Saturday, January 29, 2011

Cristiana Clerici's Picture Book List

Cristiana Clerici writes about children's books on her blog The Tea Box and on Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast. I'll let her introduce herself.

I was born in Parma, Italy, where I still live with my two cats. I was a very lucky child, because I had the best granny in the world: she was the one who used to tell me the most incredible stories at bedtime, though my favourite has always been Cinderella (for the three balls and the three dresses she had, at least in my granny's version, not for Prince Charming nor for wedding! I start to think I've been quite coherent after all!). Granny was the one who gifted me with fascination for children's literature. I took my University degree in Foreign Languages and Literatures, in specific English and French, the further step was then quite a natural one to me: speak French and English + love literature, and in specific kidslit, + a bit of craziness = start studying the subject and writing about it, first for a few specialized magazines, then on my own blog(s)!

1 – NELLA NEBBIA DI MILANO by Bruno Munari
      Bruno Munari has been a brilliant mind and a free soul, to me he represents all the good qualities of our country: he was a wise free thinker, someone with an excellent sense of aesthetics and color and a man gifted with a powerful creativity. Nella Nebbia di Milano is, to my opinion, his masterpiece. Though dated 1968, it's a timeless picture book, where words and images contribute to plunge you into a real foggy day, with a little surprise in the middle. His use of tissue papers and graphics recalls the imperceivable softness that wraps up everything on a foggy day. Though, being such a fan of colored papers, he could not renounce to a colorful heart: the great circus is in town, and even if everything around is gray and black and all mingled, inside the circus everything is color! The text is essential and full of poetry: “Gli uccelli fanno piccoli voli nella nebbia.... e tornano subito” (birds make short flights when it's foggy... and they come back immediately). 
[This book is also available in its English translation as "The Circus in the Mist".]

2 – THE SNOWY DAY by Ezra J.Keats
      This is another timeless masterpiece I discovered only quite recently. What I appreciate more in Keats is the immense sense of child's perspective he has: his way of looking at the world is exactly the way children look at it, with that same enchantment. The Snowy Day to me represents exactly this: marvel and joy, playing, a metamorphosed world loosing its usual boundaries and becoming the perfect place for new discoveries. His use of color is incredibly masterly, he never exceeds and this not just because he's describing a snowy day, but because he has a great sense of balance. I love the way Keats portrayed his main character, not simply because he portrays a black boy (and I believe we would need many more book characters in Europe belonging to other ethnic groups others than white), but because he decided to outline Peter very simply, he avoids being too descriptive, so that anyone can identify with him, which leads to another important message: though different in our being individuals, we are all the same.

3 – ABC, WORD BOOK by Richard Scarry
      This is the book I literally worn out when I was a kid: Scarry's images are always on my mind and every time I look at them I feel home somehow. I remember spending hours on the book looking at all the little details. Amid all the animals populating the book cats were my favorite (why on earth would I be surrounded by cats otherwise??), and the table I loved most was the one representing the Firemen House. Amid all the other picks I made, this is a real emotional choice and most probably it's the book I would still select were I still a child. Of Scarry's illustrations I really love the thin lines, the colors and his urban scenes full of details and warmth. And, one last thing, the cottage: this is where I always wanted to live. Remembering this makes me think of how much a children's book can determine the perception a child has of the world outside!

4 – LA VISITE DE PETITE MORT by Kitty Crowther
      Kitty Crowther is one of my favorite authors/illustrators, I was right there when she received the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award last year and I was so happy and moved and empathic that I ended up crying like a baby! Well, besides this... La Visite de Petite Mort is a book that affords a difficult theme like death in such an incredibly sensible way it is a real life lesson for anyone, adults and children likewise. Kitty Crowther always deals with difficult topics, and this book is no exception. When I found it book I felt so deeply touched I could hardly refrain from turning all emotional: Petite Mort is a child, a very kind child everyone is afraid of, they all tremble with fear when they see her, and she resents this very much, until she meets Elsewise who is a child as well, a child who has been hill for a long time. Elsewise welcomes Petite Mort, they play together and they become friends. I won't give the ending away but it is such a beautiful book I would talk about it for hours, this is why I'd better stop here!

5 – LES ARBRES PLEURENT AUSSI by Irène Cohen-Janca, illustrations by Maurizio A.C. Quarello
In Les Arbres Pleurent Aussi, the main character is the horse-chestnut tree that was in front of Anne Frank's hidden shelter, in Amsterdam. It's the tree that tells us about her, we will know her name only towards the end of the book, until then it's just a tree and a girl observing each other and the world all around getting darker and crazier. Both illustrations and text are of such rare beauty that I wouldn't know where to start: few books about Anne Frank were able to reach such high degree of poetry and intensity. It is such a powerful book, all played around the idea that the tree and the girl are both powerless, we know what their destiny will be and still we are stuck to the pages, watching them living their lives despite everything else. It contains all the sense of injustice and misery that comes with wars, whatever war they are.

