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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



Supercool history of the day: check out Wired Magazine’s interactive history of US Manga, in manga format.

Like all Japanese printed matter, manga reads from right to left, so you flip the top left hand page instead of the right.

It’s also available as a downloadable PDF.

So cool!

Bonus: Check out the accompanying article by Daniel H. Pink (A Whole New Mind), about Japan’s Manga industry.

Lambiek Stoefront
Check out this totally amazing resource from Lambiek, the mac-daddy of European comic shops. The Comiclopedia is a searchable database of more than 9,000 international comic artists that includes both visual and biographic data.

I can imagine lots of uses for this, including checking out a customer recommendation, as a resource for students interested in the medium, and as an educational tool for new booksellers. (Pair it with :01/First Second’s awesome list of the best kids graphic novels, and it’s basically a graphic novel course in a proverbial can.)

Best of all, if you find a hole in their database, let them know, and they’ll update it.

Many thanks to Julie over at Children’s Illustration for bringing this amazing resource to my attention.

Incredible Book Eating Boy

The Incredible Book Eating Boy by Oliver Jeffers

Penguin/Philomel; April 2007; 32 pp; $16.99 HC


Core Audience: Children 4-8; Ravenous readers of all ages

Strengths: Awesome artwork, fun play on words

I don’t know what it is about Irish humor that I love so much, but I can’t resist it when I come across it. Maybe it’s the storytelling tradition over there, but there is a wonderful drollness and a slight off-kilter quality to it that is distinctly zany, and it never fails to amuse me. This book is an excellent example.

It starts out innocently enough: it’s about a boy who loves books. Can’t get enough of them. He devours them, really.


He eats them up.

For the hero of Oliver Jeffers’ newest story, it starts out small. A distracted lick. Followed by a nibble. A page, or two. By Wednesday he had eaten a whole book. And come to find out, the best part is it makes him smarter. Pretty soon he’s smarter than his dad, and smarter than the teacher. He’s eating books left and right, and red ones are his favorite. He loves being smart. But like so many things that diminish when you over-indulge, our hero soon finds himself feeling a little ill. Then alot ill. Then he finds he can’t eat another book if he tries.

What will happen to our little book lover now?

Of course, this bibliographic parable has a happy ending when our hero finds that there’s more than one way to enjoy books. Kids will love the kookiness of the story from start to finish. Jeffers’ art style is full of funny details and punchy visual elements which will give young readers plenty to look at during multiple readings. I am particularly fond of the bite-shaped diecut in the back cover of the book, and the disclaimer that reads “Please do not try to eat this book at home.”

Jeffers has won critical acclaim in Europe, including a nomination for the Kate Greenaway Medal (the UK equivalent of the Caldecott) for his second book Lost and Found. With this third book, Jeffers has a nice body of work going, and I think he’s definitely an author to watch.

I’m looking forward to his next tasty treat, for sure. Yum, Yum.

Rated: 8.75

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Bonus: Check out Jeffers’ lovely little website

Order this book from your local independent bookstore

Okay, I feel that I have been giving short shrift lately to picture books, which as a designer are one of my first loves. I am having book guilt. So, I have decided that this is Pixie Stix Picture Book Week, and I will post a new review of one of my spring favorites each day. Enjoy!

The runaway book

Polo: The Runaway Book by Regis Faller

Roaring Brook; January 2007; 80 pp; $16.95 HC


Core Audience: All ages; Lovers of great design; Aficionados of wordless picture books

Strengths: Lyrical story full of wonderful visual detail and charming plot twists

Those of you who have been faithful readers know how much I loved Faller’s previous book The Adventures of Polo. Published first in France, these books about a little dog with a great imagination and a bottomless backpack are among my favorite offerings of the last year.

There is so much to love about Polo, it’s hard to know where to begin. Let’s start with the design. Faller’s illustrations are crisp, engaging, and totally irresistible. He plays liberally with graphic formats, using frames, full-bleed, and white space in unexpected juxtapositions throughout the book. An unspooling ball of red yarn breaks the right hand margin, and on successive pages becomes a Family-Circle style loop-de-loop, the ground, a hill to slide down, and then the outline of two trees and a dog-eating castle. Line as path, line as ground, line as object. The book is full of these kinds of graphic transformations.

