Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Buying for the Kids


I never thought I'd rave on and on about a book called Tickle the Duck, but from the moment I read the sample copy in my office, I just could not get enough of the silly duck with the big belly and impish grin. It's a work of pure genius. The combination of an outrageously funny, infantile, illustrated duck and a simple plot (if a duck begging the reader not to tickled him can be considered a plot) creates endless hilarity for anyone over the age of one.

Out of desperation, I took over our store's children's buying two years ago. We'd gone through three buyers in a couple of years, and there was no one passionate about kids' books in the store willing to take on the job. I figured that at least I knew how to buy, even if all I knew about children's literature was Dr. Seuss and The Island of the Blue Dolphins. For years, I recommended Scott O'Dell's classic to anyone buying a book for a child between the ages of three and fourteen. "Oh, you've got a middle school grandson into snow boarding? Well, he will really love this book about a girl stranded on an island."

Now I finally have two assistants who should be able to do most of the children's buying, but I am having a bit of separation anxiety. Earlier this week, I was buying Penguin's winter children's list and training one of the new buyers. We attacked the box of samples like two kids opening Christmas gifts. As we leafed through the piles of books, the riot of colors, drawing styles and silly stories almost overwhelmed us. We argued, we laughed, and we marvelled at the creativity.

Berkely Breathed's Mars Needs Moms, a zany and almost dark story from the creator of Bloom County, was the obvious hit. I was also surprised and wowed with Cal Ripken's The Longest Season, a moving tale about the low point of his amazing baseball career, beautifully painted by Ron Mazellan. The sleeper on the list was Helen Ward's melancholy Little Moon Dog, magnificently illustrated in muted tones by Wayne Anderson. Who wouldn't love the two
Skippyjon Jones board books about the crazy Siamese cat that thinks he's a Chihuahua? By the way, who invented board books? They should get a medal, or at least a gold sticker.

By the time we sat down to buy the books, my assistant and I had read all the books on Penguin's winter list. We didn't have to wildly guess about which ones were good and which ones were all publisher hype. How long would it take to read even one percent of a major publisher's adult list? Sure, I got a little sick of the nauseatingly sentimental string of books about mommy animals with cute babies, and I wondered why half the books were being published. Okay, more than half. My assistant was flabbergasted by Penguin's outsized publishing hopes for the winter. "Why don't they publish a dozen good books and really get behind them?" she asked. Ah, the answer to that question could save a million trees.

Even looking at this single list, I was struck once again by how many talented artists are illustrating children's books. It's not easy being an artist in America, but here's a field that values excellent work and even encourages unique artistic styles. My favorite illustrator, David Catrow, had a paperback, Our Tree Named Steve, on the list. Who else in our culture would pay Catrow over and over again for his thin-necked, big-headed, wide-eyed illustrations of people and dogs?

Speaking of illustrators, I attended a breakfast featuring Jon J. Muth (Zen Shorts) and Jim LaMarche (Rainbabies) this past weekend at the Mountain & Plains tradeshow in Denver. Muth spent most of his speaking time in front of an easel. He painted with a huge chinese brush (about the size of his arm) and watercolors. With just a few strokes he made paintings of a panda, a gorilla and a stalking cat. The cat was so magnificent that LaMarche praised him loud enough for the whole room to hear. Muth's outstretched cat was so simple and yet so fluid, it reminded me of Picasso's one-line drawings of bulls.

Sometimes I wonder if we would recognize a Picasso among us. Would we value the magnificent draftsmanship? Would we marvel at the brilliant colors and the oddly shaped figures? Or would Picasso be one illustrator among 50 on a children's book list, waiting for the patient, appreciative bookseller to recommend his title? I'd like to think that Picasso would get plucked out of the massive stack of samples, even if he was illustrating a silly duck.

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

I love this essay. I agree that children's stories, some of them, have the most creative and beautiful artwork one could imagine. It is true, many of these illustrators are true artists who are trying to make a living.

Would we recognize the next Picasso?

Anonymous said...

I love this essay. I agree that children's stories, some of them, have the most creative and beautiful artwork one could imagine. It is true, many of these illustrators are true artists who are trying to make a living.

Would we recognize the next Picasso?

Claudia said...

Board Books ROCK!