From the category archives:

Picture Books

On a Beam of Light: A Story of Albert Einstein

Images and text by Carter.

Sometimes real life makes the best stories. On a Beam of Light: A Story of Albert Einstein by Jennifer Berne and Vladimir Radunsky is a celebration of curiosity, imagination, and an insatiable desire to learn. This is a kid with a twinkle in his eye and the verve to figure things out. Things the rest of us ignore, like just how do lumps of sugar disappear into hot tea?

We learn that three-year-old Little Albert hasn’t said much, just looked around with wide eyes of wonder. His parents have changed as the years march on, but they are always standing by him. In one illustration, tiny speech bubbles with hand drawn type hover over their heads. The dad says, “So different,” and the mother says, “But so dear.” This moment in the pictures arrested me as I flipped the pages. That love is so dear.

Speaking of the pictures – wow. The illustrations are lively and restrained and so meaningful. The loose lines around characters still contain period style and timeless emotion. I love how he showed the spread of Albert proving that everything is made up of atoms – of course, individual specks of color, making up a whole. And a couple of barefoot, toe-curled feet are an unexpected, adorable detail.

Do you love picture book biographies as much as I do? Remember this one about William Carlos Williams? And this one about Noah Webster is perfect for anyone like me who is word-obsessed.


The Little House by Virginia Lee Burton

Images and text by Carter.

The Little House by Virginia Lee Burton is one of those sigh-worthy books, right? It’s a classic that might be wedged into that little-house-shaped hole in your heart, too, just like it is in mine. (And Gabrielle’s — it’s a favorite at the Blair house!) I remember reading it as a little girl, and it seemed so fancy and old-fashioned at the time. And now, many years later, my view of fancy and old-fashioned has transformed into an awe of its timelessness.

This Little House is just a tiny thing, painted pink, and sheltering love. She sits on a hill in the countryside watching the seasons rise and set with the sun, watching the kids wander and wonder, and wondering herself what city life is like. Slowly but surely, the Little House watches surveyors with steam shovels and buildings rise to the sky, blocking her view of the stars. She hasn’t moved an inch, but the Little House is wholly homesick. But her legacy is of love, and when she’s plucked from the city and replanted in the countryside, I become a bit of a blubbering mess.

Her story reminds me of the things that make home warm despite the passage of time. It makes me think of the white paint chipping away at the columns of my grandparents’ porch, and how spinning around them made me forget about the biting mosquitoes out there. How about you?

The Little House by Virginia Lee Burton


Lester's Dreadful Sweaters by K.G. Campbell

Images and text by Carter.

I am not the most fashionable of gals. My librarian roots show up in constant cardigans, glasses and flats. And when I’m inspired by this southern California vibe, my breezy and effortless just looks sloppy and lazy. But when I was looking for a dreadful sweater on which to photograph this book, I couldn’t find one! I’m going to consider that a fashion win.

Except — these sweaters are actually and truly atrocious. One of Lester’s chuckle-worthy knits has holes where it shouldn’t and none where it should. And despite feeling woe for poor Lester, I felt a little better about my closet. The inciting event of K.G. Campbell’s Lester’s Dreadful Sweaters is delightfully absurd and wonderful and terrifying: a crocodile chomped Cousin Clara’s house. So, naturally, Cousin Clara moves in with Lester’s family and clickety-click-knits him piles of hideous sweaters. Lester wrestles with his knitting nemesis with deadpan wit and charm. His world makes perfect nonsensical sense, and that’s why this story is such an un-dreadful one to devour.

P.S. – K.G. Campbell is one to watch if you are into kids’ book illustrations! Lester’s Dreadful Sweaters is his debut, but look for him soon on Kate DiCamillo’s upcoming Flora and Ulysses: The Illuminated Adventures and Ame Dyckman’s Tea Party Rules. And another side note while we are speaking of fashion, I love this peek into Gabrielle’s suitcase!


Wee Gillis by Munro Leaf and Robert Lawson

Images and text by Carter.

You know The Story of Ferdinand, right? That gentle, genteel bull just steals my heart with each read. This book, Wee Gillis, was published two years after The Story of Ferdinand by the same author/illustrator duo. That year was 1938, 75 years ago!

One thing I love about picture books is how triumphant characters squeeze their way into our collective history, and Wee Gillis is a charmer. He’s an orphan, but from quite a legacy. A detail that tickles me every time I read it is his full name: Alastair Roderic Craigallachie Dalhousie Gowan Donnybristle Mac Mac — welcome to Scotland, right?