Before we even get to the title page, we have a whole wordless vignette with Rabbit buying and sending a book to Polo on his little island. Drawn only in black, white, and yellow on a tomato red background, this little prequel grabs the attention from the get go, and sucks the reader right into Polo’s world.

And what a world it is. Magical. Lyrical. Full of the most amazing things. I LOVE books that unfold in a way that takes me on an unexpected journey, and Faller has one of the most unfettered imaginations going. When Polo’s new book is stolen by a little yellow creature–(a star? an alien? a florescent dust bunny with arms?)–Polo immediately sets off from his island in hot pursuit. What follows is a delicious adventure where the chase is only half of the fun. Each development is less predictable than the last as Polo meets a cast of characters including a humongous penguin, a little pig princess, elephant belly dancers, cloud wrestlers and a genie complete with wishes. And them there are the conveyances… A rope to nowhere, a hot air balloon, a raft, a mechanical flying bird, a magic liquid mirror, a dandelion puff, and numerous ladders, holes, caves, nooks, and crannies. Really, I can’t do the book justice in words when it comes to how imaginative it is. You just have to check it out.

Although Polo’s books are officially labeled with a 4-8 age range, to dismiss them simply as picture books for the youngest readers does them a great disservice. At 80 pages, the visual complexity, unexpected plot twists, wordless storytelling, and multiple frames are quite sophisticated, and the lyricism of the story will capture the imagination of everyone who picks them up—even adults.

At this point I am going to give you my rating, and if you are just interested in the review, read no further. This book is FABULOUS, and if you like great design and visual storytelling, stop reading and go order it now.

Rating: 9.5

However, if you are interested in a little more analysis on the publishing industry, read-on….

Polo in Bed 2

[Begin digression into TRENDWATCH industry-speak]

For my part, although the Polo books are certainly picture books in production format, I place them in the rapidly growing category of graphic novels for children, and I think they fall on one end of a spectrum that includes things like Emmanuel Guibert & Joann Sfar’s Sardine in Outer Space series and Jeff Smith’s Bone series, which is having an incredible resurgence among elementary readers. In fact, take a good look at the publishing news right now and it’s hard to miss the buzz in this area: in 2006 graphic novels hit $330 million in sales in North America, (surpassing the comic book format), with booksellers clamoring for more titles published for kids because of the demand they’re seeing at book fairs and in stores.

Why do I bring this up? Certainly wordless picture books are not new in and of themselves. (Think Raymond Briggs’ The Snowman, Itstvan Banyai’s Zoom, or Patricia Lehman’s The Red Book and forthcoming Rainstorm.)

However, given the growth in the graphic novel category, and young readers’ increasingly sophisticated and technological world which predisposes them to a high level of visual comprehension, I think this is an exciting time to explore innovative formats and hybrids of traditional publishing forms. Polo is an excellent example of blending genres to great effect, and I expect we will see more and more of this in the kids’ market.

In fact, Roaring Brook’s children’s graphic novel imprint 01:FirstSecond, under the direction of the brilliant Mark Siegel, is on the cutting edge of producing great new graphic work for a whole range of young readers, from elementary school to the most sophisticated teens, and they are actively reaching out to educate the traditional children’s book market. Many other publishers have been launching their own graphic novel imprints for kids as well. (Do a search at Publisher’s Weekly Online for the term “Graphic Novels”, and you’ll get 58 story hits just since the first of this year.) And let’s not forget Manga, which has never been stronger in the US. In a few years we’ll be able to look back on this period as a new golden age of graphic novels, with a whole expansion of the market for kids.

So now what?

I would ask you where you fall? Do you get this genre? If you are a bookseller or a librarian, where do you shelve graphic novels for kids? Do you think it’s a real trend? Do you care?

I think it is a trend, but I also think that there is a pretty clear line between people who get this genre, and people who don’t. I’m not sure if it has to do with age or perception or relationship to technology or what.

However we can always return to the basics. A book like Polo, which straddles these worlds, is at the end of the day, a wonderful book … and comfortingly familiar for all its brilliant ambition.

Yay, Polo. Je t’aime.

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For a compelling diversion, visit Polo’s magical world online at Chez Polo. It’s worth it just for the soundtrack.


