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Walt Disney’s Cinderella by Cynthia Rylant, illustrated by Mary Blair

Disney Press; August 2007; 64 pp; $16.99 HC


Core Audience: Children 4-8; Design lovers of all ages

Strengths: AMAZING original concept art from Mary Blair

Culturally, we are in a new golden age of design right now, with a distinct blurring of the lines between commercial and fine art. It’s everywhere you look: Target’s Design for All project is pulling in designers like Isaac Mizrahi and Michael Graves, Todd Oldham is busting a move for La-Z-Boy, the geniuses at Pixar are re-inventing animation, and even the most humble toilet brush is not immune to its own version of an extreme makeover.

It makes sense then that contemporary artists are looking back to the last golden age of US design, the mid-century. Ground-breaking artists, who until now were largely unsung, are finally getting their props and it’s about time. The vaults are being thrown open, and we’re all reaping the benefits.

One of my all time favorite of these artists is Mary Blair. Incredibly versatile, winsome, and magical, Blair’s use of color and form rivals the great modernists. (I’m not kidding, here.)


During a career than spanned more than half a century, Blair did fine art, illustration, commercial design, murals, and children’s books, but she is best known as one of Walt Disney’s favorite house artists. She did the concept art for more than a dozen Walt Disney projects including The Three Caballeros, Song of the South, The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad, Peter Pan, Alice in Wonderland, as well as the design for the ubiquitous It’s a Small World attraction which she created at Walt’s behest for the 1964 New York World’s Fair.

Here’s a tiny little taste of some of her work to wet your whistle:

blair collage

Blair’s work has an irrepressible optimism paired with a sophisticated sense of composition and color that I just love. It’s the pure embodiment of that great Charles Mingus quote: “Anyone can make the simple complicated. Creativity is making the complicated simple.”


It used to be that you had to hunt and peck to find examples of her original work for Disney. Most of it was residing in WDAS’s Animation Research Library collection. Now you can have a little bit of this magic on your very own bookshelf!

Disney Press has taken the original concept art for Cinderella (1950) and worked it into a new book with great text by Cynthia Rylant. It has been released with very little fanfare into a market crowded with Cinderellas, but this book is really amazing, and deserves a closer look.*


Cinder's house

carriage arrives

at the doors

at the ball


In his book Cartoon Modern: Style and Design in 1950s Animation, Amid Amidi makes the argument that the male-dominated, hard-edged animation department at Disney didn’t quite know what to do with Blair’s dreamy, color-block style, and that’s why she didn’t receive more external recognition during her time there. (She finally did recieve a posthumous nod with a “Disney Legends” award in 1991.) However, anyone who knows the movie will recognize the impact Blair’s art had on the final product. The drama, color, scale, and composition are all hers.

Nearly sixty years later, Blair’s art has lost none of it’s power. Walt Disney loved her work because like him, he felt she was able to tap directly into childhood. Disney Animator Marc Davis recalled, “She brought modern art to Walt in a way that no one else did. He was so excited about her work.”

A whole new generation of readers and design enthusiasts will feel exactly the same.

Rated: 9.5


Order this book from your local independent bookstore


Web Worthy

Meadow Gold 2

BONUS: Check out this very cool Mary Blair 1950’s B&W commercial for Meadow Gold Ice Cream.

Many thanks to Fred Cline for making it available. Fred knew Mary and her husband Lee, who encouraged him to study design and animation, and he is doing a great job of carrying the torch.

ALSO: If you are excited by Mary Blair’s work and want to learn more, check out this great retrospective: The Art and Flair of Mary Blair (978-0786853915; Disney Editions; $40.00 HC)

SUPER DOUBLE-BONUS IF YOU LIVE IN SAN FRAN: The Museum of Cartoon Art has an exhibition up by the same name running until March 2008. Lucky!

