Lisa Desimini (1964-)
"Lisa Desimini's paintings and stories describe dream worlds in which everyday essentials—umbrellas, for instance, or footprints, or houses—are recognizable, but somehow different," wrote Print magazine's Carol Stevens. Such common objects take on uniqueness at the hands of Desimini, changing color or shape and even function. "Desimini, herself," Stevens further commented, "seems to be motivated, if not by magic, then by some extra-conscious perception." In her self-illustrated titles as well as the artwork she does for the work of other authors, Desimini has created a distinctive, sometimes surreal, look that has become her trademark.
Desimini came to children's book illustration almost by accident. After graduating from New York's School of Visual Arts in 1986, she expected to go to work illustrating for magazines and newspapers. She told Janet Schnol of Publishers Weekly that even after she was referred to a Harper Junior Books editor and then given the opportunity to produce sample illustrations for Ann Turner's Heron Street, she still was not certain she was interested in working with children's books. She quickly found the work highly satisfying, however, and even proclaimed herself "addicted." "What I love about children's books," Desimini told Schnol, "is that I'm involved with so much—decisions about end pages, color, and type. I have a great deal of freedom, especially in the layout."
Desimini's illustrations have been described as surreal and seemingly naïve, and have invited comparisons to artist Henri Rousseau. In Adelaide and the Night Train by Liz Rosenberg, Desimini's illustrations of a night ride on a train heading toward the land of sleep echo the evocative language of the text, according to critics. Stephen Dobyns of the New York Times Book Review remarked that Desimini's illustrations possess "a slightly primitive cast, a magical weirdness that bears close examination. . . . At my house these days, when the youngest child has trouble settling down, Adelaide and the Night Train is the book we try first. It's as good as a glass of warm milk, and half the bother."
Desimini has had many profitable repeat collaborative efforts. Working with writer Jerrie Oughton, she produced artwork for both the award-winning How the Stars Fell into the Sky: A Navajo Legend and The Magic Weaver of Rugs: A Tale of the Navajo. In the latter story, the two "bring to life . . . the origins of weaving and the famous Navajo rug," according to a reviewer for Publishers Weekly. Spider Woman, so legend has it, erected a huge loom and left instructions for the Navajo women how to use it. A Publishers Weekly critic felt that Oughton's "poetic" text is "mirrored" by Desimini's illustrations, which "gleam with an otherworldliness." Similarly, Booklist's Elizabeth Bush suggested that "Desimini's surreal paintings underscore the otherworldly nature" of the meeting between Spider Woman and the Navajo women.
Other native American themes are explored in books such as In a Circle Long Ago, by Nancy Van Laan, Northwoods Cradle Song: From a Menominee Lullaby, by Douglas Wood, and Night Dancer: Mythical Piper of the Native American Southwest, by Marcia K. Vaughan. Van Laan's book is a collection of twenty-five verses and myths of North American indigenous people. Horn Book's Maeve Visser Knoth praised Desimini's artwork for that book, noting that "each illustration suits the tone of the story it accompanies." Knoth pointed out that even Desimini's borders echoed the content: in the section of Northwest Indians, for example, the artist included totem poles of regional tribes such as the Haida. A reviewer for Publishers Weekly also commended Desimini's "especially effective" artwork, commenting upon her "dazzling oils" in a number of different styles. For Wood's lullaby, Desimini "paints with a tranquil, velvety softness," according to a reviewer for Publishers Weekly, while Margaret A. Bush, reviewing Northwoods Cradle Song in Horn Book, commented that Desimini's "deep tones of rust, green, and gold glow in soft light." And in Night Dancer, the illustrator "tackles several tough assignments" in her artwork, according to Sally Bates Goodroe in School Library Journal. First, she had to transform the usual stick figure of Kokopelli into a more human form; next, she needed to show the animation of the dancers; and lastly, all this needed to be done in the soft, dark tones of moonlight. A critic for Publishers Weekly praised the result, noting that "Desimini's keen use of color and light effects a dreamlike, movie stills quality."
