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..
See the archive for focus pieces from previous
My first introduction to the work of author-illustrator Elisha Cooper was his 1999 book, Building. As with his earlier two titles (Country Fair and Ballpark) and his latest work (Dance!), Building documents the stages of an event (here, the construction of a building) from start to finish. Simple and expressive text and illustrations work together seamlessly to form a sort of selective sketchbook of an eyewitness's behind-the-scenes look at a fair, a baseball game, a construction project, or a dance performance. "I was here at this place with these people," Cooper seems to say, "This is what I saw, heard and smelled. This is what happened while I was there." Though events are always central to his books, Cooper also spotlights people; individuals come together to create, to perform, to work, to have fun, and to accomplish the common goal of putting on the event.
Cooper's writing is a neat balance of conciseness and description. He has a definite knack for selecting and using just the right concrete and sensory details as he records the action that is taking place around him, whether at a ballpark or a dance studio. Fresh comparisons and precise language capture the sights, sounds, and scents of the scenes he is observing; a backhoe doesn't just dig, "it gnaws into the earth and scoops up dirt like a messy eater trying to bring food to its mouth" (Building), dancers' feet "squeak on the floor, and it sounds as if they are scrubbing it clean" (Dance!), and the ballpark's locker room "smells of cool lotion and warm feet" (Ballpark). Cooper also often writes with gentle humor, whether describing a cattle show at the fair ("Farmers try to keep their cows still, while the cows try to drool on their farmers"-Country Fair) or a choreographer ("[He] bursts through the studio door. He greets. He kisses") whose every word HAS! AN! EXCLAMATION! POINT! (Dance!).
Like his texts, Cooper's art is an amazingly effective combination of minimalism and specificity. As reviewer Elizabeth Bush said in her review of Dance! (BCCB 9/01), "few illustrators. . . can coax quite so much expression and animation from a few dashes of line brushwork and a smear or two of watercolor fill." This is not flashy, back-of-the-room art, but the sort that invites repeated browsing and close inspection. Clean white spreads are the backdrop for parades of small, spot-art figures in action. Human beings are reduced to their most elemental shapes and faces are featureless, yet the figures seem vibrant and alive thanks to well-placed lines and curves that indicate a range of motions, emotions, and attitudes. Farmers grooming their livestock, construction workers hammering, and dancers in midair are all rendered with simplicity, sensitivity, and elegance. Occasional penciled captions lend a casual, personal touch to the illustrations. The placement of the type or (in the case of his first two books) hand-lettered text often accents or complements Cooper's words: some lines of text extend around the perimeter of the page to form the walls of a dance studio while others arc across the page to indicate the trajectories of baseballs during batting practice.
Cooper's unique blend of simplicity, style, and humor, his choice of subject matter, and his accessible language ensure that primary-graders and their adults will find his books of great interest. These titles are home runs; they are solid as a two-by-four and worthy of blue ribbons and standing ovations.
--Jeannette Hulick, Editorial Assistant
Books by Elisha Cooper
This page was last updated on October 1, 2001.