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Isol on Experimental Picture Books, Visual Literacy + More

From where does visual literacy first spring? Picture books. A child, splayed comfortably on a parent’s lap, is exquisitely attuned to “reading” every element of design: typography, line, shape, color. Heard aloud, the spare text of a picture book hangs over the scene, casting it in amber. Later, when the child can read the words herself, those words sound noiselessly in her head, a miraculous internalization. The lacunae between image and text—what the words assert versus what the pictures say—both fascinates and instructs.

Interior from Daytime Visions: An Alphabet by Isol

With picture books, repetition is the norm, raising the stakes immeasurably. Experimentation in the genre is expected, even required to reinvent classic themes like the ABCs, counting and colors. A design that tells its story well once must instead accomplish the trick an infinite number of times. Each time the child’s focus will shift: to a hidden visual pun; to the vibrating border between color blocks; to conflicting emotions on display. The depth of parsing is almost frightening in intensity. Nowhere else in modern life is attention so clearly trained on a design object. And unlike most graphic designs in our highly digital world, picture books are resolutely physical objects, with all the wear-and-tear that children bring.

As a design writer and author of two experimental books for adults, probing the creative tension between word and image is my business. It’s taken me years as a parent—my son is now four—to recognize in picture books the shimmering deep end, the ultimate distillation, the temporal source code of the work I’ve long pursued for adults. Picture books, particularly experimental ones, can teach graphic designers a lot about the building blocks of visual acuity and storytelling.

It's Useful to Have a Duck by Isol. In this German edition, the duck imagines itself as a gargoyle, sticking his bill in the child's ear, then swimming comfortably in a bathtub. In the child's POV, the duck is a fake nose, a convenient way to clean your ear's, and a handy tub-stopper.

photo credit: Marcelo Cagliari

Argentinian author-illustrator Isol is a case in point. Twice a finalist for the Hans Christian Andersen Award and the 2013 winner of the Astrid Lindgren Award, two crowning achievements in kids-lit, Isol has written and illustrated some of the cleverest, most inventive children’s books I’ve encountered from a living author. I first encountered her work in It’s Useful to Have a Duck, an accordion-style book (or “leporello”) that tells the story of a kid meeting a toy duck from both characters’ perspectives. The reader starts with the narrative from the kid’s POV. At the end you can flip the book over and follow the duck’s idiosyncratic take on those same interactions. Identical pictures, vastly different thought-worlds. (AIGA recognized the book for both concept and design in its 2008 50 Books/50 Covers selection.)

More recent Isol titles include Petit the Monster (2010 in its English edition), which confronts a basic moral question: Am I good, or am I bad? Beautiful Griselda (2011 in its English edition) tells of a princess whose shattering good looks caused suitors to lose their heads—literally. Amassing her lost-head collection, Griselda finds her beauty an obstacle to finding love but maneuvers around this difficulty to produce a baby of her own. One day, however, enthralled by the baby’s cuteness, Griselda loses her own head—plop! The book ends with a parlor-full of children tackling a puzzle, Griselda’s smiling head presided in a wall-mount like a benevolent moose.

Isol continues this train of thought in The Menino: A Story Based on Real Events (2015 in its English edition), which examines the arrival of a new baby like an alien invasion, a terra incognita for both parents and baby. Isol’s books number far more than these, most of which have been translated, others not. Her imagination is wide-ranging, headlong yet sweet, replete with the remainder of unexplained feelings, a lingering desire to circle around that same impenetrable something again and yet again.

Interior from Beautiful Griselda by Isol.

Interior from Petit the Monster by Isol.

I asked Isol—whose real name is Marisol Misenta—to walk PRINT through her creative process, focusing on her more experimental books. Fittingly, we conducted our conversation in an unusual style: Isol was on family vacation in the Argentina countryside, so I emailed her questions in English, to which she replied with WhatsApp voice memos she made in Spanish in stray moments. A translator facilitated in-between.

“Lately, I’ve been striving for my books to have some unique quality, always tied to a recognizable sense of narrative,” she began. “I would say Nocturne: Dream Recipes is one of the most interesting [books] in terms of formal experimentation, especially at the illustration level because I used a special ink that glows in the dark. The book itself was triggered by my desire to use that ink that allows ‘hidden’ drawings that can only be seen at night.”

