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Baby Designer

I don’t have kids. I don’t even think about kids very often. But this year I have some kids in the periphery of my life who are now sentient enough to appreciate books. And to be honest, I actually do enjoy an excuse to spend some time with children’s books, and, well, it is that time of year.

I’m particularly fussy about the books I give to kids: not so much the message (provided it’s not religious, or commercial, or sexist, or too sentimental …), but the graphics and the design. Sifting the gems from the dross—from a designer’s perspective—is easier than it used to be, I think, and I’m always delighted by some new find, and equally delighted to have some excuse to buy it.

I went down to my local bookstore the other day and had a quick look in the Children’s section. I’m really drawn to books that are a little bit odd: bold and/or quirky illustrations, interesting typography and humour. These tend to be in the 3–7 age range. Nicely designed or illustrated books for older kids are more rare; books for babies are just boring. I took some photos, but as I’ve become increasingly paranoid about getting “caught” taking photos of merchandise, I had to supplement my research online.

The first book that caught my eye was …

The Gift of the Magi/The Purple Dress
by O. Henry
Illustrated by Chris Raschka

The cover has a lovely belly-band over a gorgeous black and white watercolour illustration, all containing an equally enticing interior which gives way to free swashes of colour. I picked it up five times but in the end I didn’t buy it because … well, I hate the story of The Gift of the Magi (I’ve aways found it incredibly depressing). But visually it was a stunner, so if you like the story, this is the edition to get.

The illustrations were enough for me to check Chris Raschka out online, and I was very happy to find …

John Coltrane’s Giant Steps
Remixed by Chris Raschka

“It’s John Coltrane’s marvelous and tricky composition “Giant Steps” performed for you by a box, a snowflake, some raindrops and a kitten.”
With a description like that, well … who could possibly resist? This has more watercolours, which are loose and simple and—dare I say—jazzy. (Jazz and design, they just kindof go together, no?) I’ve got a thing about simplicity and abstraction in children’s books: I really go for graphics that are imaginative over literal, unexpected over traditional, and weird-funny.

Also illustrated by Chris Raschka, I found

little tree
by e.e. cummings

I only have the cover to go on, but it seems to have a kind of modernist/cubist feel. And any poem by e.e. cummings … well(!)

More Chris Raschka led me to

Table Manners
by Vladimir Radunsky
Illustrated by Chris Raschka

I am a sucker for the use of collage, I don’t know why. Maybe because it’s tactile and childishly clumsy. Or maybe because the results are often charmingly weird, unexpected and—there you have it—imaginative, as they do seem to be in this book.

This time I decided to follow the author, and found

Ten and One
by Vladimir Radunsky

How could a designer ever resist covers that look like that? The back cover of One says “A nice story about an awful braggart” and has the words “#1 bar code” written below the bar code. On Amazon, if you look at the copyright page for Ten—well, be still our beating hearts! Designer’s books if ever I saw any. And besides, they feature a cast of funny-looking armadilloes, which sounds great to me.

Following this author led me back to poetry:

by Joseph Brodsky
with pictures by Vladimir Radunsky

I highly approve of real poetry for kids (as opposed to “kid’s poetry”). Check out that cover! If you’re a designer, you have to buy that book.

Also An Edward Lear Alphabet!
Does the typography on the cover not just beckon you?

Back at the bookstore, I was captivated by a book which had a series title stamped in the cloth binding: “Visions in Poetry”, of which this was an edition of

The Raven
by Edgar Allen Poe

Illustrated, gorgeously, and darkly by Ryan Price. This would be for a slightly older child: a little, budding Goth, perhaps. Checking out the series online I discovered promising looking editions of Lewis Carroll’s Jabberwocky illustrated by Stephane Jorisch; Tennyson’s The Lady of Shalott, illustrated by Genevieve Cote; and The Highwayman by Alfred Noyes, illustrated by Murray Kimber.

It’s with much less certainty that I suggest

Illustrated Fairy Tales from 1001 Nights

The illustrations, by a variety of artists, are all contemporary and computer-based or -influenced. But while some are quite nice, others I found a little … tacky. It really depends on your taste. I think younger designers more influenced by Japanese manga, rave culture and superflat would love this book. Me … I gave it a pass after some initial intrigue.

Now here’s a book whose spine design caused me to pick it out of the bookshelf, whose cover caused me to open it, and whose design throughout kinda … uh … blew my mind.

