Everyone + an interview with Christopher Silas Neal


by Christopher Silas Neal (Candlewick, 2016)

I’m happy to introduce you today to Christopher Silas Neal, a picture book creator I am a big fan of. He’s got quite the illustration portfolio, but this spring’s Everyone was his debut as both picture book author and illustrator. Here’s hoping he makes many more. Enjoy!

How did you get into picture books?

Over and Under the Snow was my first experience making a picture book. I had been an illustrator for about seven years, making art for magazines, posters, and book covers before Chronicle Books called with Kate Messner’s manuscript. Kate’s approach to writing about nature was more lyrical and unexpected than a typical science based picture book and Chronicle was looking for a non-traditional artist. Even though many of my biggest influences were classic picture book makers, I hadn’t thought I would be one myself.

Narrative illustration felt overwhelming and daunting—character building wasn’t something I had ever tried and building scenes was certainly not my strong suit. I had previously worked as a graphic designer and my approach to image making is more flat and simple than what I thought readers expected from picture book art. The industry wasn’t as visually diverse as it is now and at the time, most books about nature would have featured fairly detailed and rendered paintings. I just didn’t see me having a place in that world. But, I loved Kate’s writing and the folks at Chronicle Books are so nice and very design oriented, so I thought if there was ever a chance, this is it.


My pictures are often quiet and still with a lot of space—the fact that this book was set in wintery woods was reassuring.  A big challenge was figuring out how to add depth without using the things that traditional painters rely on like lighting and perspective—visual tools I typically don’t use. I like to think the personality in the art comes from me trying to fit a painterly peg into a graphically flat and naively drawn hole.

Where did the beginnings of Everyone originate?

When I first met my agent Stephen Barr at Writer’s House I had a few book ideas floating around, but Stephen was more interested in an animated gif I had made. It was based off a drawing I did for the New York Times about a boy whose parents were deported to Mexico. It’s a simple image of a boy crying and his tears turning into two birds. Stephen thought the idea had promise as a book and I spent the next year turning it into a manuscript and book dummy. In the end I think I had made fifty versions before sending it to publishers. Eventually, we sold the idea to Liz Bicknell at Candlewick.



Can you tell us about your process?

The writing process happened organically. I started with that original New York Times image and tried to think of other visual metaphors that involved nature bending and morphing to reflect our emotions. After a bit of sketching, writing and playing with ideas, a theme developed—when we feel something, the world feels it too and reflects those feelings back at us—and I illustrated three emotional expressions: crying, laughter, singing.


It took a lot of patience for the words to develop. I had one version where I spelled everything out in the text i.e.”…the boy’s tear turned into a bird and flew into the sky. The bird whispered to the clouds and soon the clouds were crying, too,” but my editor, my agent, and I all agreed that the story was better left simple and open ended. After many, many revisions I pared it down to the few words that appear in the book.


I was listening to a lot of John Lennon—he uses these wonderfully simple, repetitive phrases—and I tried to put some of that influence to the words of this book. I can almost hear a John Lennon melody when I read from Everyone, “When you cry you are not alone. When you laugh happiness grows. When you sing everyone listens.”


9780763676834.int.2 I wanted the art to match the simplicity of the text so the illustrations are made using just three colors. My process starts with pencil sketches and then digital mockups where I think about color and composition. The final art is created in layers or separations very similar to print making. Each color is drawn and/or painted separately and then scanned as a black and white image. Then I add color to each separation—one is colored black, one blue, one tan—and they are layered on top of each other to make a complete image.

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What does a picture book text need in order for you to feel excited about illustrating it?

The words should be poetic or simple or surprising and there needs to be room for me to add to the narrative. If the text is too descriptive, there isn’t really much for me to add.

Who are some of your story heroes?

One of my favorite books is Frederick by Leo Lionni. It’s a simple, emotional book about four field mice storing food for winter. Except one mouse who gathers sun rays, colors, and words. I love how you can see the process within the final images. The reader can mentally pick apart the textures and scraps of paper like a puzzle.


What’s your favorite piece of art in your house?

