Saturday, December 3, 2011

Give the magical gift of Books

I painted the portrait above of our son Santiago, to express the joy we felt when he truly embraced the magic of reading. Like many families we were all spellbound by J.K. Rowling's unforgettable alchemy of stories about Harry Potter.
Those 2 blue trees in the painting represent papa y mama. Their heart shapes mirror the book passion we now share with him.

Last year, I made the case that at this season of giving, the perfect book is waiting to be cherished by your own family and friends. Some of my favorite holiday memories are of my mother Pillo reading to me by the fire while eating the buñuelos she made drenched in brown sugar, cinnamon and guava syrup. In just 2 weeks we are headed south to spend Christmas at our home in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. I can already smell the cooking. Ever notice how adding just the right spice can make all the difference?

What makes giving books even more fun is the idea of pairing them like a chef, with other special ingredients. Good cooks can blend good books with a little something special. We involve our son in this process and enjoy sitting around the table after dinner, doodling and discussing ideas for just the right combinations. I believe this family tradition of book pairing has helped our son become a passionate reader. It's fun and lets him know how much we value books. When you give a child a book you are also making a promise to spend time with them. What could be more memorable than cuddling by the fire with the right book at the holidays?

In this book pairing list I wanted to include treasures for kids and kids at heart-especially those who appreciate incredible pictures. As an illustrator, I can't resist the temptation to include books that I feel have soaring imagery coupled with compelling stories. I hope these suggestions help your own gift-giving take flight.

For me, the minimal realism of illustrator Charley Harper is pure visual and geometric poetry. This wise genius said "I don't try put everything in, I try to leave everything out".

Charley Harper, An Illustrated Life by Todd Oldham is a celebration of a master artist who connected with nature in such a profound way. I like to run the beach at Coronado and this time of year I find lots of sand dollars washed up on the shore. Simply tie his books up with a ribbon slipped artfully through the sand dollar holes and you have the perfect combination for the art or nature lover on your list.

For small children, choose Harper's wonderfully illustrated ABCs or 123's board book and combine it with a whimsical, inexpensive Kikkerland Bird Whistle or a butterfly hand puppet. The sophisticated colors and textures of this legendary illustrator reveal the magic of nature in all it's glory.

Here's a shout out to my good friends Monica Brown and John Parra for making such a uniquely crafted book as Waiting for the Biblioburro. This captivating story is about real life hero Maestro Luis Soriano. He brings books to kids in rural areas and remote villages in Columbia on the backs of his two donkeys Alfa and Beto. You can view a short film about him at CNN Heroes and this photo is by Ingrid Rojas.

I'm a huge fan of John Parra's folkloric illustrations that remind me of retablos. They bring authenticity and passion to this inspiring story that reminds us how lucky we are to have access to books. Add a library card and this toy donkey from Tapir and Friends Animal Store.

I'm greatly inspired by the work of Leo Lionni. His ability to create fantastic fables where animals with human values teach important lessons to kids will win you over. This artist really understood how kids think and his authentic, essential illustration style offers lessons on peace, individuality, sharing and cooperation. In Inch by Inch a clever inchworm uses his measuring skills to get out of sticky situations. Reminds me of growing up in Mexico City. He calculates the length of a flamingo's neck and then a heron's legs. When a nightingale asks him to measure his song he has to think fast or become dinner.
Leo Lionni was the first illustrator to use collage as the main medium in children's books and you can find surprises like hand made paper, photos, ribbon and newspaper clippings. His rich earth tones and ability to distill the essence of his subjects in a simple, captivating way makes him a legend in my eyes.

Pair this with a colorful, kid-friendly tape measure and curious kids will discover the joy of measuring the tails on their stuffed animals or the size of dad's shoes.

Adventurous adults and kids will fall hard for the This Is Series from extraordinary Czech illustrator Miroslav Sasek.

If you love mid-century design and travel, these books will make your head spin. If you get just one you will want to collect them all to dream about the places you will go.

Pair them with a bow and these playful luggage tags or a wonderful GEOpuzzle where the pieces are shaped like the countries. My son and I had more fun putting the puzzle together. He then picked a piece that corresponded to these incredible books and the reading began. You couldn't ask for a more enlightening tour guide than M. Sasek for your next adventure.

Explore the awesome power of might Zeus with an extraordinary book illustrated by Spanish artist and illustrator Pep Montserrat and retold by Eric Kimmel, The McElderry book of Greek Myths. The gorgeous end papers pay tribute to ancient Greek vases and the compellingly rich, earthy, imagery will transport you spellbound to Greece. Combine this book with rainbow scratch paper and kids can create their own ancient Greek vases. I found these fantastic kids scratchboard art from third graders in Miss Oetken's class. Great work!

Take a look at the pure magic in the illustrations of gifted Mary Blair. This legend had a sophisticated sense of color, and a whimsical, naive-stylized simplicity that catches your eye. If you've been to Disneyland think of the Small World ride or what about the films Peter Pan or Alice in Wonderland. At our home in Mexico there are many wonderful religious processions. Perhaps my favorite part is seeing small children dressed in white with angel wings. Mary Blair's wonderful work in the little golden book I Can Fly would be a heavenly match with a set of these inexpensive toy wings.

Cooking up delicious combinations with books can get your kids involved in
the joy of reading and giving.
This year I was lucky to work with clever writer Samantha Vamos on our book The Cazuela that the Farm Maiden Stirred. I had fun stirring the pot of color and in the back of this book you will find a wonderful recipe for Arroz Con Leche [Rice Pudding]. I would suggest a combination of our book Cazuela with these colorful 100% Mexican oilcloth aprons that are easy to clean and a rainbow wire whisk perfect for beating the egg yolks.

Don't forget to add the lime.


  1. Great selection, thanks for the suggestions

  2. Robert, The illustrations in these books really speak to me and I hope you can check them out.

  3. Dear Rafael Lopez,

    For a long time now, I have been contemplating on writing children's books, and recently, I have been viewing several videos on Youtube on "How to write and illustrate your book." I stumbled upon your video on Youtube titled, "Rafael Lopez Children's Books" which lead me to your blog and I must say that your work has left me completely mezmorized. I love all of the vivid colors that you use to bring the pages of a book to life and the way every creature, character, and object has its specific purpose to draw the readers attention to the next page, and the next page, and the next page until the story ends. I have never written a book before, but when I do, will you illustrate my book? I saw an interview with Steve Jobs (CEO of Apple and may he RIP) who stated that part of the reason some people are successful is because they ask for help, and usually, people are willing to help. I'm hoping he is right. Thank you for your time, Lupe

  4. Lupe,
    Thanks for taking the time to write and Steve Jobs was right you have to put yourself out there. I have learned so much from studying children's books and my advice is to connect with the great work out there and see what resonates for you. Go for your dreams and stay in touch when you get to the right place. Study the characters, colors, pacing and think of books like a film or a song as you can control the rhythm.

  5. I wish I would have seen these amazing ideas before Christmas! I'm definitely bookmarking this post for Christmas 2012!