And that’s where his story takes place — both in the Lowlands as a farmer with his mother’s family, and in the Highlands as a hunter with his father’s. But when Wee Gillis has to decide where to call home forever, he whips up a frenzy of creative fortitude and a whole new world opens up. I don’t want to spoil it too much, but let’s just say: bagpipes. It’s brilliant, sweet, inspiring, and timeless.

Wee Gillis by Munro Leaf and Robert Lawson


Book of the Week: If You Want to See a Whale

Images and text by Carter.

That wondrous time when spring slips into summer ripples through If You Want to See a Whale. Julie Fogliano and Caldecott-winning Erin Stead are a stunning duo. Do you remember And Then It’s Spring? This one is just as magical.

Because if you want to see a whale, you’ll need an ocean, a cozy chair, and some time for waiting and watching and wishing. And you have to be careful to not notice the little green things inching nibble scoot among the leaves.

ifyouwanttoseeawhale_2 ifyouwanttoseeawhale_3

You’ll love this one. The art is sublime and the words are a whisper. It’s a little early for me to pick Caldecott favorites, but this is one to watch. And while you’re waiting, you might even see a whale if you wish hard enough!


Fortunately by Remy Charlip

Images and text by Carter.

It might not surprise you that I like to pepper my classic favorites with some all out kook and quirk. And this book by Remy Charlip, Fortunately, makes hilarity squeak out of my toenails. It’s that much fun. Remy Charlip was a tap dancer, and something about those syncopated beats must have been pulsing in his brain when he wrote this book. Its punchy crescendoes and dramatic page turns are a riot!

And is there anything more darling than a hapless little main character whose name is Ned?! When Fortunately was published in 1964, Ned was nowhere near the most popular of baby names, so I love that his identity is already a bit offbeat. The story opens just like this: Fortunately, one day, Ned got a letter that said “Please Come to a Surprise Party.” The spread is bright and colorful and full of promise. But turn the page, and it reads, But unfortunately the party was in Florida and he was in New York. And all of that vibrancy? Faded to black and white.

Ned’s story carries on in a frenzy of escalating chaos and the most satisfying of arcs. And where Ned ends up just might surprise you!

Fortunately by Remy Charlip


Bluebird by Bob Staake

Images and text by Carter.

There’s something extraordinarily engaging about a book with no words. And there’s just something plain old extraordinary about this particular one. Bluebird, by Bob Staake, is a story that will sweep you into a fierce friendship and shatter your heart into pieces when that friendship is tested. But before you turn the last page, that bursting heart of yours will get all patched up. It’s understated and overwhelming all at once.

Because there are no words, the story unfolds visually. The panels are jam packed with joy and surprise and simultaneously weave a gentle call for empathy. One boy, quiet and alone. One bird, insistent on friendship. It’s a tough story, but its truthful – and so, so beautiful.

P.S. – Tell me, do you have any favorite wordless picture books? Gabrielle and I are both big fans of this one by Jerry Pinkney, and I adore anything and everything by Barbara Lehman!

Bluebird by Bob Staake


Swimmy by Leo Lionni

Images and text by Carter.

One of my favorite things is the flimsy, shiny, black and white yearbook from my last year of teaching. There’s a terrible candid photo of me reading to a bunch of kids in the library, and although my outfit could use a good dose of forgetfulness, I’ll always remember the book. Swimmy, by Leo Lionni, is celebrating its fiftieth birthday, and it is still looking mighty fine.

Leo Lionni’s art is something worth floating around in for a while – the textures and the muted colors of the ocean’s murk are so lovely. And then there’s Swimmy, a tenacious little thing whose ingenuity outsmarts the big bad fish, an enemy of schools everywhere. He’s a reminder to stop and smell the sea anemones and to try the impossible.

Is there an unforgettable character that sticks with you? I love that a bitty black fish, wise beyond his years, hasn’t ever wandered too far from me. 

Swimmy by Leo Lionni


Board Books for Hipster Babies  |  Design Mom

By Carter.

I love board books. Literacy for the littlest. Sturdy pages for stubby fingers. Visually spectacular to developing brains. I adore them so much that I have a growing collection, despite having zero kids in my house. But I obsess over my portable art, and these books are stunners. For this particular roundup, Gabrielle and I gathered some of the very coolest-looking board books out there — selections with a design or art angle. Think of them as board books for hipster babies. : ) I hope you’ll find some new treasures in this list for your tiny reader — or the perfect baby gift for your graphic-designer-best-friend.