Pick Me Up
by Jeremy Leslie & David Roberts

It has a lenticular pixel-art cover and a completely different design for every single page in the book. It’s the ultimate ADD book, with every page a madhouse of charts, diagrams and desperate grabs for attention. That didn’t work? Next page, try this! The Amazon site describes it as a “compendium of interesting facts [that] combines elements of an almanac, a trivia book, and the Internet with playful touches of humor” and I was close … very, very close to buying this for my 8-yr-old niece, but she’s a very thoughtful and intelligent child and somehow I just felt that the mania of this book might be insulting to her. However, in a way, it’s really a compendium of design tricks and styles! Every designer should have one in their library, or handy at their desk for those times they’re a little stumped as to how to represent the pie chart this time. As a designer I was intrigued. Besides, any book for kids that has a description of 4-colour printing …

Now setting aside the omnipotent brilliance of Maira Kalman, any book—any book—with a cover like this, gets my vote:

Chicken Soup, Boots
by Maira Kalman

I don’t care what it’s about. I don’t care what’s inside. It’s called Chicken Soup, Boots, and it has chicken soup and boots on the cover … with a comma!!! And judging by the “look insides”s, any of her other books would be equally as charming. Try What Pete Ate, any of the “Max” books, or whatever else you might find by Maira.

One of the things I really love in a kid’s book is play in typography.

The True Story of the Three Little Pigs!
By A. Wolf
as told to Jon Scieszka
illustrated by Lane Smith

This, as seen above, has typography in spades. A brilliant book for budding designers. Actually I have to recommend anything by this author/illustrator combo. Including Math Curse, Science Verse, Squids will be Squids (which looks brilliant and also uses some terrific typography), and of course The Stinky Cheese Man and other Fairly Stupid Tales. Oh, THAT Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith! You knew you recognized the names.

Speaking of the blindingly obvious, every designer loves J. Otto Seibold. (And if you don’t know who he is, get thee to a children’s bookstore!) His books (some with Vivian Walsh, some not) are obsessively illustrated in a completely mad, weirdo style and, better than anything, are fuckin’ hilarious. If the kids don’t like them, who cares? Hell, I’ll read them over and over at bedtime.

Just out in October, 2006 is

Quincy, the Hobby Photographer
The Complete Guide to Do-It-Yourself Dog Photography

which looks terrific. J. Otto Seibold, photography, dogs, D.I.Y. … what more could you possibly want? Then, if the kids don’t already have them, they need to be given Free Lunch, Mr. Lunch Takes a Plane Ride, Mr. Lunch Borrows a Canoe, or, really, probably anything else by J. Otto Seibold. Rock on.

For a much younger child, and for the parent with a little more patience than I, there’s

Black? White! Day? Night! A Book of Opposites
by Laura Vaccaro Seeger

This book has bold colours, ho-hum illustrations and a designerly use of diecuts to show different views of the same thing. On the left, above, “tiny”. When the diecut flap is lifted, “huge.” The very young, presumably, enjoy things like this, but then the very young also greatly enjoy tearing these things to shreds. Like I say, if you have the patience …

And finally, the one I actually bought, when I went to the store; the one I felt I couldn’t live without … or, rather, er, the one I felt the little ones shouldn’t live without was

Bed, Bed, Bed
a songbook, with CD by They Might Be Giants
Illustrated by Marcel Dzama

Which has quirky Victorian typography, weird little drawings, lyrics such as “I’m a long-haired hippie kitten, I’m on a secret mission …” and I hope—I hope—tunes that won’t drive the parents completely nuts on repeated playing.

So will the children enjoy these designerly books? I don’t know. Kids are unpredictable and have weird taste. All you can do is send some fine graphic material in their direction and hope for the best. Do like the advertisers … get them when they’re young.

I’m sure there are many fine designerly childrens’ books I’ve missed; if so, I wanna know about them, ’cause I’m still shopping …

Maintained through our ADV @ UnderConsideration Program
PUBLISHED ON Dec.15.2006 BY marian bantjes
Su’s comment is:

I don't recall it too clearly, but I have a vague impression that the They Might be Giants CD with that book is horrid.

Send Michael Gagné all your money. Start with Insanely Twisted Rabbits.

The Three Golden Keys by Peter Sís gets a few points for his non-sappy(bordering on creepy) illustration style. Also different by being based in Czech folklore, which isn't something you see often.

Abstract Alphabet is nothing but a bunch of animal names "spelled" out with shapes. I was convince it was some kind of existential joke on toddlers(which I have to admit held a certain appeal for me) until I found the key hidden in a flap on the first page. And partially on the cover. Which made me feel pretty stupid.

The Wolves in the Walls was written by Neil Gaiman, which is usually good, and illustrated by Dave McKean, also usually good. Unfortunately, it was also typeset by McKean. Which is pretty much always bad.

