The Synthesis of Story & Illustration

Picture books are meant to be read aloud, with young eyes held captive by illustrations that will maintain a hold in their minds forever, linked to the best parts of childhood.
— Yellow Dog Bookshop

When I was little my favorite picture books were the ones where I could get lost in the words and the pictures. Something magical would happen as I heard the words read aloud to me and I stared at the illustrations trying to figure out a way to live inside them.

Friendship Valley by Wolo was the book my mom read to me even though, as a busy single parent, it was a little too long for her to read every night. But what I really wanted to was to stare at the page that showed the huge tree with the extensive root system that doubled as the characters’ homes. I wanted to see inside each of the animal’s spaces- how they decorated, where they ate their food, who slept in what spot.

Friendship Valley by Wolo

Picture books are meant to be read aloud, with young eyes held captive by illustrations that will maintain a hold in their minds forever, linked to the best parts of childhood. As we get older some of the titles and authors fade from memory, but our favorite images last forever. The synthesis of the story with the illustration is what makes a children’s picture book great.

Here are some more of my favorite children’s illustrators:

Gyo Fujikawa

Favorite books: Night Before Christmas, Oh, What a Busy Day!, and Can You Count?

Robert McCloskey

Favorite books: Blueberries for Sal, Make Way for Ducklings

Maurice Sendak

Favorite books: Where the Wild Things Are, The Night Kitchen, Little Bear

Barbara Cooney

Favorite books: Miss Rumphius, Hattie and the Waves, Island Boy

Hilary Knight

Favorite books: Eloise, Mrs.Piggle-Wiggle, Cinderella

Ezra Jack Keats

Favorite books: The Snowy Day, Whistle for Willie, Over in the Meadow

Jan Brett

Favorite books: The Mitten, The Hat, Goldilocks and the Three Bears

Christian Robinson

Favorite books: Gaston, Last Stop on Market Street, The Smallest Girl in the Smallest Grade

Renata Liwska

Favorite books: Red Wagon, The Quiet Book, The Loud Book

Jon Klassen

Favorite books: I Want My Hat Back, Extra Yarn, Pax

So whether you’re stocking up for your own kiddo's collection or starting someone else’s child off in the right direction, consider some of these titles. Feel free to share some of your favorites with us in the comments, we’d love to know what stories made a big impression on you!

Tolkien Collection

From the archives, written by Joe.

Since taking over the bookshop in August, I’ve often been asked what my favorite book is.  That’s a difficult question to answer – between the years of studying literature and the years of working in bookstores I’ve read a lot!  And my favorite changes as time goes by; some books I loved in college, I’m cool on now.  My favorite book of the last few years is The Night Circus, by Erin Morgenstern; it was beautifully written and utterly captivated me; it’s a world I want to live in.  But the book I come back to most – my desert island look, the one I can read endlessly and never tire of – is J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings.  I generally have one or two volumes by my bed for easy reference.  I used to read it straight through every year or two, and though I haven’t done that in a few years, I still read my favorite passages on a regular basis.  I particularly enjoy the whole first half of The Fellowship of the Ring, the Battle of Helm’s Deep and the hobbits’ meeting with Faramir in The Two Towers, and the whole first half of The Return of the King (not to mention the appendices!).


The Hobbit is one of the first long books I remember reading (not the first – that was probably either The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe or The Haunted Fort, both my brother Jamie’s books).  We had a storybook anthology that contained the first chapter of The Hobbit; I read it over and over again, but wanted more, and I eventually found it in my library.  I finally got my hands on The Lord of the Rings itself in the summer of 1983, when I was ten; I still remember reading a real thunderstorm crashing outside the house as I read about the storm at Helm’s Deep.  These were library books, the late 70s hardcovers with white jackets with the Ring and Sauron’s Eye.  I tore through them, reading each one twice before I turned them back in.  When I started a new school that fall, I was astounded that the library didn’t have them, and immediately told the librarian they needed a set.

The Lord of the Rings is also the first book I began to collect.  There are a handful of other authors or books I collect – Herman Hesse, Lawrence Durrell, Ursula LeGuin, George R.R. Martin – but I’ll write about those in later posts.  But my largest collection by far is Tolkien.  My first copy came at Christmas 1983, the Ballantine boxed set of mass market paperbacks.  I loved the covers, with art by Darrell K. Sweet, and I read them so vigorously that the covers started to fall apart.  I quickly added The Silmarillion (that cover has been held on with Scotch tape since 1985!) and the few other Tolkien books then in print (The Tolkien Reader, Smith of Wootton Major/Farmer Giles of Ham).  Since then I’ve added several more versions, mostly from used bookstores in Illinois and California.  There are the lurid Ballantines from the 1960s (Tolkien hated those covers!), the beautiful 1970s versions with Tolkien’s own paintings as the cover art, hardcovers of the pre-1965 version (the books were revised in 1965 to foil Ace’s pirated paperbacks, which I do not own), the gorgeous single-volume hardcover illustrated by Alan Lee (a birthday present in 1992), the seven-volume boxed set from 1999 (a Christmas present), the recent trade paperback editions with Tolkien's original concept art for the covers (a present from my brother Chad), and even the Harvard Lampoon’s Bored of the Rings, with its parody of the 1960s covers.  Also I have the whole twelve-book series of The History of Middle-Earth, edited by Christopher Tolkien, detailing the vast and intricate writing and drafting of the entire legendarium, from its beginnings in a poem written in the trenches in the Great War to JRRT's last musings on scraps of paper just weeks before his death.  It's a monument to one man's incredible imagination and skill.