*Book images: Copyright 2007 Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved



One day recently I walked into my office and sitting on my bright red couch were copies of 365 Penguins and Cat and Fish Go to See. Two great books that looked great together. It made me wonder if I could come up with an Essential Dozen list of books that do awesome things with black and white illustration. The criteria for the list were pretty basic: 1) Great content; and 2) Great art. As a designer this was too good a challenge to pass up, so I spent some time thinking about it and perusing my bookshelf, and finally obsessively culling through the work of my favorite illustrators. And lo and behold, I had a FABULOUS list when I was finished! These books would ordinarily never wind up on a list together, so it was fun to pull them into a collection. Each and every one is a worthy addition to any book lover’s—or design lover’s—shelf.

365 PENGUINS by Jean-Luc Fromental, illustrated by Joëlle Jolivet
978-0810944602; Harry Abrams; November 2006; Ages 3-8; $17.95 HC

I wrote extensively about this wonderful book in a full review a few weeks ago, so let me just say that this is one of my favorite books of last year. It has the magic trio of great eye-popping art, fun concept, and hilarious writing.

978-0879233945; David R. Godine; October 2005; Ages 4-8; $19.95 HC
I could have chosen any of Mary Azarian’s work for this list, because her woodcuts embody the very definition of great use of positive and negative space in illustration. This book was commissioned by the Vermont Board of Education, and it depicts scenes from rural farm life in a series of 26 alphabet scenes. From Apple to Barn and Cow right through Zinnia, each illustration is a masterpiece of design and execution.

978-0939510726; Mystic Seaport Museum; July 2002; Ages 3-7; $9.95 HC

This is probably the most obscure book on this list, but it is one of my treasured favorites. With a petite 5”x 5” trim, this book features lovely black and white woodcuts of 26 different kinds of boats from around the world, one for each letter of the alphabet. This little book feels like a prize left over from a salty old captain’s sea trunk.

CAT AND FISH GO TO SEE by Joan Grant, illustrated by Neil Curtis
978-1894965392; Simply Read Books; November 2006; Ages 4-8;$16.95 HC

This book is one of the most striking examples of black and white design that has crossed my desk in quite some time. Evocative of the illustrations of M.C. Escher and the batik designs of Southeast Asia, every illustration in this book pops off the page. The story is a lovely parable of friendship between two unlikely pals who are curious about where the waves go. Their journey of discovery is a wonderful tale of friendship, adventure, and the pleasures of being true to oneself.

FIVE FOR A LITTLE ONE by Chris Raschka
978-0689845994; Athaneum; June 2006; Ages 2-5; $16.95 HC

The “five” in the title refers to senses, and the “little one” is the very cute floppy eared bunny who is at the center of this sweet tale from Caldecott Award-winning illustrator Chris Raschka. With bouncy rhyming text, and good use of strong ink lines and cheery color accents, this book is a perfect introduction to the concept of senses for the youngest readers.

978-0060588281; Greenwillow; March 2004; Ages 2-5; $15.99 HC
What to say about Kevin Henkes? Aside from being one of the most brilliant children’s book writers working today, he is also a genius when it comes to illustration. This gentle tale about a little kitten who mistakes the full moon for a bowl of milk won a Caldecott Medal, and deservedly so. The simplicity of the story is a part of its brilliance, as are the luminous black and white drawings with their effective use of line and shading.

LOOK, LOOK! by Peter Linethal
978-0525420286; Dutton; September 1998; Ages 1-3; $6.99 BB

The high-contrast papercut artwork in this bold board book, along with the striking use of red letters on a black and white ground make this title perfect for catching the attention of the very youngest readers. The images, like a cat stretching and flowers blooming are a surprise, and take this book out of the predictable run-of-the-mill offerings of board books for babies.

