2021 Reading Challenge: Read a Book with Illustrations

In 2021, OPL invites patrons to take part in the reading challenge, opens a new window! For each challenge, OPL offers suggestions for titles to read or listen to. As you’re working through the challenge, feel free to tag @omahalibrary on Twitter, opens a new window, Instagram,, opens a new window or Facebook,, opens a new window to let us know which read you picked up this month!

For our first featured challenge, Youth Services Specialist and Well-Read Collective member Elly Roberts interviewed Arts and Culture Librarian Mark Sorensen in December 2020 to discuss their mutual love of illustrated books.

Elly: Mark, what do you do at the library and why do you love it?
I currently serve as our arts and culture subject librarian. The heart of that work is usually building and maintaining a space for the community to come and interact with the work of local artists in our gallery. Right now, of course, the library can’t function as a gathering space, so that’s been challenging. This year, I’ve been reminded that my heart lives in the work of taking care of our staff and our customers, and that has been where I’ve focused a lot of my attention and energy.

Elly: In terms of what’s being published now, what do you see that excites you about visual storytelling?
Mark: Literature about the history of illustration often starts from this cultural idea that text and image are separable, and have different functions. But in our earliest known books, there is no distinction between image and narrative. The more closely integrated the images and the narrative functions of the work can get, the more I enjoy it. A beautiful example is Peter Sis’ translation of Attar’s Persian poem, “The Conference of the Birds, opens a new window.” Its illustrations and typesetting work together in a fascinating way to support the flow of the story. I really enjoy books that get the text block involved in the art, or play around with the typical structures of how a book is supposed to work.

Elly: What’s the most recent illustrated book you’ve read? What did the illustrations bring to your experience as a reader?
Mark: Right now, I’m reading a manga series called "Otherworldly Izakaya Nobu, opens a new window” where residents of a 16th century fantasy town wander off the street into a 20th century Japanese pub. I love this cross-time, cross-culture celebration of food that only works because of the graphic novel format. If you didn’t see the looks on characters’ faces when they eat fresh fish or have chilled, filtered beer for the first time, the story would be okay, but, with these visuals, it’s wonderful.

Elly: You don’t focus on children’s services, but they’re an entirely legitimate way to fulfill this challenge. Have you run across any children’s books that you found interesting and compelling?
Mark: The illustrator Christopher Raschka has some fantastic picture books that use illustration in different ways. I’m thinking of a particular one, “John Coltrane's Giant Steps, opens a new window,” where he uses a cat, a square and a drop of water to visually present Coltrane’s original song. The ability to use a picture book to break out a jazz riff in a visual format is very cool. It really leans in to the potential of illustration to do some unusual storytelling.

Elly: In terms of nonfiction, have you seen particularly striking uses of illustration?
Mark: What comes to mind here are the books that use the educational power of images. Randall Monroe, the cartoonist best known for the comic xkcd, had this wonderful idea about encyclopedias. With “Thing Explainer, opens a new window”, he lays out a wide range of scientific and technical general knowledge, but uses only the 150 most common words in the English language. It almost feels like you’re browsing a meme page in some ways, especially due to its simple, direct phraseology. At the same time, it really highlights the freedom illustration brings to instructional or educational work. The pairing, in nonfiction, can really let authors present more accessible, more relatable communication.

Elly: As a pair of fans, we have to talk about graphic novels for a minute. What is so special about graphic novels for you, personally, and for books, historically?
Mark: The compartmentalization of graphic novels as lower-brow reading all hinges on that same idea that text and image are not related, and that the purpose of text is to convey information, so if you’re a very serious reader, your imagination should be doing the work. But that’s false; your imagination is still engaged! Pairing visuals and text unlocks a different set of storytelling possibilities. When we started to accept graphic novels as a serious literary genre, they got boxed in a little bit, but I think that recent creators are finding a more flexible relationship to that genre-space. 

Let me turn the question back to you; tell me a little bit about high points in the history of the graphic novel for you, and where you find interesting spots in that journey to today.

Elly: So, in the late 1800s-1920s, realistic illustration was the only way to depict news events and make advertisements. So it had a very practical, realist focus. Out of that realism pressure cooker sprung these satire and comedy periodicals. A lot of what I enjoy about graphic novelists is their humor, particularly folks like Lucy Knisley, opens a new window and Allie Brosch, opens a new window. I don’t think that comics would be what they are today without that history in parody and satire.
Another historical trend that persists today, in my opinion, started in the 1970s. In terms of commercial art, photography became so accessible that it overtook visuals in most spaces, but fantasy art remained very much in the arena of illustrators. I think that, again, you see that in our collection today. There are so many worlds and visions that aren’t complete as text that graphic novels get to explore now, like Ezra Claytan Daniels’ "BTTM FEEDERS, opens a new window," which explores the eeriness of gentrification, or “Taproot, opens a new window,” an incredibly sweet, light fantasy about grief by Keezy Young.

Elly: Let’s wrap up with some pipe dreams. Are there any authors or writers whose work you’d love to see illustrated?

Mark: I’m a big fan of Jorge Luis Borges, opens a new window. Especially in his short fiction, there’s such a range of dense worlds that could take a wide range of illustration approaches. There’s a more surreal, abstract approach that could reflect his complex, dream-like language but there’s also the potential to show his impossible worlds in lavish detail that would be really fun to see.
I also have a bit of a soft spot for the work of Gene Wolf, opens a new window. Any author who has really unique world-building or presents some really elaborate ideas and can do it with the power of their complexity of language sparks that thought; if you can do this with just the power of narrative, what can you unlock if you’re given access to a wider toolkit?

Get started with your “Read a Book with Illustrations” challenge with these titles, opens a new window, or request, opens a new window a custom reading list tailored to your interests by OPL librarians!

Starting April 1, 2021, you may submit your completed reading log online or return a completed tracking sheet to any OPL branch to receive a pin and to be entered into a drawing for some fun literary-themed prizes! All completed tracking sheets or online challenge form entries must be received by December 31, 2021, to be entered into the prize drawing.