Sunday 12 April 2015

01 - Spread Of Wonder: House In The Night

This post marks the first in a monthly series! I’m calling this series Spread Of Wonder and I’m going to talk about spreads* from picture books that I admire because it will be nice to share with you and because it will help me in my quest to become a Children’s Picture Book Author and Illustrator.  You can’t make picture books without reading them and really looking at them so this series will help me do that and analyse what makes a good spread.

 * - two facing pages of a book, see my Anatomy of a Picture Book video if you need more clarification

The first spread that I am looking at is the 8th spread; “all about the starry dark.” from the gorgeous, Caldecott-winning “House In The Night” written by Susan Marie Swanson and illustrated by Beth Krommes.  The copy I have is a board book that was published in 2011 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in the UK and I bought it from the Seven Stories bookshop where it just jumped off the shelves as being so striking.

The House in The Night - Spread of Wonder

The story, on its simplest level, is about a girl going home to her bed, reading a book and going to sleep as night falls.  It is so much more poetic than that, with beautiful language.  The girl is shown as reading the same book as we are, but for her the bird in the book comes to life and carries her through the night.  In fact that is what this spread shows.  In the top right corner we see the girl riding the bird as it spreads a blanket of darkness over the land.

As the book is about dark and light, day and night, what better way to show this with the bold black and white scraperboard technique, picked out accents of yellow?  Where Krommes needs tone, she makes lots of little marks. The closer the marks are together, the lighter the tone.  

Detail of The House in The Night - Spread of Wonder

I know from experience how difficult it is to work in scratchboard, not only physically in making tiring, little scrapes in the inked clay surface but mentally in how you have to draw in reverse, scraping the highlights of an object onto black.  It is also hard to repair the surface if you make a mistake and it is a nightmare to reproduce with lots of postproduction required.

 "This Crooked Way" Scratchboard by Claire O'Brien
"This Crooked Way" Scraperboard by Claire O'Brien

Formally, Krommes has flattened the perspective of the landscape, describing the hills as overlapping semi-circles.  The roads curve slightly over the hills to describe their 3D form.  She disregards diminution, things only get slightly smaller, the further away in the scene that they are.  This is a clever device as it makes the image full of detail for a child to immerse themselves in.  The blanket of dark is drawn over the landscape with an undulating outline and creates a beautiful contrast with the light ahead of it.  In the dark, the stars, house lights and car lights are picked out in yellow and in the light ahead, the yellow also accents the bird’s song, a washing line, car, roof, flowers and a sign.

How does this spread aid storytelling?  The direction of the bird is moving from the left to the right which is the norm for Western, linear story telling, so the spread moves us forward in the story.  If we look at the preceding spread we see that it follows a close, dynamic shot of the bird and girl flying out of the window, which shows a clear change in location and makes them two very different spreads. This is unlike the following spread, where, although seen from a different angle, the bird is practically in the same position, same size and same location as it was before.

The House in the Night - Preceding and Following spreads.

What can the aspiring illustrator learn from this spread of wonder then? 
  • The physical Direction of the action contributes to the narrative of the story
  • Perspective - simplification and lack of diminution aids creating detail
  • Limited Palette - The black, white and yellow are very striking

You can see Krommes’ working method here and read Carter Higgins’ feature on the book in her Design of the Picture Book blog

There is just so much for a child to look at and for an adult to admire in this beautiful book.  Please comment with your own thoughts on this spread, or make a suggestion for a future Spread of Wonder candidate for me to analyse and don’t forget to follow this blog to receive a notification of my next post.  Thanks for reading!


  1. Awesome analysis, Claire. Thanks for this and I will bookmark the series - and add it to Kidlit411.

    1. Thanks Sylvia! I'm a big fan of Kidlit411 so I'd be honoured to be featured! Thanks again!

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. It's a wonderful review, written with a lot of talent. I'll keep following your blog.
    Love the illustrations, they have a classic look of old woodcuts.

    1. Thanks so much for your comments and follow, Iris, lovely work on your blog.