Lois Ehlert: A Colorful Artist

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The Scraps Book: Notes from a Colorful Life by Lois Ehlert
Reviewed by Ellen, BookKids Inventory Manager

Lois Ehlert is one of those artists whose work is deceptively simple at first glance. It’s full of bright colors, stark-lined recognizable shapes, and many deal with beginning concepts like the alphabet or colors. But take a closer look at her technicolor flowers, fluttering butterflies, and sleek fishes and it’s soon clear that her work is complex, completely unique, and delightfully surprising.

Best known for her artwork in Bill Martin Jr’s Chicka Chicka Boom Boom, Lois Ehlert is the illustrator of over 35 books, 25 of which she also wrote. I am familiar with many of Ehlert’s books, but I haven’t read some of them in a long time, so I went to the library. I checked out as many of her books as they had on the shelf – 14 of them at my local branch plus the four I had at home – for a fairly comprehensive look at the books she has done over her career.

Other than vibrant colors, the one thing that I think is universal across all her books is the influence of nature. Fish, vegetables, fruit, birds, cats, dogs, fall foliage, caterpillars, racoons, butterflies, and more critters are featured in her art. Rather than using natural colors that most of us call earth tones, she opts for the other end of the natural color spectrum – the saturated and eye-popping colors such as tomato red, summer sky turquoise, sunset pink, pumpkin orange, spring green, and sunlight yellow. She uses the entire rainbow for her palette. Her collages also use textures that mimic what things look like in real life such as corrugated cardboard for tree bark, or she uses the real thing such as twigs, sea shells, and leaves that she finds on her walks or in her yard.

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Her latest book, The Scraps Book: Notes from a Colorful Life, is an autobiographical account of her beginnings as an artist, where she finds inspiration (answer: everywhere!), and how she makes her artwork using just about every imaginable material. It’s a peek into her studio. Photographs of her studio, paintbrushes, and do-dads that decorate her work space illustrate the book. There are also photos of her with her parents, who were very much responsible for Ehlert’s creative roots. In her book Hands: Growing Up to Be An Artist, she pays homage to her parents and how their creative outlets and passions supported her own as a child. The two books pair well together. Scraps also dips a toe into the technical part of the book-making process. She shows sketches, dummy books, and color palette swatches that she created for several now-published books.

What I liked most about The Scraps Book is that it is so very personal and joyous. Ehlert creates her collage art from scraps of materials and bits and bobs of things, and in this books she also offers us scraps of her childhood, career as an artist, and what her life is like at home in Wisconsin. The text of this book is simple, clear, and, just like her text in her other books, lets the art do most of the storytelling. Featured artwork from many of her books is sprinkled throughout Scraps, and a spread at the end of the book shows off the covers of all her books. Scraps is a highly visual book as the pages are full of art and hand written labels to read. She makes the book as much fun to read as it probably was to make it.

Hopefully, this book and Lois will inspire children who might already know they want to be an artist when they grow up. It might also inspire adults to look at the world differently and create their own art out of the scraps they find around them. Lois knew she wanted to be an artist when she was a little girl, and she has indeed had a colorful life.

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A display of The Scraps Books and other Lois Ehlert titles is in our children’s department through the end of the month. Come by for a closer look at this fantastic book.

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