All told, I have twelve full copies of The Lord of the Rings (five single-volumes, seven sets) with four unmatched volumes, six copies of The Hobbit, five copies of The Silmarillion, two copies of Unfinished Tales, three copies of Smith/Farmer Giles (plus the annotated Farmer Giles), two copies of The Tolkien Reader, two copies of the Father Christmas Letters, and two collections of Tolkien’s artwork.  Whew!  And several of his scholarly works, including The Monsters and the Critics,Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and the recently published (and magnificent!) Fall of Arthur.  Besides this, numerous books about Tolkien and his works, of which the prize is a hardcover edition of Humphrey Carter’s biography of the Professor.  Together they fill up an entire four-shelf bookcase.


I don’t have everything there is to have by any means.  Some I don’t want, like the late 1980s mass markets.  Some I doubt I’ll ever find for any reasonable price, like a 1930s Hobbit, or the Middle English text I found at Black Letter Books in Stillwater, Minnesota for only $300 – too much for me!  But I still hope I’ll find some of the few I still really want.  I know I could go online for some of them, but I would rather stumble across them in a little store, or a booksale, or when someone walks in with some books to sell.  That experience of finding something long desired, right in front of you, is one of the things I love about owning a bookshop.

We have several Tolkien books in the store right now, and it’s a goal of mine always to have some on hand.  We won’t often have a complete set, but we may very well have the one you’re missing, and I’m always looking for what I consider the good editions.

I recently finished reading The Hobbit to my daughter Sally, and I hope it was as magical an experience for her as it was for me.  I carefully chose which edition I would read, and settled on the green slipcase hardcover, featuring both the original monochrome illustrations by the author as well as several color prints of his paintings.  I'm excited about passing on our love for books, and my love for these particular books, to our children, and I look forward to one day discussing all the intricacies of the stories with both of them.


When Breath Becomes Air

When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi

So there’s a new book you may have heard about: When Breath Becomes Air, by the late Paul Kalanithi, a neurosurgeon who died of lung cancer last March. In the last year of his life he published several essays on facing cancer, the irony of being a doctor with a terminal illness, and the sadness of not being able to see his daughter grow up. And Paul worked on a book, shepherded to completion and publication by his wife Lucy. But I don’t think of him as Paul – I think of him as Pubby (his nickname). Because that’s how he was introduced to me twenty years ago.

Pubby and I had a lot of things in common. We were English majors, active members of the Stanford Band, wrote scripts for the Band’s field shows, and served terms as public relations director for the Band. This is an understatement, but he had a great sense of humor – it worked on levels from subtle and dry to completely over-the-top and crazy. We liked each other’s writing, and shared stories about crazy hate mail we responded to. I remember when he tried to bleach his hair, and the closest he could get was orange. I’ve heard he always wore fake mustaches for ID photos, and was known to randomly show up to events wearing a gorilla suit.

He had another side, it turns out. Besides majoring in English, he also majored in human biology, and like many of my band friends, eventually became a doctor (by the way, majoring in Hum Bio alone is tough, without a reading-heavy major like English on top of it). He returned to the Bay Area, working as a neurosurgeon at the Stanford hospital. And the rest you know, or you will when you read his book. We weren’t close friends, and I hadn’t seen him in person in about ten years, but the news of his illness hit me harder than I expected. Reading his moving words made it a little easier to think of his impending death, if only because I could see how his various and disparate talents had melded in this perfect, tragic, way. 

One thing that will really get you is when Pubby writes about his and Lucy’s daughter, who was born in the last year of his life. He knew he wouldn’t have much time with her, but he was determined to enjoy all the time he had. I look at my children and wonder if I have made the most of my time with them – how they would remember me if they were suddenly to lose me. Pubby was the third person from my era of the LSJUMB to pass away in a span of about a year (all from cancer), prompting me (and many of my friends, I’m sure) to dwell on my own mortality. But Pubby’s writing, I think, will not cause us to become obsessed with our deaths, but our lives: is what we’re doing worth doing? What is the best use we can make of the time we have left, however much time that is? What are the things that are really most important to us? I hope his book will help you find the answers to these questions. Snowden’s secret in Catch-22 is that man is matter, that we are fragile machines prone to destruction. Pubby’s secret is that despite that fragility, man can matter – we can choose to make a difference in this world before our own fragile machines break down, and our breath becomes air.

– Joe