Every Saturday we hope to share with you our thoughts on reading and books. We thought that it would be good practice to reflect on our reading lives and our thoughts about reading in general. While on occasion, we would feature a few books in keeping with this, there would be a few posts where we will just write about our thoughts on read-alouds, libraries, reading journals, upcoming literary conferences, books that we are excited about, and just book love miscellany in general.
I didn’t realize how massive an undertaking this would prove to be as I ponder on my life in books over the past forty years. While others would probably purchase a sports car or have a tattoo (which I already have by the way – the tattoo, not the sports car) to mark their 40th birthday, I am reflecting on the books that have shaped my consciousness. It is kind of cathartic to do this, really, and provides me with a measure of happiness as I note how these books found me, changed me, and enriched my life that I remain eternally grateful that this is the kind of life I chose.
This last post is extra special (I deliberately saved the best for last) as I share the picturebooks and graphic novels that made me the reader I am now. I am sure I have missed out on a great deal of authors and books which I would most likely remember the minute I post this, but c’est lavie. I have 40 more years (or so) of reading and reviewing to remedy that, I hope.
(1) The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales by Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith
I would never have fallen in love with children’s literature if not for this book that I found in a thrift shop when my daughter was barely one year old (that’s nearly 15 years ago now). I was looking for books that I thought she would enjoy – I didn’t realize that I would be the one to fall head over heels with this title that it changed my world forever, and for that I will always be indebted to Scieszka and Smith.
(2) Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean: The Day I Swapped My Dad for Two Goldfish, The Wolves In The Walls
I remember introducing my daughter to fairy tales early on – and her godfathers/godmothers were kind enough to give her those Disney Princess books – which I also read to her. Yet while I provided her with the sweet, tame stuff and the familiar tales, I also shared with her these unsettling picturebooks which simultaneously frightened and fascinated her to no end. She couldn’t have enough of The Wolves in the Walls in particular – and wondered who the Queen from Melanesia was. It taught her that stories didn’t have to make sense for the reader to appreciate them.
(3) Colin Thompson: Falling Angels, How To Live Forever, The Last Alchemist
Colin Thompson was one of my first picturebook heroes. It was in his intricately detailed illustrations that I realized exactly how one picturebook can contain multiple works of art – each page a painting that a reader can drown one’s self in. Thompson has practically no blank spaces in his pages – every inch a swab of colour, a literary clue encoded in the many nooks and crannies, each image has its own pulse and shaded reality.
(4) Emily Gravett: Little Mouse’s Big Book Of Fears, Meerkat Mail
Not many people are aware that we have Behind the Books where we used to share our interviews with authors, illustrators, poets, artists. When we were first starting out and we didn’t know many authors, I did a feature of Colin Thompson’s picturebooks and Emily Gravett’s as well. As a clinician, I was deeply fascinated by Little Mouse’s Big Book of Fears, I didn’t know that books like these can be created – it seemed almost like an engineering feat of sorts. Meerkat Mail is about a meerkat finding his place in the world, along with the realization of what home and family mean.
(5) Maurice Sendak: Where The Wild Things Are, My Brother’s Book, We Are All In the Dumps With Jack and Guy
Need I say more, really? Sendak’s picturebooks solidify my then-increasing appreciation of picturebooks as works of art. My Brother’s Book in particular is so complex and multi-layered that people have argued that it is a book meant more for adults than children – I personally do not draw those kinds of distinctions, so I may be the wrong person to ask about that. We Are All In The Dumps is strange, but is ultimately about redemption. Critics claim that it is the first picturebook about same-sex parenting. I believe, though, that the beauty in picturebooks (where there is glorious fusion of text and image) is such that people can have a variety of interpretations about the same narrative – makes for an exciting discussion, really.
(6) Shaun Tan: The Arrival, The Red Tree, Tales from Outer Suburbia
So. Shaun Tan. He is the man. Going back to my earlier point about multiple interpretations in reading, he had this to say about what his “red tree” is in my interview with him back in 2013: “That’s a big question – it’s no one particular thing. I think that’s why the concept works, it’s infinitely adaptable.” Shaun Tan is poetry in sepia tone, the surreal made familiar, the embodiment of what it means to live forever in a liminal state of being. I want to join him there and watch him paint all day.
