There are few things I love more than a good picture book. As I’ve moved around as an adult, I’ve ditched most of the novels, memoirs, and poetry collections I’ve loved, but I’ve refused to let go of the picture books. It’s not just nostalgia that keeps me holding on (I found many of my favorites as an adult), or necessity (I don’t have kids), but an admiration for the way picture books manage do so much so quickly, all while maintaining an illusion of simplicity.
“Picture books need to squeeze a narrative arc into at most 40 pages, and tell the story in less than 800 words, so every word counts and every image needs to be contributing to the whole,” says Portland illustrator Kate Berube about her own carefully distilled creations. “A picture book is kind of like a poem; every word is thought about.”
I first discovered Berube—who will appear Wednesday, July 12, at First Book Portland’s Breweries for Books fundraiser—through Tater Totter, her self-published zine series for kids. Its level of play reminded me of James Marshall or Maurice Sendak—unabashedly silly, respectful of kids’ intelligence, and fun for adults. “I decided that making a zine for kids would be the best way to hone my craft and to get feedback from real kids,” Berube says. “Also, I’d never seen a zine for kids.”
She worked full-time in the kids’ section at Powell’s Books on Hawthorne, selling her greeting cards on Etsy in her spare moments, and illustrating issues of other local zines like Elly Blue’s Taking the Lane feminist bicycling series and Martha Grover’s long-running Somnambulist.
But over the past year, Berube has gone from selling kids’ books to being one of the most prolific new names in the genre. Last spring she put out her stunning debut, Hannah and Sugar. A few months later, a book she illustrated, The Summer Nick Taught His Cats to Read, came out and another, My Little Half-Moon, followed just last month. In April, Hannah and Sugar won the Oregon Book Award in Children’s Literature and a few weeks later got shortlisted for this fall’s prestigious Klaus Flugge Prize.
The adventurous spirit that made Berube’s zine so well-loved carries over into her books. She takes interesting risks—playing with collage, blank space, and arrangements of the page. Though she already has two books in the works for 2018, Berube feels like she’s still just scratching the surface. “I’d love to try out all kinds of different styles and formats,” she tells me. “I could keep myself busy for a long time making books.”