Thursday, June 28, 2018

Caldecott 2018

For the last five days, I just keep crying. I’m not one to discuss my feelings and I’m not a big crier. Rather… I don’t like to be seen crying or talk about having cried. But I keep crying. And, apparently, I keep talking about crying.
On Sunday, hours before the Newbery Caldecott Wilder banquet was to begin, I was with my family at this big New Orleans shopping mall by the river. And I started getting emotional. I started to think about how many years have gone by with art and creativity and work and collaboration and family and companionship and happiness and birth and love and loss. And I was about to be in a room with a thousand people and I was going to reflect on all of that. I was blessed with an amazing opportunity to thank my fellow artists and collaborators and thank my friends and family. I was given an opportunity to acknowledge the fact that my Dad was gone too soon to see it happen.
So, I  didn't want to be seen crying, so I left my family at the mall, and I walked back toward the hotel alone. I walked along the riverfront under the scorching, humid, New Orleans sky, and I looked out at the ships cruising past and people laughing and taking selfies and I looked at the beauty of the place that I was in, where all of this was happening and about to be happening. I was in a city that’s been beaten down time and time again. I was in a city that was born to persevere and was stronger than any other city I’ve visited before or after. I was in a city that is a living miracle of different races and cultures and art. And it made me cry.
For the next couple of hours, I cried and got nervous and went online to figure out how to tie my tie. My family eventually made it back to the hotel, and we all got dressed in our finest. Julie looked beautiful and my daughter looked beautiful. My son felt like it was a good time to throw a tantrum. But it didn’t last.
Before the before-the-festivities festivities, there was a cocktail reception. As soon as we arrived, all of the nervousness melted away, shockingly, never to return. There was family there and publishing friends and committee friends, and Jason Chin and Elisha Cooper friends, and all the nervousness melted away. I drank half of a beer. Probably, that helped.
We moved into the big, beige Green Room, where I finally met Thi Bui and Gordon C. James. I met Derrick Barnes and Erin Entrada Kelly. Impulsively, I hugged them all. Whether they liked it or not, I could not not hug these people. Photos were taken with the biggest, most all-natural smiles. Erin and I were escorted out to the dais with our Caldecott and Newbery committee Chairs.
The next hour or so was a mix of getting in and out of seats, listening to a bit of welcome speech, eating but not eating. Seeing family and friends and hugging family and friends. And being up on a platform that was physically higher than family and friends and looking out from time to time at a thousand people and knowing and liking and loving them all.
The lights flickered, the room eventually silenced. Tish Wilson, Caldecott committee chair, beautiful person inside and out, introduced 4 Caldecott Honor books and 4 Caldecott Honor artists. Each of them took the stage for photos and I felt so blessed to be doing this with these 4. I wanted to hug them all. I managed to grab Elisha's hand as he walked past. Tish introduced my book and its creator and suddenly I was crying again. Or trying not to cry. It was time. And I wasn’t nervous. Just happy. Just trying not to cry.
I was fine until I got to the part where I said… thanks. Thank you to my tribe. To my book tribe and my friend tribe and my family tribe. By god, it was hard to keep it together. But I looked into each of the faces of my tribe and I tried to kept it together. Until I turned to the last page of my speech, and I knew what was on the last page of my speech, where I knew it was time to remember that my Dad wasn’t there. And I tried not to cry, but I cried. And I cried and cried and cried. But I said what I needed to say up and out and down into the universe, and I said… thanks.
And I hugged Tish and sobbed uncontrollably into her shoulder. Thank you, Tish. Sorry, Tish.
And my two children somehow escaped their table and ran up to the dais and hugged their wreck of a dad. And I cried some more.
The presence and speeches of Erin Entrada Kelly and Jacqueline Woodson carried me off into laughter and emotional euphoria. I had a glass of red wine. Probably, that helped. The night was a waking dream. It was beyond hype. Beyond expectation. Beyond reality. It was every everything.
And I’m crying again.
---- this silly, bickering world. There needs to be times where we say ---- this silly, bickering world and we hug each other and reflect and say… thanks. And we cry.
Anyways. Back to work. Deadlines and all.

