Sometime in the first year or two of my (apparently endless) PhD program, one of the children's lit professors offered a bit of advice culled from one of her own experiences on the job market. At an interview, she was asked to name three of her favorite current children's books - one picture book, one middle-grade, and one young adult. The advice she was offering was to stay current, or at least keep an eye on current trends.
I do a decent job of staying on top of what's happening in middle-grade and young adult fiction. I have a set of favorite authors who I follow, I discover new titles through the listserv and through a few select blogs (as well as the goodreads pages of some highly respected acquaintances and colleagues). I make a point of visiting the ALA awards pages, and I've been working my way through the Printz and Newbery honor lists, as well as a semi-random selection of other kinds of awards-winners.
But I realized a couple of weeks ago that I have fallen behind on picture books. When I worked at the bookstore, it was easy to keep up; the central display in the children's section was picture books, especially new and/or noteworthy picture books. I find that books, regardless of age or genre, act like breadcrumbs leading me to more books, and the picture book wall was no different: a book would lead me to look for others by that author, or by the illustrator - which in some cases, is even more fruitful, because most illustrators work on a variety of authors' books. I need to find some good picturebook blogs so I know what's happening; my other "idea" is to go wander the picture book section of the library, a section I both love and loathe - it's usually very noisy, and the shorter shelves mean that I end up crawling around the section on my knees to scan the shelves. This crawling - which I don't really mind in itself - attracts Looks from other patrons, though; I suspect that the fact that I am conspicuously a grownup without a kid, literally on my knees in the children's picture book section, looks at least slightly odd. This makes me feel very sorry for any un-child'd guys who might want to examine the picturebooks - men around children, or children's stuff, is one of the few places where male privilege goes right out the window. [this is a topic for another post, but one I could discuss at length and feel strongly about].
Which leads me in a roundabout manner to the Exciting Discovery, a moment of serendipity, or maybe just coincidence. On my personal twitter account, I follow a variety of people of whom I am a fan; I made the personal account so I could fangirl out without crossing that particular nerdy stream with the bookish/academic nerdy stream. Anyway, Jonathan Coulton and John Roderick have a new christmas CD coming out, and they retweeted a photo of themselves with the CD and the illustrator of the cover. I was curious, because I'm a fangirl, and clicked through, and discovered.....
He did the cover art for Coulton & Roderick's christmas album. AND - this is the exciting part - he's a children's book artist. Or intends to be. My opinion: should be, like immediately. Because I was immediately completely enchanted with his work.
Like this one, for instance, a commissioned piece that is cleverly tagged "cultured swine."
Look how warm and wonderful that bookshop is! Like you would walk in and unravel your scarf and pull off mittens in that lovely yellowy light, and it would have that Used Bookstore smell, and you could just daydream your way down the shelves while it got darker and colder outside. Maybe because of the pig, Zack Rock's work reminds me a bit of David Wiesner - that sort of dreamy watercolory look, I guess.
But there's also a not-exactly-surrealist-but-close thing going on with some of his work, which I also love. For instance, this image which combines two of my favorite things - hot-air balloons and windmills:
nice little interview with him on Seven Impossible Things,
which will tell you that he has an MA in Children's Book Illustration
(a thing which I did not know existed), and that his MA thesis was about
the other illustrator whose work Zack Rock's reminds me of: Shaun Tan). It's joyous to come across someone who very intentionally chooses to work in children's book illustration; so many artists seem to come to it by accident (happy accident or otherwise), and some, as with children's authors, still seem to need to distance themselves from being "merely" a children's book artist.
As I've mentioned - or at least implied - I'm not a picturebook specialist. I like them, I love some of them, and it's a genre that I am very happy to claim as one within my field.I have a small but respectable collection of picturebooks (highlights: Chris Van Allsburg, William Joyce, Maurice Sendak; I'm late to the Shaun Tan party but now that I'm there, I am there; I'm working on collecting his books). So while I don't have an arts degree, or even real picturebook expertise, I feel like I have enough knowledge and (I hope) taste to make a claim here and there about a picturebook or picturebook artist. And I will go right ahead and claim that Zack Rock's work is amazing - it's gorgeous and dreamy and evocative and clever and intelligent. It has that wonderful picturebook aesthetic that is as appealing on the page, in the context of a narrative, as it would be in a frame on the wall.
His website - because he is as yet unpublished (why? how? someone needs to change this) - displays an intelligence and wit that I really appreciate. I don't know about most people, but there's a cleverness that is right up my alley in, for instance, this description of Mel Goate and the Purple Velvet Tuxedo: "The tale of a musical young goat who yearns for the world's most sumptuous formalwear." Everything about that sentence delights me. I would read that book in a heartbeat.
This is good storytelling, and good art - on the strength of a single sentence and single image, I'm wondering about the rest of the story, and the rest of the pictures.
My incipient fangirling may be just because Zack Rock manages to hit all my aesthetic buttons - animals in clothes, windmills, hot-air balloons, books, Victorian curio museums, the cover of Coulton and Roderick's album - but I don't think so. I've read enough good picture books to feel semi-confident in my critical abilities, and I think Zack Rock's work is just flat-out good. I'm very keen to see what becomes of him and his fabulous art; I am hoping for very great things.
At the very least, he should be rewarded for using and spelling "piques" correctly on his website.
Postscript: Images posted/linked here are, of course, the sole and exclusive property of the artist, Zack Rock. But a few (too few!) prints by him are buyable through etsy. I think the Thoughtful Fox will be coming to my house before too much longer.
**For some reason, I seem unable to use anything but his two names at all times.
UPDATE: November is Picture Book Month!!!! How about that for synchronicity, or serendipity (which always sounds like the name of a sea monster), or coincidence?! I'm slapping the Picture Book Month "ambassador" icon on the blog, not so much because I have passed the civil service exams and acquired diplomatic immunity, but because the icon is, um, really, really cute.
Now, go read some picture books. There are a ton of good ones out there.