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 months.
Whether depicting a young girl and her grandfather on a hike (in The Birdwatchers), a young boy and his imaginary friend Bob (in Leon and Bob), or two ducklings encouraging their little brother to keep going, one step at time (in Little One Step), author/illustrator Simon James keeps a tight focus on the relationship between his characters. His understated language, simple dialogues, and uncomplicated plots subtly allow those connections to take center stage, as he captures his characters at one particular, defining moment. His skillful interweaving of art and text allows those moments to reflect the love and compassion underlying the bonds between his characters-bonds which build them up and protect them from a world that could potentially devour them.
The unassuming illustrations suit the uncomplicated plot lines while quietly reflecting the different tone of each story. His informal dashes of line, colored by sweeps of watercolor wash, recall the work of Ludwig Bemelmans in their easygoing flair, but there's an additional invitation in the sunny, springlike palette and humorous detail that suggests the work of James Stevenson. The casual penstrokes catch the individuality of their subjects, but they also convey James' understanding of youthful perspective, of being a child when everyone and everything else is bigger and larger than oneself. The large trim size and vertical emphasis help the art underscore the expansive physical surroundings, whether they're a forest or an urban street, but careful composition also draws attention to the interactions between the characters. That focus ensures that the grandiose proportions of the characters' environments never dwarfs or envelops them, and generous use of white space and borders leaves them plenty of room to roam. Consequently, a walk in the woods is neither dark nor scary, and a boy's home is light and airy, not stark and empty. Children have nothing to fear here.
They do, however, have plenty to keep their interest. Like Jess setting out on a birdwatching expedition with her granddad, youngsters opening one of James' books will discover that "things happen." Sometimes these things are as surprising as a little girl finding a blue whale in her pond or as magical as the moment when a lonely young boy's imaginary friend, Bob, leaves only to be replaced by a real boy named Bob, or as comedic as the doings of a mischievous little boy trying to sidestep his chores. Either way James fills his stories with love and humor and his audiences with laughter and delight.