Leanne Shapton paints wooden blocks to look like re-imagined book covers. The art is all typography and shapes. I have one of her blocks painted as Jaws by Peter Benchley.

What’s next for you?

I have a third book with Kate Messner coming out in Spring 2017 called Over and Under the Pond. In Fall 2017 I have another book with Candlewick about a hungry cat. In Spring 2018 I have a series of board books about shapes and colors and animals. Beyond that are books with authors Jennifer Adams and Barb Rosenstock.


Thank you, Christopher! Your readers have lots to look forward to, and I am so very glad you are a part of the world of picture books.


EVERYONE. Copyright © 2016 by Christopher Silas Neal. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA.

House Held Up By Trees


by Ted Kooser, illustrated by Jon Klaassen (Candlewick, 2012)


Above, the endpapers. A subtle hint at the both the hope and the loss inside: the green, the growth, the time.

House Held Up By Trees is one of my most treasured books. It was published around the time that Jon Klassen was racking up accolades (well-deserved!) for I Want My Hat Back and Extra Yarn, and it was written by a Ted Kooser, a Poet Laureate from about a decade ago.

That is a powerful team. And they captured a quietly powerful story.

There’s a house. It doesn’t look like much. But a dad lives there. Two kids. The dad is particular about his lawn and the kids run off to play in the trees and scraggly underbrush on either side of the house. Their yard, after all, has no secret spots or shade.

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These opening spreads are beautifully cinematic. Sweeping and grand. We are spinning around this house, this focal point, seeing it from the perspective of a homecoming, a hiding spot, and a thing with fur.

If you are a picture book author of text only, you’ve probably heard the advice to make sure you have x number of illustratable settings. Well. This book has a house. And a lawn. And characters that come and go. It breaks some of the ‘rules,’ but to heck with those things. Write something beautiful. 

Something important. Something that has to be told and illustrated or else it will be scattered away with those twirly-whirly seeds.

The words are not spare in this text. In fact, there are many. But because of Kooser’s text, lyrically floating around a solid foundation, Klassen gets to explore all angles of this environment.

Page after page after page. It’s a case study in composition. And it is beautiful and important and elusive.

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The children leave. The father leaves. The house stays.

It is bittersweet. Time goes on, but trees do too.

What once was vast and open and contained is now crowded by branches and forceful new life. And again, Klassen’s compositions tell the story of an unbridled wildness.

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First there was a crack of light beneath it, and then . . . 


PS: Do you know this blog, 32 Pages? Here’s a look at House Held Up By Trees that is beyond beautiful, and in a funny twist of small-world-ness, I worked on the television show she mentions in her post. 


waiting by Kevin Henkes (Greenwillow, 2015)

Usually towards the end of the year I have trouble picking a favorite picture book from that year. It’s this one! No, this one. Oh wait, that one too. That might sound familiar if you are a picture book person. It happens. But this year, without a twitch or a doubt or a no, but wait, it’s this one. It’s so perfect it hurts.


It’s one of those things that happens this time of year, which is why this book’s fall release feels like such a good decision. Tis the season, after all.

The cover, a window to the world beyond the sill where these five sit. It takes a real genius to smoosh so much emotion into one small dot of an eye and a pink dab for a cheek, but do you see that bunny? So much hope and wonder while he waits, right? Only Kevin Henkes.

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The colors here are beautiful. A muted pastel palette brought together by the richest brown endpapers, a brown that’s the color of his line throughout. It all feels both lush and spare and inviting.

Each one had their thing, and each one was happy.

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Their faces, looking on these gifts with such curiosity and tenderness. So much so that it feels like these figurines are entirely real. That’s what the lack of art in context does. The rest of the room falls away so that all of our eyes look out. Nothing else matters but the waiting and the friends.


The pacing is swift but sweet, and this moment is the height of some hushed anticipation. The owl’s reverence, the rabbit’s concern.

They were happy while they waited. They saw the things they loved.

And then.


This is the first time we’ve seen this rose dawn color through the window. A sign of something new.