Tuesday, October 3, 2017


This week, my book, WOLF IN THE SNOW, will be receiving a Boston Globe-Horn Book Honor Award. Because of this, I’ve been thinking a lot about it again since the time it was published earlier this year. It’s been on my mind a lot again, with the writing of an acceptance speech and reflecting on what it was like several years ago, when I first decided to make the book—way back when it first showed up in my head and onto paper.
Up until WOLF, all of the books I’ve both written and illustrated have started with a story, which has started with a real thing that has happened in my life. My earliest author/illustrator picture books, TROUBLE GUM and ANOTHER BROTHER, were adapted from things that happened in my childhood. And my own children gifted me with the ideas for HELLO! HELLO!, WISH, and DREAM. WOLF IN THE SNOW was a completely different… animal. (I know… sorry.)
WOLF started not with a story, but with a picture I drew. It was not a picture drawn for a story or on any sort of assignment. It was just an image that popped into my head. One that I needed to commit to paper, and would then be done with. It was this:

Naturally, as one does in this day and age, I posted that picture to Facebook. Surprisingly, it got a pretty strong reaction. Most of which were comments like, “I hope this is for a book you’re working on!” It wasn’t, of course, but with that kind of encouragement, I began to wonder if it was something I could elaborate upon. I was inspired enough by the suspense and characters in the drawing to want to know more myself. But I’ve never been good at pulling a complete and well-made story from a single image. So, I was not excited about trying it again. And yet I did. Sort of.
I decided to first try and do some research. I’d drawn a wolf with little to no idea about what wolves were really like. Other than... I thought they were generally malevolent creatures. Wicked and selfish and hungry for anything that got in their way. My idea of wolves was, probably, mostly established by the likes of The 3 Little Pigs and Little Red Riding Hood. Once I started diving into documentaries and non-fiction texts about wolves, I realized that all of what I thought I knew was completely untrue.

For those who don’t know, wolves are not the bloodthirsty beasts that they’ve been portrayed to be in those old stories, and often continue to be presented as in some movies, TV, books today. They are quite noble and loving and true to family and pack, and simply want to survive and live and love. Much like us humans, really. They are highly complex and intelligent animals who hunt (animals like caribou, not people) for food and kill no more than is needed to survive. But because they’ve been painted as these killing machines, throughout history wolves have been decimated in population and hunted for sport. So much so, that they have evolved to completely fear any contact whatsoever with humans. They are as afraid of humans as we typically are of them.
Once I discovered this thing, this vast misperception run amok, I immediately saw a parallel to what’s happened with wolves and humans to what’s happening with humans and… other humans. Stereotype and prejudice between different races, religions, and sexual orientations. Stereotype and prejudice between man and woman. Stereotype and prejudice run amok. And suddenly, I had my story.
So, I wrote a story with words. A terrible story with words. Several versions of a terrible story with words. I showed this evolving book dummy to my talented author wife and to my Chicagoland author-illustrator group and to my other bookmaking friends in different places. My friends weighed in on it many times in different incarnations. (It was the first time I’d done any of this. I’d always been pretty protective and solitary about my writing.)

With constant tinkering, it began to get a little less terrible. Because of the story—a girl is lost in the wild, in isolation, then unites with a lost wolf pup—it naturally evolved into a wordless book. My first attempt at one of those. Eventually, after polishing and revising, it was becoming something presentable. Something I wasn’t too not-proud of.

All the while, I wanted to be respectful and true to the wolf and the wolf’s honest nature and behavior and biology. The story I was writing was becoming one of two parties getting past their own prejudices to help each other in a time of need. A story of growth, and empathy, and reciprocation. It was always intended to be fiction, and I was accepting that there could be moments I would need to bend truth-in-nature for the sake of the story. It is, after all, fiction. Not non-fiction. But I wanted the story I was writing to be as truthful and respectful to how wolves would act and react in real life as possible. So, I started having very specific questions and concerns about my story. Questions that couldn’t be answered by documentaries or books. After a bit more poking around, I found out about and reached out to the Yellowstone Wolf Project.

