It’s all in the pictures: Seriously cool illustrators

We guys who like books pick up favorite authors like favorite candy: I like Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups as well as Tolkien, DiCamillo, Rowling, Riordan, Pilkey   … and on and on.  But with picture books,  the illustrator is just as important as the author — they make the story come alive, especially for kids who aren’t reading independently yet.  Here are some of my favorite illustrators whose work is fun and engaging, and very popular with boys.

Chris Van Dusen  — Van Dusen’s cartoon-style artwork is always brightly-colored, crisp, and vivid, with exaggerated facial expressions and lots of action.

If I Built a Car, by Van Dusen (lexile: NA; AR book level: 3.6;  28 pp)

This book is short on plot, but oh-so-appealing to any boy who has ever imagined constructing his own dream car, complete with every conceivable convenience.  The narrator, Jack, describes to his dad the car HE would build, with swimming pool, snack bar, fireplace, and even Robert the Robot to drive when you’re tired.  It drives, it flies, it even goes underwater.  The rhyming couplets sound like Dr Seuss — a very fun read-aloud.

The Circus Ship by Van Dusen (lexile: 660; AR book level: 3.7; 38 pp)

Loosely based on a true story that happened in 1836, a circus ship with 15 animals sinks off an island in Maine.  The animals swim ashore, first alarming the locals, then befriending them and becoming part of the community.  When the blustering circus owner comes to reclaim them, the villagers cleverly hide the animals right before his eyes.  (Study the picture in the book — can you find them all?)

Mercy Watson to the Rescue,  by Kate DiCamillo (lexile: 450; AR book level: 2.7; 68 pp)

Mercy Watson is not just a pig — she’s a porcine wonder, and the beloved pet of Mr & Mrs Watson, who sing her to sleep every night and make her lots of her favorite food, hot buttered toast.  When Mercy gets scared in her own bed, she snuggles in with the Watsons — and with the added weight all three awake to find the bed about to crash through a hole in the floor!  Mercy runs off to hunt for buttered toast, and runs afoul of crabby neighbor Eugenia Lincoln (“Pigs belong on FARMS!”).  She calls the fire department, who arrive just in time to rescue the Watsons.  The story ends (as they all do), with hot buttered toast for everyone.

The team of Newbery winner DiCamillo (The Tale of Despereaux) and Van Dusen as illustrator is brilliant.  These are ideal as family read-alouds for younger kids, or for those starting to read short chapter books on their own.

The others in the series:

David Catrow — If Van Dusen’s illustrations are crisp, Catrow’s are a riot —   outlandish cartoons, bubble-headed people with hair sticking up, awash in a mixture of colors and funny details.

I Wanna Iguana, by Karen Kaufman Orloff (lexile:  460; AR book level: 2.7, 28 pp)

In a series of notes between them, Alex tries to persuade his mom that he should be allowed to adopt his friend’s baby iguana. The boy pulls out all the stops in his arguments: iguanas are quiet (so are tarantulas, Mom counters); he could stay on the dresser (they grow to over six feet, Mom replies); the iguana could be the brother he’s always wanted (you already have a brother, Mom reminds him).  Catrow’s pictures bring both their visions of the iguana to life, portraying him reading in bed, donning swim trunks for a dip in the pool, and riding a bike while strumming a guitar.

(And just out in December of 2010, Alex returns in I Wanna New Room, which we now have at our library!)

Take Me Out of the Bathtub, and other silly dilly songs, by Alan Katz (lexile: NA; AR book level: 4.2; 30 pp)

This is a book you have to SING to fully enjoy — IF you can keep from snorting with laughter!  Katz parodies everyday events in kids’ lives with silly lyrics set to traditional tunes.  About kids having a food fight, to the tune of “My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean”: “My brother flicks peas with his fork and / They zip down my shirt with a splat”.  Or to the tune of “Take Me Out to the Ballgame”:  “Take me out of the bathtub / Take me out of the suds /I’ve been here soaking since half past two /I feel so sudsy and wrinkle-y, too”.  Catrow’s illustrations exaggerate everything: the boy who sings “I’m filthy, I’m dirty” (to the tune of “It’s raining, it’s pouring”) is depicted splashing in a mud puddle next to a pig with a clothespin on its nose.

The other Katz/Catrow silly song collaborations include:

Tedd Arnold — Arnold’s quirky, bug-eyed characters are instantly appealing — check out the boy reading in the page header (which Tedd graciously gave me permission to use).

Hi! Fly Guy, by Arnold (lexile: 280; AR book level: 1.5, 30 pp).

It is hard to find short beginning reader books that aren’t, well, boring.  The Fly Guy series is an awesome exception, with short sentences, repeated vocabulary, and Tedd Arnold’s cool pictures that make a simple story fun even for older boys who may be struggling readers.

In this first book, a boy is looking for a pet to enter into the Amazing Pet Show, when Fly Guy boinks right into his nose.  And this fly is smart — he can say the boy’s name: Buzz!  His parents and even the pet show judges try to tell him a fly can’t be a pet, but Fly Guy proves them wrong.  In subsequent books, Fly Guy goes on vacation with the family, plays on the football team with Buzz, and even finds a girlfriend.

The rest of the series:

Green Wilma, by Arnold (lexile: 600; AR book level 2.8; 28 pp)

“One morning Wilma woke up green, and much to her surprise / She sat up on her bed and croaked and started eating flies.”  So begins this silly tale of a froggy student who disrupts school by simply doing what frogs do best: hopping and eating flies.  If you like this one, be sure to also check out the sequel, Green Wilma: Frog in Space.

Five Ugly Monsters, by Arnold. (lexile: NA; AR book level: NA)

For the preschool crowd — think “Five little monkeys jumping on the bed” but funnier.


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