The Little Gardener + an interview with Emily Hughes (part i)

The Little Gardener by Emily Hughes by Emily Hughes (Flying Eye Books, 2015)

Friends, I am beyond awe with this conversation with Emily Hughes. If you aren’t familiar with her work yet, I guarantee you will fall in love with it, with her, with a storytelling brilliance that is out of this world. Here, she lets us know both where stories come from and why they do.

And a note, you’ll definitely want to click on all of these images to enjoy them at their full resolution.


The Little Gardener by Emily Hughes The Little Gardener by Emily Hughes Can you talk about where this book came from? And what the process was like for its creation?

Lots of things were swimming around in my head when The Little Gardener was being made. 
I was back home rereading a book I love, The Growth of the Soil, about a simple self-sufficient man dealing with societal pressures that seem unnecessary. He was the symbol of The Little Gardener, he’s not the personality powerhouse Wild is, he is really just a symbol for the everyman, the underdog, you, me, (my brother thinks the 3rd world) our place as a human. It’s not about him, it’s about his vision, his hopes.

There are a lot more nuances to that, but that is what it is in a very small nutshell. 
The process for Gardener was an outpouring, I drew and drew and drew. Because the images are so dense it was a meditative book to make- almost like making a mandala. The story process took a while, but with the images I worked on steadily through, and luckily they worked out with little drafting. That isn’t the usual, but this one felt natural to make, intuitive.

brainstorm001 gardeny 1

Why do you think your stories are best suited to the form of the picture book? What can you do in this form that you might not be able to in another?

If you look at my bedroom, my backpack, my email inbox, my general manner, you would be able to figure out a good deal about me. Totally scatter-brained.

It is an affliction that makes it tricky to get work done in general.  What makes children’s books an appealing medium for me is that there is text to dance with. There is the written skeleton to adhere to- oftentimes my stories have layers that I have built up depending on where I am or what I’ve been thinking of while I work. There is not just one story being told in The Little Gardener. Having text keeps my brain focused when there are other ideas floating about. Because I also draw, I am able to tell the other story lines as well- they are quieter, but are still present for others to interpret if they have patience. It is a good compromise for me.

Narrative has always been an interest, I think telling stories is what I like to do- so the things I’d compare it to would be film, theater, animation, etc. I like doing illustrations for picture books because it’s 2D and doesn’t move. However, if you are really invested you can move them within your head and expand it’s boundaries to a world you truly are interacting with. The Little Gardener by Emily Hughes

One of my favorite things is the cola can that says MADE IN HILO, HI on it. I know that’s where your roots are, and I wonder how that home has shown up in the work that you do? Or if there are other easter-egg-y things that you stick in your work?

Good spotting! Hawaii is always present in my work. I left home for university in England when I was 17, and at that time I was eager for new experiences. Nevertheless, absence makes the heart grow fonder, and I miss the Big Island always. Drawing things from home is indulgent for me- it is time spent reminiscing, it is a means for me to keep connected, grounded.

The cola can was initially modelled after a local company- Hawaiian Sun. The label looks nothing like the original (and I used the non-existent ‘cola’ because I thought it would be easier to translate), but the sun made a symbolic appearance. Those cans are always around- refreshments after soccer games, trips to the beach, the park with cousins. It reminds me of happy outings. I’ll add this bit to my advertising resume…

The house that the humans live in is based on my family home. It’s a plantation-style house that my Grandmother grew up in, as my siblings and I have also done. It’s a special place.


The Little Gardener by Emily Hughes

In the scene where the gardener is chasing away the snails, there’s a ‘rubber slipper’ (you guys would call it ‘flip flop’- Hawaii’s preferred footwear of choice) strewn about. It even has the ‘Locals’ tag on it which is the same kind you get at the grocery store. There’s lots of little things from home hidden. I like having the sentimentality there, even if it’s for my own benefit.

It seems like the girl in Wild and this little gardener have some sensibilities in common, like the hope and comfort in this un-tapped-into nature. Are there big-picture-stories you are drawn to creating, both in text and in art?

