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The Eric Carle Museum
of Picture Book Art
  • 125 West Bay Road
  • Amherst, MA 01002


  • Thursday, Friday10 am-3 pm
  • Saturday 10am – 4 pm
  • Sunday 12 pm - 4 pm

Closed Monday,Tuesday, Wednesday

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Picture Books We Love

Picture Book Parts: A Closer Look at The Gutter

Here at The Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art we like to encourage both adults and children to not only enjoy the story and illustrations of a picture book, but to also take in the whole book. Every aspect of the book, from its size, its design, the placement of the illustrations on the page, to even the color of the endpapers, is important to the reading experience.

This unique way of reading picture books is an essential part of what we call The Whole Book Approach. You can learn more about this approach here orattend a professional development workshop at The Carle or through our collaboration with Simmons College.

In these Closer Look posts, I’ll borrow from this approach to take a closer look at a single part of the picture book to help further my reading of favorite books. This week I’m looking at the gutter.

The gutter is a term used to describe the seam of the book, where the book is bound. The left and right pages when the book is open meet in the gutter. Illustrators must be conscious of the gutter when designing their art, especially artwork that extends over both the left and right pages, so that detail doesn’t disappear within the seam of the pages when the book is bound. While many aspects of book design are most successful when you never notice them, such as font choices or the weight of the paper used for the pages, I personally love when the artist or book designer takes advantage of the purely functional parts of the book and incorporates them into the reader’s experience.

 Author/illustrator Suzy Lee is a master of utilizing the gutter in clever ways. In her book, Wave (Chronicle Books, 2008), the gutter represents the boundary line between a girl and the ocean’s waves. At first, the girl and the wave are depicted on separate pages.  With the girl on the left page, the water is contained to the right page and the gutter acts as a barrier the waves can’t seem to cross. 

As the girl’s confidence grows, she literally steps from the left page into the right page and into the water, at first with just a toe, until she’s fully in the ocean. A large incoming wave causes her to retreat from the left page to the right again, where previously she was safe from the reach of the water. However, now that all boundaries have been broken, the water crosses into the right page with a wonderful double-page spread of pure wave.

If you haven’t already, be sure to check out other books by Suzy Lee, especially Mirror (Seven Footer Kids, 2003) and  Shadow (Chronicle Books, 2010) that use the gutter in unique and playful ways. Mirror uses the gutter as a mirror with the left page and right page illustrations acting as mirror images of each other.  When a lonely girl first notices her reflection, she is in the far corner of the page, but as she begins to play with her reflection, she inches closer and closer to the gutter. Her reflection inches closer, as well, until they merge in a colorful funhouse mirror-like climax, reminiscent of Rorschach ink blot (which is further mirrored on the book’s endpapers). 

This book is a delightful play on mirrors, becoming a mirror image of itself by the end.  I could talk about it for hours, so instead I urge you to take a closer look, especially if you haven’t experienced it yet.

Shadow is another fun exploration of using the gutter to represent the barrier between reality and imagination. Changing up the book’s orientation, on the top half of the book, you see a girl in a lit room full of stuff, playing with the shadows reflected on the bottom half. As she plays, the shadows begin to take over the book, crossing the gutter boundary between reality and fantasy.

There are so many other amazing illustrators who use the gutter in unique and interesting ways. Jon Klassen and Chris Raschka are two favorites who constantly challenge their books’ designs and use the gutter to further expand the reader’s experience.

What books have you come across that use the gutter in a noteworthy way? Let me know in a comment below. Also, feel free to share other parts of the picture book or book design that you look forward to hearing more about.


Elizabeth Mueller
Friday, December 12, 2019 - 1:23 pm
I was hoping you might provide the bit of space required for gutter illustrating so it appears continues once printed and bound. Thank you for the enlightening article on gutter play and breaking 4th wall! :)
Natasha Wing
Wednesday, September 9, 2020 - 2:58 pm
Thank you for pointing out an overlooked piece of a book that these illustrators turned into a playful boundary.

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