Isol on Experimental Picture Books, Visual Literacy + More

Interior from Daytime Visions: An Alphabet by Isol. Photo from: 20th Century Typographers

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 experimentalbooks 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.

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.)

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 ears, and a handy tub-stopper. Photo from: 20th Century Typographers
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…

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