Over and Under the Pond by Kate Messner, illustrated by Christopher Silas Neal

This lovely story-read video by Melissa Kinch hints at the immersion of the actual book’s big pages. Two-page spreads deliver a profusion of different perspectives or points of view. It’s part of a series of picture books probing the ecosystems around us – in Kate Messer’s poetic language that makes us think and look, and illustrator Christopher Silas Neal’s confident mixed media images that bring the ideas home. The pond surface, a membrane that separates worlds, or does it? We view the water from so many vantage points – looking down from the tall treetops, sideways across from the shore, up from the mud at the bottom.

That’s what perspective tells us: How we’re coming at this scene, what our frame of reference is, where we’re looking from, or through, or over or under. It’s a way to clobber us with a story’s bigness. That’s what Neal has done so masterfully with Messer’s story that was inspired by a canoe trip in the Lake Champlain watershed in northern New York: Conveyed the immensity of this story universe and provided us a place in it.

Extra Yarn by Mac Barnett, illustrated by Jon Klassen

Fitting that the digital illustrations of former animator Jon Klassen for Mac Barnett’s Extra Yarn were animated by Weston Woods Studio. The Balzer + Bray picture book/21st-century fairy tale received a Caldecott Honor. Klassen’s perspective is straightforward and conventional in most of the pictures, seen from a child’s eye level. But every once in a while, especially in the darker, more harrowing moments, he pulls far away and looks up (like at the archduke’s tower) or looks down (like on the coastal ice flows) for a kind of narrative supervision. Our gaze drops, just like the archduke’s, as we look, mystified into the empty yarn box. Viewpoints change with the important story turns.

Chalk by Bill Thomson

Shifts in visual perspective replace text in the wordless supernatural adventure, Chalk, a favorite of elementary school libraries. How better to feel the intimacy of creating with magic chalk that brings forth everything drawn on the asphalt with it? Or experience a park playscape terrorized by a T-Rex? Or empathize with the kids as they scramble for a solution to their existential dilemma?

Watch Bill Thomson heighten suspense, quicken the pace and shock us to pieces by merely changing points of view (like any expert cinematographer). He shows us in this blogpost his rough thumbnail storyboard, where he first began to toy with his picture sequence and page turns. Such generous fun!

Blackout by John Rocco

Here’s another popular Caldecott Honor picture book – this one about how a major interruption can change how we relate to our lives and each other.

Pictorial perspective helps navigate the story woven in graphic novel-style panels with minimal text.

It’s almost a given for illustrations with architecture, especially tall metro architecture with great size and scale, stairs and windows, on grids overlooking blocks and streets.

Rocco shows scenes at child’s eye level and straight on, often with a one-point perspective. Sometimes he’s above looking straight down at characters in a room. He plays with a flashlight and their projections, which certainly would come with a blackout at night. Light and cast shadows have perspective, too.

Perspective directs how we look at something. How the pieces and spaces of our picture world line up in relation to our viewpoint, once we have one. It helps us place objects in the rectangles of our drawings roughly the way we see them in the world – getting larger as they get closer to us. Perspective is the geometry of foreshortening. It’s neither a rule, nor a natural law, but a drafting technology that Renaissance artists came up with to make their pictures appear to pop out of canvases, walls, or ceilings. Book pages, too.

Not every artist in the world bought into the system. Asian and Middle Eastern painters thought it diminished their subjects. Why zip up their art, all of nature in fact, to a restricting grid, for the sake of a cool visual effect?

But in the West, linear perspective and the supremacy of those lines persisted. The ideas became even more pronounced in fact as aerial photography pushed its way into the culture of the early 20th century.

I find it easier to think of perspective as curved lines. The artist puts the viewer of her scene inside a beach ball. In fact, they both stand together, inside the ball, in the middle of the picture world. (What better way to engage a viewer than to bring him into the picture space?) Their eyes demark the horizon or eye level at that ball’s circumference, or equator.

It’s like they’re tilting a giant salad bowl and looking into it. (They can’t see behind them without turning around.) They’re still looking at the equator cutting across the middle of their view. Only it’s more of a 180-degree view, the fisheye lens view rather than a 360-degree view.

On this circumference line, the artist places “vanishing points” 90 degrees apart for any cubed form (or any form that can be conceived inside a cube) she wants to draw in perspective.

Her salad bowl view allows her space for three vanishing points on the line – one directly ahead for her “North Pole.” Two more on either edge of the bowl’s rim for the East and West “Poles.” (The South Pole lies directly behind her so she can’t really include it in her picture.)

That handles the horizontal axis of her picture world. But since she’s creating a full 3-D representation, she must also include a vertical axis. That gives her two more vanishing points to help reinforce her illusion, one at the bowl rim’s top edge, and one at the bottom edge. They represent, respectively the zenith of the sky and the center of the earth. So that makes five vanishing points, so far, positioned 90 degrees apart in the picture space or the picture’s “world view.”

South Dakota artist Dick Termes represents a full six-point perspective by painting on styrofoam spheres. As the sphere rotates, the viewer feels herself to be the one turning around in the scene.

In the video below Polish artist Michal Orlowski shows how he creates his spherical perspective on a flat picture surface. Ready to be wowed?

I show more examples of children’s book illustrators using perspective in this guest post on the Cynsations blog.

Picture Book Humor workshop

Tips for injecting comedy into your picture book art with Cate Berry, author of Penguin and Tiny Shrimp Don’t Do Bedtime! and 
Chicken Break 
See the workshop