The Yellowstone Wolf Project is a team of scientists responsible for reintroducing wolves to Yellowstone National Park in 1995—around 70 years after they were completely wiped out from the park in the 1920’s. They have invested deeply in wolves and have been working with wolves for this great amount of time, so it would be an invaluable resource if I could get through to them. I had a somewhat long list of very specific questions that needed rather specific answers, so I wasn’t sure if they would ever write me back. But they did. I was so incredibly grateful not only to hear back, but to hear back from them with such in-depth knowledge, insight, and information about wolves and wolf behavior.
For example, I wondered specifically about a moment in the first part of my book. Early on, a pack is traveling with a pup and the pup is separated from the adult wolves in a blizzard. I wondered… would a pack be traveling out of the den with a pup of a certain age? Would they be traveling at a time that could result in a blizzard? Knowing how protective they are of their own, is it even possible that a pup could be separated from the adult wolves in a time of travel? I was delighted to receive this extremely comprehensive answer in return.

“Wolf pups generally stay around the den until they are about 12-14 weeks old. At that point the adults lead them to a "rendezvous" or “RV” area which is a lot like an above-ground den. The pups know to stay there and the adults know to bring the pups food to the area. Often the RVs are wet, marshy areas with good visibility and slightly higher ground for bedding. However, the move between the den and the RV can occur when the pups are as young as 6-7 weeks (and only about 10-12 pounds) and so the pups could easily get separated from the adults during such a move. The adults do not carry them at that age and so the pups have to keep up with the adults. We had one pack last year lead their nine 6-week-old pups more than 8 miles over one night--and that was the first week of June, a time of year we definitely still have blizzards.”

This continued exchange of questions and answers was extremely helpful to support the story I was already building. And furthermore, it would put me on the right track for other visual specifics I’d yet to figure out. I wanted the pup in my book to be old enough to travel, but small enough to be carried by the girl in the story. So, my visual reference and research from that point on, would all be for an 8-week-old pup. To get the right look and proportions and texture of fur for a pup at that age.

I thought it would be impossible to reach someone like the Yellowstone Wolf Project, and I was incredibly inspired to make contact and have a chance to correspond with someone who held this amount of knowledge on a subject I’d grown to care about so dearly.

Never would I ever have imagined I could dig in deep like this for research for a book I wanted to make. The research ended up driving and inspiring the story itself. It was a new approach in bookmaking and story building for me. One I hope I’ll jump back into for some other book(s) in the future. (Now that it doesn’t seem so far out of reach and intimidating.)

Once the book was at its better-than-ever best, it finally was submitted to my editor, Liz Szabla, at Feiwel and Friends. Honestly, I wasn’t quite sure it would be the right book for them, as my previous two books were pretty silly/absurd ones. But I was pleasantly surprised to discover right away that it was something they were interested in publishing. With a few minor tweaks to the storytelling, we were up and running.

Then came the final decisions in the making of the art. I’ve always kept pretty close to my very simplified, shorthand line drawing style. A sort of loose and expressive cartoon line. But I felt like this book needed something different. The tone was very much unlike anything I’d ever done. Because of the stark line driven between human and wolf (in a prejudiced mind), I felt like the people and wolves should be drawn and depicted very differently. It took a while to figure out just how differently that should be.

But in the end, I settled on drawing the human characters in my usual shorthand of line, and the wolves would be drawn much more realistically than I’d ever drawn a thing in any of my books. I felt that this would also drive up the readers’ emotions in the more suspenseful parts. In a way a more cartoon-like wolf certainly would not.

Wolf in the Snow has been a book-making experience like no other one I’d had before. It was equal parts invigorating and frustrating. There were moments I felt completely overwhelmed with things I might never know or find out. And those moments would often lead to redemption and understanding. I’ve been so moved to see the incredibly positive critical and general response unfold as it has this past year. Thank you, sincerely, to everyone’s support and to the Boston Globe-Horn Book award judges. See you in Boston this weekend!

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Farewell, Paul Martyka. Artist, Mentor, Friend.

It is with an anvil-heavy heart that I must share the passing of one of my greatest mentors, artistic influences and inspirations, Professor Paul Martyka. Losing him will leave a great, big void in my life and in the many, many students' and faculty members' lives whom he touched and inspired over the 37 years he taught printmaking, painting, and design at Winthrop University in Rock Hill, SC.