6 – ICI LONDRES by Vincent Cuvellier, illustrations bu Anne Herbauts
      Talking about war: Ici Londres is a brilliant book whose text is formed by the secret messages French people, exhiled in England, sent through BBC Radio during the Second World War, including the very famous: “Les sanglots longs / des violons / de l'automne / blessent mon coeur / d'une langueur / monotone.” In the preface, that gives unity to the whole book together with the beautiful illustrations, the author tells how he used to listen to the encrypted messages, hidden behind a pile of stumps. It's interesting the way he describes his boyish dreams upon the strange messages he couldn't fully understand and the way he gives that sense of secret urge and dread: he knew something forbidden was happening, he knew that in occupied France listening to BBC was illegal and, from his hidden corner, he could share his part with adults. Anne Herbauts is an extremely interesting Belgian illustrator, whose works always represent facts from a very original perspective. In this book, through the mysterious messages it contains, she could give way to all her inner being. With the book there is a CD with the recorded messages and a special musical accompaniment.

7 – MIGRANDO by Mariana Chiesa Mateos
      Migrando is a wordless book about migration: past and present. It's a book that goes to the very heart of emigration issues, it offers no resolution, it gives no judgment. The author identifies with those who were, and still are, migrating. It's both a personal story and a common one that ties together all different sorts of people. It's a double-face book: on one side past times, on the other  present times. What is touching and true about this book is that it lets you understand it's never easy to leave your own country, even if it can be necessary. The author shows this through the eyes of her characters: those looks with their sad smiles seem to be telling us that the past is always relevant, that the needs we had in the past are the same we have nowadays and that, in the end, men never change. In small clips, Mariana Chiesa Mateos gets to illustrate with cleverness and sensibility, the story of a girl leaving with her parents: we know almost nothing about her, we only know she feels sad, that she would like to fly back to where she belongs and one day she will. It's a book that received an important recognition from Amnesty International.

8 – L'ANGELO DELLE SCARPE by Giovanna Zoboli, illustrations by Joanna Concejo
      This book is the work of two women I appreciate and love for the grace they both have in approaching their subjects. L'Angelo delle Scarpe is a story that tells about a lonely child, whose father is too busy working to take care of his own son. Nothing more common nowadays. One day the child sees someone on the balcony and calls his father, but he won't listen to him: he's too busy making and selling shoes, and when he doesn't work he thinks of business. The child cries out for attention, breaking the perfect silence of his father's thoughts. All this crying will at last force the man to leave his armchair, and his plans, to make a sensational discovery that will change his life forever. The man on the balcony is an angel, only the father cannot see it at first: he just realizes he has no shoes, until... Well, I won't spoil the ending. Joanna Concejo's refined drawings make a perfect counter-singing to the text, they enrich it with their perfect tones, the pale colors and their delicate touches of a rare sensibility.

9 – ISIS by Silvina Ocampo, illustrations by Pablo Auladell
      Before being a real artwork this picture book is a cultural operation of excellence: the publishers in fact selected this amazing text by Silvina Ocampo, who was born in Buenos Aires at the beginning of the 20th century, where the main character somehow reminds her for that same sensible soul, for those same silences, for that inner wish to be something else or somewhere else. This text was not necessarily meant for children, though its beauty, with its dark sides and irony, with its ferocious portrait of humanity and its brilliant ending is such that it has become an amazingly beautiful picture book. It's a story about a strange metamorphosis that will change the main character into a wild animal: a quite twisted perspective but, let's be honest, haven't we all dreamed of becoming a wild and free creature sooner or later? This operation wouldn't have been possible without Pablo Auladell, he is to me one of the most promising Spanish illustrators: extremely versatile, his interpretation of the stories he narrates is unique, with a touch of the first Picasso and a very personal hint, he gives body and soul to this story as none else could have done. His use of color and perspective, the atmospheres of his works are simply brilliant.

10 – L'ULTIMA SPIAGGIA by J. Patrick Lewis, illustrations by Roberto Innocenti
        How could I not love Roberto Innocenti? The true is that America was the first country where his genius was fully understood and recognized, this is why all my perpetual gratitude goes to the enlightened publisher who brought him to light! This said, what if Innocenti is in couple with J. Patrick Lewis? Well, the result could just be amazing! L'ultima spiaggia is a strange mingling of classic characters that a Novel-weirdo like me could just adore!! With their peculiar sense of irony and mocking approach, this fantastic duo of artists brought together some of the most improbable companions, both from fiction and reality, such as Huckleberry Finn, Long John Silver, the Little Mermaid, Peter Lorre, Jules Maigret, Antoine de Sait-Exupery, Moby Dick and many others, into one single book. How can this be? Well, they're all guests at the same hotel where the main character arrives on a solitary trip. No need to say this book is simply hilarious, refined, full of cultural references and enriched by Innocenti's masterly and unmistakable illustrations.


  1. I want to see everything Roberto Innocenti has ever done. He is, indeed, amazing... is this list!

  2. "L'ultima spiaggia" was published in the U.S. in 2002 by Creative Editions with the title "The Last Resort".

  3. i love these lists. i am an artist and aspiring children's book illustrator, and some of these favorites are mine as well. i just discovered Joanna Concejo but it's hard to find her books in america. i will have to do some searching.

    Sergio, i actually met you once when i worked at a letterpress shop called Peter Kruty Editions in brooklyn. you were thinking of getting some coasters printed, i think. I bought your book "Amandina" for my sister for christmas because amandina reminded me of her. i had her read it aloud to the family and then she cried. she is also an artist and possesses a lot of the same gumption as Amandina, though the way of an artist can be difficult as you know.

    thanks for your touching stories and illustrations!

  4. Thank you Aijung!

    I never had those coasters made... One of these days!
    Your work looks great!