Character Created Worlds: Carrie Armstrong-Ellis

The personality of a picture book evolves from the characters in your story. You, the illustrator decide whether they are cute animals, realistic children, or weird takes on questionable organisms and everyday objects. What will they look like? What do their faces tell the reader? These choices set the stage and infuse the book with life.

In Miss Tutu’s Star by Lesléa Newman, the main character is Selena, a girl drawn in Carey Armstrong-Ellis’ subversive style with diminutive hands and feet, a globular face, and remarkable eyes. Carrie has said that her inspirations include Edward Gorey, Jim Henson, Dr. Seuss, and Lane Smith, which is not surprising. Selena’s spherical eyes, each with a tiny dot of an iris and shaded all around, are expressive, mesmerizing, and significant. Creepy too, since they stare, lidless. They remind me of the poisonous berries called Doll’s Eyes (white baneberry).

The illustrator’s monsters have the same type of piercing eyes as seen in I love You More Than Moldy Ham, a squelchy, putrid story reviewed earlier here.

The Fairy Slugmother by Carey Armstrong-Ellis

The orbs are most supremely prominent in her slugs. She definitely has a particular affection for slugs and their slime trails, perhaps because they wear their eyes on slender stalks? Or is it that they are a grossly underrated species.

Another facial element the illustrator uses to enliven her character’s personalities is their teeth. The denizens of This is the Glade Where Jack Lives: or How a Unicorn Saves the Day, which is coming in January from Harry N. Abrams, Inc., each have expressive denticles. Jack the unicorn has “normal” square teeth because of course that’s what unicorns have. The red dragon boasts appropriately pointy teeth since dragons are terribly ferocious in spite of their disarming appearance. The warty backed, pointy tailed imp has a lone sharp bit of denture. Green goblins are drawn with pointy ears and teeny teeth sparsely distributed along the perimeters of their big dark oval mouths, like perfect ankle biters would have. And the gentleman they are attacking possesses but one square tooth. What does that say about him?

Once these features have been decided upon, and whether the characters are people, beings from lore, or slimy critters, the world they inhabit follows organically. The textures, colors and sense of irony or humor extend naturally outward to the particulars of the story’s environment.

Carey Armstrong-Ellis’ métier is a reality that pervades her books and remarkably more. She makes and sells similarly expressive three-dimensional characters of mixed media. The idiosyncrasies of each personality suggests a story and by extension a world equally quirky to support the protagonist. The Bowerstock Gallery promotes her still life paintings of toy wars and Twinkies, which by extension suggest the environments that are backdrops to this theater. Each of Carey’s endeavors is redolent of her expressive choices, which begin with the characters she imagines.

The worlds of Carey Armstrong-Ellis’ ten picture books create a platform for scenarios that blend with the characters in other aspects of her work, tiny teeth and all.


  1. All of Carey’s faces leave an indelible imprint on a reader’s mind. Thank you, Joyce, for sharing all these glorious pictures!


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