Martyka (most folks knew him simply as "Martyka") was one of those teachers that you are a little afraid of, but you try endlessly to impress. I was lucky enough to study in many of his classes. Actually, I made a point of it. He was a razor sharp individual. Smart, funny, quick-witted, and massively talented. He was well-versed and proficient in drawing, printmaking, painting, design, and he taught them all. And I registered for them all. If you could cut through his salty exterior, you would find Martyka as generous as he was critical and particular. He would go to great lengths to share his time and knowledge and craft with any student who showed promise, intelligence, and curiosity. He could often be found at school or in his studio late, after hours, missing meals--whatever it took to help a student with a question or in need.

My greatest memories of Martyka were made during an independent study drawing class I took with him during my senior year. It was a class he created, took upon himself, and made time for in his already busy schedule. I was fortunate enough to be able to spend one-on-one time with him weekly, getting to know him more (and him, me) both artistically and personally. By the end of this course, I had a group of drawings I was more proud of than anything I'd ever done. I was proud enough to want to somehow make a show of them. And so we did. Martyka helped me secure some space on campus (some unused classrooms at the time) and together we cut frames (he was also well-versed in woodworking and sculpture) and we hung a show. We had an opening reception, we had a celebration. When I accepted an award at the end of the year for drawing, he was standing right there beaming, and I've always regretted being too insecure to grab him and give him a giant, thankful hug.

More than a teacher, Martyka became a true friend. After graduation, he continued to motivate me to do bigger and greater things. I kept drawing and painting and eventually left the south to try art on a larger scale, moving to Chicago to figure things out. I showed my art in galleries, practiced graphic design, and ultimately found a place in the art world where I felt loved, inspired, and at home--illustrating books for children.

For a time, I tried to keep in touch with him, but Martyka's attentions were always where they needed to be. At home. With his art and with the students that needed him most. He had very little time for anyone or anything else in his life. For a short time, I was lucky enough to receive that attention. And for that, I'll always be grateful.

Not a day goes by where I'm at my drawing table, scratching away with my pen or painting in some color and washes with a brush, that I do not think back on one or more of the things Martyka said to me. One or more of the insights and bits of wisdom I was so blessed to have picked up. Insights I will always remember and will always use. I'm not exaggerating or romanticizing. This is the truth.

Paul Martyka was one of those larger-than-life types that one can never imagine not being alive. And in some way, I suppose, he never will die. I'll certainly never forget him for the rest of my life. I'm so thankful to have known him.

Before I left town, I convinced Martyka to sit for me a while so I could draw a series of portraits. Neither of us were terribly comfortable about it, but I'm so glad I did.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Original art and WISH prints for sale!

I'm now selling a handful of pieces of original art from a selection of my picture books! Up for sale is art from Trouble Gum, Another Brother, Hello! Hello!, Ollie and Claire, What Floats in a Moat?, and Bat and Rat.

Also up for sale is this brand new limited edition Giclée WISH print.

Please check out my Etsy shop with all this stuff in it, right here!

Tuesday, May 19, 2015


On March 3, WISH was released.

WISH is the story–my family's story–of a couple in love, living for years focusing only on themselves, not yet planning to bring a child into the picture.

Time passes. And when they are finally ready for their family to grow… to their dismay, a baby does not seem like it is going to be possible. There is sadness, hardship, and a lingering, unanswerable question of “will we ever have a baby?”

When it seems as if hope is lost, a flicker of possibility appears. And then… “with every feeling that was ever felt,” that baby does make its way into the world, in a crescendo of joy and love.

All of these moments—the highs and the lows—create the full picture I wanted to make with WISH. I wanted to make a book for all families who have welcomed a baby and who know this crescendo. But I also wanted to make a book for families like mine who weren’t quite sure there would ever be a family. But through perseverance and courage and determination, and through one way or another, that baby was willed into their world. I hoped families who braved through questions and struggles of infertility and/or adoption would find this book. My hope was that these parents could read WISH with these children, and at the end say, “this book is about you. This is what we went through to meet you. Because you are our everything.”

Since the book was released, I’ve been amazed and moved by the emails and messages I receive every week. Messages from people who are finding WISH and being affected by the story, often connecting it with their own. Readers who are moved enough by the book to share it within their own family and also go beyond and share it with others. I’m incredibly grateful for each and every one of these exchanges.

There is one I’d like to highlight here.

