Month: March 2015

Wimmelbooks and Taking Noticing

Once upon a time, fresh out of college and a little wide-eyed, I had a boyfriend who had grown up on Richard Scarry. That boyfriend’s world overflowed with Anglophiles and intellectuals and Scarry —in a twist of misdirected intimidation — acquired a certain aura of kid-lit-mystique for me. (I assumed that these unknown classics were English, too, which of course made them that much more fabulous.)

In fact, Scarry (1919-1994) was a prolific American author-illustrator, and his books are nothing if not accessible. His full and detailed illustrations in the Busytown books and others offer up a simple sort of engagement that young children adore: innumerable details and visual story fragments that let kids look and search and spy and name — and where they can’t name, ask. Kids spend their days doing the same thing out in the real world, noticing and engaging in visual play with whatever grabs their attention. But books like Scarry’s add the dimension of a beloved adult’s lap.

ScarryBestFirstBookEver Scarry_WhatDoPeopleDoAllDay Scarry_CarsAndTrucksAndThingsThatGo

Scarry_BustBusyWorld Scarry_BusiestPeopleEver Scarry_ABSWordBook

Scarry’s picture books are essentially beginner-wimmelbilderbuch or wimmelbooks. German author-illustrator Hans Jurgen Press  (1926-2002) coined the term in the mid 20th century and it translates loosely as “teeming picture book”; the format clearly owes a debt to the 15th and 16th century paintings of Hieronymus Bosch and Pieter Brueghel the Elder. But Press’s books incorporated the element of the hunt, making the visual meander more goal-oriented: instead of the eye simply wandering as it would in staring out the side of a stroller or a car window (or at a Bosch painting), it has something to find in these books’ considered and dense illustrations.

Bosch’s GARDEN OF EARTHLY DELIGHTS (wikicommons)

Martin Hanford’s Where’s Waldo books, Jean Marzollo and Walter Wick’s I Spy series and Graeme Base’s AnimaliaThe Water Hole and others all fit under the heading of ‘wimmelbook’ too.

 Animalia Wheres Waldo ISpy

Mitsumasa Anno, in the wimmelbooks he created, gave new twists to the form as he moved past pure density of imagery. In Anno’s Animals, he masterfully turned the game on its head, hiding prey in landscapes that he drew to seem anything but full. And, in Anno’s Counting Book, his detail-rich illustrations play with number and one to one correspondence, introducing a new, mathematical dimension to the hunt.


 Writing recently about JonArno Lawson and Syndey Smith’s new book Sidewalk Flowers (Groundwood Books), Maria Popova describes the book in terms that connect to the poignancy wimmelbooks have for this particular historical moment too. A wordless tale, Sidewalk Flowers follows a girl as she walks through the city holding her father’s hand; throughout, her attention to details on the street contrasts with her father’s chronic digital distraction. Popova dubs the book “a magnificent modern manifesto for the everyday art of noticing in a culture that rips the soul asunder with the dual demands of distraction and efficiency.


Kids excel at noticing, being observant and tuning in. Adults: not so much. And these habits of mind are precisely what wimmelbooks demand.


A wimmelbook with more contemporary styling, Lotta Nieminem and Jenny Broom’s  Walk This World was published in 2013 by Big Picture Press, a new-ish partnership between Templar Co. Ltd. (UK & Australia) and Candlewick (US & Canada). Big Picture’s introductory video features Bosch and frames Big Picture’s undertaking as being about creating “illustrated books for people who like to look at pictures and discover something new each time.” It should be fun to see what else Big Picture Press publishes and what new twists and turns the form takes as other authors and illustrators experiment. Maybe they will turn out a few more ‘modern manifestos’ or, at the very least, create some stellar new encouragements for kids (and their adults) to focus for more than a few minutes on images that aren’t moving and don’t require electricity.



I’ve never read Robert Fulgham’s All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten. I imagine that I’d buy into the general gist of it, but as someone who is WAY past kindergarten I would probably also bristle, because there is too much that I have learned only with age. That said, I do think there are lots of things we start doing when we’re in Kindergarten (or before) that get more fun and more interesting as we return to them over the courses of our lives.


Take the Valentine crayons my 9 year-old daughter put together for her classmates last month. We had made them when she was in nursery school, with me taking the lead, and she had loved it. But this year it was a completely different process: she sorted the crayons by hue, experimented with color palettes, and explored the ways that different makes of crayon layered and separated as they melted. And she managed the oven. Same crayons — different process, different learning.

Another activity that has recurred and evolved in my kids’ lives: making books.

Last week this small box showed up on the landing of our stairs.


I recognized it as being from a gift that an old friend had given us when my first daughter was born 11 years ago. Inside, I found not a rattle, but a collection of little books: books that my 9-year-old had cut and assembled from the pages of her Big Backyard magazines (now Ranger Rick Jr.).


Each month’s issue included one, two-sided page entitled “My Little Book”, which a child could use to construct a small book about that month’s chosen subject. The instructions on the back of each book read:


My daughter regularly labored over these pages when she was 3 or 4, then I read the books to her again and again until she knew them well enough to read to herself. Last week, she had apparently come across them in a drawer and pulled them out to visit with once more. She still makes books: teeny ones for the creatures in her doll house; slightly larger ones for this or that stuffed animal; journals where she draws and writes about things that she sees in nature; and very private diaries.

Last week also happened to be a week when I was dummying two picture book manuscripts, so the appearance of that box on the stairs felt like kismet, and my daughter’s little books reminded me how elemental making little books (in my case, little picture-less picture books) really is. Not just writing them — which is where I put so much energy — but actually making them. Because while I belabor so many different aspects of my writing, the making of a dummy satisfies me in a completely different way: less thinking, more doing and more of a certain quality of reflection.


My prefered method for constructing dummies involves halving four sheets of 8.5 x 11 inch paper lengthwise, then folding the whole stack in half, then sewing them together at the seam for an even 32 page-sides of 4.25″ x 5.5″ each. I print the manuscripts at 9 pt, with margins that squeeze the lines to 4″ wide, mark up the text lightly in pencil with a first pass at page breaks, then start cutting. At first I dab the ends of the text lightly with glue stick, since things will need to move, and only later — when I feel more resolve — beef up the adhesive. The dummies are small, which I love, in part because I get compulsive in my efforts not to waste stuff, and in part because their size makes me focus on what is essential: the order of things, the rhythm of the text, and the pause and — occasionally, hopefully — the magic of the page turn.

When you lay those text chunks and word clusters onto the page, you create space. Picture book texts, in their economy and at their best, can be a bit like poetry. I once read a description of poetry as being what happens between the words and letters on a page, in the white spaces and gaps — both large and small. With dummying, you are pulling apart your words and sentences and making room for breath, for illustration, and for moments of anticipation and uncertainty and wonder.

Like in kindergarten (at least kindergarten when I was little, anyway), you get busy with your hands and make a mess with glue and scissors. As you figure out how to cut and where to place, dummying forces you to make choices and teaches you about your stories and makes you see things you hadn’t before — things that you definitely would never have learned in kindergarten.