by JAN MYHRE & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & A & lt;/span & cursory turn through my extensive collection of children's books revealed something: While most of my favorites are dear to me because of the stories themselves, I place equal importance on the illustrations. Considering the history of humankind and the affinity we have for communicating through illustration -- from cave drawings to stained glass windows to the ceilings of the Sistine chapel --the popularity of illustrated children's books should be no surprise. I believe the illustrator serves to edify, entertain, amuse and even thrill the reader. Without their contributions to children's books we would all be the poorer for it. Or as Alice said in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, "...and what is the use of a book without pictures or conversation?"
Many illustrators grace my library shelves not just once, but many times -- and several of my favorites are author and illustrator rolled into one, like Patricia Polacco. Her stories, taken from her own life and the lives of her parents and grandparents, are lovingly rendered in line drawings highlighted with vibrant color. (I've purchased her story The Keeping Quilt at least four times, only to give it away as a gift.) The grayed line drawings are interrupted only by the intense colors of the keepsake fabrics in the quilt of the title, which has been handed down through the generations as they celebrate family and tradition.
Illustrator and author Jan Brett's retelling of legends and fairy tales are replete with detailed, better-than-photographs artwork bringing characters and settings to life as she relates familiar tales in prose as well. The Ukrainian folk tale The Mitten is my favorite, not just for the story, but for the animals she renders with such affectionate detail. A boy's lost mitten fills with animals all trying to keep warm in the snow of winter, until a sneeze proves to be their undoing. Brett even fills the margins with a different scenario that delights the non-reader as the story is told.
The late Fred Gwynne's work takes up a good share of my shelf space as well. In The King Who Rained (1970), A Chocolate Moose for Supper (1980), A Little Pigeon Toad (1988) and The Sixteen Hand Horse (1980), Gwynne -- best known as TV's Herman Munster during the '60s -- treats the reader to a look at the way a child hears words differently than an adult might. The titles and cover art let everyone know they are about to enter the world of wordplay, where horses are made from hands and monarchs float in the sky with water pouring from them.
I mustn't forget to mention local Spokane poet Kenn Nesbitt's latest poetry collection, Revenge of the Lunch Ladies. It has everything from the ladies getting even with whining kids to principals who vanish into thin air. Kids of all ages will enjoy reading these silly poems, 45 in all, about school. The book is wonderfully illustrated by the team of Mike and Carl Gordon, whose work captures the silliness of the situations. (Visit Kenn's Website at www.poetry4kids.com to read excerpts.)
I took a little tour of Slow Days, Fast Friends by author/illustrator Erik Brooks of Winthrop, Wash., and was thoroughly entertained. His animals are an absolute delight: When Howard the cheetah is laid up with a leg injury, he must take advice from Quince the sloth on how to slow down. (You've got to love a lolling cheetah.)
Last, and by no means least, are The Velveteen Rabbit by Margery Williams and Leaves from a Child's Garden of Verses. Donna Green, whose oils, acrylics and watercolors are highly collectable, has beautifully illustrated editions of these classics. I'm particularly fond of the Garden of Verses, simply because it was the first book my mother ever bought for me. I still have my original -- but if it ever turns to dust, Donna Green's illustrations of these wonderful poems will certainly take its place.