Skip to main content

Illustrator Review: Jason Chin

Award-winning author and illustrator, Jason Chin.

Chances are likely that if you’re reading with a child, he/she will urge you to stop and take a closer look at the illustrations. 

Chances are likely they will notice a detail you would have missed, had you not slowed down. 

Chances are likely when you slow down, you’ll begin to savor those illustrations. 

Chances are likely you’ll realize that many illustrations are of incredible artistic quality, from the smallest of brush strokes, to layers of many forms of media, to the white space that leaves room for the imaginations and draws readers in to the heart of the story. 

And this is how I fell in love with author and illustrator Jason Chin and his realistic paintings, found in both fiction and nonfiction.

From Pie is for Sharing, illustrated by Jason Chin. The watercolor illustrations are so detailed and beg to be closely examined. My daughter enjoyed making predictions about aspects of the illustrations not yet mentioned in the text, but that Chin chose to include, such as the sparklers and an (extra!) pie.

A few years ago, I was on a hunt to add more nonfiction picture books to our school library. Admittedly, this isn’t my favorite genre, and I have to set time aside to do my homework. My daughter and I headed to the public library and perused the nonfiction with a specific goal, grab eye-catching nonfiction picture books about topics that are of high-interest or are lacking in our current collection. Lucky for us (and my students!), Chin’s books were included (3 times!) in our large bag of titles!

Although Jason has illustrated fiction picture books for other writers, some of his most notable work is the nonfiction books he writes AND illustrates based on topics that are of high interest to him. On his website (, Jason explains that he “tries to explain science with imaginative storytelling.” He also says that whatever he decides to write about, he personally and physically explores, a concept worth sharing with young readers as a means to further validate the realistic aspect of both the text and illustrations. For example, he writes that he camped with scorpions in the bottom of the Grand Canyon while researching his award-winning book, Grand Canyon and that he swam with sharks when researching Coral Reefs.

Chin, exploring the Grand Canyon, while doing some pre-writing research for Grand Canyon. Picture courtesy of the Children’s Literacy Foundation.

One has to wonder if Chin’s childhood, which included frequent moves, influenced his decision to write on a wide variety of scientific topics, from redwood trees (Redwoods) to geological features (Island: A Story of the Galapagos and Grand Canyon). He attended Syracuse University and studied illustration, but notes on his website that meeting and learning from illustrator Trina Schart Hyman as being most influential in his work. Working as a bookseller at a store in New York City inspired him to illustrate children’s books. He lives in South Burlington, Vermont with his wife (fellow illustrator, Deirdre Gill), two kids, and cat. 

Let’s jump into why Chin is at the top of my author/illustrator list with some examples that sets his work apart. On his blog, Chin describes a four-step process to creating much of his art.

  • Brainstorming and sketching kick off the process. He does this over and over, on a small scale first. When he thinks he’s happy enough, he’ll draw the same size as the actual page in the book.
  • Next, he traces his sketch onto think watercolor paper using a lightbox. When done, he soaks the paper in water for 5 minutes, then staples into his painting board!
Masking helps Chin get all the background colors just right while ensuring the details wait.
  • In the third step, he uses Frisket masks to block specific sections of the painting he’d like to remain white, ensuring that the other layers of colors don’t seep through. This looks really time-consuming!
  • More layering of paints and detail work, including using goache (a type of pain) and q-tips! Finally, he can take off the masks and paint those areas as well.
Step 4 complete! Masking is removed and the details shine! I love how he added the puddles of water and drips from the coral, as if to prove she was really in the ocean instead of the library.

Grand Canyon

Grand Canyon was a 2018 Caldecott medal nominee, 2018 Seibert Medal nominee, and the 2018 Orbis Pictus winner.
I love how Chin uses the hikers to tell the story of the formation of the Grand Canyon, as they journey from the bottom to the top.

“With vivid imagination, a crystal-clear grasp of the facts, and brilliant artwork, this illuminating look at one of the planet’s most fascinating features will entrance young readers.”―Booklist, starred review


Redwoods, published in 2015, earned this starred review from Booklist:

“A real eye-opener. . . . The text clearly and succinctly presents information, which is effectively illustrated in the colorful paintings. Even better, the narrative element in the artwork soars, promising to engage children imaginatively as well as intellectually.”