And what was this dear cat waiting on? Something wonderful. Something surprising, spectacular, and incredible.

All of us are waiting on something. Here’s hoping you’ve got some room on your windowsill for friends.


PS: If you have a few minutes to spare, listen to this NPR piece about Waiting. It’s so nicely done and such a treat.

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

The Little Gardener by Emily Hughes

I can’t stop thinking about the line Emily left us with yesterday, this one:

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


Welcome back, Emily! Hope you enjoy the rest of our conversation. (And a reminder, click to enlarge any images.)

The Little Gardener by Emily Hughes The Little Gardener by Emily Hughes

Can you tell us about the design of the art and the text? I love that your pictures don’t have text on them anywhere, and the page turn with the flower is the only time there’s text away from the bottom. What went into those decisions?

There wasn’t much decision making- that was the problem! Often times I like to work with only a bit of text because type is a whole other ball-park in terms of aesthetics. I have a hard time compromising my space for words- text and fonts and size, all that jazz has to mesh in with the artwork, and it’s hard finding the right voice to match the looks.

My work gets pretty dense, so I find it a lot more difficult to find something that is legible, but still yields to the art. In university I preferred to keep my lines simple and punchy and give a whole page of text to one image- it makes you read everything slower, more thoughtfully. However in the world of big print-run publishing, it is a luxury to use up so much paper! I work on the pacing, but the designers at Flying Eye made a lot of the technical decisions and all the book designing- I think they’ve done beautifully.

The Little Gardener by Emily Hughes The Little Gardener by Emily Hughes The Little Gardener by Emily Hughes

What is your favorite piece of art hanging in your home or studio?

I work at home, and my favourite art piece is this ceramic self-portrait bust my Dad made when he was a kid in school. It’s got hair that looks like it was squeezed through a garlic presser- he forgot a bit of hair on the back though, and he made his nostrils with a pencil eraser. It’s a bit creepy, bit primitive cool. Very seventies. Still trying to find the best place to display it.

What are some of your favorite picture books? Both for writing and text and whatever inspires? What is your favorite picture book from childhood?

My favourite old school book is Munro Leaf’s Ferdinand. It is a beauty in text and image- what a fantastic story about the happily peaceful bull. Didn’t want to fight, didn’t want the fame, just wanted the simple pleasures of everyday life. You come across the message of being unique quite a bit in children’s books. Oftentimes it’s a feeling of ‘you’re different’ therefore special, therefore better. I don’t get that passive aggression or hypocrisy with Ferdinand.

For modern, I love Michael Rosen/Quentin Blake’s Sad Book. It isn’t sappy or over the top, it is perfect. No melodrama or silver-linings, just honest. The book feels like it is quietly listening to it’s readers own blues. It brought me real comfort. It is really a gem.

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In terms of illustration, I love everything that is Blair Lent. Dreamy.

What’s next for you?

Lots of good things in store at the moment! I have finished a bunch of projects recently, and am still catching my breath.

I just finished A Brave Bear with Walker Books, and Brilliant with Abrams, and I’m now moving on to a book series with Chronicle for easy readers called Charlie and Mouse which is written by Laurel Snyder.

Oh, and did I mention the ever lovely Everything you Need for a Treehouse by THE Carter Higgins? 
I am excited about it all, and slowly getting better at juggling everything- at the moment I am trying to doodle personal work (if you don’t maintain this, everything goes bad, you don’t evolve!), little brothers, and treehouses. For boys, I’ve been creeping around my high street and local parks to get inspiration, for tree houses I fondly think of the ones my neighbours and I repeatedly built unsuccessfully. Now I can build one without the necessary requirements of having lumber readily available, knowing how to saw wood, and basic physics!

Exciting, busy, new!

Thanks, Emily! It was such an honor to have you here, and I am so, so excited about our future!

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


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.

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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!



Pool by JiHyeon Lee

by JiHyeon Lee  (Chronicle Books, 2015)

Hello to you! And you! And you!

Here I am, ready to flip my g o n e  f i s h i n g sign back around.

