A World of Picture Books

W-Thailand-lizardWe see hundreds of excellent children’s books each year published here in the U.S., but what about those published in other countries? The rest of the world is producing books with interesting pictures for kids, too. What kinds of artwork are done by illustrators from elsewhere? Are they similar or different? What can we learn from them?

A while ago I decided to collect children’s books when I travel. Good friends and family have added to that collection. I look for books that seem endemic, that is, written and illustrated by people from the visited country and that portray stories that don’t seem in imitation of something American. The real deal. So far, I have forty-three books from far-off places with intriguing artwork and book design. Many have stories I can’t read, but there are things to be learned from the pictures.


This lovely book (above) was given to me by my daughter Melody who traveled through Thailand and Indonesia. I’m not sure which of those countries this comes from and I can’t read a single word of the gorgeous calligraphic letterforms, but I love the use of patterns in the pictures and the clean, bright colors. Also, the background on every page is white, becoming space, air, and a source of light.










In Catalina de Binimel-lá,written by Ricardo Alcántara and illustrated by Jesús Gabán, all of the backgrounds are dark, here lending a spooky feel that’s compatible with greedy don Benhali’s mood. The powerful sweeping curves and repeated columns along with the sense of mystery the style imparts and use of red highlights gives this book a sense of dynamism.

W Japanese storyAs you can see by the cover, this board book is read from right to left. The interior text flows top to bottom and calligraphy is a lyrical design element of its twenty-four pages. The beautiful watercolor illustrations of this Japanese folktale retold by Matsutani Miyoko, are reminiscent of traditional paintings with textured washes and linear elements done with a brush. It seems more sophisticated than we might expect for a board book presumably for young children. The content of the story is equally mature. I do not have a translation, however here is an attempt at describing what the pictures show. The story appears to be about a man who encounters a village with some serious problem. He tells the villagers to go to a shrine to pray near what seems to be a wooden casket. Two big monkey-like beings (or demons?) break the casket open and steal the woman’s body from inside. The man continues on his way, greeting others. Another man chases a white wolf from near a house where people live. Again villagers appear to bring a coffin to a shrine. Again the monkey demons come, but this time the white wolf attacks them, killing both, but also sacrificing his own life. The villagers are sorrowful that they had not treated the white wolf well. They now see that he was a good being. It is a powerful story.

W Japanese story 2

W Japanese story 4W Japanese story 3

Halfdan’s ABC, published by Carlsen Publishers in Denmark includes a music CD and an alphabet a bit longer than ours. The art style is earthy with hand lettered text that lends a sense of spontaneity. Note that in the X picture, the illustrator has included an extra detail that’s not in the text – the presumably illiterate witch uses Xs when writing.


W Halfdan's ABC 3W Halfdan's ABC 2

Curious about the verses, I tried Babylon, the free online translator and obtained what might be the gist of what is written on these two spreads for X and Y:

X is the loop you binding in curl (knot used to bind a curl?).

X is a pink plaster on the wound.

X is a pair of scissors to cut kay in your hair (to cut your hair?).

X is in Texas, and Alex and Brix.

X is a letter which rhyme witch (which rhymes with witch?)!

I chose this verse in part because of the word “Texas” and discovered that there is a manufacturer of garden machinery in Odense, Denmark by that name. To be fair, there is a ghost town named Denmark in East Texas, USA. And here’s another verse translated:

Ylle, Dylle, Dolle,

three small furry trolls

went hunting with mittens on

to shoot what they saw.

Ylle shot a coffeepot.

Dylle shot a frying pan.

Dolle shot a casserole.

Ylle, Dylle, Dolle.

These few books demonstrate a range of art styles and philosophies about illustration from bright and lively to deeper, more contemplative works. Not unlike the range you will find in an American bookstore or library. But the flavor of each country’s books for children does carry some essence of the place they are from.

To see more picture books from other lands, check out this post and this one and this other one from my blog. (I especially recommend the third one, vom Kleinen Maulwurf, which is really funny).

photos by Egils Zarins


  1. LOVE this post of your beautiful book collection. So wonderful to see illustrations from faraway lands. I did a post a while back about my own foreign picture books, but
    I don’t own nearly as many as you. I’ll be checking out all the links–thank you, Joyce!

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Excellent post, Marcia. You have given me the idea of displaying some of mine at our library. i also see on your site your lovely post about The Mount. We stayed next door this summer on a Tanglewood/Jacob’s Pillow weekend. While there we went to The Mount, Edith Wharton’s lovely home, for a concert by a singer from Chile and her guitarist friend. Later we walked through the formal garden. We have a lot in common it seems.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Good luck with the library display, Joyce. Your books will make a beautiful exhibit. And your Tanglewood weekend sounds wonderful; such a pretty area out there. Thanks for your interesting reply! 🙂


  2. Pingback: World of Books #4
    1. Whoa, thank you Marianne. This one obviously started with curiosity and a love of diversity in my own life, but it feels so good to share with like-minded people. Egils must have seen it since today three picturebooks from old Latvia appeared by my computer. One of them is from 1948! Think he wants to see them on my blog? Two of them are hand separated and printed in only three colors, which used to be done to save printing costs.


      1. I remember color separation by hand! It disappeared pretty quickly once desktop publishing got started. A whole category of skilled labor went with it, but it’s so much easier to use color now.

        I have a collection of old textbooks. Maybe I should share those on the blog sometime.


      2. Yes. I did a lot of hand separation work myself years ago. For starter, after I learned silk screening at Mass Art I did quite a lot of art silk screen prints for a while, mostly with very toxic materials, which wasn’t realized then. And I did the illustrations for books in 2, 3 and even 4 colors. It is really so much easier with digital means, and full color is much less expensive now, but hand separating is an art form that made books possible that would not have been before and it affected style also.


  3. I agree with you about reading foreign picture books and books in general. It shows that themes can differ. The art work can also be quite different. It’s wonderful. I like the PB about Kafka on another of your posts. Thansk for sharing.


    1. And I should point others to your books for older kids, which they can read about at: http://evelyneholingue.com/ or Goodreads. I have only been to France once, long ago, but would love to return someday. And your trip to Acadia sounds wonderful. We will be going sometime soon also. The natural world, especially the sea, is such a comfort.


    1. Whoa – “outstanding”! Thank you! I do think that all of us can learn from artists everywhere. The world gets smaller and smaller and we are all citizens of this planet. We do need diverse books and I’ve been collecting them for a while.

      Liked by 2 people

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