Further successful collaborative efforts include work with writer and poet Arnold Adoff on Love Letters and Touch the Poem, and with J. Patrick Lewis on Doodle Dandies: Poems That Take Shape and Good Mousekeeping: And Other Animal Home Poems. Valentine's Day is celebrated in the twenty poems of Adoff's Love Letters. Reviewing that title, a contributor for Publishers Weekly thought that "Desimini's artwork, like Adoff's poetry, suggests secrecy and shyness." Booklist's Ilene Cooper had high praise for Desimini's illustrations in that same title, noting that her "wondrous artwork is a constant delight." Working with Adoff again on Touch the Poem, Desimini contributed "striking mixed-media collages," according to a reviewer for Publishers Weekly. Desimini serves up more mixed-media illustrations to accompany the poems of Lewis in Doodle Dandies, a "mix of clever language and visual delights [that] makes a dandy treat for all ages," as a contributor for Publishers Weekly noted. The text itself takes form on the pages, often representing visually what the text describes. For example, verses about a skyscraper are actually laid out on the page in skyscraper form. Horn Book's Lauren Adams felt that "Desimini's mixed-media collage provides a wide variety of backdrops for the poems" in that collection. Adams further commented that this book represented a "true collaboration of text and art." GraceAnne A. DeCandido, writing in Booklist, remarked that Desimini's "art is full of textures and dark, rich colors that repay close examination." And writing in School Library Journal, Kathleen Whalin had further praise for Desimini's "brilliant" collage artwork in Doodle Dandies. Lewis and Desimini joined again on the 2001 Good Mousekeeping, in which the two blend verse and image. Through computer-enhanced collages, Desimini's pictures "lift" Lewis's "rhymes into dazzling visual images," according to Whalin, writing in School Library Journal. Likewise, a reviewer for Publishers Weekly found that Desimini's "inventive" illustrations "yield the greater wit and humor."
Desimini has also produced self-illustrated titles of poetry and stories for young readers. "I like writing books that have a touch of magic," Desimini once told SATA. "I illustrated many books for other authors before I started writing my own. I feel like I can truly express myself this way." Desimini's first solo effort, I Am Running Away Today, is considered a lighthearted treatment of the theme of running away. At the book's opening, a cat decides to leave his home since his best friend next door is moving away, so he goes in search of a new home. The simple text is accompanied by illustrations noted for their innovation, style, and dramatic qualities. Although Zack Rogow of the New York Times Book Review felt that I Am Running Away Today "reads like a book written by someone whose training and experience have been largely in the visual arts," he praised the "playful, colorful and stylized" illustrations. Similarly, a reviewer for Publishers Weekly found the illustrative style a bit out of balance with the "fun and fanciful" story.
The illustrations for Moon Soup captured much of the critical attention bestowed upon the book. In this story, Desimini offers a fanciful recipe for soup that concludes with the main character flying off to the moon to stir and serve it. Although Ruth Semrau in the School Library Journal felt it had a weak story line, she noted that "shapes, lines, and colors combine to create an exciting visual experience." Ilene Cooper concluded in Booklist: "Desimini's fanciful art may be over the top for some, but it's hard to tear your eyes away."
Desimini's "brief text serves mainly as a springboard for stunning illustrations," remarked a reviewer in Publishers Weekly about My House. Desimini used collage with paintings, photographs, and other media to depict a house in different kinds of light and weather conditions. "For all the showiness" of the art, the review continued, "the book is reassuring" because it emphasizes the friendliness and security of the home. Reviewing the same book, Hanna B. Zeiger, writing in Horn Book, thought that Desimini took a basic theme and then employed an "innovative combination of paint, collage, and photographs" to create "dramatic portrayals" of the house in question. For Zeiger, My House was a "uniquely crafted book." Booklist's Janice M. Del Negro also commended the work, noting that while "the text is essentially a vehicle for the pictures," still the book is "a successful whole."
Working with three other writer/illustrators, Desimini next contributed a seasonal poem and illustration to All Year Round: A Book to Benefit Children in Need. Produced to benefit the Robin Hood Foundation, the book opens with Desimini's offering, "Snowmen, Snowmen, Ho-Ho-Ho Men," "a sprightly take on winter," according to Booklist's Julie Corsaro. Working on her own again in Sun and Moon: A Giant Love Story, Desimini creates "surreal mixed-media images [that] light up a larger-than-life romance," according to a reviewer for Publishers Weekly. Desimini tells the tale of a lonely giant and giantess who live on opposite sides of the earth and wander about looking for someone the right size who they can love. The two outsized persons continually miss one another because she searches by night, while he by day. Finally the two are brought together by an eclipse. The same Publishers Weekly reviewer felt that Desimini's "haunting" illustrations "bespeak an original artistic vision." Del Negro, writing in Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, was less impressed, calling the story "painfully obvious," but allowing that the artwork demonstrates Desimini's "touch of mad elegance." Booklist's DeCandido was more positive, however, calling the book an "enchanting fable" with "fabulous" computer-enhanced, mixed-media artwork.
With Dot the Fire Dog and Policeman Lou and Policewoman Sue Desimini created companion books about public servants. In the first title, she looks at the work of firefighters through the eyes of the firehouse dog who helps to rescue a kitten while the firemen save an old man. Connie Fletcher, writing in Booklist, commented favorably on the "interesting details" in the text and the "richly hued and appealing" illustrations. Horn Book's Lauren Adams also had praise for the same title, noting that "Desimini provides a bold, engaging outlet for preschoolers' perennial fascination with firefighters." And Lisa Dennis of School Library Journal commended Desimini's oil painting illustrations, which "offer quirky perspectives and unusual angles." With Policeman Lou and Policewoman Sue, Desimini does the same job for police officers, offering young readers a view into their working lives. This involves activities both mundane and exciting, from ticketing a car parked by a fire hydrant to chasing down a purse-snatcher. A Publishers Weekly critic noted the "calm and low-key" text, filled with more information than drama, but was less pleased with the "stiff quality" of the illustrations. However, the contributor had praise for "the easy friendship and professionalism" demonstrated by Lou and Sue.
