Anything these guys touch turns to gold, and it's not by chance. Their wry humor, understatement, and perfect play between text and illustration fills their books with fun, charm, and wonder. Their stories are some of my favorites.
Matt de la Peña is that beautiful kind of author that can take our everyday joys and common struggles and intimately reveal the magic and sacredness within. Last Stop on Market Street is a walk through the city and through the experiences that shape our lives and the world around us.
I read The Way Home in the Night and was so transported I had to instantly read it again just to see what I had read. It's spellbinding. The illustrations are some of the most beautiful I've seen and capture a mood and intimacy that I've rarely seen.
Oliver Jeffers is one of my favorite humans and artists around. I've never met him; I follow him on Instagram. But you get the sense that he is very much in his skin, so to speak. He's funny, honest, authentic, and stands up for the world he wants to live in. Life shouldn't be split up into personal and professional. There's just life and he embodies this beautifully.
Maira Kalman is brilliant and speaks to that deep part of my heart that knows things don't have to make sense to be beautiful. Reading her stories and poems is like pressing a release valve on my brain. She makes me laugh. She makes me miss my family. And she makes me feel normal. I'm buying what she's selling big time.
Benji Davies' illustrations are some of my favorites out there right now. They somehow manage to feel timeless and contemporary at the same time, and the faces of his characters always draw me in and make me care how the story turns out. Tender, intimate, funny and warm. He's who I turn to feel better about the world.
The first time I read Duck, Death and the Tulip, I was literally left breathless at the end. It blew my mind that children's books could deal with topics like this, and with such grace, beauty and honesty. It forever changed my writing, and my view of what was possible through children's picture books.
I wanted to squeeze this book so tight it became a part of me - that's how much I loved it. I have always been mesmerized by artists that can tell a wordless story, and Marla Frazee is one of the best. Time and again, she unwraps the complexity and nuance of being a human through masterful simple lines and techniques. She is a gift.
Kevin Henkes can take the simplest idea and turn it into magic. In 117 words, Henkes takes us through a terrible day to one of the best days ever for four characters...and then adds a surprise ending to boot! It is insanely satisfying. It's a reminder that you don't need a lot of words to tell a brilliant story, and even when you think you've got a good story, kick it up a notch.
I still can't look at a book illustrated by James Marshall without bursting out laughing. His ability to create characters that are brave and vulnerable, ridiculous and wise, is a true gift. His George and Martha books gave me permission to be ludicrous. And they taught me that a story can be told even from the smallest of circumstances.
I grew up on his poetry, and I blame him for who I am today. But his ability to traffic in the ludicrous, the forbidden, the sorrowful, the disenfranchised, the broken, the forgotten, and the freaky, and to make us laugh from our hearts is an art form all its own, not to mention his unforgettable illustrations. He's one of my inspirations for authenticity, irreverence and voice.
Oh, Richard Scarry. His fun and lively stories and illustrations of cities, towns, villages, other countries, doctor's and dentist offices, and modes of transportation eased me into the big, crazy world as a child, and gave me my first glimpse into how fascinating and diverse it could be. His animal illustrations are some of my favorites, and I'm still holding out for a car shaped like a banana.
My favorite Mercer Mayer book was Everyone Knows What a Dragon Looks Like. The story is wonderful, but the illustrations by Mayer are jaw-dropping. The details and perspective put me in the story like few books ever have, and I still go to that book to get lost in his craftsmanship.
Dr. Seuss stories continue to wow me. He could write a simple book about numbers, letters or the sounds of animals and make it extraordinary. And he could write message-driven books dealing with discrimination, war, diversity, and the environment, using tender, goofy, and relatable characters in wild lands to have us look at ourselves and reflect.
I remember when Maurice Sendak's books were all being made into cartoons on TV. He seemed to capture something both child-like and adult in his stories, and there was a darkness under the surface that blurred the lines between real life and fantasy. I think he both amused and scared me, but I like that feeling. It keeps you aware.
I credit Arnold Lobel's Frog and Toad series with my early lessons on relationships. Through the smallest of predicaments, Lobel modeled how to be true to yourself, to be honest with others, and how to care for a friend. Frog and Toad's gentle empathy and simple gestures still resonate with me today.
Tomie de Paola was a beloved author/illustrator in our house and I think we owned every book he ever made. Bill and Pete books were my favorites by far. Their unusual bond (a bird and an alligator) and symbiotic skills made for amazing adventures, and Tomie's simple, yet beautiful illustration style made even the most perilous of situations seem charming.
Harold and the Purple Crayon is still one of my favorite books. I loved the intimate size of the book, and Harold wielding that purple crayon creating worlds of water and monsters and air balloons that he seemed as surprised at as we were! Both text and illustration stand alone in this and yet together they are bigger than their parts.