How sad of an image is TOO sad?

  • In your portfolio, you gotta make moving pieces right? But how far is too far?

    I'm guessing the line for that, is even closer when it comes to kids illustration portfolios.

    I think, an example of too far, is a picture I seen once of a pokemon stuffed into a blender, boutta become poke'soup.
    And upon thinking about it, that's too far I think, because it seems like it most certainly IS going to be a bad ending, and it's also not emotionally moving at all (in any good way at least)

    What I want to draw, is two sad small creatures trapped in seperate jars, with a big creaturs face behind the jars looking through.
    I think it'd be fine since it'd be emotionally moving, and it could seem like just one moment in a story that ends up with a good ending.

    While I'm on the topic, is it pretty smart to avoid any and all even slightly serious topics completely too?
    Such as hospitals, house fires, forest fires, etc.

    Come to think of it, missing persons is a pretty sad and serious topic, yet Finding Nemo did it.
    But I also remember one of Lee's books got turned down since there was a subtle theme of mourning in it.

    It's probably best to err on the side of super super safe friendly caution. But it's a bit hard to come up with engaging story in one picture that way.

  • Pro

    @Frost-Drive I think almost no topic is off limit as long as done in an age appropriate way. Blending Pokémon is not age appropriate (I think this was probably a joke aimed at adults). For themes like illness, fires, mourning, mental illness, etc. children's books can be an amazing way for parents to introduce these hard topics with their kids and start a discussion about it. But it has to be age appropriate. Doesn't necessarily have to end well, but it can't be too hardcore. For mourning, maybe the theme could be the death of a pet. Where did Fido go, I miss him. Instead of say... grandpa fell out of bed and agonized on the floor for days before he died then his cats ate him.

  • @NessIllustration Ohhh that's such a simple way to put it!! Don't have the mourning be about grandpa's death, but a pet goldfish's or something. That's smart, thank you Ness!! ✨✨

  • @Frost-Drive I think as long as there is appropriate motivation for the emotion, this is a theme that is actually encouraged lately in portfolios. When I went to the new england scbwi conference last... well last time there was a physical one? lol... one big feedback was that they are tired of seeing only happy children in portfolios.

  • @Frost-Drive yeah ... you don't want to scar kids for life! But they have BIG feelings and it's good to read books that deal with these big themes and feelings.

    Instead of giving my personal opinion (which I kind of already did), reading these excellent, "heavy" books will help answer that question for you. (These are all traditionally published and many have won awards or are popular among kidlit reviewers and librarians. Most reviewers I follow on IG raved about the illustrations.)

    The Barnabus Project by the Fan brothers (It's comparable to your idea, and if this idea morphs into a book, this would be a great comp title to mention in a query letter.)
    Ida, Always by Caron Levis, illustrated by Charles Santoso (deals with death, have tissues handy!)
    The Rough Patch by Brian Lies (deals with death of a pet; you also might need tissues for this one)
    A Stone for Sascha by Aaron Becker (wordless, deals with the loss of a pet & shows a family burying it)
    Stormy by Guojing (wordless books that deals with animal adoption--the illustrations are somber until the very end)
    Fiery Night by Sally M Walker, illustrated by Kayla Harren (deals with Chicago's Great Fire -- scary scenes, one with the boy's beloved goat on fire)

    Hope this helps! 😊❤

  • @HeatherBouteneff I've heard that as well in recent SCBWI webinars (cuz, you know, everything is through Zoom nowadays!).

  • SVS OG

    There are actually a lot of really great picture books that are sad. “I’ll love you forever” and “grandpa green” are two that come to mind. You could ask your library if they know of more and go check them out. I agree that you can address hard stuff with kids books as long as you do it well and tastefully. Kids go through stuff too and I think a lot of people write books to help us understand what’s happening or that it’s okay to be sad... The other stuff that I’m thinking about are the last 3 “toy story” movies and the whole movie “UP”. The audience is clearly kids, but I can’t make through without crying.