Biographical and Critical Sources
Booklist, November 1, 1993, Ilene Cooper, review of Moon Soup, p. 528; March 1, 1994, Elizabeth Bush, review of The Magic Weaver of Rugs: A Tale of the Navajo, pp. 1265-1266; November 15, 1994, Janice M. Del Negro, review of My House, p. 610; December 1, 1996, Linda Perkins, review of Anansi Does the Impossible: An Ashanti Tale, p. 638; January 1, 1997, Ilene Cooper, review of Love Letters, p. 863; December 15, 1997, Julie Corsaro, review of All Year Round: A Book to Benefit Children in Need, p. 702; March 15, 1998, GraceAnne A. DeCandido, review of Tulip Sees America, p. 1252; July, 1998, GraceAnne A. DeCandido, review of Doodle Dandies: Poems That Take Shape, p. 1876; January 1, 1999, GraceAnne A. DeCandido, review of Sun and Moon: A Giant Love Story, p. 886; March 15, 2000, Ilene Cooper, review of Touch the Poem, p. 1378; October 1, 2001, Connie Fletcher, review of Dot the Fire Dog, p. 324.
Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, January, 1999, Janice M. Del Negro, review of Sun and Moon, p. 165.
Horn Book, November-December, 1994, Hanna B. Zeiger, review of My House, p. 71; January-February, 1996, Maeve Visser Knoth, review of In a Circle Long Ago, p. 84; May-June, 1996, Margaret A. Bush, review of Northwoods Cradle Song: From a Menominee Lullaby, p. 331; July-August, 1998, Lauren Adams, review of Doodle Dandies, pp. 505-506; November-December, 2001, Lauren Adams, review of Dot the Fire Dog, pp. 734-735.
Kirkus Reviews, December 15, 1998, review of Sun and Moon, p. 1795; September 1, 2001, review of Dot the Fire Dog, p. 1288; June 1, 2003, review of Policeman Lou and Policewoman Sue, p. 802. New York Times Book Review, April 1, 1990, Stephen Dobyns, review of Adelaide and the Night Train, p. 26; March 17, 1992, Zack Rogow, "Follow the Paw Prints," review of I Am Running Away Today, p. 31.
Print, May-June, 1995, Carol Stevens, "Lisa Desimini," pp. 106-108.
Publishers Weekly, December 22, 1989, Janet Schnol, "Flying Starts: New Faces of 1989," pp. 28-29; March 16, 1992, review of I Am Running Away Today, p. 79; February 21, 1994, review of The Magic Weaver of Rugs, p. 253; September 5, 1994, review of My House, p. 110; November 6, 1995, review of In a Circle Long Ago, pp. 93-94; April 15, 1996, review of Northwoods Cradle Song, p. 67; December 2, 1996, review of Love Letters, pp. 59-61; October 13, 1997, review of All Year Round, p. 73; April 20, 1998, review of Tulip Sees America, p. 66; June 29, 1998, review of Doodle Dandies, p. 57; December 21, 1998, review of Sun and Moon, p. 67; April 17, 2000, review of Touch the Poem, p. 80; April 30, 2001, review of Good Mousekeeping: And Other Animal Home Poems, p. 77; October 15, 2001, review of Dot the Fire Dog, p. 70; October 14, 2002, review of Night Dancer: Mythical Piper of the Native American Southwest, p. 82; May 26, 2003, review of Policeman Lou and Policewoman Sue, p. 68.
School Library Journal, January, 1994, Ruth Semrau, review of Moon Soup, p. 88; May, 1996, Ruth K. McDonald, review of Northwoods Cradle Song, p. 109; September, 1997, Donna S. Scanlon, review of Anansi Does the Impossible, pp. 198-199; April, 1998, Karen Jones, review of Tulip Sees America, p. 109; August, 1998, Kathleen Whalin, review of Doodle Dandies, p. 153; March, 1999, Steven Engelfried, review of Sun and Moon, p. 173; June, 2000, Jane Marino, review of Touch the Poem, p. 128; June, 2001, Kathleen Whalin, review of Good Mousekeeping, p. 138; December, 2001, Lisa Dennis, review of Dot the Fire Dog, pp. 98-99; October, 2002, Sally Bates Goodroe, review of Night Dancer, pp. 132-133.
Lisa Desimini Home Page, http://www.lisadesimini.com/ (March 10, 2004).*