fishbird sketches

the early stages of illustrating a children's book

I’m not sure how it happened, but I imagine that one morning over our morning, noodle soup in Laos, Katrina simply said,

“what if we wrote a kid’s book?”

And since then, I’ve been in love with the idea. It just seems, well, perfect.

I can’t say I truly know what that means… the process of actually publishing. But for now, we’re starting small. We’re just going to start making it.

So since then I’ve been doing little sketches, sometimes with watercolor (actually Vietnamese bootlegged Winsor acrylic paints used like watercolor) in my notebook and on scraps. It’s been nice to be working on paper… where mistakes are often wonderful breakthroughs, and not simply reason for a server error:)

The first sketches were of things I saw while still in south east Asia:

  1. the back of a woman cooking at her food stand,
  2. a big golden dog-dragon I found guarding a temple in HUE,
    surrounded by my limited vietnamese vocab list,
  3. the mother of the family who randomly took me in north of Ha-Long Bay,
    squatting and cutting the fish her husband and I brought home that morning
    (another story for another time)
  4. and some silhouettes of temples in Bangkok.
some cut up oragami paper from the 100 yen store. cool patterns

some cut up oragami paper from the 100 yen store. cool patterns

The initial emails had stories of her parents’ early experiences: her father at his family’s koi pond, and her mother playing with little dyed chicks on Easter morning.

But the actual story started to unfold in emails Katrina wrote during lunchbreaks and subway commutes… typed frantically with thumbs on her Japanese cell phone. It seemed early on that it would grow from her impressive fishbird project she produced a few years back. Installed in galleries, it grew over time, presenting fascinating stories of people coming from multiracial parents. The book we’re crafting will be an offshoot, and will become a creation story of sorts, intertwining stories of her parents with pieces of fiction, and of course a touch of magic.

Sitting in children’s book stores, sharing our favorite childhood books, looking at all the styles of storytelling, visual styles, and of course gimmicks, has been a very interesting process… daunting at times. I’ve been reading through children’s book blogs like Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, and trying to bring up memories of my old, forgotten favorites like Nana Upstairs, Nana Dowstairs, which was powerful for me, growing up with a grandma and a great grandmother upstairs. And do you remember the infectious mystery and intricacy of The Eleventh Hour?

There’s so much out there. There are pages with simple watercolor washes that could make you float away, and incredibly rich masterpieces with details that could keep you from blinking for hours. We’re both nowhere near etching anything in stone, or committing to any styles. It’s still time for exploration.

So far I’m going fairly realistic and literal, and I’m excited to get more into collaging papers of different patterns and textures, which I just barely touched on in my last sketch. I’ve been collecting all the scraps people hand me in the streets. Flyers and maps and all.

Well, there’s a long way to go, but I figured I should mark the beginning of this process.

And you? Well, it’d be great if you wanted to share your favorite childhood books with me. Things that kept your eyes wide.



Jonah,  your work is just beautiful.  It sounds like you have had amazing adventures.  As a profoundly un-artistic person who teaches first grade, my thoughts on children’s books might be coming from a very different perspective, but here goes.   In terms of use of language, I think some of the best working authors are Jaqueline Woodson and Angela Johnson, both of whom convey deep, complex meaning through simple, poetic language.  Angela Johnson also has multiple books illustrated with beautiful watercolor by David Soman.  Kevin Henkes and Robert Munsch have a fantastic ear for the way that children really talk, but are more on the humorous side.  Ed Young is an author and illustrator who uses perspective in very interesting ways that play with your sense of reality.  He has a Chinese retelling of Little Red Riding Hood called “Lon Po Po” that has these fascinating illustrations using multiple frames on one page, as well as some extraordinary dedication that I can’t quite remember the specifics of that is about how human beings have projected our own evil onto wolves in storytelling.  Patricia Polacco and Faith Ringgold are two other wonderful author/illustrators who do a lot of work on family history, and family stories intersecting with broader historical moments and themes.  I wish you all the best on your project. -Sarah

Sarah Blum-Smith

hey jonah!  great to hear what you’re up to over there – I think working on a children’s book is a wonderful project.  here’s some more books and illustrators, if you need any more – some everyone knows, others maybe not…
Ezra Jack Keats – The Snowy Day – great collage work.
Chris Van Allsburg – all his books, they’re all very different, with very unique charcoal/paint/pastel illustrations
Robert McCloskey – Time of Wonder – one of my favorites.  the watercolors and the text of the book captures summer for children.  his other books are great too – great pen and ink.
Peter Spier – Noah’s Ark – beautiful, intricate watercolors.  this was the book I read the most as kid.  beautiful example of storytelling only through pictures.
Barbara M. Joose – Mama, Do You Love Me? – probably the book my mom read to me most when I was really little.
can’t wait to see what you come up with!


such great suggestions here and on facebook. can’t wait to make my way through them.