Chin’s use of diagrams and comparisons are extremely helpful to readers (young and old!) in understanding the sheer size of the redwoods!

Chin takes the reader on a wild adventure, as the main character picks up a copy of Redwoods on the subway ride. As he exits the train, he finds himself in the redwood forest. He climbs, explores, and swings as Chin shares incredible facts and figures and a cute squirrel keeps the character company.

Island: A Story of the Galapagos

Island, a Story of the Galapagos, a 2012 Amazon Best Children’s Book of the Year list member, deserves a lot of attention. Chin takes extremely complex topics (evolution, geological formations through the ages) and breaks it down into a beautiful story. By focusing on a few animals and using illustrations to exemplify changes over time, Chin completes his mission of understanding.

“Chin’s gorgeous illustrations include sweeping double-page spreads of the island and its inhabitants…” ―Horn Book Magazine, starred

Each detailed panel shows changes in a multitude of topics, from volcanoes to animal adaptations.
Chin breaks down the topic into life stages, something readers can identify with as study the long history of the islands.

Other books written and illustrated by Jason Chin:

Published in 2014, Gravity is a great book for younger readers interested in space or who may have a shorter attention span, given the complexity of some of Chin’s longer books.
Coral Reefs: A Journey Through an Aquatic World of Wonder, features some of the creative interpretation I also enjoyed in Redwoods– the scenery slips away and the main character finds themselves within a new habitat! Coral Reefs was published in 2011.
My favorite aspect of Your Place in the Universe, which made its debut in September, 2020, is the comparisons built from one page to the next. Like he did in Redwoods, it’s helpful to the reader to use the familiar, like the size of an average elementary school child, to build upon. Chin just doesn’t jump straight to the astronomical distances, he starts small, such as with the size of a flamingo!

★ “Complex concepts (such as local galaxy groups and super clusters) are clearly defined throughout in simple captions elucidating Chin’s watercolor and gouache art. . . . Extensive back matter delves deep into current understandings of the size, age, and complexity of the universe. Sources are listed along with child-friendly websites for further exploration of the big and small ideas presented in this out-of-this-world science picture book.”The Horn Book, Starred Review

Other books (fiction and nonfiction), illustrated by Jason Chin

Soon-to-be released in March, 2021, this book already has several starred reviews.
Chin’s illustrations and Ledyard’s text takes us through a July 4th day meant just for sharing; games, treasures, and pie! While I didn’t think the text was anything spectacular, Chin’s illustrations immediately conjured up incredible memories of a recent summer day spent along the shores of Lake Superior with my own family and friends.
★ “[T]his isn’t just a story about the nine months of gestation; it’s also a tale—told mostly with illustrations—of a family happily awaiting a baby’s arrival.  As left-hand pages track a zygote’s transformation, first into an embryo (there’s a tail!) and then into a fetus, right-hand pages show slice-of-life scenes of a mom, dad, and soon-to-be big sister (details in the watercolor and gouache illustrations indicate the family is Latinx). . . . During the third trimester, the left-hand illustrations begin to push onto the right-hand pages, ultimately taking over the entire double-page spread. It’s another whimsical touch in this joyful celebration of the nine months leading up to a baby’s birth.”The Horn Book, Starred Review
Chin and his family live in Vermont and I couldn’t help but capture that location as I read the book. Paul’s text shares all the forms water (and other liquids) take, but the star of the show is the way Chin illustrates each example with real-world examples children will love.

It is my sincere hope that you choose to pick up one of the titles above to explore with your children! In my opinion, it is rare to have an author possess the ability to break down complex, scientific topics AND be able to paint with such talent as Jason Chin. These works are just waiting on a shelf for you to explore.


Children’s Literacy Foundation

Publisher’s Weekly Q & A with Jason Chin

Author site for Jason Chin

Cover photos, illustrations, and reviews are from Amazon, Goodreads, and personal photo collection.


Please follow us and share this post: