to a page, move the action along while larger pictures and double-page spreads display surreally majestic cityscapes as well as scenes of the disaster and oppression that led the nameless protagonist and others to seek this welcoming land. Subtle shifts from gray to brown to golden tones underline the chiaroscuro of the story’s themes; all is warm light when the man and his family are united once again. [Roger Sutton]

From the November/December 2007 Horn Book Magazine.


Elissa Gershowitz

Elissa Gershowitz is executive editor of The Horn Book, Inc. She holds an MA from the Center for the Study of Children's Literature at Simmons University and a BA from Oberlin College.

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