First, have you had a nice summer? I have been away from the grind, sitting on a deck, writing books and reading them, and it’s been so very nice to be off the grid for a while. But I do miss my books.

You might have seen today’s floating around this summer, and I can’t think of a better one to celebrate the season.

Pool. The word itself conjures up both serenity and splashing chaos, and both of those things exist inside this book.

At its heart, this is a tale of a friendship. Even as grownups there’s a dance to the early moments of togetherness, and this story is that thing in book form.

A boy at the edge of a pool, all the hope of his day before him. A crowd, scary with its wacky floats and almost-tentacles.

Pool by JiHyeon Lee

(click to enlarge)

That’s when he dives, under it all and to the quiet, and that’s when he meets his friend. And that’s when things get weird. Isn’t that how it is with friendship? You see new things together, you name the new things together, you create a new kind of community together. The fish and plants and the world under the crazies is bizarre to us, but is it to them? Perhaps not.

Pool by JiHyeon Lee

(click to enlarge)

That’s the beauty of finding a friend in the quiet places, whether or not you were looking.

And at the end, when the crowd is exiting to the left, the friends leave to the right. Those two, going forward. Together.

Pool by JiHyeon Lee

(click to enlarge)

This is one of those books that I fell in love with when I first saw the cover. And it’s worth wondering why.

I love that the face could belong to either the girl or the boy. I like to think it’s after the magic, both because of the sweet smile and the still-dreamy fish, reflected and real. And I love that by staring at us, it’s almost an invitation. To play, to swim, to step away from the crowd at the edge of the pool.


Can’t get enough of this book? Me either! Here are some other places I loved reading about it. Danielle at This Picture Book Life paired it with the most adorable pool floats (ice cream sandwich!), and there’s still enough summer left to make that dream a reality! JiHyeon Lee is over at Picturebook Makers talking about the story behind the story and shares some process pictures, which I can’t ever get enough. And you can download some free Pool wallpapers at Chronicle’s happy home online. Enjoy the swim!

Thanks to Chronicle for the images in this post!


Rabbityness by Jo Empson

by Jo Empson (Child’s Play, 2012)

Here’s a book that’s deceptively simple in text, in color, in motion.

An average rabbit, doing average rabbity things. White space, dark spot illustrations. Calm and steady.

Rabbityness by Jo Empson Rabbityness by Jo Empson

But then. The page turn is the miraculous pacing tool for the picture book, and this one is a masterpiece. Swiftly, from the expected to the unexpected, from straightforward rabbityness to the unusual.

And the beautiful. And the wild and the wonderful.

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Jo Empson’s art is a storyteller to follow. It unfolds visually, deftly, magically.


Rabbityness by Jo Empson

Because one day, Rabbit is gone. So is the color and the movement and the life.

“All that Rabbit had left was a hole.”

But, much like the art, Rabbit was a storyteller to follow.

Rabbityness by Jo Empson Rabbityness by Jo Empson

And the color returns.

It’s a story about making a mark that leaves a legacy. It’s about telling a story and remembering one. It’s for anyone who is daring enough to leave drips of unrabbityness, and anyone brave enough to chase them.


Just One Apple

Just One Apple by Janosch

by Janosch (NorthSouth, 2014; originally published 1965 in Switzerland as Das Apfelmänchenn.)

I love a good pen name, and Janosch has one. His real name is Horst Eckert, and he is one of Germany’s most beloved children’s book authors and illustrators. He was new to me until NorthSouth revived this classic in late 2014. I’m so glad they did.

This is Walter’s story. He was the poorest man in the entire kingdom and he only had one single apple tree. A strong and beautiful tree, a nice home for a solitary cardinal. But no fruit. No blossoms. No bending branches.

Walter wishes for an apple. Just one. And when you wish with all your might, things change.

And his wishes came true, as wishes sometimes do.

Just One Apple by Janosch

(click to enlarge)

The art is loose and fiery. Full of motion and an eery calm.

But I love how this book breathes.