A couple of weeks ago, I received a Facebook message from a very special librarian friend, Margie Myers-Culver. Margie and I have known each other for a few years now. She writes the most perceptive, thoughtful, well-crafted book reviews via her blog, Librarian’s Quest. To call them “reviews”… it’s not quite enough. More like works of art about art. She’s a wonderfully thoughtful person who is passionate about reading and about books for children. Margie’s message began like this…

I have been thinking a great deal about getting copies of Wish to more people. Today I chatted with one of the board members at our Charlevoix Hospital Foundation. She said they would be more than willing to accept my donation based upon my request for all the money to go to buying Wish for babies delivered at the hospital. They have 200 babies born each year…”

Margie went on to describe her plan to purchase and donate 200 copies WISH to Charlevoix Hospital. One for every baby born there in a year’s time. The donation would be made in honor of her late mother, also a librarian and champion of authors and illustrators, reading, and books for young readers.

What a beautiful notion… to give this story of ultimate reward to every one of those ultimate rewards being born in a community. I was blown away. I found it hard to believe someone could be so thoughtful and generous to take on such a thing. That just one person would take it upon herself to make such a lasting and caring and generous gift to her community. And with books! But it was all true. 

This story continues to unfold as I write these words. 

 This week, I visited Anderson’s Bookshop (an independent bookstore in a Chicago suburb not too far from me) and I signed and drew in 200 copies of WISH. 

Knowing that all the books I touched would eventually be put into mothers’, fathers’, and newborn babies’ hands. There was some good magic at work there.

The books are now being shipped to Margie’s home in Charlevoix, Michigan. She will be placing a custom commemorative bookplate inside each book that reads:

Welcome to the world!
May this book be the first step on your journey
to becoming a lifelong reader.
It is given with love by Margaret Marie Myers Culver 
in memory of her mother, Agatha Marie Fires Myers,
 a woman who loved introducing the joy books can bring to children.

Each book will be wrapped in paper and ribbon and then the books will be officially donated to Charlevoix Hospital. And the next 200 children born there will begin life with this gift.

I can’t even begin to thank you enough, Margie, for this amazing donation that will affect so many people. It is all happening, but it still seems so unlikely and unreal. I’ll never forget it. I never imagined that making this book would have turned into something like this. Thank you, Margie. Thank you.
And thank you to all who have read WISH and taken the time to share it with someone you love.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Best Books from 2014 not from 2014

Now's the time of year when all the "best of" lists come around. I don't recall if I've ever done one myself. At least not publicly. I usually keep this sort of thing to myself or in private conversations. Seems like the right thing to do. But this year, I read some incredible books. I read some incredible books that came out in 2014, of course. But I also read some incredible books that did not come out in 2014.

So in the interest in doing something different, I've decided to make a list of the best books I discovered in 2014. The ones that did not come out in 2014.

Flora and Tiger by Eric Carle, published by Philomel in 1997

Early this year, I lucked upon the spine of this Eric Carle book in the nonfiction section of my local public library. I was a little confused as to why a book by Carle was wedged in there, so of course I slid it off the shelf. And I’m glad I did. Turns out this book—that looks much like one of his picture books, but with smaller bits of art and longer bits of text—is Carle’s answer to the question many of us picture book makers continually tolerate throughout a career. Question being, “do you think you’ll ever make a real book?” Real, of course, meaning something for grown-ups, not kids. [sigh] Anyway, I love that he did this and I love that he did it like he did it. It’s 19 true, short (long by picture book standards) slice-of-life autobiographical stories from the picture book master himself, from various times of his childhood and adult life. 

I have long admired Carle’s work and I love this peek into his world. The writing is clever, poignant, precise, and fulfilling. The art is as stylish and charming and accomplished as anything he’s done and accompanies the stories impeccably. Other than the length of text and subject matter throughout, everything about it—fittingly so—feels like a picture book. The size, shape, illustrations, and design. Wonderful.

My Side of the Car written by Kate Feiffer, illustrated Jules Feiffer, published by Candlewick in 2011

Jules Feiffer is one of those Old Guard, Real Deal, Bulletproof Pen and Ink Illustrators. I love how he just goes for it with his drawing. He is clearly not afraid of much when it comes to hitting pen, pencil, etc to paper. I have immense respect for that attitude. I have immense jealousy over it. This book is drawn up-to-perfect-snuff by the great Mr. Feiffer and it is just-right written by his own daughter Kate. And that, in itself, grabs me. 