There are a lot of stories I’d like to tell. I think I start off with a general character and theme and it evolves- the writing is the last part, I think the feeling needs to be understood first. 
In my journal these are a few themes I’d written that I want to explore:

Does ‘evil’ exist? Really?

You can, will, should feel every horrible emotion and that’s fine

Kindness trumps all

Looks vs Expectations

It’s all chance for me I think- I might read something, or watch something, or sit blankly staring at the wall even, and most times it is nothing but a murmur. But once in a good while something speaks up.

As for Wild and Gardener, nature serves as a backdrop because it is an ideal to be in sync within our most natural of habitats. Something we all still strive for- a place where we’re needed.  Wild is about acceptance and tolerance, issues I was trying to practice myself. Gardener was about keeping hope alive when I was faltering with my own.

They are stories coming from a place of trying to understand, rather than a place where it is understood.

The Little Gardener by Emily Hughes

Carter, here.

You guys. I keep reading these answers over and over and feel like it’s such a gift to get this glimpse into a storyteller’s heart. Because Emily is fascinating and brilliant and our conversation gave me so much to wrestle with and enjoy, there’s more! Come back tomorrow for the second part. More pictures, more process, more book love.

Whatever you do, get your hands on this book as soon as you can, for hope and home and heart.

Huge thanks to both Emily and Tucker Stone at Flying Eye Books for the images in this post!


Everything Under a Mushroom

Everything Under a Mushroom by Ruth Krauss and Margot Tomes by Ruth Krauss and Margot Tomes (Four Winds Press, 1973)

Everything Under a Mushroom by Ruth Krauss and Margot Tomes

I’m not a real wild-and-crazy kind of person.

Last Saturday I took a Pilates class at 3:30, and the teacher said it’s always such a weird time because most people like to spend their afternoons at the beach or the ballpark. Or perhaps they have to get ready for their evening cocktail hour, and finishing close to 5:00 doesn’t work. But I told her that it’s my favorite time, because then I can be home in pajamas having sort-of-flat champagne before it’s even dark out.

She looked at me funny.

But on some of those pajamas and champagne Saturday nights, I go vintage book shopping online and find things like this.

I love this book.

I love Ruth Krauss.

I love the way her words describe the bizarre and complex world of kids’ heads. And their perfectly simple and sensible world. It’s kind of all wrapped up together for kids anyway, which is strange and endearing and other-worldly.

Everything Under a Mushroom by Ruth Krauss and Margot Tomes Everything Under a Mushroom by Ruth Krauss and Margot Tomes

Each spread has one line, a bright orange to the illustrations’ muted browns. The only other color is the blue on the cover.

And the page turn acts as a sort of puzzle: the last bit from the page before starts the new thought.

Everything Under a Mushroom by Ruth Krauss and Margot Tomes Everything Under a Mushroom by Ruth Krauss and Margot Tomes Everything Under a Mushroom by Ruth Krauss and Margot Tomes

Each thing is little. Each thing snuggles up right under the towering mushroom. Each thing is so firmly kid.

Everything Under a Mushroom by Ruth Krauss and Margot Tomes Everything Under a Mushroom by Ruth Krauss and Margot Tomes

The tiny stories ramble on underneath, in those playful monologues that might seem like nonsense. This is where kids are experts.

Grownups, consider this. You might not understand. You might not have any use for a little potato. But, as the girl with the bow in her hair promises, “Little potatoes are especially nice.”

Everything Under a Mushroom by Ruth Krauss and Margot Tomes

It’s weird. It’s wonderful. And if it fits under a mushroom, it’s fair game.



Sam and Dave Dig a Hole

Sam and Dave Dig a Hole by Mac Barnett and Jon Klassen

by Mac Barnett and Jon Klassen (Candlewick Press, 2014)

You know Mac and Jon. You love Mac and Jon. Now meet Sam and Dave. You’ll love Sam and Dave.