(7) Shaun Tan’s Collaborations with Other Artists: Gary Crew (The Viewer, Memorial) and John Marsden (The Rabbits)
Clearly, I have a thing for Australian picturebook makers. Not only am I enamoured by Shaun Tan’s lyrical writing, I am equally fascinated by his collaboration with well known authors such as Gary Crew and John Marsden – both known for their allegorical tales. The Rabbits, for one, is a deeply affecting tale that left me unsteady in my feet for awhile there. I do tend to have these kinds of visceral reactions to books I read. The plaintive cry in the end was like a silent scream in my own throat.
(8) Armin Greder: The Island, The City;
Collaboration With Libby Gleeson: I am Thomas, The Great Bear
Armin Greder is fearless. He deals with insanely-difficult topics such as xenophobia, animal rights, isolation and finding one’s self. He questions the very essence of humanity in very few words and such stark glaring illustrations that they seem more like pointed accusations demanding difficult answers.
(9) Anthony Browne: Voices In The Park, Piggybook
How brilliant is this man. I know that a great many graduate students have used his picturebooks as dissertation topics in the university – and it’s easy to see why. I had to teach my graduate students “visual grammar” to fully appreciate the many codes he embeds in his shades, framing, perspective, typography, and visual narrative. He seems to have his own language which he conveys oh so powerfully in such familiar images that are rendered so mysterious(the opposite actually of Shaun Tan who plays around with surreal unidentifiable visions), you know that he is a master at what he does.
(10) Raymond Briggs: Fungus The Bogeyman, Ethel & Ernest, When The Wind Blows
I first learned about Briggs when a visiting academic, Janet Evans, talked about him in my institution a few years back, as she explored the fine line between comics, picturebooks and graphic novels in Briggs’ picturebooks. The minute I read about this philosophical bogeyman with the existential angst I turned into a veritable fan, and I hunted down all his books that I can find.
(11) Margaret Wild with Ron Brooks: Fox, Old Pig;
Margaret Wild with Anne Spudvilas: Woolvs in the Sitee, Jenny Angel
There is something so raw and untamed about the way that Wild does his writing – it just leaps off the pages, tearing and clawing at your heart, until you shed tears. She is relentless that way. Paired with the masterful art of Ron Brooks and Anne Spudvilas, you are a goner. Only the most coldhearted person can remain indifferent while reading Jenny Angel or Fox that made me so wide-eyed, my pulse racing, my chest torn open. She is beyond compare, really.
(12) Berkeley Breathed (Pete and Pickles) and Oliver Jeffers (The Heart and the Bottle)
These are two picturebooks that make my voice break each time I read them aloud to my class. I feel so immensely lucky living in a world where children’s book creators like Berkeley Breathed and Oliver Jeffers exist.
(13) Kadir Nelson: Nelson Mandela, Coretta Scott King, I Have A Dream
Luminous artwork, portraits with a pulse, eyes that hold a person’s soul. Kadir Nelson’s paintings always leave me feeling breathless in awe.
(14) Sergio Bumatay: Ang Mahiwagang Kuba (written by Christine Bellen), May Darating Na Trak Bukas (written by National Artist Rio Alma), Naku Nakuu Nakuuu (written by Nanoy Rafael)
I am a huge fan of Sergio Bumatay’s art. I believe that he is one of the Philippines’ finest when it comes to children’s book illustration. His strange configurations remind me a little bit of Shaun Tan’s. He has his own distinct style, however, that has cultural resonances yet at the same time so individual and unique that is simply of a different level altogether.
(15) Fairy Tales: Mga Kuwento Ni Lola Basyang, Hans Christian Andersen’s Fairy Tales (illustrated by Edmund Dulac), The Complete Brothers Grimm (illustrated by Arthur Rackham)
Ever since I was a child, I’ve always loved fairy tales. I started by reading Lola Basyang stories – not the neatly-packaged ones re-written for children by Christine Bellen – but the yellowed pages that may be a collection of the Liwayway versions. The book contained comic-type illustrations that were coloured, and I remember the book having brittle, crumbling pages. Now that I’m older, my husband gave me the complete Grimm’s fairy tales (illustrated by Rackham) as a gift for Christmas and I borrowed the Andersen Tales (with illustrations by Edmund Dulac) from the library. I think all these have led me to writing an academic paper about the Filipino Grandmother Grimm (Lola Basyang) published in Bookbird early this year.
(16) Roberto Innocenti: Rose Blanche
With J. Patrick Lewis: The House, The Last Resort
There is much to love about Roberto Innocenti. He makes beautiful picturebooks. You know that he has devoted his life to creating exquisite images for children. His collaborations with J. Patrick Lewis are books to hold and cherish in your hands.