Familiarity with traditional printing and engraving techniques enables Isol to experiment more freely with story while staying within the constraints of mass-reproducible works. Even so, one bumps up against unexpected limits. “Nocturne was printed in China with a special ink to which I had no access in my studio,” she recalls. “It was a real experiment in the sense that, until the very end of the process, I didn’t know how the result was going to look. Lucky for me, it was good! I also like to think about the physical aspects of the book like page size.” A spiral-bound book with stiff binding, Nocturne is designed to stand on its own on a nightstand.

Interior from Nocturnes: Dream Recipes by Isol. A snuggling monster appears over the bed in glow-in-the-dark ink to complete the picture.

It’s Useful to Have a Duck was borne of an all-too-common creative dilemma: Procrastinating on another book project, Isol doodled a picture of a child grabbing a rubber duck. “I usually like to have some phrase to accompany my drawings,” she notes. “In that particular situation, I was at a crossroads: ‘Who is going to talk, the child or the duck?’ That’s when it occurred to me I could tell the story from two different perspectives. The concept of the book appeared then as a flash.”

Like many great designs, however, what appears simple and whole as a final product required much slogging and indecision to create. “It took me much longer to figure out how to narrate the second point of view, how the book could have a surprise effect that felt organic to the story,” Isol recalls. “I had seen books … that play with this idea of the ‘double perspective’ but it generally felt forced.” Working by hand without a computer, Isol constructed the book by photocopying sketches over a variety colored papers, then cutting pieces to rearrange. “For that book the process worked well because I wanted it to be schematic, to be read at a fast pace,” she recalls.

She hit upon the accordion fold to encourage this endlessly circular reading style. It also afforded nice accidents as a physical object: “Sometimes children go through it like a hula-hoop, they use it as a house. Since it’s quite long and resistant one can use it to imagine all these different objects,” Isol continues, admitting that this “quality that’s really attractive, in the beginning was a problem. … We needed to publish it in a paper flexible enough to resist the normal wear-and-tear that happens when handled by children. No publishing house had ever published something in the shape of a big accordion that came in a box.” Resolving this technical conundrum in a cost-effective way delayed the book’s production by six years. Even so, early editions of the book used a box that opened on both sides, which caused the book to get stuck. The Australian edition finally solved this problem with a smoothly functioning, one-sided box.

Interior from It's Useful to Have a Duck by Isol. Translating the word "gargoyle" proved tricky, but "it’s good to have words children might not know and they learn them through the reading of the book," says the author.

Isol generally writes the text to her own books, but sometimes chooses a text to transmogrify into a picture book. Turning a Spanish-language translation of Paul Auster’s Auggie Wren’s Christmas Story into a children’s book, she recalls, “I had to work with a text that’s basically closed. It’s a different situation to work with a text that’s being tailored for an illustrated book versus a text that, in itself, has specific descriptive and literary images. The author had not necessarily thought his text was going to be accompanied by drawings that would ‘complete’ the story.”

By contrast, with texts written for picture books, “some aspects of the storytelling are comprehensible through the text, other aspects through the drawings,” she notes. “Those two streams can be in contraposition or play games in which one can be denying the other and have an interesting dialogue between the two.”

While recognizing her books are read mostly by children, Isol stays mindful of the parents. Never snarky or in-jokey, she aims in her books to “see the children within the adults”. This indeterminate zone of agelessness can thrust readers outside their ordinary bodies and perceptions, yielding both the beauty and humor that estrangement brings. Take The Menino, which Isol describes as a “vaguely scientific, very objective way of describing a new creature”—a newborn baby, but also the newly hatched parent. She recalls watching her child “looking at his hands like they are the strangest things, not understanding yet if they were his own, or how to use them.”

Interior from The Menino by Isol.

Interior from El Globo (The Balloon) by Isol, in which a child's screaming mother transforms into a silent red balloon.

How does she know when a book is done? “My revisions usually have to do with discarding,” she says. She deems a book done “when it’s not productive to continue to wiggle with the story.” Rigorous simplification reduces the book to its core elements, functioning smoothly while yielding new layers upon re-reading. Like a stream carving its way through rock, a great picture book follows its familiar run, wearing away the rock’s striated layers while sparkling variously each time.

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