Don’t rush into the pages just yet. This is one of the best covers I’ve seen in a long while. If we weren’t so aware that Jon Klassen (that insta-recognizable style!) is a contemporary illustrator, I would wholeheartedly presume that it was some vintage thing in a used bookstore. A find to gloat about, a find that makes you wonder just how you got so lucky.

The hole. The space left over. The words, stacked deeper and deeper. The apple tree whose tippy top is hidden. Two chaps, two caps, two shovels. One understanding dog.

Speaking of two chaps, two caps, and two shovels, check out the trailer.

(I’ll wait if you need to watch that about five more times.)

The start of their hole is shallow, and they are proud. But they have only just started. Sam asks Dave when they should stop, and this is Dave’s reply:

“We won’t stop digging until we find something spectacular.”

Dave’s voice of reason is so comforting to any young adventurer. It’s validating that your goal is something spectacular. (Do we forget this as grownups? To search for somthing spectacular? I think we do.)

Perhaps the pooch is the true voice of reason here, though he doesn’t ever let out a bark or a grumble. Those eyes, the scent, the hunt. He knows.

Sam and Dave Dig a Hole by Mac Barnett and Jon Klassen

(click to enlarge)

And this is where Sam and Dave Dig a Hole treads the waters of picture book perfection. The treasure, this spectacular something, is just beyond the Sam and Dave’s reality. The reader gets the treat where Sam and Dave are stumped. Do you want to sit back and sigh about their unfortunate luck? Do you want to holler at them to just go this way or that way or pay attention to your brilliant dog? Do you root for them? Do you keep your secret?

The text placement on each page is sublime. If Sam and Dave plant themselves at the bottom of the page, so does the text. If the hole is deep and skinny, the text block mirrors its length. This design choice is a spectacular something. It’s subtle. It’s meaningful. It’s thoughtful and inevitable all at once.

Sam and Dave Dig a Hole by Mac Barnett and Jon Klassen

(click to enlarge)

And then – then! Something spectacular. The text switches sides. The boys fall down. Through? Into? Under? Did the boys reach the other side? Are they where they started? Is this real life? Their homecoming is the same, but different. Where there was a this, now there is a that. Where there was a hmm, now there is an ahhh.

Spectacular indeed.

I like to think that the impossible journey here is a nod to Ruth Krauss and Maurice Sendak’s collaboration, A Hole is to Dig. That’s what holes are for. That’s what the dirt asks of you. It’s not something you do alone or without a plan or without hope. Sam and Dave operate in this truth. They need to dig. There’s not another choice.


(image here // a first edition, first printing!)

Sidenote: I’m pretty thrilled that these scribbles live in my ARC.

Sam and Dave Dig a Hole by Mac Barnett and Jon Klassen

Look for this one on October 14th.

SAM AND DAVE DIG A HOLE. Text copyright © 2014 by Mac Barnett. Illustrations copyright © 2014 by Jon Klassen.Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA.


Homer Henry Hudson’s Curio Museum and and interview with Zack Rock

Homer Henry Hudson’s Curio Museum by Zack Rock

by Zack Rock (Creative Editions, 2014)

Zack Rock and I haunt some of the same circles on the internet. I have a tshirt with his work on it thanks to Vintage Kids’ Books My Kid Loves (how cool is that header?), and I have long admired his work thanks to some tea time at Seven Impossible Things here and here. And once upon a time in 2012, Zack wrote a hilarious joke for a Hallowtweet contest run by Adam Rex and Steven Malk.

I remember that well, cause in fun-facts-here-at-Design-of-the-Picture-Book both Julie Falatko and I were runners-up in that contest, and the real prize was getting her friendship. Start of an era, for sure. (Although Zack did get an original piece of Adam Rex art, and we’d both admit to coveting that a little. See below!)

So. I’ve had my eye out for this book for years. Years! And I was so happy that Zack spent some time chatting with me about this smorgasbord of stuff and story. He also said he “answered the living daylights” out of these questions, so I sure hope you enjoy the living daylights out of them like I did.


The Other Side


by Istvan Banyai

{published 2005, by Chronicle Books}

I’m a big fan of another Istvan Banyai book, Zoom. Turns out, I’d been holding that book in my clutches so tight, that I completely spaced out on this one. This one that came out eight whole years ago. What?!