1) Since board books are designed to be tactile (also chewed up and drooled on, dropped and kicked and loved hard), one inspired by a textiles designer makes perfect sense. Alexander Girard’s simple sophistication and playful patterns are a perfect match for this bright board book, Color. I love that the hues are not your usual primary colors – cyans and fuchsias, pale pinks and muted golds leap off the page, too.

2) A Book of Sleep by Il Sung Na. The story here is just as soothing as the pictures. Both are lush and sweeping, but quiet — which sets the perfect tone for a nighttime (or nap time!) read. An alert owl details how other animals sleep – some are noisy, and some sleep standing up! They all snooze at night, but when the day rises, it’s the owl’s turn.

3) Picture This… by Alison Jay pairs singular words with paintings inspired by the American primitive style. But if you spend a little more time in the illustrations, it becomes much more than a simple language primer. Images featured on one page become hidden details on others, and their recurring cameos make this an extra engaging read. Also, note the subtle shift of the seasons as the book progresses. Really smart stuff packed into a really short read! Find more of Alison Jay’s beautiful board books here.

4) Another tip of the hat to the large world of tints and hues is Orla Kiely’s Colors. The concept of color is a popular one in these formative books, (and rightly so!) but this one especially dazzles. Perhaps it’s the fashion designer sensibilities at work, but the tones are especially striking. And it’s cloth bound, so it’s lovely to the touch.

Keep reading for 7 more!


 Images and text by Carter.

When I moved across the country almost seven years ago, my younger sister travelled with me. And when I arrived on the west coast after a long week of driving, it was late and dark. I didn’t know my roommate, my neighborhood, or why one of the only possessions I stuffed into the back of my little car was a broken green lamp with a crumpled shade.

Morning shed some light on my unfamiliar street, and on my unfamiliar house, and my sister said simply, “Looks like Strega Nona’s.” This book was woven into our history. With one quiet observation, all of the unsettled grumbles that echo around a new place hushed, and it became a little more like home. This is why stories matter. 

Strega Nona, by Tomie dePaola, is timeless. It’s the story of a grandma with a magic touch and hungry Big Anthony, who doesn’t. This is a book with an overeager heart and an overflowing pasta pot. I love my cautionary tales with a side of spaghetti, don’t you? And ever astute, Strega Nona rests comfortably once she takes care of that pasta problem — in her house, the one etched in my heart. 

Do you have a book like this, one that stirs shared souls? Something wonderfully haunting and deeply comforting?

Strega Nona by Tomie DePaola


Stars by Mary Lynn Ray and Marla Frazee

Images and text by Carter.

One of my favorite things about picture books is how they capture raw emotion in the span of so few pages. And oh, how different the tones can be! Last week we saw the catastrophic and zany The Runaway Dinner, and today’s is tender, thoughtful, and still. Stars, by Mary Lynn Ray and Marla Frazee, lyrically celebrates that far away point of light. The evocative nighttime pictures are balanced by wiggly kids, taping stars on sticks to make magic wands. And the words! “But stars that come with night — for those you have to wait for night. You need some dark to see them.”

This is one to gaze at — much like the book’s subject itself. Do you have any other evocative, poem-like favorites?

P.S. – Gabrielle featured the author of another Marla Frazee book, All The World, here. And she’s the illustrator of the Clementine series – Do you know those? Fantastic chapter books for older readers! Clementine is a modern day version of the sparkling Ramona Quimby and Pippi Longstocking. 


The Runaway Dinner by Allan Ahlberg

Images and text by Carter.

Sometimes in a picture book you just need some good old-fashioned chaos and mayhem, right? When a Design Mom reader (hi, Amy!) suggested The Runaway Dinner, I was immediately charmed. And also grateful. This book debuted in my last year as a school librarian, so I completely missed it! There’s definitely a black hole on my bookshelf from the late 2000s, because as it turned out, working in the movies is the wrong form of storytelling to me. Reading this one ripped me right back to my roots.

Banjo Cannon has an ordinary life and a cat named Mildred, and every day of his ordinary life he eats the same dinner – a sausage, three peas, four baby carrots, and a handful of fries. And then there was the day that the sausage up and left. He ran away. What follows is a hysterical romp through the park to get the dinner back to Banjo Cannon’s table.