The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales is pretty much exactly what it sounds like.

Giraffes? Giraffes! is fun even if a fair amount of the absurdity is over the kids' heads. Probably in the 10+ range, but they'll only appreciate it more as they approach their "ironic" teens.

If you can find it, Nella Notte Buia(In the Darkness of the Night) by Bruno Munari is classic. Amazon doesn't seem to carry it(I think they have a French version?), but they do have his ABC book, which I haven't seen. He's generally fun, though.

Ultimately, though, I think every child should be issued a set of the Complete Calvin and Hobbes. Learning the rules of Calvinball is essential to proper development.

(This comment makes me realize I have more childrens' books than I can readily explain.)

On Dec.15.2006 at 01:09 AM
margot’s comment is:

Great post, Marian!

I adore children's books as well, though I don't have any kids of my own, I always enjoy poking my nose into books for the younger set.

Interestingly, I have just started hunting for good children's music too. Something that's palatable by adults -- NOT Barney crap. They Might Be Giants has several kid's CDs, though I don't know how they sound yet...Suggestions, anyone?

Perhaps another topic for discussion at some point would be children's CD cover art. There's gotta be loads that are cleverly designed and well illustrated, no?

On Dec.15.2006 at 09:10 AM
jenn.suz.hoy’s comment is:

Aahh, a nice little trip down memory lane. Enjoyed the collection of nicely-designed children's books, but I'll admit, I was pretty much just all nostalgic over The True Story of the 3 Little Pigs!

On Dec.15.2006 at 09:43 AM
Pesky’s comment is:

Hey Margo,
I'd like to recommend some music-for-kids that isn't braindead-cute or NPR PC propaganda crap.


Their first CD is the best of the bunch. It's fun and not boring and both kids & parents will enjoy their music. These are some New Orleans guys and they deserve a recommendation from me. (aquaintences from the pre-Katrina old days) and I heard from one of them recently that they're getting a Disney TV show sometime soon.

They used to do shows all around Louisiana which is a hard bunch to please musically. But they do great kid shows in live concerts. Deleriously happy audience. In a city full of great musicians, they're on the cover of New Orleans' OffBeat magazine this month too.

As for books, I tend to like the books that look like they're made for kids not art directors.

On Dec.15.2006 at 10:12 AM
Derrick Schultz’s comment is:

Its impossible to talk about "designed" kids book without mentioning Leo Lionni. I got my girlfriend a reissued book of his that contained three or four of his stories last chirstmas and since then she has gone on a kick of collecting nearly all of his books (which I think rivals the number of Steven Heller's design writings).

We went to the ImaginOn here in Charlotte last weekend and really enjoyed checking out their really large collection of picture books. Katie wrote down some of her favorites, so I'll try and get the list from her.

I can't remember who wrote it (I do remember it was a graduate of Cooper Union though), but there was an awesome book that was in black and white and was read from front to back, and then flipped over and read back to front.

On Dec.15.2006 at 10:34 AM
Jeff Gill’s comment is:

This edition of Pinocchio translated by Emma Rose and brilliantly illustrated by Sarah Fanelli

On Dec.15.2006 at 11:56 AM
Keith Damiani’s comment is:

Thanks for the great post...It's always such a joy to read books to our children that actually give us grown-ups some visual pleasure as well.

In the same vein, on the subject of music, They Might Be Giants' CD "No!" is truly fantastic. It's still a favorite of my 4-year-old daughter, my 8-year-old son, and I confess to playing it in the car even when there were no kids in the back seat.

On Dec.15.2006 at 11:56 AM
Tselentis’s comment is:

Your timing for writing this for Speak Up is perfect. I am shopping for kid's books for my son, and love the selection you've opened my eyes up to.

On Dec.15.2006 at 12:31 PM
pnk’s comment is:

FORTUNATELY, by Remy Charlip is a terrific looking picture book that both my kids (and I) love.

On Dec.15.2006 at 12:52 PM
Jeff Gill’s comment is:

Anything Charlie and Lola

Anthing Olivia

They are like real life in kind of the same way Calvin and Hobbes was like real life.

