Friday, October 29, 2010

Spooky Treats! Picture Books of the Week

'Tis the Season for things that go bump in the night, may they be under the bed, in the back of the closet, or simply waiting in the dark corner of a dark room. Picture Books have always explored the seedy world of our fears. Something about the medium of illustration allows for the horrifying to seem beautiful and in the safe world between the pages, they reassure us that there's no such thing as monsters.

Well just for that, I've chosen two stories that debunk that myth. Monsters are very real in these stories...even if they are not all that scary. Also, for a change of pace, this week I decided to review Picture Books for older audiences. The first is for adults and the second is for children in grades two and above. And because Halloween is coming, I'm treating you with two reviews. Enjoy.
(Chronicle 2001)

In my opinion, Monsters, Inc. is far and away the very best of Pixar's movies. Not only that, it's one of the most imaginative stories I've ever encountered in the way that it links our world with another ala Wonderland or Neverland or Oz. If you agree, than this insightful look about the development of that world is a must read.

This oversized picture book is exactly what the title says it is: the art of Monsters, Inc. Published in the book are dozens of sketches and concepts created by several artists, each revealing an entirely different look for the story. Among the artists hired to dream up their ideas for the story were top name Children's Book illustrators such as Lane Smith and J. Otto Seibold. Comparing the different art styles is a great study of imagination while also allowing you to use your imagination to envision the movie in new ways.

Arranged by different themes such as character and setting, the reader really gets to see the artists' visions side-by-side. In most cases, you can see the elements from each that went into the final look. One of the most fascinating studies is the evolution of Boo. I love the final version of this classic character, but honestly, all of them would have done fine in the role. The study of the different monsters is great too. Each person pictures monsters differently. In the many, many pages of monster pictures, readers get to see some the best artists put their version of childhood spooks to paper.

As a writer, this book has another dimension that I loved. Before I write a book, I often sketch out the world in which it will take place. I sketch out the characters and try to pinpoint the "look" of the narrative in my mind. It was interesting to see this process applied to illustration.

Scary Godmother by Jill Thompson
(Sirus 1997)

It's Hannah's first Halloween trick 0r treating with the big kids and she's a teeny bit afraid that there will be monsters. However, she trusts her older cousin to protect her. Big Mistake!

It turns out Hannah's older cousin doesn't want to be slowed down. He and his friends come up with a plan to spook poor Hannah so badly that she'll want to go home. But when they trick Hannah into entering the scariest house in town, they only get spooked themselves.

Hannah on the other hand isn't so afraid anymore, not after she meets her Scary Godmother who shows her that the monsters are nothing to be afraid of. They befriend her and even help her get back at the meaner older kids, making her the truly brave one.

Published outside the major New York children's houses, this book is very different than the average picture book. I can't imagine many mainstream houses allowing a story where the older kids are so rotten and treat Hannah in such a manner, even though it's an incredibly realistic portrayal of kids being mean. In this way, I think it would really appeal to and be meaningful for slightly older children.

Another interesting aspect of the book is that it's told in a combination of traditional picture book style and graphic style. There's a ton of art in the book. I can see the style turning some off, and there certainly are weaker panels, but overall I really love that it doesn't look like everything else out there. And Jill Thompson is able to do extreme expressions about as good as anyone. Definitely for the collector of unique picture books.

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