Something I love about picture books is that what seems like a simple plot sometimes isn’t at all. The narrator drives the pace here, and does a brilliant job of creating drama and suspense. And yes, I promise – you will be on the edge of your seat, all for a handful of peas!

P.S. – I know it’s a specific request, but do you have any favorites from the late 2000s? I don’t want to miss something incredible!


PrincessHyacinth by Florence Parry Heide

Images and text by Carter.

This gem by Florence Parry Heide and Lane Smith introduces us to Princess Hyacinth. She isn’t your ordinary little girl. And it isn’t just because she’s a princess. Her problem? Floating. Without golden weights sewn in the hems of her gowns, Princess Hyacinth would bob, drift, and hover — stopped only by her Royal Ceiling. The kingdom’s heaviest jewels sit right in her crown, and she fastens a rhinestone strap under her chin to keep everything in place.

A floating princess? Find out more. Click here!


Images and text by Carter.

This imaginative retelling of The Steadfast Tin Soldier is an epic love story in thirty-two pages. Hans Christian Anderson’s timeless fairy tale has never looked more stunning than this! The illustrations by Jen Corace are striking and intricate, and they wrap around Cynthia Rylant’s lyrical text so beautifully.

A tin soldier, missing a leg. A dainty ballerina, balancing on one. Love at first sight. Endless stares! Just as in the original, a goblin has other plans for the pair — and tries his darndest to keep the tin solider down. But a steadfast tin soldier is not discouraged. Whether upside down in the garden, floating past a gruff giant rat, or swallowed whole by a fish, our hero’s heart only beats for that ballerina. What wins here, a mean old goblin or true love? I think you know. Perfect for kids, perhaps even more perfect for the rest of us. 

The Steadfast Tin Soldier


Little Owl Lost by Chris Haughton

Images and text by Carter.

I’m a big fan of Chris Haughton’s Little Owl Lost. It’s understated, adorable, and deeply moving all at once. You know this story: tiny thing lost, needs to find its mama. But this book revives a sleepy plot with a charming cast of woodland creatures and language that settles right into your bones.

One of the most magical qualities of a picture book is the page turn, that moment of suspense that lets you control the pace of the story. The very first page turn ingeniously gives you a sort of animated effect, with a half page dividing the spread. It throws you right into the action — an adorable, wobbly owlet falling right out of the nest. And that’s where the simplistic hilarity begins.

Little Owl Lost by Chris Haughton Little Owl Lost by Chris Haughton

A well-intentioned squirrel offers his eager assistance, but owlet’s description of pointy ears and big eyes don’t quite find the right mommy. The colors are lush and deep — unusual for a picture book, but oh, so comforting. Much like the story itself.

P.S. – If you love this one, be sure to check out his more recent book, Oh No, George! Delightful doesn’t even begin to describe it!


Images and text by Carter.

How about something bright and beautiful? The Circus Ship by Chris Van Dusen is a fast paced, rhyming tale of a shipwreck and the sharp witted animals who were on board. They swim to shore and cause a little chaos, but soon the village falls in love with the crew and the bravery of a tiger. Their clever camouflage tucks them into the town seamlessly, helping them avoid the wrath of a booming villain who wants them back. It’s an adventure! With lush illustrations and larger than life personalities – it’s truly an enchanting tale. Your littles will love studying the pictures, looking for the hidden alligators, monkeys, and ostriches.

The Circus Ship by Chris Van Dusen The Circus Ship by Chris Van Dusen

And it’s an underdog tale that’s a twist on a real truth. In 1836, a steamer sank off the coast of Maine, and nearly all of the circus on board perished. It’s a tragic story, really, but legend persists that a lone elephant survived by swimming to shore. It’s that life and hint of hope that rings true in The Circus Ship.

P.S. – Remember how much Gabrielle loves elephants?


10 Great Books for Spring

March 25, 2013

Ten Great Books for Spring, Easter and Passover.

By Carter.

Is it spring yet where you are? I’m hearing rumors of East Coast snow and lying groundhogs! Seasons don’t really exist here in southern California — the days just turn from warm to hot without much fanfare. Good thing I have this pile of books to remember the wonder of spring!

1) And Then It’s Spring by Julie Fogliano and Erin Stead is a comforting reminder that the browns of winter will yield to the glorious greens of spring. Caldecott winner Erin Stead crafts a subtle color palette that balances the spare and lyrical words. And note the tiny house on a hill in the background — it’s my favorite part of the storytelling illustrations!