(17) Allen Say (Grandfather’s Journey, Tea With Milk) and Ed Young (Wabi Sabi – written by Mark Reibstein, The House Baba Built)
When I first learned about Allen Say and Ed Young, I recall borrowing all their books from our libraries. They both have very distinct styles – Young often works with collages, whereas Say uses soft muted watercolours. Their books reflect that curious state of being in-between cultures, and deal with complex themes with the full understanding and confidence that children are intelligent enough to understand what they are trying to convey.
(18) Peter Sis: The Wall, Tibet
I discovered Peter Sis while in Prague, which has a sense of rightness to it now that I look back upon it. Once you see/read a Peter Sis picturebook, you would be able to easily recognize his art anywhere. It has its own character. He is also masterful at graphic design – and the reader senses that in all his books.
(19) Robert Ingpen (The Dreamkeeper), Graeme Base (The Worst Band In the Universe)
While I love practically all of Robert Ingpen’s picturebooks, it was The Dream Keeper which i found on a random book sale here that forever captured my heart. Graeme Base is known for his Animalia but it was The Worst Band in the Universe that made me fully understand just how crazily brilliant this man is – he not only writes his own books, he illustrates them, and even composes MUSIC from his poetic verses. I mean, enough already with so much talent, really.
(20) Suzy Lee: Alice in Wonderland, Blackbird (L’oiseau noir)
Suzy Lee is known for her border trilogy (Wave, Mirror, Shadow), but it was her queer version of Alice in Wonderland that was the real game-changer for me. L’oiseau noir also had that poignant feel that is both otherworldly and grounded at the same time – a rare feat, really.
(21) Wolf Erlbruch: Duck, Death, and the Tulip; The Big Question
You want philosophical books for children? The ones that make you ask those “big questions?” You want those rare books dealing with death and dying in such poetic, calming, comforting way? Then find Erlbruch.
(22) Funny Komiks and Niknok by Pat V. Reyes with drawings by VRG
Hah. I thought I better begin my graphic novel post with Niknok. He was my favourite Filipino comic character while I was growing up. I used to collect Funny Komiks by the box. An aunt of mine used to sell these komiks or rent them out – and during the summer, I would receive the discarded ones that they are not selling or renting out any longer. It was like Christmas during summer. I would open those smelly ugly boxes with relish, and laugh my head off at Niknok’s many antics.
(23) More Filipino Komiks: Aliwan, Wakasan
Anyone who remembers these komiks? While I generally prefer the Wakasan komiks – because I hated the serialized ones, as my collection was spotty at best (I mean beggars can’t be choosers, right?). Yet, I simply could not resist Zuma and Galema – I think at one point they were made into a TV series, they were that popular.
(24) Zsa Zsa Zaturnah by Carlo Vergara, Filipino Heroes League by Paolo Fabregas, Trese by Budjette Tan and Kajo Baldisimo
Before I learned about Filipino Heroes League and Trese, I was a huge ZsaZsa Zaturnnah fan (and yes, I watched the theatre adaptation at PETA before we moved here in Singapore – my husband an unwitting, totally clueless companion about what we were watching – and yes he enjoyed it too). Anyone who claims that the comics scene is not vibrant in the Philippines needs to have their facts checked. Evidently, it has a life of its own – bigger, bolder, and so outrageously irreverent that we have gay superheroes in Zaturnnah and evil priests as the archnemesis in Filipino Heroes League – everything else I read pales in comparison.
(25) Gene Luen Yang: American Born Chinese, Boxers and Saints, Shadow Hero (illustrated by Sonny Liew) / Sonny Liew: Charlie Chan Hock Chye
Before my daughter fell in love with Raina Telgemeier, she was head over heels with Gene Luen Yang. We loved his collaboration with Sonny Liew in The Shadow Hero. In Charlie Chan Hock Chye, Liew has established himself as a master in the graphic novel canon.
(26) Maus 1 and 2 by Art Spiegelman
I read these graphic novels with my daughter who was in fourth grade at the time. While we both felt unsettled by the narratives, we couldn’t stop reading. Fully deserving of the Pulitzer.
(27) Joe Sacco: Palestine, Footnotes in Gaza, Journalism
I like to say that Joe Sacco has ruined me for life, but perhaps that is not entirely accurate. He has opened my eyes to such obvious truths, it’s a surprise people have deceived themselves for so long. I guess we continue to believe what we wish to believe, regardless. I didn’t even know that there was such a thing as graphic novel journalism until I read Sacco. You will not be able to read him without being altered as a human being, even if just the slightest.