josh’s “great green turkey monster” link unveiled this amazing site however that i have to mention.

the author of posts a new review almost every day, and has been doing so for years. some of your favorites, and some you’ve probably never heard of. she includes photos for each book – she actually buys all of them to reread and scan pages ( and resells them via etsy to keep it mildly sustainable ). it’s a mammoth project and obviously a labor of love. big up:)

again thanks so much for pointing me in great directions, getting me to think about things differently, and of course for all the love:)

oh joooonnaaaaah!

i LOVE this! childrens book! beautiful! jonah imagination! love it all of course of course.

here are some of my favorite kids books/illustrators/illustrations

Wave by Suzy Lee– discovered and bought this one recently, beautiful sketches using only black, white and blue

Trina Schart Hyman has always been my favorite illustrator of all time. I love the way she expresses people, and also all the detail she puts in. Lots of magic, nature and cool woodland creatures. I especially love her Peter Pan illustrations.

Carin Berger- she has some wacky, whimsical paper collage illustrations, ive seen her on some kids poem books i’ve used at school!

Elisa Kleven- always loved her crazy, moving, colorful and jam-packed watercolors! Something very, bright, happy and erika about them…!

ok, thats enough for now, i got into this! more to come as i think of it…

miss you!


Really dig the collage stuff, especially bits like the shadow. The subway one is my fave. The cut-out/layered quality makes it easy for me to imagine them animated!

Some children’s book touchstones for me:
-William Steig
-Arnold Lobel
-Tomie de Paola
the great green turkey creek monster
-Leo Lionni

Dude… again… blown away by your ability to obliterate the blank page with the mighty force of your visual imagination. I truly envy it. you better lock it up every night before you go to sleep, or else im gonna find a way to kidnap it.


Books i remember as a child:
1. Where the wild things are. (yes yes we all know it)

2. Anything Shel Silverstein. Especially the “missing piece”. great b&w illustrations that leave tons of room for a kids imagination to play around.

3. A book, I forget the name, about pasta and spaghetti and something, i dunno. This one is interesting for me, because while it was supposed to light hearted and all, well, it would make me really sad. like deep sorrow, maybe even spring a tear or two. I felt so bad for the character who didn’t get to eat. really. I distinctly remember this sadness. can you imagine the mindset of a 6 year old seth who is brought to tears by a funnystory about pasta? i know. me neither. absolutely ridiculous.

Kids (little one’s that is) are beautifully and completely bat-shit out of their minds, or rather, out of any sort of mind us adults can get a grip on. the lil buggers are many years closer to the truth of the universe than we are. you know? they’re just a few years out of the void. we adults are many years out and have totally confused ourselves. but the kids, they’re hyper-creative, super contemplative, little beings charged with making sense of everything through these 5 new senses.

seems to me, in thinking about this that there is a certain balance to aim for in a kids book. A balance between trying to help the child find their way to an adults mind (and this MUST be done if only to cater to the parents who are going to actually buy the book) and trying to cater directly to the rawer nature of a child’s mind. I’m typically inclined to get my niece and nephews toys and books which cater to the ridiculous nature of their ridiculously awesome lil kid frames-of-mind.

phew….pardon my rant, but the wheels got spinning.

I think its gonna be rad. no matter what you guys put together I have faith for some reason that it is definitely going to be something I get for my sister’s kids. I trust you with their minds, guys so don’t let me down. Go nuts and stay crazy!


Hi Jonah –

Nathan (you used to babysit – or Hebrew school sit – for him way back when) loved all the Shirley Hughs books..watercolors of British children at home, their garden, their world…

and I never got tired of them either, so that says a lot!

Your paintings are lovely, I especially like the one of the temples and the smiling koi


martha c

I am so excited for this beautiful collaboration… My son is 5 months old and I have recently been rediscovering my favorite stories… We started reading to him when he was just a few months old and he already knows and loves story time… His favorite is Goodnight Moon… And I am so looking forward to the day that I can read The Giving Tree to him… What a wonderful project!


Dear Jonah, these are terrific sketches, and your verbal description is so nice. My old t’ai-chi teacher in New York, Ed Young, is also a children’s book illustrator, and his work has been widely praised–maybe see what he has done too. This is an exciting project! (I also remember a children’s book called “The Carp in the Bathtub.”)


Ray Rosenstock

Jonah, these are beautiful!!! I love the collages. Can’t wait to see what you guys put together. Seems too like the perfect project for a new relationship.

Much love,



Hey Jonah! Rob linked me here and I think this is such a cool idea! The final sketches in this set, the one that combines the collage and watercolor, is especially impressive. And your favorite children’s books are a great list– I can totally see a touch of Tomie dePaola in your watercolors.

I think my favorite children’s books lately are the mouse books by Kevin Henkes. If you ever have time, check out Chester’s Way. It’s extremely funny.


me know
what you think
just remember i have feelings too