Daily Features

No Kidding: Design Books That Get it Right for All Ages

Designers continue to pursue the intangible art of creating a beloved children's story.

By Maura Frana, Superscript August 29, 2013

The Very Hungry Caterpillar, written by Eric Carle in 1969, is considered one of the best children’s books ever published—not only by me—but by a wide variety of readers and critical professionals consistently over the past 44 years. So what did Carle do to engender such popularity? He created a story, an image, and a lesson. With an increasingly visual younger generation, design is more crucial than ever to the success of a children's book—and it is more and more the topic of these books as well. Whether created by designers or based on stories about design, a fresh crop of reprints and new releases illustrates the enduring quality of design, and designed, books for children:


Henri’s Walk to Paris, written by graphic designer Saul Bass and librarian Leonore Klein in 1962 and reprinted by Rizzoli in 2012.

The Books

Henri’s Walk to Paris Leonore Klein
Saul Bass
Draw Me a House Thibaud Herem
Design Dossier: Architecture/For Kids Pamela Pease
Kids Design Collaborative
Marvin Malecha

You may know Saul Bass by his iconic title sequence for "The Man with the Golden Arm," and this book delivers an equal visual punch. Henri is a child living in small town Reboul whose heart is in Paris; one day he decides to walk to Paris and adventure ensues. Bass’s play with vivid color, shape, repetition, and pattern are what win me over with this book. The sweet, aspirational narrative and mini geographic lesson are icing on the cake.

Unsurprisingly, designers Paul and Ann Rand’s book is the biggest designer’s design book on this shortlist. Paul Rand described this lesson on words as an example of “a playful but sophisticated understanding of the relationship between words and pictures, shapes, sounds, and thoughts.”

I find the expressive, illustrative type, as well as the varied textures, bright color, and cut and paste style fun, engaging, and beautiful. As a designer, I am happy to see type as image play a role in their visuals. After reading this, I want to gather up my paper scraps, old magazines, scissors and glue, and get to work. That inspirational power is rare.

Sparkle and Spin: A Book About Words, by Paul and Ann Rand in 1957 and recently reprinted by Chronicle Books.

While the previous two books highlight the strength of designers’ skills as illustrators and authors, the following two touch on the value of books that introduce the topic of design to children. Like The Very Hungry Caterpillar, these books provide a casual lesson on a mystified process:

Draw Me a House, illustrated by Thibaud Herem and published by Cicada Books in 2012.

I recently ran into this, the coloring book of my childhood dreams, at The Walker’s book store. Draw Me a House is a lesson on architectural styles and includes sketches—some of which are unfinished—of architectural landmarks. The reader is invited to create a new top to the Chrysler Building, columns on the Parthenon, faces in apartment windows, and many other captivating tasks. Through its combination of finished and unfinished pieces, the book provides mini drafting lessons, poses questions, piques the imagination, and provides a casual and playful entry into the act of designing. It’s a compelling read (and doodle) for all ages.

Young Frank, Architect, by Frank Viva and published by The Museum of Modern Art in August 2013.

While Herem’s book encourages insight through interaction, Frank Viva’s Young Frank, Architect, does so through empathy. It is the story of a boy with an inclination to craft unexpected structures from unconventional materials (spiraling book skyscrapers, toilet paper roll chairs) who inspires his architect grandfather. Viva, whose illustrations frequently appear on the cover of The New Yorker, creates an environment rich in ingenuity. The book delivers a valuable lesson: creativity, open-mindedness, experimentation, and a sense of humor are essential parts of the creative process. You can download a sample PDF of the book through MoMA’s site.

There are many close contenders for this list, as well as one I anticipate will join it after is release: Chip Kidd’s Go: A Kidd’s Guide to Graphic Design, which promises to educate children and adults alike, through a digestible, straightforward approach.

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