A page of art, a page of text. A page of text, a page of art. The contrast between Walter’s colorful (and worrisome) world and the spare white space of the words sets a comforting rhythm to a familiar story.

And the apple grows. So Walter goes to the market.

Just One Apple by Janosch

(click to enlarge)

The very worst feeling in the whole world is when other people don’t believe in your wishes.

Walter loses interest in his apple and in his wishes and in his life.

Until the dragon comes to town.

Just One Apple by Janosch

(click to enlarge)

Here’s where the breathing hitches and the white space/art space tempo gives way to one glorious spread of Walter’s wish saving the kingdom. It’s startling and ridiculous and wonderful.

And after that, Walter was careful what he wished for.


Wonderment: The Lisbeth Zwerger Collection

Wonderment: The Lisbeth Zwerger Collection

by Lisbeth Zwerger (NorthSouth, 2014)

Happy New Year, book people! I went dark over the holidays to rewrite a draft of a novel, one I hope to be able to tell you about soon! I missed this little patch of space on the internet, and I’m excited about some new things for this blog in the coming year. But to start us off, here’s a look at a beautiful anthology published late in 2014 by one of my favorite small publishers, NorthSouth.

Truthfully, the first I heard of Lisbeth Zwerger was in this post from Brain Pickings earlier in the year. I’d barely scrolled down and was smitten with that White Rabbit’s cuffs and collar.

Wonderment: The Lisbeth Zwerger Collection

(from E.T.A. Hoffman’s The Nutcracker; click to enlarge)

This bunch represents stories from around the world, from anywhere a story for kids is revered and beloved.

There’s also a foreword by Peter Sís. He says this, which is so true and so lovely:

Her shapes and her colors are magic and inspiring. And it is so fluid. Tells so much of a story which one can only imagine.

Though not a true picture book, those words are the heart and soul of the form. And here, in these illustrated stories, you’ve probably never seen them in your heart so beautiful. It’s a fresh breath into timeless text.

Wonderment: The Lisbeth Zwerger Collection

(from Edith Nesbit’s The Deliverer’s of Their Country; click to enlarge)

Some of my favorite moments in this collection are the spot illustrations that open and close each story, anchored not by text but by the hope of some unfolding situation. The endpapers are a rich red, and the page that acts as a boundary between where one story ends and another begins is just as luxurious and saturated. The physical book is a work of art.

Wonderment: The Lisbeth Zwerger Collection (from Rudyard Kipling’s How the Camel Got His Hump; click to enlarge)

Those pages from How the Camel Got His Hump are the only places where she breaks the frame of her pictures, where she uses extra space for small works of art. Tiny snippets of story.

This is one to savor, to celebrate, and to remember. I might be a bit late to suggest her rendition of The Gift of the Magi, but it’s spectacular. Take a look.


I Know a Lot of Things

I Know a Lot of Things by Ann and Paul Rand

by Ann and Paul Rand (Chronicle Books, 2009; originially published in 1956.)

I Know a Lot of Things by Ann and Paul Rand I Know a Lot of Things by Ann and Paul Rand

You might remember how much I love this pair’s Sparkle and Spin, and this one is just as playful and just as true. That case cover surprise is an a delight, and complementary-colored endpapers start this book with a bang.

I Know a Lot of Things by Ann and Paul Rand I Know a Lot of Things by Ann and Paul Rand I Know a Lot of Things by Ann and Paul Rand

Paul Rand’s graphic genius is so well-matched by the simple and spare words of his wife, Ann. The text and the pictures both glide through that magical reality of childhood. Things that might seem daunting to someone bested by time are small and accessible. Things that may seem obvious or forgettable are ripe for play and adventure.

I Know a Lot of Things by Ann and Paul Rand I Know a Lot of Things by Ann and Paul Rand

It’s a reminder to slow down, listen, and watch. The world is built of wonderful things. The big picture is as beautiful as the details.

I Know a Lot of Things by Ann and Paul Rand

Here, the sentiment is the whole of this person. I’m not sure there’s an ending more perfect, not for kids or their grownups. There’s so much more to know, but what you carry with you can stay.