Mitsumasa Anno: A New Picture Book Discovery

I’ve been reading and savouring Show Me A Story, a collection of interviews by Leonard S. Marcus with children’s picture book artists, and the very first interview is with an illustrator we had not yet met, Mitsumasa Anno.  So we headed down to the library and checked out a big pile of his books.

I like discovering things about myself.  I like having names for various bits of my identity, precise categories to define and explore who and what I am.  Impostor syndromeThird Culture Kid.  I am also a Serial Reader.  If I like an author, I aim to read everything he or she has written.  If I begin a series, I like to begin at the beginning and finish it.  (I am waiting impatiently for a copy of the third book in Louise Penny’s Inspector Gamache series so that I can get on to books four, five, six and seven, which are all waiting for me on the TBR shelf!)  When I read fairy tales with the kids, I like to read one story in multiple editions.  We read 5-10 versions of one fairy tale a week.  I love to compare versions and to discover with the kids which tellings and illustrations we like and why.  Can we give a name to why we like or don’t like James Marshall?  I love him, but it took me three books to realize that its his dark black forests that so appeal to me.  I love the contrast of the humorous cartoon figures and the menacing black backgrounds.  My littlest G dislikes him, and can’t really articulate why except to say it’s because of his “round characters.”  Clearly, the cartoon style of illustration does not work for him.

All of this is a roundabout way of saying that when I made my discovery of Anno, I brought home a big pile of his books.  One would just not suffice.  Only two in the pile have words, so these books are ideal as solo reads for the kids when I’m otherwise occupied, but we also had lots of fun looking at the pictures together.  Anno’s Britain, for example, has all kinds of visual jokes.  Inside its pages are hidden loads of characters from British children’s books and culture: the Cheshire Cat, the White Rabbit and Alice from Alice in Wonderland; the characters from Winnie the Pooh; Robin Hood; scenes from Shakespeare; homages to famous painters.  Here’s the thing: it is really, really hard to resist the temptation to spot all the allusions before the kids do, and to do so defeats the purpose of the books.  These are meant to be treasure troves for the kids to open up, and it’s hard to resist unwrapping all the mysteries before they do!

If you have a child already well-versed in kids’ lit classics like Alice in Wonderland and Peter Pan and Mary Poppins, this book and Anno’s Journey will be a full of fun discoveries, but they by no means require a familiarity with those classics.  They are wordless and wonderful.  Also in the series are Anno’s USA, Anno’s Italy and Anno’s Spain.

We also checked out a couple of his math books, which make math a visual and narrative experience of discovery for kids from toddlers to middle school.  Anno’s Counting House, Anno’s Mysterious Multiplying Jar and his series of math puzzles are all a really fun way to explore numbers.  Again, the emphasis is on encouraging kids to make discoveries on their own, and my four-year old just loved counting the people in Anno’s Counting House and my seven-year old was able to detect the patterns of addition and subtraction.  Anno’s Mysterious Multiplying Jar visually depicts the power of factorials, and the way that numbers can expand and contract.

These books were a great discovery, and I emptied the shelves of what was in stock.  I’ve also put another pile on hold.  Hooray for books and for the Lillian H. Smith libarary!