Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Five Books to Share the Magic of Woodcuts With a Child

 Many woodcut and linocut artists have illustrated children's picture books. These books are a wonderful way to introduce children to this medium, with its irregular marks, visual economy, and flat shapes of color combined with surface textures that seem tactile. Jil Casey gives a good sampling of picture books illustrated with woodcuts on her blog The Art of Children's Picture Books. Today I'll focus on five of my favorite picture books that incorporate woodcuts or linocuts.

First up, Stephen Huneck's Sally's Snow Adventure. Huneck was a self-taught folk artist. He wrote and illustrated a total of seven children's picture books featuring his black lab Sally. Currently the Stephen Huneck online store is having a 35% off sale.

I own and love all the Sally books, but I'm in the mood to write about this one because outside my window the street, houses, cars, and trees are covered with a blanket of newly fallen snow.  Snow simplifies the landscape. It emphasizes the shapes and colors of that which is still visible after it has concealed all else. Stephen Huneck's prints are like a snow-covered landscape, clean and simplified. He gives us everything we need to understand, and no more. And a little dog-lover's humor to boot.

Margaret Chodos-Irvine has illustrated many picture books with her bright and cheery linocuts. Browsing the shelves at the local library, I discovered Ella Sarah Gets Dressed, a Caldecott Honor book. The story was about a little girl who, like many small children, wants to pick out her own clothing, regardless of the opinions of her parents and older siblings. The images of this headstrong girl are bold and lyrical, and almost tumble off the page. As I read, the curvy gestures of all the characters swung and bounced my eyes around the pages like a leaf in the wind. Occasional patterns, some subtle, some whimsical, added depth and humor. Before long I was searching on Google, hoping for more. There are several more books illustrated with Chodos-Irvine's distinctive linocuts, listed here on Amazon.com. The artist herself has a website, online store, and regularly updated blog here.

I have quickly become a fan of Erin Stead, a newer arrival to the scene of picture book illustration. Stead made a big splash right away, earning the 2011 Caldedott Award for her first book, A Sick Day for Amos McGee (authored by her husband Phillip Stead.) For this work, Stead printed the color shapes with wood blocks, then added outlines, shading and more details with pencil. The result is an ethereal world where the most important people and objects zoom into focus, while other forms become flat and translucent, and others disappear into a white void. It is an exquisite and understated dance of color changes and surface textures. 
Since the success of her first book, Stead has been working away, publishing and then it's spring, Bear Has a Story to Tell, and if you want to see a whale. I've read my kids all these books, and what I find thrilling about seeing them in succession is that while Stead's overall style remains consistent, she's continuously experimenting with different media and creating subtle changes in the surface of the flat, printed areas of color. When she works with linoleum instead of wood in if you want to see a whale, she still applies the ink in a manner that emphasizes the speckled surface, and thus effectively alludes to both the depth of the sea and the elusiveness of finding something rare. In Bear Has a Story to Tell, the colors are painted and so not only are more variations of color in the autumn leaves achieved, different brush strokes produce even more variety of textures. I simply can't get enough of this artist's work, and I can't wait to see what she publishes next. 

Kazuno Kohara has authored and illustrated a handful of picture books with her cheerfully stylized linocuts. As with Sally's Snow Adventure, I'm featuring the one that fits best with winter, in this case, Here Comes Jack Frost. Kohara's images are limited to 2-3 colors, (including the color of the paper), although in Here Comes Jack Frost she uses a gradation of blues to describe the cold, wintery outside. The weather is further described by swirling ribbons of wind, splatters of snow, a spattering of oversized snowflakes, and stick figure trees. The characters - a boy, his dog, and Jack Frost - are sprightly and iconic. The boy in this story could be any boy, just as the girl in Ghosts in the House! could be any girl. I have a large, hard-cover copy of this gem, and delight in sitting my girls in my lap to read it. Especially on days such as today. 

I first wrote about John Lawrence's work in this post. I have since read This Little Chick to my toddler countless times, and as she giggles at the chick who learns to speak in cow and duck and sheep, I delight in the dazzling array of busy textures: not only woodgrain, but speckles, spirals, and zigzags. And so many stripes! Feathery stripes, grassy stripes, jagged stripes, and more! Lawrence's use of color is so subtle and sophisticated, I feel like I'm in a flower garden in spring.

It's worth explicitly noting that picture books are not just for children. The prolific woodcut printmaker Mary Azarian, for example, has illustrated many picture books suitable for or even aimed at an adult audience.

We can't all afford to cover the walls of our homes with original artwork, but picture books enable us to possess little galleries right in our homes for relatively little money.

Have I persuaded you? Will you go out (or online) right now and purchase a little gallery for a child in your life (or an adult, or yourself) today? I hope so. After all, we artists need to eat, too.

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