A look in the Library of Congress database reveals that Brian Karas has been illustrating for over a decade. In the last few years, however, his combination of inventiveness and consistency has resulted in a growing number of memorable picture books.
Karas' first serious impact on this reviewer's consciousness occurred with his sharp-edged and rollicking version of I Know an Old Lady (BCCB 2/95), in which an increasingly bloated hag reels under the impact of her irresistible appetites. This title was quickly followed by Like Butter on Pancakes (BCCB 3/95), where flat planes of color played with light, collage, and pencil-textured dark to exude sunny serenity and jubilation. The artist got even busier in 1996, branching out in several different directions. Sid and Sam (BCCB x/96) gave him the challenge of strutting his illustrative stuff in the traditional vignette art of an easy reader. Leaving his characteristic pencil behind, he worked only in acrylic and gouache to make the fabulous neo-folkloric world of The Spider Who Created the World (BCCB x/96). In Saving Sweetness (x/96), his incorporation of yellowed photographs fits into the rough-hewn feeling of both the plot and the dusty plains world of the art. And his first foray into writing his own text, Home on the Bayou: A Cowboy's Story (x/96), demonstrates a keen ear for kid-sulk as well as a deftness for believably expressing the unbelievable that mirrors his pictorial strengths.
So what's so good? Well, when Karas wants to be funny he's really funny: his dot-eyed, needle-nosed cast of characters reek of comical surprise and dismay, and there's just enough caricature in them to make them otherwordly while there's an immediate recognizability to the pared-down features (particularly when drawn in the homely, I-could-do-that pencil lines) that makes them us. Clever shifts in perspective, variety in composition, and fresh detailing (Sid carries binoculars, Sam's lugging around a branch, and they're both dogged by bird and animal denizens of the park, and it all makes perfect sense) mean that the illustrations' apparent simplicity is often misleading. But it's not all just fun and games. Ultimately, in fact, it's the unceasing imagination and the willingness to try the new while remaining distinctive that makes Karas so rewarding to view. The fact that a young viewer can take a page for granted is, in your basic picturebook, a good thing; the art is not there to drag you away from the story. But it's also a good thing to notice just how many small things affect a Karas spread: in Saving Sweetness, for instance, the scratchy pencil lines emphasize the scrub, the small black-and-white sketches alternate with the more complex views, the periodic sweep of color carries the image over the gutter to set up the image on the facing page. The artistry isn't self-conscious, but it's always there.
--Deborah Stevenson, Assistant Editor
Bibliography of Titles Mentioned