But backing up, and to be perfectly honest, I had seen the cover of this book bouncing around online when it first was released. But I am not always on top of things, so it ended up being one of those books I mentally set aside with all good intentions of eventually checking out. But then more books are released on top of it, and time goes by, you forget, and that’s that. Such is the life of a book. Luckily, this was another great happenstance at my local library. Thumbing through the new (-ish) picture book section, there it was again, allowing me to rediscover it. Thankfully so. The story is sweet, funny, and just the right amount of weird. A little girl wants to go to the zoo with her dad, and they do, but it starts raining. Only it never starts raining on her side of the car. So on they go. And by the time you get to the sweetly satisfying ending and then through it, you are rewarded with a short back and forth conversation between the Feiffers about how this story is based on a true story—a childhood one that took place with Kate and Dad. Much here reminds me—in the best way—of one of those perfect days I’ve shared with my own daughter. Which is not to say that I’m always a sucker for a daughter and dad book. But I am a sucker for one done well.

Wild by Emily Hughes, published by Flying Eye Books in 2013 (US edition)

I am not terribly sharp when it comes to regurgitation of historical facts and anecdotes. Throughout school, I memorized just enough of that to skate by, much of which was promptly forgotten when I was released into adulthood. Perhaps you learned the story of the Wild Boy of Aveyron? I may have. I may have forgotten it. Essentially, in 1800 a boy was found alone, in the woods in Aveyron, France. Presumably abandoned at a very young age, and he had somehow survived for his many years alone. He was about 12 years old when he was found and he was… well, totally wild. Once he was discovered, people attempted to assimilate him into civilized society with mixed results. I don’t know if I learned this in school, but I did learn about it in Mordecai Gerstein’s incredible picture book The Wild Boy which I discovered a couple of years ago. Later, specifically earlier this year, I read a version of this same story in Wild. I suppose it’s one that’s been told and retold and adapted many times over. But in Wild the feral child story (with a twist at the end) is accompanied by absolutely triumphant drawing. 

The cover alone is reason enough to buy the book sight unseen. Which is what I did. 

Seasons and Mr. Gumpy's Motor Car By John Burningham, published by Jonathan Cape in 1969, published by HarperCollins in 1976 (US edition), respectively

What the great John Burningham has contributed to art and illustration and picture books (and also to my own obliterated perception of all the above after discovering his work) is very much immeasurable.  I could go on about how utterly fearless his work is (and I have), but I won’t.

But backing up for just a minute… Whenever I’m fascinated by an artist or an illustrator, I don’t typically go out and consume every book or image by this person as quickly as possible. Because: a) financially speaking, it is not ok for me to do that; and b) I prefer to consume a bit here and a bit there, taking in and digesting reasonable amounts at a time. I prefer to luck upon one of said artist’s books someplace, somewhere, sometime completely unexpectedly. On a library shelf, in a bookstore, in a used book sale, etc. That’s how I seem to work.

This year, I picked up two out of print (I think?) Burningham titles.

I first heard about Seasons at my artist’s group. When Burningham came up in conversation, someone noted he had been hunting a copy of this book for a while. I hadn’t even heard of it. So that, coupled with the fact that it sounded difficult to find, made me want it all the worse. Eventually I got lucky and found a pretty well worn copy online for cheap. There’s not much story or even text to this book. Each season of the year is introduced very simply. “Spring is…” with a handful of scene-setting words to describe each changing time of year. All of which, it seems, take place on and around one sprawling, rural plot of land. And for the lack of text here, we are treated to an explosive range of dense, layered, rich Burningham illustration.

Just a few weeks ago, I found for sale a beat up library copy of Mr. Gumpy’s Motor Car. One that was taken out of circulation and put up for sale in my local library’s used book room. I have to say, a beat up library picture book is sometimes so much more interesting to own than a pristine never-been-touched copy. How many children and parents and picture book enthusiasts have pored over and grabbed and twisted, turned, laughed over, cried over, smelled and ripped theses very pages? It sure looks like a lot. This sort of picture book patina will only make a Burningham book that much better.

Like many of his books there are weirdly perfect juxtapositions of strangeness and tenderness. The art is both classic and groundbreaking. There are moments of absolute awkwardness alongside ones of absolute finesse.

