French illustrator Jean Jullien’s drawings are simple, friendly and naive in style. His lines are loose, his colors are bold and his people have cartoonish U shaped noses. Everything he draws has the instant, effortless appeal of a perfect chocolate chip cookie.
But Jullien, who lives in London and contributes to The New Yorker and The New York Times, really trades in ideas. He’s a creative prankster who transforms familiar objects and scenarios into a witty commentary on contemporary life. Sometimes his observations are gentle and funny, like this one of a man with the body of a Big Mac:
Sometimes his images are unapologetically political. There was this powerful illustration marking the unrest following the protests in Ferguson, MO. And the artist found himself the unexpected object of media attention after he Instagrammed a simple, powerful image of the Eiffel Tower crossed with the peace symbol following the 2015 Paris terrorist attacks. (The image went viral, becoming an international symbol of unity. Read about it here.)
Last year, Jullien published his first children’s book, the brilliant This is Not a Book, which played with the simple physicality of a rectangular board book. With each spread, Jullien transformed the book into a series of whimsical objects and scenarios: a laptop, a monster’s mouth, a tightrope, a naked rear end. Now, Phaidon has published his second book, Before & After, and it’s (dare I say it?) even better.
The concept is simple — showing toddlers the meaning of “before” and “after.” Before: a dirty cat is licking its paw. After: the cat is clean.
But naturally, the artist doesn’t leave it at that. Jullien plays with the predictability of the pairings, delivering narratives that are by turns funny, surprising and even thought provoking. It’s not all as straightforward as simple cause and effect. There’s often a missing piece to his scenarios— a beat of the story that’s implied but not spelled out. Sometimes it’s psychological. Sometimes it’s existential.
In short, it’s a delight. Each glossy page exhibits a beautiful economy of words and lines, everything meaningful, nothing superfluous. This is a board book that a two-year-old can enjoy, an eight-year-old will giggle over and a fully-grown lover of modern design will marvel at.
PS This short video about Jullien is totally worth watching. Show it to your kids, too!