The 2021 Eisner Award winners were announced on July 23rd, and one winner in particular stood out to me. Jillian Tamaki’s Our Little Kitchen, a beautiful picture book about neighbors cooking a meal in a community kitchen, won the Eisner for Best Publication for Early Readers. In an excited instagram post, Jillian Tamaki shared her joy over winning: “Chuffed that OUR LITTLE KITCHEN won an Eisner Award last night – it was so fun to try to write a different kind of comic. Picture books are meant to be read aloud and I think the comic form provides so much opportunity for funny voices and interactivity.”
I am a Children’s Librarian, so I am very familiar with picture books that use illustration styles similar to comics. However, I’ve never thought of picture books and comics as being one and the same, just as media with overlapping methodologies. Tamaki’s description of her book as “a different kind of comic” intrigued me, and I wanted to try and answer that question: Can a picture book be a comic?
If we’re going to answer this question we have to also ask, what is a comic? There are several definitions available for comics, and I am going to work with two sources that are likely familiar: Will Eisner (that guy the awards are named after) and Scott McCloud. Will Eisner championed the term “sequential art,” which simply refers to the act of placing images in a specific order to convey information. McCloud also uses “sequential art” in Understanding Comics, but I’d like to also call out the longer, more convoluted definition he initially provides: “juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence, intended to convey information and/or produce an aesthetic response in the viewer.”
So – do picture books place images in a specific order, with the goal of conveying information? Absolutely. Do picture books juxtapose images in deliberate sequence in order to convey information AND produce aesthetic response in their readers? Yes – although I would argue that, because picture book illustrations are larger and generally take up more space on the page, and because they are consistently aimed at a very young audience, they solicit different kinds of responses. However, comic definitions do not specify what kinds of emotions or response to art a comic is meant to create in a reader! Based on this basic definition, picture books can absolutely be comics.
There is another question here that I think is worth asking: do picture books always use the same techniques and methodology of cartooning? The answer to that is: sometimes, yes, but not all the time. We can dig into that by looking at a couple other picture books before coming back to Our Little Kitchen.
I want to start with another award winning title – Bear Came Along, by Richard T. Morris and LeUyen Pham. Bear Came Along and Our Little Kitchen are worth comparing because both follow a specific visual flow. In Our Little Kitchen, Tamaki uses background colors, onomatopoeic lettering, and several other tactics to draw the reader’s eyes across the pages along a gentle wave of motion. The book design itself supports this; Our Little Kitchen is a long rectangle, which allows Tamaki to pull the reader’s attention along the page for longer, giving us a full sense of how much activity is occurring in a kitchen or a garden or a busy cafeteria. Bear Came Along uses a river to accomplish a similar drawing of the eye, taking the viewer along with Bear to float down the water. The existence of a clear, rushing river on each page of the story creates a sense of consistent flow and movement and feels familiar to the flow in Our Little Kitchen. However, Pham also employs a tactic that is crucial for picture books, but not for comics. Specifically, in Bear Came Along it’s all about page turns.
In Pham’s book the river flows from page to page, and initially the bright, clear blue of the water is the only color that breaks up a monochromatic color scheme. In a particularly stunning move, Pham keeps the movement of the river consistent between pages. Early in the story, the titular text, “Bear came along,” appears imposed over a white bush with spindly black branches. As Bear moves through the vegetation, the text allows us to track the creature’s trajectory – the bear walks behind the bush, and climbs up onto a fallen tree limb that’s jutting out over the river. The black text “Bear was just being curious…” is placed on top of the river, just under bear’s reaching paw – hinting that bear’s next move will be, of course, to fall in the river.
Part of the brilliance of this book is how it uses all these tactics – the flow of the river, the placement of text, and the arrangement of the riverside plants – to draw the eye and show the direction in which each moving piece of the story is going. However, it’s the page turns that really keep things moving, and in a picture book that is key. As a Children’s Librarian, when I read a book aloud at story time, I want the page turns to go as smoothly as possible because that’s when you could lose your audience. How can I make the magic of one page hold while we pause and turn to the next? We can refer to this as closure, which McCloud explains in Understanding Comics. Closure is when a comic reader’s mind fills in the gaps between gutters, or, here, when a picture book reader’s mind fills in the gap between page turns.
In Bear Came Along, Pham uses that natural, mental ability to give the story it’s sense of movement. While the beautiful, smooth linework allows us to feel the river flowing on an individual page, it’s the way the river connects between pages that completes our sense of kinetic, flowing water. We turn the page, and as time moves forward during that act, we continue to imagine the river flowing. Pham confirms for us on the next page that the river is indeed flowing, and thus, between her illustrations and our imaginations, the river flows. That’s closure – a tactic shared between picture books and comics. (You can check out an online reading of the book to get a sense of the page turns.)