The Other Side is just that – a look around the bend, through the eyes of another, and into a world that will probably surprise you. The visual puzzle starts to unfold on the endpapers, where it appears that the page has already been folded for you. And on the other side? Your finger – left behind, intricately folding a paper airplane, and tossing it through an open window.  So my pictures are a little haphazard and all over the place, but I think that suits this story. The illlustrations here are devour-worthy, even if some of the time there’s no rhyme or reason for what the heck is happening. Your point of view is constantly shifting, so each new vignette is a romp and a surprise and a gut-check of whether you are up or down or in or out or just what. A flamingo casting the shadow of a palm tree?! OKAY.  I love this page flip, where this monstrous lump of something hovers over some men working. But that? It’s just a blond thing with pigtails, hopscotching her way up the page. I don’t know what’s going on here. And I love that.


Oh No, Little Dragon!


by Jim Averbeck

Remember him? When I asked him what he would be if he wasn’t an author/illustrator, he said “extraordinarily irritable.” Ha.

Oh No, Little Dragon! is an endearing little book. Just look at his eyes! So sweet. That’s a little dragon with a spark in his heart, no question about it.

This is a story about fire, love, and kisses from a mama. And Jim Averbeck’s pictures capture the magnitude of this childlike search for sparkle.




When I teach, one of my favorite things to show students is this little video. Not only does it visually define the fundamentals of design, but it is also a tiny piece of art itself. Pay close attention to the bit on line. (And also the adorable accent of the narrator!)

From the video: “Line has direction, weight, gesture, spirit, gestalt, life.”

And that’s what I think about when I look through the pages of Oh No, Little Dragon! — the life and spirit of the lines.


See how the foreground and background lines are weighted the same? They are approximately the same width and texture, but the background lines recede because they are more transparent. Similar lines in different spirit create space in the illustration.


The lines of phooooooshing on these pages have a clear direction and sense of animation across the spread. Love that. Can’t you just hear and feel Little Dragon sputtering through this book?

I won’t even tell you how much I love the soot-colored line drawings on the endpapers.



Sophie’s Fish

by A.E. Cannon (who loves Cheetos and Oreos!) and Lee White (who loves to bike, I think?!)

I really think artists might be some of the coolest people out there. (Some might say just plain ‘out there,’ but that’s neither here nor there. Nor anywhere.)

What? Where were we?!

When I saw Lee’s illustrations come through my email inbox, I seriously got whiplash from how fast my jaw hit the floor. His art has a charm that swept me off my feet and rendered me speechless for a moment or two.

Not a usual occurrence.

Sophie’s Fish explores all the things that just might happen if you get asked to babysit a fish. Hysterical. Hysterical!

The compositions are gorgeous. The textures leap off the page. The colors are snappy but soft. The whole thing? Is perfect.

Like this spread…

The sidewalk creates intersecting and interesting lines which gives such life and movement to this one still picture. And from an overhead perspective even! So cool. And those dreamy, complementary colors.

Or this one…the DING DONG page!

Don’t those layered textures make you think you could just reach out and touch it?! The crumpled rug, the splintered door, and that calm, but rough sky. I LOVE THIS SPREAD.

Did you hear me?! (One of those non-speechless moments!) This book is a gem. A winner. A beautiful piece of art.

You owe it to your imagination to sit a while with this one.

Boy + Bot

words by Ame Dyckman + pictures by Dan Yaccarino

{Why yes, they ARE a match made in heaven!}

Boy + Bot is an endearing tale of friendship between a charming and unlikely duo. Their generosities to one another when the other is broken will turn you into a puddle awwwww mush on the floor.

The #spotbot crew on Twitter is probably still mopping themselves up. We ADORE this book. And darn if Ame Dyckman isn’t the most likable gal at the party!

In design, size can be used to give extra weight or value to one element versus another. If shapes on a page are too uniform in size, they compete for your attention. Think of a checkerboard. Which square do you look at? But think of the American flag. The long stripes and the smaller stars differ in size and scale, and your eye can move around that icon a bit more freely and with less confusion.