  • @Frost-Drive there might be cultural aspect to it as well. Some subjects are taboo in one country maybe completely fine in another. For example, depicting nudity in kids book may be really problematic in the US, but in Europe it is not so much an issue. Another example is that it is kind of taboo to talk about death in general in Chinese culture, but Norwegians could not get enough of the topic. It is funny that since I am Chinese I actually avoid reading books about loss to my kid subconsciously. I enjoyed reading the book "Duck, Death and the Tulip", "The Rough Patch", but I did not read these books to my 3 years old. I guess I sort of expect my husband to talk about this subject with her (he is Norwegian). I am definitely a product of the culture I grew up with.

    If you are able to make it so weird, I guess you can get away with many things. I read "rules of summer " by Shaun Tan to my 3 years old, she was very into the book for a while, even though the images in the books are quite disturbing. Another example is "The Wanderer" by Peter Van den Ende. I found the images beautiful and rather disturbing as well. I thought about hiding the book from my kid, but she asked to have a look of the book, and then she asked again the next day, and the day after.... I think both these books does not have "kids as audience" in mind, but some kids would love these types of book, and curious to explore them.

    @HeatherBouteneff I was just thinking about the "only happy children" portfolios lately. I paid a lot of attention to the range of emotions in other kidlit illustrators portfolio recently, because I am working on expanding that in my own work. I think the bigger range of emotion you have in your portfolio, the more likely you will be getting more book offers, etc.

  • Pro

    @xin-li This reminds me of a French Canadian book I saw on the shelves a few years ago: La tribu qui pue ("the tribe that stinks" haha) which feature a band of wild young children roaming the woods naked and getting all dirty and stinky. The style is super simple so you can't even see any naked bits at all. This was no issue in Canada, the book is very innocent and was a great success. It was blocked for publication in the US though, never got distributed there because "OMG NUDITY!!" loll.. Same thing for the animated movies of Kirikou - I grew up with them and was surprised to find none of my American friends knew what is it. Turns out because the little boy Kirikou is naked in the film, it was never distributed in the US.


  • @NessIllustration Lovely illustration. I would totally read the tribe that stinks judging by the cover :-).
    The book I have in mind when I wrote about nudity is a Norwegian graphic novel for kids - how do you make baby by Anna Fiske (a well known author/illustrator in Norway). I do not think this book will be found in the bookstores and libraries in the US either :-). But it is on Amazon if you are interested in seeing a couple of sample pages.

  • Pro

    @xin-li Haha that looks like such a fun book, and a really cute style!

  • @NessIllustration my husband told me that my 3 years old started to asking about this question: how do you make baby. He said he did not know how to explain it, and changed topic. Then I reminded him that we have a book for that. haha....

  • SVS OG

    @xin-li oh dear!!! 😂

  • I'm from Sweden, and here it feels like a trend these past few years to move even more into these darker themes in children's books. I've illustrated a handful of books, for the ages 6-9 mostly, with themes ranging from fatigue syndrome to death and grief. Personally, I think it's a good thing to be more open about these topics, even though it can be challenging to present them in a good way.

    One of the first books I illustrated was about a child who had lost her brother and father in a traffic accident and how she comes to terms with it by talking to the ghost of a girl who died in a similar way. For another book, I had to make an illustration of when the main characters have to bury a dead kitten.

    So yeah, really sad stuff, but I never felt like the text or my illustrations were too much for children to handle. Maybe because there was nothing really morbid or grotesque about them. Drawing a fatal car crash feels way out of line for that kind of book, but drawing the main character looking at old postcards as she recalls her loved ones with a sad smile doesn't feel strange at all. I guess I focus on the emotions of the characters rather than on the events themselves when I draw these things.

  • Wow this is all such interesting stuff to hear about, thank you all!

  • I don't know if this has been said before but I also really enjoy sad images that have some "hope" in them.

    Like for example with your two characters in jars with a looming baddie over them: one of your small characters could be working on breaking the jar or something. I think any image or illustration that has "sacrifice" before something good happens, is extra powerful.

    As you said about the blending the pokemon thing, that's ultimately too far mostly because (well it's horrible but also) it's irreversible. There is no "light at the end of the tunnel"!

    Honestly I think Pixar is a great example. It's family movies but they still touch on very heavy subjects.

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