On Dec.15.2006 at 01:37 PM
cummings’s comment is:

I only have the cover to go on, but it seems to have a kind of modernist/cubist feel. And any poem by e.e. cummings ... well(!)

little tree, e.e. cummings

little tree
little silent Christmas tree
you are so little
you are more like a flower

who found you in the green forest
and were you very sorry to come away?
see i will comfort you
because you smell so sweetly

i will kiss your cool bark
and hug you safe and tight
just as your mother would,
only don't be afraid

look the spangles
that sleep all the year in a dark box
dreaming of being taken out and allowed to shine,
the balls the chains red and gold the fluffy threads,

put up your little arms
and i'll give them all to you to hold
every finger shall have its ring
and there won't a single place dark or unhappy

then when you're quite dressed
you'll stand in the window for everyone to see
and how they'll stare!
oh but you'll be very proud

and my little sister and i will take hands
and looking up at our beautiful tree
we'll dance and sing
"Noel Noel"

On Dec.15.2006 at 02:31 PM
Oliver Oike’s comment is:

"The Dot and The Line" by Norman Juster. Whimsical and endearing...

On Dec.15.2006 at 03:54 PM
Tan’s comment is:

I started collecting children's books even before we had our two kids.

We've had this thread before, but it's been a while, plus, the topic is worth a refresh.

I agree on the Complete Calvin and Hobbes collection. Watterson's brilliant writing and wry humor is timeless.

Don't forget other classics like Richard Scarry Busytown books, or Maurice Sendaks' Where the Wild Things Are (which unfortunately is being made into a movie), and of course, Shel Silverstein classics like The Giving Tree and Where the Sidewalk Ends.

Lane Smith (Stinky Cheese man fame) keeps popping out a new book every 6 months or year -- and they're always worth collecting.

And there's the Toot and Puddle series, by Holly Hobbie. Cute little pig buddies -- one travels, the other's a homebody.

Lastly, don't overlook foreign titles like the classic Madeline books, or older classics that have been reintroduced and repackaged for a new generation -- like Frank Baum's Wizard of Oz or CS Lewis' Chronicles of Narnia.

On Dec.15.2006 at 05:52 PM
Amanda Woodward’s comment is:

My FAVOURITE speak up post in a long damn time.

Great picks, Marian.

On Dec.15.2006 at 06:24 PM
Derrick Schultz’s comment is:

Ann Jonas is the illustrator whose name I couldn't remember.

The aforementioned cyclical book:


I forgot that she also has an awesome book that is a typographic mystery book. Each page has type hidden in the physical surroundings that tells you where to go next. Marian, if you love good and quirky type, this is for you.


On Dec.15.2006 at 07:11 PM
John’s comment is:

A great post, a subject dear to my heart, and that of my 7 year old.
Look for Sparkle and Spin by Ann and Paul Rand (yes...THAT Paul Rand.) Newly republished by Chronicle.

My second favorite this year: "Do Not Open This Book!" From Scholastic. An instant classic in our house.

On Dec.15.2006 at 08:15 PM
brian’s comment is:

I like anything by Bruno Munari, Paul and Ann Rand, and anything illustrated by Mary Blair...

On Dec.16.2006 at 11:56 AM
brian’s comment is:

Also, those 'weird little drawings' in the TMBG songbook are by Canada's own Marcel Dzama of the Royal Art Lodge.

On Dec.16.2006 at 12:00 PM
Liana’s comment is:

I too would like to applaud the timing of this Speak Up. Not because I am shopping for books for others, but because I am about to embark on my thesis work for my MFA in graphic design and have decided to create/design a series of children's books to help parents instill the value of healthy living early in a child's life. This is an effort to combat the growing problem of childhood obesity. I'm always on the look out for well designed children's books to help guide me in my endeavor.

So thank you to Marian and those of you who've contributed to the comments.

On Dec.17.2006 at 09:11 PM
marian bantjes’s comment is:

Brian, thanks for mentioning the illustrator Marcel Dzama—incredibly remiss of me not to mention him, esp. as I credited all the other illustrators. Perhaps I, in true Canadian fashion, am incapable of recognizing the talent of a fellow Canadian. Hmmmm... Anyhow I have amended the original post with a credit to him.

Thanks all for the great leads. I will begin influencing young minds ASAP.

And Su, I hope you're wrong about the CD. If it is terrible, I'm sure my friends can accidentally lose it, scratch it or break it.

On Dec.17.2006 at 10:25 PM
Mark Notermann’s comment is:

Thanks to everyone for posting. John beat me to the Paul and Ann Rand books.

These books are not only good ideas for gifts to children, I think they can be some of the best design work around. I would recommend any designer to keep a few on the shelf at all times.

Trying to communicate to children opens up great creative opportunities, but also the challenge of keeping the message simple and clear, but also witty and engaging. Good children's books never patronize.

On Dec.17.2006 at 11:12 PM
pnk’s comment is:

What Mark wrote about good children's books not patronizing put me immediately in mind of another great artist, although one working in film,, not books: Hayao Miyazaki.

