of the Center for Children's Books:
|Each month we offer a focus on a particular author or artist. Sometimes we use this space to discuss a rising new talent or an established star, but we also like to celebrate those who now live on only in the rich legacy of their books..
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There are plenty of illustrators making a splash with big gorgeous picture books, but Jennifer Plecas has made a career in an unusual artistic excellence-illustration of easy readers.
Oh, sure, she can turn out perfectly dandy larger illustrations, as she does in Fran Manushkin's Peeping and Sleeping, where she uses glowing chalk pastels on textured paper for an alluring nighttime vision. It's in those small, underserved pages that she really outshines the competition, however. Even when she's working with black and white, as she did for Susan Beth Pfeffer's The Trouble with Wishes (in the late lamented Redfeather series of longer easy readers), she's a world apart from the blandly requisite images that tend to punctuate poor young readers who are only beginning to find rewards in words. Her lines speak of an interesting balance between informality and precision, her round-headed characters economically drawn (eyes, mouth, nose, and eyebrows is pretty much the limit for features) yet expressive, often balanced by a touch of patterning (on clothes, wallpaper, or a bedspread) somewhere in the hand-drawn frames. There's personality here instead of the excessive sweetness sometimes lavished (the better to mask the pain of reading?) on illustrations for such titles.
Her color work is even more impressive, and she's fortunately been paired with capable authors. The results have been stellar: the scratchy-lined charm of her art for The Outside Dog matches the homespun appeal of the text, and the dog in question is a cheerful Everydog who shines with character rather than glamor. She's also picked up the responsibility for bringing to visual life two easy-reader characters, Joy Cowley's Agapanthus Hum and Jean Little's Emma. They're definitely two different characters: Agapanthus bristles with energy, which sticks her hair straight out to the sides of her head (only pigtail holders keep them from taking over the world) and often upends her; Emma is a more thoughtful and restrained individual, enjoying the company of her friend Sally and decorously frolicking with grace and poise intact.
Her cozy offhand homeyness may make her an unusual choice for a fantasy-edged story, but it's exactly that delightful familiarity that makes her art for Good Night, Good Knight so effective. The knight has a parental look of exasperation as he fetches glasses of water in his mailed hands, and the bug-eyed baby dragons are diabolically cute in their fuzzy jammies (one little heartbreaker even has bunny slippers). These aren't elaborate Peter Sís dragons; these are the dragons next door, who might get in trouble for fire-breathing on their mom's tulips.
That blend of appeal and recognizability makes these worlds so inviting that even struggling readers will want to enter them--and Plecas' illustrations are a reward such readers richly deserve.
--Deborah Stevenson, Associate Editor
Books Illustrated by Jennifer Plecas
This page was last updated on April 1, 2000.