So small Boy and his much larger Bot create a dynamic duo. Boy’s bitty-ness and Bot’s bigger-ness gives an interesting visual edge to their friendship. Sure, this is slightly different than a true graphic design principle at work, but the same idea feels really satisfying in their characterization. Even on the cover, the word Boy and the word Bot nod to their sizes by using different weights of the same typeface.

Their kooky friendship fits perfectly into this comic or storyboarded style of layout. Note even here, the different sizes of illustrations on one spread.

This might be one of my favorite back covers ever. I do love the reflection, {found on this cover as well,} but come on….the barcode on Bot’s behind? Impossible not to love. Enjoy this one with your BFF.

Will you love it? “AFFIRMATIVE!”

Actual Size

Steve Jenkins’ concept for Actual Size is simple. Showcase creatures at their actual size. Truly. Right there on the cover is a teeny pygmy mouse that fits just snug up against a gorilla thumb.Smaller animals fit nicely in the frame, but some are way too massive to fit in the confines of the book’s pages. And that is the spark and fun investigation of Actual Size.

Did you ever look a giant squid in the eye?

How many dwarf gobies do you think fit in that squid’s eyeball?

Even before I studied graphic design, I was drawn to the cut paper collages of these illustrations. Don’t you just want to hug on that ostrich’s neck? So tactile and inviting.

I just looked at size in my most recent post, LMNO Peas, and it’s another clear choice here. And, well…uh…the title is Actual SIZE. But in this book, the goal is for the reader to interact with the pages, to compare and contrast sizes among different animals. And just how big is your hand compared to that gorilla’s? The illustrations in LMNO Peas use size to guide layout and movement within one page, and Actual Size tackles size to guide contrast.

Ever wonder why there are only SEVEN elements of design and a million billion trillion pictures and images in the world? (No? Just me on a lazy Saturday night?) Well that’s why. Seven foundational elements that can combine and solve problems differently in those million billion trillion ways.

His teeth are so massive that it takes a three page foldout to show them all! Chomp.

The adorable little pygmy mouse lemur is the size of my keys. {Can you spot my Burbank Public Library key tag under there? I think I owe them $3.00.}

I love a good elephant. Always.

And just in case you needed any more convincing about how incredible this book is, how about a pictorial glossary of all the animals scaled to fit? Thank you, Steve Jenkins, for making a picture book that is just as informative as it is beautiful…even if it doesn’t fit on my bookshelf very well.

Duck! Rabbit!

It’s a rainy morning in beautiful downtown Burbank. (I hopped over to YouTube to find a clip of Johnny Carson’s description of “beautiful downtown Burbank,” and realized Burbank is named after a dentist?!! A dentist? Ew.)

Anyway, it’s a morning perfect for a second cup of coffee, NFL RedZone, and slippers from a hotel in Bangalore. (My boyfriend went to India and all I got were these paper slippers.)

(I love parentheses this morning apparently.)


Are you following all of the excitement of Picture Book Month? Just checking.

Anyway, AGAIN.

This book:

Based on this illusion:

is. so. much. fun. Written by Amy Krouse Rosenthal and illustrated by Tom Lichtenheld, Duck! Rabbit! is a delightful volley of ‘Which is it?!’ What a dream team…I’d love to be their third wheel!


This book is funny and clever and brain-stretching, as it asks its young reader to consider perspective and multiple possibilities of reading a singular image. The dialog between two pals happens on either side of the gutter, clearly defining who says what as they attempt to convince the other that it’s a duck. Or a rabbit.

Because the book is a square, it opens as a long and short rectangle, perfect for framing the duck/rabbit. Smart, smart choice of book design.

And whatever his intention, I just love the way Tom Lichtenfeld kept each spread contained within that thick black border, the same thickness as the line outlining the duck/rabbit.

So. What is it? A duck? Or a rabbit?

I’m going with a ruck. Or dabbit.

PS–Check out this cute trailer for Duck! Rabbit!