Mr. Gumpy and his children and animal friends squeeze into his car for a lovely drive across the countryside. There is a moment of conflict with rain, mud, and the arguing of the pushing and then the pushing of Gumpy’s mud-stuck car. It gets hot, they go for a swim. They go home.

“Good-bye,” said Mr. Gumpy. “Come for a drive another day.”

And I don’t mind if I do.

Frog and Toad are Friends, Frog and Toad Together, Frog and Toad All Year, published by HarperCollins in 1970, 1971, 1976, respectively

I’m pretty embarrassed to admit to this, but… 2014 will henceforth be known as the year I read Frog and Toad. For the first time. I love Arnold Lobel and have slowly, over the years, been digesting his great picture books. He is, in fact, one of my favorites. Frog and Toad are, in fact, one of my wife’s childhood favorites. So I don’t know why or how I could have not read Frog and Toad for shamefully this long in life. Taken for granted maybe? Forgot I’d never read them maybe? But now I have. And I’m much better off because of it. 

These books are every bit as perfect as I’d always heard them to be. Pitch perfect, top to bottom. Not a line out of place. You know the rest. You’ve all read them. If only I’d gotten to them sooner.

Words and Pictures and Beyond the Page by Quentin Blake, published in 2000 and 2012 by Jonathan Cape, respectively

There has been a lot of Quentin Blake moving through our house this year. It started when my wife decided to begin reading to our daughter some Roald Dahl books before bedtime. Our girl is 6, so not all Dahl is appropriate, but she did get to Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and James and the Giant Peach. Both of which were, by choice, the (later) Quentin Blake editions. I was then inspired to read The Witches, a Dahl/Blake book I’d never gotten around to. At which point I was hooked—or shall I say rehooked—on the drawings of Sir Quentin. Blake is one of those true blue pen and inkers who is so good at what he’s doing and has been for so long, that you almost forget just how good he really, really is. You take the work for granted. For shame.

Shortly thereafter came my birthday. I used a Powell’s gift certificate to snap up these two Quentin Blake art books I’d had on a “wish I had that” list for a long, long time.

Words and Pictures follows Blake’s career and pen from early beginnings all the way to the year 2000. Much of this volume focuses on his incredible and evolving book work. 

Beyond the Page picks up with Blake’s art after 2000 and carries us up to when it was published, in 2012. This book showcases many of his exhibits and art installations through Europe where he created many original drawings that were displayed on museum, gallery, and even hospital walls. And other fun side projects like postage stamp and greeting card illustration. (Bonus: the endsheets are a peek into QB's blissfully chaotic studio.)

The text and descriptions throughout both volumes were entirely written by Blake himself, in a wonderfully charming, wonderfully humble tone. It seems impossible to say, but I love his work even more having read what he has to say about it. I found we shared many of the same processes and idiosyncrasies in the way we approach our drawing. I loved reading about his influences and outside study and art-making that had little to nothing to do with the world of children's books. These two books fascinated me. And they would fascinate any other Quentin Blake lover. And they would surely make Quentin Blake lovers of the rest of them too.

Micheal Rosen’s Sad Book written by Michael Rosen, Illustrated by Quentin Blake, published by Candlewick in 2005 (US edition)

And I could not come away from those two QB books without hunting down several of the picture books mentioned within. Some of them I knew and loved already. But some I was fortunate enough to seek out and experience for the very first time. One of these was Michael Rosen’s Sad Book. My favorite book of the year.

How do you take the ultimate soul-crushing life experience and write something beautiful and brilliant and… soulful out of it? How do you illustrate it? Point blank, a child died suddenly and unexpectedly. Specifically, British poet and author Michael Rosen’s teenage son Eddie died suddenly and unexpectedly. Rosen completely opens up his heart about it, revealing himself and his memories and his despair, and ultimately the beginning bit of perseverance and hope at the end. Where one must begin to rebuild—unfathomable as it seems—after something so horribly tragic has happened.

This is lemonade-from-lemons picture book making at its finest and in the absolute best and absolute worst way. It is—in my estimation—unparalleled. It is honest, graceful, shattering. Rosen and Blake, they broke my heart into a thousand little pieces. And they somehow managed to put it back together again.