His movies are definitely for children, but they don't leave adults behind because they honor the complex worlds and emotional lives that kids inhabit. "Kiki's Delivery Service" is just superb, as are "Spirited Away" and "My Neighbor Totoro." My kids (4 and 7) and I just watched Totoro again yesterday afternoon, and I was amazed at how powerful and real this movie is, especially since it features (as do many Miyazaki films) such fantastic elements as soot sprites and fuzzy flying trolls.

On Dec.18.2006 at 01:44 PM
Su’s comment is:

John beat me to the Paul and Ann Rand books.

I keep reading Ayn Rand here.

Well, I'm amused.

On Dec.18.2006 at 03:47 PM
Nicole’s comment is:

Thank you so much, you just saved me hours of time in Christmas shopping. The only problem was that I wanted to get a copy of every book for myself as well as for my nieces and nephews.

On Dec.18.2006 at 06:24 PM
Nicole’s comment is:

I would also like to recommend Everybody Poops by Taro Gomi and Amanda Mayer Stinchecum, and other useful books in the My Body Science Series like The Holes in Your Nose, All About Scabs, Contemplating Your Bellybutton and Breasts.

On Dec.18.2006 at 06:31 PM
Darrel’s comment is:

I picked up the TMBG book a few years ago. I loved the CD, but our young'un freaked out whenever we played it.

Also, it should be noted that it was designed by a former SpeakUper:


Brian...speaking of Rands' books, this summer we vacationed on a small island community that had a library that was doing the 'summer sale' thing getting rid of their old books. I came across the Rands' Listen! Listen! book for $.50. Didn't know much about it, but hey, it's Paul Rand.

It wasn't until a few months later that I decided to google the book and found out it's worth several hundred dollars now. We decided to take it off the kids' shelf. ;o)

On Dec.19.2006 at 09:45 AM
Callie’s comment is:

Chris Van Allsburg (The Polar Express, Jumanji) is my absolute favorite children's author/illustrator. He's won the Caldecott Medal a few times he's so good.

I'm also a sucker for anything Olivia and Maurice Sendak. And I also love Garth William's illustrations in the Little House on the Prairie series.

On Dec.19.2006 at 04:36 PM
Rob’s comment is:

What Mark wrote about good children's books not patronizing put me immediately in mind of another great artist, although one working in film,, not books: Hayao Miyazaki.

I'll second that idea. My kids are simply entranced by My Neighbor Totoro, and even I greatly enjoy the film everytime we see it.

On the book side, let's not leave out Dr. Seuss's The Cat in the Hat. Also we recently enjoyed a wonderfully done book called Superdog: The Heart of a Hero. Part of the wonder of the book, besides the charming story, are the clouds. Happy Holidays to all.

On Dec.20.2006 at 11:15 AM
Joe Moran’s comment is:

Great stuff Marian!!!

I recently got One Red Dot by Matthew Carter, Mommy? by Sendak, and The Jungle Book by Reinhart. Can't wait to read them with my son. (Christmas is only four days away!)

Last summer I got John, Paul, George and Ben by Lane Smith. Hilarious!!!


p.s. There is a limited edition of One Red Dot, too. Crazy!

On Dec.21.2006 at 07:19 PM
cweese’s comment is:

"The Wolves in the Walls" is good, but my favourite Gaiman/McKean book, hands down, is "The Day I Swapped My Dad for Two Goldfish." The original 'indie' version that they put out is somewhat of a collectors edition, and has a way cooler cover, but you can get a Scholastic copy for cheap.

Marcellino's illustrations - I recommend Puss in Boots. The web really doesn't do it justice... they are lovely, luminous colored pencil illustrations with a sly sense of humor.

Oliver Jeffers - "Lost and Found" - a very simple story about a boy and a penguin, with beautifully simple watercolor illustrations. The edition I have has a pearlized cover, too - very frosty.

Anything by Maurice Sendak is fascinating - especially if you read one of the books about him, with interviews and sketches... very Freudian.

On Dec.26.2006 at 06:58 PM
Jayna’s comment is:

I'm immensely fond of the "Pigeon" books by Mo Willems. I'm not sure whether it's the quirky (albeit simplistic) illustration style or perhaps it's just my love of anything bird-related that makes them stand out so, but I just can't get enough.

On Jan.04.2007 at 12:25 PM
maggie’s comment is:

Wow - I love this list, both Marian's and all of the books in the comments! A favorite of mine, from my childhood, is Ruth Krauss' "I Can Fly".

On Jan.04.2007 at 12:52 PM
Susanna’s comment is:

All lovely! I'm a fan of The Serif Fairy by Rene Siegfried. Hilarious, educational, and just plain good lookin'.

On Jul.30.2008 at 02:31 PM