I’ve made a lot of knee-jerk purchases of books about visual storytelling—as many as purchases based on solid recommendations—in the hopes of unlocking some pivotal secret that would lead to more fun, function, confidence, relaxation, focus, whatever I could get. I’m a reader, so it’s a temptation that’s hard for me to resist. Some books give me a temporary boost of excitement; some make me feel a part of something larger, which is nice; and many are, of course, a complete waste of time.
Here is a list of some books that I’ve deemed “not a waste of time,” that I’ve revisited and continued to learn something from. What I’ve discovered over time is that most of the books that have helped me haven’t advertised themselves that way. I continue to learn more from other people’s storytelling than from nonfiction works that deconstruct the storytelling.
1. The Last Lonely Saturday by Jordan Crane
The most effectively poignant, direct, no-frills mini-book I’ve ever owned.
2. Goliath by Tom Gauld
The most effectively poignant, direct, no-frills graphic novel I’ve ever owned.
3. Facial Expressions Babies to Teens: A Visual Reference for Artists by Mark Simon
Useful if you have concerns about what the correct facial proportions are for kids of different ages. The emotions are staged in order to cover a wide area, so use it sparingly if you need to know what, say, “sad” looks like, but the faces are shown from every angle, and a diverse group is represented at each age. There’s even a section of kids in hats. Good to have around for that moment when you realize you’ve been drawing the same bland, puffy-cheeked kid over and over.
4. Writing Picture Books: A Hands-on Guide from Story Creation to Publication by Ann Whitford Paul
A pretty good tutorial, bringing up a lot of the details that are important from the initial concept stage onward. It’s an older book, but storytelling basics don’t really change, and there are also plenty of storyboarding tips.
5. Six Memos for the Next Millenium by Italo Calvino
This one really puts me in the right head space where writing is concerned. The author of If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler and Marcovaldo: or the Seasons in the City talks at length about the difference between lightness and heaviness in writing, and why he prefers lightness. Already being in love with Calvino as a storyteller helps because this is strictly a book of essays.
6. Lose #4 by Michael DeForge
I love Michael DeForge because he’s a constant reminder that you can do anything as long as you do it well.
7. The Three Robbers by Tomi Ungerer
The robbers are the heroes, and the children they kidnap prefer the new excitement to their previous lives, and there’s no moral involved. It’s just a story. How about that.
8. Tintin in the New World: A Romance by Frederic Tuten
I don’t want to give away the beauty in how it all unfolds, so I’ll just say that an adult but physically undeveloped Tintin navigates the real world according to his usual principles.
9. Munari’s Machines by Bruno Munari
A series of illustrated and explained (and impossible) Rube Goldberg devices for children. A reminder that being silly isn’t the same as being dumb. The author photo of Munari holding a sawed-off shotgun in his coat pocket may be the best part.
10. Harold and the Purple Crayon by Crockett Johnson
I thought this was embarrassingly obvious until I realized how many people haven’t read this book about a competent kid, not much more than a toddler, who wanders alone in a mostly blank world and animates what he needs with a purple crayon. It’s poetic and cool and easy to read and incredibly hard to emulate.