(28) Lynda Barry: 100 Demons, Syllabus
Lynda Barry creates comics for people who want to draw but have forgotten how to, or people who thought they wanted to be artists but abandoned the creative life because they believe they are simply not good enough. She is a gem.
(29) Steampunk Series: Manuel Sumberac and Zdenko Basic: Steampunk Poe, Steampunk Frankenstein
We had a steampunk and science fiction reading theme two years ago. This is when I discovered these outstanding books by Manuel Sumberac and Zdenko Basic. How awesome to revisit Edgar Allan Poe’s original stories and poems as well as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein in their original text complemented with steampunk art.
(30) The Sandman Series by Neil Gaiman
I am glad to have finally read the entire series a year ago. I think it has redefined the entire direction of graphic novel writing altogether. Delirium. Death. Dream. Despair. Destiny. Destruction. Desire. This is an alternate reality that I would love going back to again and again and again.
(31) The Photographer: Into War-Torn Afghanistan with Doctors Without Borders. A Story Lived, Photographed and Told by: Didier Lefèvre Written and Drawn by: Emmanuel Guibert Laid Out and Colored by: Frédéric Lemercier; Translated from the French by: Alexis Siegel
This is one graphic novel I couldn’t stop talking about. It talks about the perilous journeys of the unsung heroes, Doctors Without Borders, into war-torn Afghanistan.
(32) In Search of Lost Time: Swann’s Way (A Graphic Novel) Written by: Marcel Proust Adaptation and Drawings by: Stéphane Heuet Translated by: Arthur Goldhammer
If you thought that illustrating Marcel Proust is an impossible feat, think again. Massive, far-reaching, exquisite art done with so much thoughtfulness, care, love.
(33) Alison Bechdel: Fun Home, Are You My Mother
Bechdel is what one would call an acquired taste. She is quite the intrepid documenter of her own narrative – both in text and in drawings. Her memoirs are an excavation of not just her innermost thoughts and feelings but also her interpretation of what she thinks is going on in the heads of her mother and father – both immensely complicated individuals. Needless to say, these graphic novel memoirs are fascinating reads.
(34) Tim Burton: The Melancholy Death Of Oyster Boy And Other Stories/ The Merchant of Marvels and the Peddler of Dreams by Frédéric Clément
I think it’s fairly evident how much I gravitate towards the odd and the offbeat, the bizarre and the aberrant. Burton is all that and more. Merchant of Marvels is an odd little book that it is quite difficult to find. I was just fortunate enough to chance upon it in the library warehouse sale. It’s one of my most treasured books.
(35) Fabio Moon and Gabriel Ba: Daytripper, Two Brothers
These two brothers have captured my comic geek heart. There is quiet intensity in their graphic novels that stun and blindside the reader. How they are able to pull off doing a graphic portrayal of something so labyrinthine and sensually-sinuous is simply beyond me. These men are geniuses.
(36) Females in Graphic Novels: Raina Telgemeier (Drama), G. Willow Wilson (Miss Marvel Series), Victoria Jamieson (Roller Girl), Noelle Stevenson (Nimona)
I am loving the portrayal of young girls in middle grade graphic novels over the past years. So many new ones published highlighting fun, playful, spirited, brilliant young girls.
(37) Miroslav Sasek and Mitsumasa Anno’s Travel Books for Children
These are awe-inspiring travel books for children that are smart and witty with so many visual codes embedded in their exquisitely-detailed gorgeous art. There is “delicacy” in Mitsumasa Anno’s art (to use the words of Leonard Marcus in an interview that I conducted with him for my edited book), while there is a mischievous vibe to Sasek’s art and narrative.
(38) David Wiesner (Tuesday) and Chris Van Allsburg (The Mysteries of Harris Burdick)
These are two unparalleled masters in picturebook making. Shadowy, mysterious, beautiful art.
(39) Maira Kalman (Why We Broke Up – written by Daniel Handler) and Sophie Blackall (Missed Connections)
Naturally, I could not let this post go without including Maira Kalman. While she is known for her picturebooks, I thought I’d share her art for Handler’s Why We Broke Up instead. Similarly, Blackall is known for her picturebook art, but it was her Misssed Connections that truly resonated with me.
(40) Picturebook Artists: Raul Colon, Yuyi Morales, Julie Paschkis, Melissa Sweet
There are so many wonderful artists in children’s lit that bring so many beautiful narratives to life. Here are just a few of them. I hope to know even more in the next 40 years.
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