2) What spring assortment of books would be complete without Peter Rabbit? Beatrix Potter’s timeless classic, The Tale of Peter Rabbit, is truly a masterpiece. Did you know that in addition to being a writer and illustrator she was a naturalist and conservatist? The garden setting of Peter Rabbit rang true to her heart — but Peter’s rebellion and endearing mischief will also remain the hallmark of this cautionary tale. Won’t you join me in a warm mug of chamomile tea to welcome spring and all its life?

3) The Longest Night, by Laurel Snyder and Catia Chen, is an epic Passover story — a retelling of the Exodus, straight from the Old Testament. It brings to life the birth of today’s traditions, with beautiful illustrations that wash over the lyrical words. The child’s point of view is striking, raw, and so easy to settle into. That perspective, along with the tandem dance of words and pictures, make this an unusually evocative look at this time of year.

4) I have a thing for fascinating endpapers, those colorful pages at the beginning and end of a book that frame the pages of the main story. Before I even got to the first words of An Egg is Quiet by Dianna Hutts Ashton and Sylvia Long, I was in love with this factual and utterly gorgeous book. This duo doesn’t stop at the obvious bird or dinosaur eggs — how about the tiniest lobster egg, the banana-shaped field cricket egg, or the very weird dogfish egg?

5) In 1943, Clare Turlay Newberry earned a Caldecott Honor for this small story about a bunny named MarshmallowIf you are searching online for a copy, be sure to find one with its original cover and story in tact! This gentle tale holds up beautifully — just a teeny ball of fur, Marshmallow adopts a big cat named Oliver as his mama. Understated art leaves plenty of room to breathe your own awe into the pages.

Click here for 5 more books!


By Carter.

Virginia Wolf, by Canada’s Kyo Maclear and Isabelle Arsenault, is like a beautiful dream, wrapped up and bound by a spine. Are you an artist? A writer? A squabbling sister? This story is very loosely based on Virginia Woolf and her older sister, the painter Vanessa Bell.

But it’s also a bit of a story on the severity of blue moods and bad days, as wolfish Virginia finds joy in nothing. When the house sinks and glad becomes gloom, Vanessa paints for Virginia. She paints a place with frosted cakes and fruit that squeaks, and calls this place Bloomsberry. It’s rich and colorful and squashes Virginia’s fierceness. Trees that look like lollipops and an elephantine shrub will do that, right? But so will love. And so will art. And this book is a gorgeous illustration of that from start to finish.

P.S — Do you have any favorite children’s books that are gentle with ambitious topics, like this tender glance into Virginia Woolf’s very real depression?

Virginia Wolf Virginia Wolf


This Moose Belongs To Me by Oliver Jeffers

By Carter.

I love that this little corner of the internet is like our local watering hole, where we swap stories and favorite things. But sometimes I love that you can’t hear me. Because if you had heard the shrieks and squeals that I let loose when I read Gabrielle’s interview with Oliver Jeffers, you might think twice about our friendship.

I adore Oliver Jeffers. He captures wonder and wit with a sharp imagination and spills it all out into his books. This Moose Belongs to Me starts like this: “Wilfred owned a moose. He hadn’t always owned a moose. The moose just came to him a while ago and he knew, just KNEW that it was meant to be his.”

This Moose Belongs To Me by Oliver Jeffers This Moose Belongs To Me by Oliver Jeffers

Wilfred names him Marcel, and the two listen to records, pick apples, and gallivant over the countryside together. But when a teeny old lady thinks that she owns the moose – well, havok and hijinks take over the pages. And aren’t those pages beautiful? I love the sweeping landscapes, the spare and graphic characters, and the hand drawn type.

P.S. – Do you live in Brooklyn? If you are as crazy about Oliver Jeffers as I am, go check out this exhibit!


A River of Words by Jen Bryant and Melissa Sweet

By Carter.

Have you heard of the American poet William Carlos Williams? Truly, I hadn’t until I read this book, A River of Words – a masterpiece by author Jen Bryant and illustrator Melissa Sweet. And inside, I found a linguistic kindred and a fascinating story about a man who was both a poet and a pediatrician. Melissa Sweet’s Caldecott Honor-winning illustrations are spectacular collages made up of found book covers and their endpapers. It’s a gorgeous work celebrating the written word, created by those same bound treasures. Stunning, right?

P.S. — Melissa Sweet is my absolute favorite illustrator, and it took all the restraint in the world to not show you every single page! There’s one at the end that will make you gasp and pause and thank your stars that you are seeing such a breathtaking picture!

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