Suzy Ultman is a designer whose creations include books, but also pillows, enamel pins, and stationary items. She sells her work through bookstores, but also through Etsy, Crate and Barrel, and other retailers. Recently Chronicle Books, known both for literary excellence and design ingenuity, has published three of her latest items. Are they books? Yes. Might critics legitimately question their status as principally books, as opposed to pretty objects or toys? Also, yes. I would like to defend them, if they need a defense, as picture books, to be read, looked at, and admired.
Both Tiny Town and Tiny Farm are small, chunky board books with sturdy, thick “pages.” The visitor to Tiny Town enters a tiny bakery, tiny toy, pet, and book stores, and ends in a tiny home.
Kirkus Reviews seems taken aback by this production. While praising Ultman’s beautiful graphics, they feel compelled to point out, somewhat crankily, that the images in the books “are too small for both toddler and adult eyes to fully appreciate.” I use bifocals. Perhaps it is my motivation to enjoy miniatures, but I appreciate them plenty! These are detailed and off-beat. This very asset seems to be a deficit to the Kirkus reviewer, who complains that “…things and animals are so stylized they challenge identification,” and “many of the foods in the grocery store will be a stretch for toddlers to name.” If that is true, it is because Ultman’s books are not mere catalogues of the microscopic and cute. Her grocery store includes a tower of two colors of jelly with jam in between, balanced in the air atop a larger honey jar with a cut out center. There is also a snail wearing glasses and a hat and fruit labeled “local.” If you cannot explain to your child what this means, she should be able to explain it to you because children use their imagination. My favorite image is the tiny home, where the snail still has glasses, but no hat, because he is indoors. There is a toaster next to a Russian nesting doll and a hedgehog atop a Persian rug. You get the idea.
Tiny Farm includes a family of piglets next to a girl wearing a piglet hat, but also a dachshund with two birds riding on his back and a petting zoo with pink llamas and a windmill. The chicken coop houses “enchanted eggs,” which no child familiar with traditional fairy tales will have difficulty deciphering. This book also concludes with a tiny home including many utensils, presumably to cook the produce from the farm, but also two guitars mounted on a wall above a shelf of teapots.
Not surprisingly for an artist fascinated by miniatures, not only does Tiny Town include Russian nesting dolls, but Ultman has created, in Masha and Her Sisters, a book which is itself a nesting doll. The cover opens horizontally, which is one reason it is a book. Inside, the remaining dolls open vertically, Natasha, Galya, Olya, Larissa, and Masha each has her own designated role and set of objects defining her. The reader needs to turn the book upside down since the doll and her personal items are depicted on both sides, as if each doll could stand independently. Children might want to discuss which musical instruments Larissa the performer will play, and why Natasha the storyteller uses a fountain pen and ink bottles.
If you are skeptical that Suzy Ultman writes and illustrates books because her images do not narrate a series of events or present fully developed characters, you can call her creations by another name. They are beautiful and they definitely include both stories and characters, although you might need help from a young reader to construct them.