SCRIBBLES by Taro Gomi
978-0811855099; Chronicle; April 2006; All Ages; $18.95 PA

Taro Gomi is one of the most prolific illustrators on the international scene, known as much for his design of clothing and other consumer goods as for his more than 300 books for readers of all ages. This book is a magnificent 368 page invitation to creative exploration, with chunky lines and loose free flowing shapes. Part coloring book, part design study, and fun for children ages 2 to 102. Make sure you have some crayons handy.

THE RAVEN (Visions in Poetry Series) by Edgar Allen Poe, Illustrated by Ryan Price
978-1553374732; Kids Can Press; August 2006; Ages 12+; $16.95 HC

Part of the excellent Visions in Poetry Series, this handsome edition of Edgar Allen Poe’s brooding masterpiece is perfectly illustrated with Price’s shadowy dry point illustrations. The narrator’s decent into madness over the refrain “Nevermore” is a visceral, terrifying vision. I would also encourage you to check out the other titles in this series, including Jabberwocky, Casey at the Bat, The Highwayman, and the Lady of Shalott. Each poem has been given a striking illustrative reinterpretation that will appeal to YA readers.

THE STORY OF FERDINAND by Munro Leaf, illustrated by Robert Lawson
978-0670674244; Viking; January 1936; Ages 4-8; $17.99 HC

One of the most beloved stories of all time. Ferdinand would rather smell the roses than fight, but when he is stung by a bee, his stomping and snorting convince everyone that he is the fiercest bull around. When he is carted off to
Madrid for a bull fight, hilarity ensues. Robert Lawson’s classic black and white illustrations have been updated with some subtle watercolor washes, but they retain all the wonderful charm that have made them a favorite for countless readers since 1936.

978-0763614607; Candlewick Press; June 2001; Ages 2-5; $4.99 BB

With inventive pairings of opposites and bold expressive artwork, this book is a great introduction to the concept of color opposites for the very youngest readers. What I love about this book is the way that the black and white stripes at the edge of each spread get tighter and tighter until the last spread reveals what is black AND white—a zebra of course! Fun and playful.

978-0060572341; HarperCollins; January 2004; Ages 9-12; $17.99 HC
“If you are a dreamer, come in,
If you are a dreamer,
A wisher, a liar,
A hope-er, a pray-er,
A magic bean buyer . . . Come in . . .”

More than any other title on this list, this book holds a special place in my heart. It was my first experience of falling in love with poetry as a child, and the writing and offbeat illustrations are just as fresh today as they where when this book was first published in 1963. No good children’s book collection is complete without this infectious and brilliant anthology.

I have already stared hearing from readers about additional B&W faves that belong on an essentials list so I will add them below. The truth is, I could probably come up with another dozen! (Feel free to e-mail me your sugestions.)

  • Jumanji by Chris Van Allsburg
  • Millions of Cats by Wanda Gag
  • The Spider and the Fly by Tony diTerlizzi
  • Make Way for Ducklings by Robert McClosky
  • Blueberries for Sal by Robert McClosky
  • Little Red Lighthouse and the Great Grey Bridge by H. Swift, illustrated by Lynn Ward
  • Biggest Bear by Lynn Ward

Order these books from your local independent bookstore

Christmas balls

Okay, let me just say right up front that I am a purist when it comes to Christmas books.

Every year the fall catalogs arrive from publishers packed with hundreds of brand new children’s titles for the holidays, and pretty soon my eyes start to glaze over and I need an insulin shot. Not to say that there aren’t a few gems in there, but man, they are hard to find.

This year–maybe because I’ve got a baby on the way–I’m spending a lot of time parsing the meaning of the holiday and what I want for it to be.

I want wonder.
I want genuine gestures of caring.
I want a pony. (Just kidding.)

Growing up in New England, Christmas is a nostalgic holiday, and I always find myself returning to books that evoke the best parts of it….the snow, the smell of good food, and the comfort of footie pajamas that zip up the front. For me, great books at Christmas are books that capture these qualities of familiarity, warmth, and seasonal ritual.

So here are three favorites–one new, one older, one very old– that get at the essence of what Christmas is in my neck of the woods.

