From the 'picture'sque pages...

From the 'picture'sque pages...

From the 'picture'sque pages...

Some of the most beautiful and artistic books I’ve had the pleasure of encountering lie amidst piles of mediocre children’s literature. (And they are invariably deeply discounted or dumped in bargain bins). I’ve found at least four hardcover Maurice Sendak books, and I’ve had the joy of feasting my eyes on the work of dozens of other brilliant illustrators, only not as famous.

Quite often these days, the section I head straight to on entering a bookstore is the children’s picture books. It’s always a small section in most Indian bookshops, almost negligible, but this is where I make my most ecstatic discoveries. When I head off for the picture-book section, I get amused looks from friends rushing off to browse through the latest Granta or the new Booker winner.

And when I invite them to join me to flip through these picture books, I get a you-can’t-be-serious look. Later, examining our loot over chaat and coffee, I pass these books around to show them what they missed. After flipping a few pages hastily, they always pause and flip back the pages to look more closely at the illustrations, and nine times out of 10 I’ll see a new respect in their eyes. I’ll see hands caressing the pages from a need to get close to the drawings.

Many contemporary artists working in the picture-book genre are sophisticated graphic novelists who leave behind all the dark stuff they do for adults and imagine something gentle, funny and happy  — like the work of Maira Kalman (among all the famous New Yorker magazine covers, her ‘Dog Reads Book’ cover is my great favourite). Kalman has a series with a dog named Max Stravinsky, who is a dreamer and a poet. And in Swami on Rye, Max the poet-dog takes off to India. There he meets a garrulous guru, a suave swami who introduces himself as “Vivek Shabaza-zaza-za, that’s za-zaaa-za, not za-za-za-za or za-za za za za, please.”

Shabaza-zaza-za then declares that Max is “an old soul and that life is a wheel.” Max thinks, “What, I’m wearing old shoes and life is a banana peel?” Everywhere Max goes he sees huge movie-poster hoardings. One is for a major motion picture titled Guru To Go, with hand illustrated faces of Sri Devi and Rekha. And Max says, “You have to be a real falooda not to love a movie.” He also goes around exclaiming, “Holy Madras!”
Perhaps the most staggering picture book I have ever seen, a masterpiece unlike anything else in the genre, is Shaun Tan’s The Arrival. I’m unable to believe anyone could imagine up and draw the things Tan has. The book is wordless. Tan uses a mix of hyper-real and surreal illustrations to introduce us to a world that is old and new.

Familiar things lie side by side with strange things. The Arrival is a story of the immigrant disguised as science fiction. We see a man leave his family and enter a world he has never seen before.

In the apartment he takes residence in, he discovers a flatmate who looks like a cross between a fish and a cat. Though they cannot speak each other’s language, the fish-cat is friendly and makes the man feel more comfortable in this new city he hopes to find work. The colour throughout is sepia and the images resemble old family photos. The challenge is to draw a city that is both old and new to every reader on the planet, and Tan’s imagination and artistic skills astonishes us page after page. His last, Tales of Outer Suburbia, figured in nearly every critic’s ‘top ten’ list of notable picture books.

Robert Sabuda is the prince of pop-up artists. The pop-up book is the one kind of picture book that is seldom seen in our bookstores. (If you see a few, they are invariably secondhand and damaged enough for the pop-ups not to work). A pop-up book is basically the work of a paper engineer. The garden variety has illustrations that open out in a three-dimensional way, and of course, most adults dismiss it as kid’s stuff.

Ah, but there are pop-up books and then there are pop-up books. The work of the genius paper engineer Sabuda simply astonishes and pushes the boundaries of the pop-up book beyond what any paper engineer has dared or imagined. He’s done mind-blowing pop-up versions of classics like Alice in Wonderland, Wizard of Oz, a science series on prehistoric animals, and several different Christmas fables and famous fairly tales. His greatest achievement is his last, The Chronicles of Narnia. Each pop-up here illustrates a key image or scene from each chronicle. They are sheer magic, an unsurpassed feat of paper engineering.

And, of course, like almost everyone around the world, I love the drawings of E H Shepard (Winnie the Pooh), Ludwig Bemelmans (Madeline) and Edward Gorey. I also delight in the work of Peter Sis, Sara Fanelli, Elena Odriozola, Raymond Briggs, Øyvind Torseter and Maurizio Quarello, to name only a few among the hundred or so brilliant illustrators at work today.

There is much stylistic variety and vibrancy among picture-book artists, with each illustrator bringing his own graphic language to the book, her own visual eloquence. Which is why Maurice Sendak once said that the stars of picture books are illustrators. The more children’s picture books I see, and the more familiar I become with their illustrators, the more I’m convinced the best of them can be looked upon as, if not the artists’ book, the work of true artists.