author spotlight, family, illustration

Author Spotlight: Stephen Gammell

Something about Stephen Gammell’s illustrations always pulls me in. Of course, you’ll likely know him as the person behind the ghoulish drawings from the Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark series. Those nightmarish art pieces are the perfect companion to the folktales being retold there. Unfortunately, they have removed Gammell’s work for less intense illustrations in recent editions. Still, I think that is the wrong move. Gammell is a fantastic artist; those pictures help set the right unsettling mood.

Gammell was born in Iowa in 1943. His father was a magazine editor and brought home issues all the time. Gammell would pour through these volumes and learn much about illustration from the drawings accompanying articles and the lush advertisements. His parents recognized his gifts and made sure young Gammell had plenty of art materials to work with, making him a self-taught artist. After working in the commercial sector, he became interested in children’s picture books. In 1973, Gammell illustrated his first picture book, A Nutty Business by Ida Chittum, where squirrels and a farm conflict. The work has come steadily since then, and he’s illustrated over 70 books. 

The Relatives Came (Aladdin)
Written by Cynthia Rylant
Illustrated by Stephen Gammell

For ages: 3-7
I wanted to say I first heard this book read aloud on Reading Rainbow, but a quick search of episodes shows me there are none where this was the featured book. Maybe it was one of those recommendations made by kids in the latter half of an episode? However, I know I encountered it as a youth, and it came back into my life as part of books donated to my classroom library. The story is about one group of people meeting with extended family far from home. They spend a week or so sharing food, stories, songs, and fun. Eventually, it’s time to go, and a promise that a reverse trip is made. Gammell’s depictions of these people are beautiful, with various heights, shapes, faces, ages, and more. Instead of relying purely on Rylant’s writing, Gammell adds to the story through his illustrations, providing plenty of tiny stories between relatives in the background.

Song and Dance Man (Dragonfly Books)
Written by Karen Ackerman
Illustrated by Stephen Gammell

For ages: 3-7
Once upon a time, Grandpa performed on the vaudeville stage. A visit from his three grandkids reminds him of those glory days, and he puts on a show for the children. In the attic, he shows them mementos from his past and arranges a stage. The kids try on old hats and clothes while grandpa gets dressed for the show. And what a show it is! He plays the banjo, performs magic tricks, and tells corny jokes until he’s crying with laughter. Gammell’s watercolors are a beautiful companion to Ackerman’s text, similar to the tenderness the artist found in similarly older adults in The Relatives Came. One element I deeply love is how Gammell uses Grandpa’s silhouette to show the younger man he’s remembering coming back to life. I think this book will have us all wanting to remember the good times we spent with our grandparents growing up, having fun and being silly together.

Mudkin (Carolrhoda Books)
Written & Illustrated by Stephen Gammell

For ages: 4-8
Gammell typically illustrates other people’s books, but this is a rare occasion where the work is entirely his own. Despite the rain, a little girl rushes outside to play. She brings her toys and is having a great time. Then Mudkin shows up. This imaginary creature has a turnip-like head and is naturally made from mud. When Mudkin speaks, his dialogue is painted in earthy brown splotches by Gammell. Mudkin names the girl the queen of his land. This is essentially a wordless book with a few bits of dialogue. For the most part, the reader is inferring the story through the actions of Mudkin and the little girl. Some critics I’ve read do not enjoy this text, but I think it’s a fun piece of picture book art. It’s a great exploration of style, with Gammell evoking pop art from the 1970s. I also think it’s one of the great rainy day reads, stimulating children’s imaginations as they watch the drops fall from the sky.

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