Best wishes to everyone for a happy holiday.

Sabuda Xmas

CHRISTMAS POP UP by Robert Sabuda
0439845688; Orchard Books; October 2006; $12.99 mini HC

Speaking of little gems, this petite paper wonder from the engineering genius who brought us THE 12 DAYS OF CHRISTMAS, WINTERS TALE, THE NIGHT BEFORE CHRISTMAS, and THE CHRISTMAS ALPHABET is every bit as wonderful as its larger holiday cousins, but at a size that is perfect for little hands and stockings. Each letter of the word Christmas is illustrated on a page with an elegant little white pop-up on a color ground. I love Sabuda’s work for its design brilliance, and I never fail to be amazed when I turn the pages of his books. His Christmas titles perfectly capture the sense of enchantment we all want at the holidays. The closest thing to modern sculpture you will find in the pages of a book.

Web Icon

Bonus: Check out Mr. Sabuda’s wonderful webpage and try your hand at making your own pop-ups.

Also, catch Robert Sabuda & Matthew Reinhart’s visit on the Today Show this week.

Stopping by the Woods

STOPPING BY THE WOODS ON A SNOWY EVENING by Robert Frost, illustrated by Susan Jeffers
0525467343; Dutton; September 2001; $16.99 HC

This beautiful children’s picture book edition of the Robert Frost poem, first published in 1978, perfectly captures the hush of snow blanketing the woods in a New England blizzard. New Hampshire illustrator Susan Jeffers’s luminous illustrations lend warmth to the poem and fill in the spare text with additional story elements, like feeding the birds and visiting family, that are comforting to young readers. It’s the perfect invitation to slow down and savor the simple pleasures of the season. The beautiful vellum cover and touches of additional color in small details of the pictures make this a seasonal book to be treasured year after year.


Twas the night

‘TWAS THE NIGHT BEFORE CHRISTMAS by Clement Clark Moore, illustrated by Jessie Wilcox Smith
0395643740; Houghton Mifflin; October 1992; $5.95 PA

Nothing says Christmas like the granddaddy of all holiday poems. There are many, many editions of this classic available, but this is my all-time favorite. Originally published in 1912, this book has the loveliest illustrations by Jessie Wilcox Smith, a groundbreaking illustrator from the early part of the century, and a text design that feels like it just rolled off a letterpress. The best part? It’s so unabashedly red.


A note about editions: Houghton Mifflin just re-issued this book in 2005 with a different cover. If you really prefer the red one like me, you may have to look for it used.

Order this book from your local independent bookstore.



by Don Freeman

Penguin/Puffin; June 1977; $5.99 PA


Core Audience: Children 3-7 and classic children’s book lovers

Strengths: A classic story for all ages about the dangers of taking yourself too seriously

When Dandelion receives an invite to Jennifer Giraffe’s tea and taffy party, he feels he should look as snazzy as possible. So he buys himself a new suit, gets his hair done in the latest style, and buys himself some fancy new boots. In fact he is so snazzy he hardly recognizes himself.

And neither does Jennifer Giraffe.

When she shuts the door in his face, he is heartbroken. But when a rainstorm blows up, Dandelion’s new look is taken down a notch, and he gets into the party after all.

This book’s gentle and humorous message about vanity and being yourself never goes out of style. The three color artwork stands up brilliantly after all these years, and is a testament to the power of strong lines and great design. This book will appeal equally to young readers and lovers of great children’s book art and design.

If you’ve yet to discover the charms of Dandelion, you’ve a treat in store.

Rated: 9.5


Welcome to pixie stix kids pix, the site for reviews and opinions about new and interesting books for children and young adults, by a professional in the children's book industry.

What rates?

When I read books they get rated on a 10 point scale. What I like is subjective, but basically I look for great content, excellent design, and fresh ideas. Generally, only books that receive a 7.0 or higher make it on to the site.

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