That smooth, whimsical flow is also a Tamaki trademark. It’s also present in her first picture book, They Say Blue. I love They Say Blue and have read it several times in story time, and when I read it, I get the urge to sway a little or move with the images. That flowing movement uses tactics of cartooning to work, just as Pham’s does in Bear Came Along, but I don’t think either of these books are comics. Yes, Bear Came Along and They Say Blue use elements of cartooning, but Our Little Kitchen is much more definitively a comic.
To dig into that, we need to return to Understanding Comics. Back in the book’s first chapter, McCloud dissects some historical pieces including the Bayeux Tapestry. McCloud claims that while it doesn’t have comic panels, the Bayeux Tapestry is a comic because it has “clear divisions of scene.” This distinction is key to understanding the difference among these three picture books: Bear Came Along and They Say Blue divide scenes primarily using page turns, whereas Our Little Kitchen divides scenes primarily on individual pages or page spreads.
Let’s stay with They Say Blue for a moment, and it’s unique, whimsical flow. Tamaki’s They Say Blue follows a young child as they make observations about colors they see out in the world. Each single page or two page spread generally tackles a single “scene” – the child throws water up into the air, taking the blue light away to make clear diamonds. The child dances out of their winter clothes, into the garb of springtime. The child reaches for the sky, spreading their arms, and sprouts into a tree.
I’m going to borrow a definition of “scene” from film, since it is a visual medium that also moves frame by frame, and use it to apply McCloud’s concept of division of scene to comics. Specifically, I’m using this definition of “scene” from Wikipedia: “…a section of a motion picture in a single location and continuous time made up of a series of shots which are each a set of contiguous frames from individual cameras from varying angles.”
With that in mind, we can consider each page or two-page spread in They Say Blue to be a scene. The child’s mother parts their hair in the morning, and the depiction of this act is summed up in a two-page spread. In a film, the “shots” would be of the mother’s hands picking up the comb, applying it to the child’s hair, and the curtain of hair moving aside to reveal the child’s face. End scene – the next scene, when the reader turns the page, is focused on the crows outside the window, dotting the sunset. A new series of shots in a new location, at a specific time in which they pull their bodies into the air to fly.
This pattern of containing a scene to a single page or two-page spread is familiar and common in picture books. It’s part of what makes them easy and fun to read aloud. We can focus on the pages open in a single moment–or scene — and make the text on the page come alive, keeping our young readers engaged while they drink in the images that work alongside that text. Our Little Kitchen works a bit differently.
Our Little Kitchen is about a group of people who come together in a community kitchen, and make meals for their neighbors. There is a garden beside the kitchen, and both locations are bustling – community members look through the vegetables to see what is ripe and edible, dig through the refrigerator, bring in groceries, peel, chop, and prepare, and keep moving moving moving! There are several obvious tools of a comic artist present on the page: word bubbles, different lettering to distinguish narration and dialogue, onomatopoeia and sound effects: “ chop chop chop,” sizzzzzle,” and “glug glug glug” along with other familiar cooking sounds. The use of these tactics alone wouldn’t make Our Little Kitchen feel very different from a typical picture book, as they are frequently used by children’s illustrators. They are used constantly and consistently throughout the story, which does give it more of a comic feel. However, Tamaki pairs these methods with the fast pace and flow of the story, and it’s all these aspects together that make Our Little Kitchen a comic.
Our Little Kitchen moves FAST, and it does so by cramming more scenes on a page. Tamaki captures the fast pace of a busy kitchen perfectly: in the top left hand corner of a page, someone finds something stinky and moldy in a jar left in the kitchen. Below that, another helper presents day-old loaves from the bakery, which someone else then warms up in the oven. On the adjacent page, the scent of warm bread curls up toward another helper peeling apples for apple crumble.
Each of these moments unfolds on the same two-page spread, but each could be an individual scene. The curlicues of warm bread smell separate the scene in the middle of the pages from the first two scenes by indicating the passage of time – bread takes time to warm up in an oven. White space and perspective (the person holding the warm bread is larger and closer to us than the other figures) indicate a break in location between the bread scene, the apple scene and the stinky fridge scene. Tamaki pulls us through each scene smoothly, but we are breezing through 3-4 scenes in a mere two pages. That’s division of scene happening multiple times before a page turn – unusual for a picture book, but extremely normal for a comic.
To return to the question at the heart of this article: yes, I think Our Little Kitchen is a comic. I think many other picture books are comics as well, like Thao Lam’s Wallpaper, which is made entirely of colorful collaged paper and brilliantly uses comic panels to show divisions between our world and a world inside a girl’s wallpaper. And I also think many picture books use aspects of cartooning but I’m not sure they’re comics, like Andrea Tsurumi’s wild, adventurous Accident! and Crab Cake, or Bill Thomson’s wordless picture books such as Chalk and Fossil, and the brilliant Journey trilogy by Aaron Becker. This isn’t new territory, and others have written about it before. It is a fascinating discussion, and I hope we keep talking about the overlap between the worlds of comics and picture books. In fact, WWAC is going to do exactly that in an upcoming roundtable, so stay tuned!