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Okay, prepare to laugh out loud.

Check out this video post on Brotherhood 2.0 by author and funny-man John Green, (the genius behind An Abundance of Katherines, and Looking for Alaska).

You will never look at your bookshelf the same again.

A hearty shout out to the fabulous wit-ress A Fuse 8 Production for catching this gem.

Ball Cascade

This, my friends, is what it looks like when you bounce 250,000 superballs down the streets of San Francisco.


Web Icon These incredible stills are from an even more incredible commercial shot to advertise the Sony Bravia line of high-def televisions.


Apparently, there is no CGI, and the main sequence was shot by a 23 man camera crew who had only one chance to get it right. The whole thing took two days.


The balls were shot out of an air cannon and dropped by earthloaders, and the entire street was closed down. All of the cars are props, because the balls can do some major damage, apparently. (You can even see shingles flying off a house in one shot.)


You can have all your questions answered and watch a featurette on the making of the commercial at the Bravia website.

As an extra bonus, check ot the amazing music of José González, whose song provides the goose-bump inducing soundtrack.

This, of course, has nothing to do with children’s books, except to remind us all that amazing things still happen.

Many thanks to Liquid Sky Arts for turning me on to this!

IA Italy 2

Hello faithful readers!
I’ve been away for a little R&R, but now I’m back, so look for many new posts in the weeks to come. Here’s something new for the New Year. Enjoy!


Much ado has been made about the demise of the book with the rise of the digital age, and to be sure, e-books are one of the strongest areas of the publishing market. As a confirmed bibliophile, I see e-books as a convenience product that supplements rather than replaces books, and in the children’s realm they now work best for reference applications. As far as children are concerned, the printed book-as-a-perfect-technology is hard to beat.

What I have been watching for in the last few years are cross-over projects which capture both the narrative quality of a book and the multi-media potential of digital technologies. Children today are growing up in an increasingly sophisticated environment, and I was sure that sooner or later someone would begin to publish for this. I think digital enhancements to printed books are inevitable—like book related websites and tie-ins—but this is something different.

Let me be clear. I’m not talking about a game or a virtual environment. I’m definitely not talking about a toy or a movie. I’m talking about a new medium that integrates the narrative form of a book with new ways of telling the story which are digital. And now I think I’ve found the first completed instance of it.

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Welcome to inanimate alice, an ambitious new on-line serial story co-created by Kate Pullinger and Chris Joseph (a.k.a. Babel).

IA Alice Russia

This is the dark and moody story of Alice who is eight when the narrative begins. Alice has a problem. She keeps losing her parents. Her mother is an artist, and her father does something covert and shadowy that may have to do with the oil industry. As the series is conceived, Alice progresses from age eight to her 20’s through ten episodes, each set in a different location. Episode 3 was just released in December. There is a tense and suspenseful undertone to the completed installments, set in China, Italy, and Russia. Each episode gets more complex narratively and visually as Alice’s sophistication grows. The sense of menace grows with each episode as well.

What distinguishes this project, and qualifies it as something “new” as opposed to a game or interactive movie, is that the narrative moves in one direction. The interactivity of the experience is confined to advancing the story by clicking a forward command, (think turning the page), and some simple games that Alice has created and shares with the reader within the context of the story. Unlike a game or CD-rom, there are no choices to be made on the part of the reader. Unlike a movie, the story must be read in words in addition to its visual elements. Like a picture book, the visuals exist to support the narrative, not the other way around. The reader reads and controls the advancement of the story. It shares more with a book than other forms of digital media.

IA Italy 1

In an excellent 12/7 interview in The Guardian, Pullinger talks about what her narrative intentions were. “For me, the kind of gameplay in Inanimate Alice is the kind of interactivity I’m interested in as it’s part of the story, not a diversion from the story,” says Pullinger. “As a reader I’m not interested in choice, I’m not interested in having to make decisions as I’m being told a story. But I think that anything that involves interactivity involves a different mindset than reading a piece of fiction.”

This project has garnered an incredible number of awards in Europe, and just by reading the press and reviews, it’s clear that people are having a hard time figuring out what to call this new medium. “Kinetic novel”, “digital drama”, “online movie productions”, “digital fiction”, “new media objects”, “blook” (which I hate), “flashfiction”, and the terribly pedantic “Ergodic literature” have all been thrown around.

Kate Pullinger acknowledges the complexity of this problem. “I think that when a new form emerges, part of the problem is how to figure out what to call it, how to describe it – but what I do know is that I like to make it and people like to read it when they find out about it…” She has more to say about it in a recent blog post.

This isn’t Pullinger’s first foray into digital narrative, but it is the first for children. A previous project The Breathing Wall (2004) tells the story of a man incarcerated for the murder of his girlfriend. Part mystery, part dreamscape, the two-hour CD story is told through two types of narrative, alternating between day-dreams (flash movies), and night-dreams. The night dreams are told with an experimental software program called the Hyper Trance Fiction Matrix, which allows the story to respond to the listener’s rate of breathing via a headset with microphone. (Wild, right?)

IA China 2

Clearly, this whole thing is in its infancy, but I for one am interested in seeing where it goes. Right now there are fairly rigid barriers between what is being conceived as a “book”, and some of the more amazing technological innovations in the video game and digital design industries. As these fields merge more closely under the heading of “new media”, I think we’ll see more and more of this type of project. Pullinger and Joseph are both involved in writing programs at DeMontfort University in the UK, which has a new Institute of Creative Technologies program.

Is there a commercial future here?
No one has figured that out.

Will these kinds of stories completely replace the book?
Not likely.

Are they intriguing?
You bet.


Many thanks to Read Roger for first bringing this to my attention.

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Bonus: Check out an online version of US author/illustrator Jean Gralley’s passionate argument in favor of digital children’s books that first appeared in the January ’06 issue of the Horn Book. She also has a very cool flash animation piece called “Books Unbound” that demonstrates the potential of digital picture books.

13 littlke blue envelopes

13 Little Blue Envelopes by Maureen Johnson

HarperCollins; September 2006; 352 pp.;$8.99 PA


Core Audience: Teen girls ages 14+ 

Strengths: Coming of age novel with a strong female lead and an offbeat, mysterious premise 

When 17 year-old Ginny Blackstone receives an illustrated blue envelope with $1,000 cash and directions to buy a backpack and a plane ticket, it isn’t the unusual request that surprises her. Nor is it the list of rules:

  • 1) Bring only what fits in the backpack
  • 2) No phrase books, guidebooks or foreign language aids
  • 3) No extra money
  • 4) No electronic crutches—no cell phone, laptop, no music, no camera. No calling home, and no e-mail.

None of that catches her off-guard because her aunt Peg, who sent the blue envelope, has a reputation for being artistic and a little unpredictable. She’s been abroad for several years, and she has always promised to be there for Ginny as she grows up— a kind of guiding light. This is just the kind of thing she would do. 

What does surprise her is that this happens after her aunt is dead. 

When Ginny follows the directions and shows up as requested at the 4th Noodle restaurant in New York with a full backpack and her ticket to London, she is handed a package with twelve more envelopes and the adventure of a lifetime. Retracing her aunt’s final trip through Europe, and staying with her contacts and friends, Ginny embarks on a journey to uncover the missing period of her aunt’s life, and on the way discover herself in the process. Ginny Blackstone will never be the same. 

Maureen Johnson has written one of the most original teen novels I’ve read in a long time. In a field crowded with heavy stories about abuse, cancer, and other depressing stuff on one end, and morally questionable series titles full of bad behavior and shopping on the other, Ginny Blackstone’s adventure is a breath of fresh air. Although Ginny does have to come to terms with Peg’s death during the course of the story, the focus here is on living; on grabbing life by the horns and not letting go. At once a coming of age novel and a celebration of taking a blind leap, this novel is a great example of the fact that teen fiction doesn’t need to be full of the worst of human behavior to be compelling to its reader. Ginny’s adventure reminds me of nothing so much as a beloved childhood favorite, E.L. Koningsburg’s FROM THE MIXED-UP FILES OF MRS. BASIL E. FRANKWEILER. The mystery, the adventure, the offbeat unpredictability, and the authenticity of voice are all here. We should all hope to have such a spirited adventure one day.  

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Bonus: Check out author Maureen Johnson’s entertaining author page and check out her 13 travel tips among other fun stuff

Rated: 8.75

Order this book 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.

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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.


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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