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Art and Text — And Context

In an editorial last year I wrote about some disquieting aspects of contemporary picture book publishing. But equally dismaying — perhaps even more so in these times of economic stringency — is the mania for publishing modern classics of children’s literature in lush, expensive, newly illustrated editions.

Are we genuinely concerned with books for children, or are we desperately scrabbling for an adult market? Surely, this is not a propitious time for a revival of the “gift book” — a great commercial success in the early part of the century — which proclaimed the cultivation and taste of its owner. Edmund Dulac and Arthur Rackham were far and away the dominant illustrators of the book as an object of beauty. But their modus operandi — as well as their art — was vastly different from that of some illustrators today whose work seems to be undisciplined, heavy with extraneous detail, unsubtle in color, and so carelessly eclectic that pictorial and stylistic consistency is lacking.

Everything about the 1982 Allen Atkinson The Tale of Peter Rabbit (Knopf) is outrageously wrong: the initial conception, format, atmosphere, coloration, and graphic inaccuracies. Indeed, the only pleasure to be found in the volume might be a sardonic one of ruminating on how Beatrix Potter, that prickly perfectionist, would have responded to this violation of her integrity.

All good illustration must emanate from imagery in the mind; and the quality of the illustration reflects the intensity of the imaginative experience. The artist must be impelled by the written word; illustration must flesh out character and give substance to setting and emotional depth to incidents and events. And the most successful illustrations will leave a residue of atmosphere and feeling, lingering long after the book has been read.

Critical judgments, of course, are subjective, and one runs the risk of being accused of purism, if not of preciosity. Literary work does need to be viewed afresh by each generation, and art can retain the essence, the spirit, of a work even with daring new approaches. Stravinsky’s Petrouchka, for instance, provided a brilliantly unorthodox, though faithful, ballet interpretation of a traditional tale. In The Island Whale (University of California) Theodora Kroeber put it this way:

All carrying over of an art, whether it is plastic, musical, or literary, from another age and culture and language into our own brings with it some changes of focus. . . . We hear an Arcadian wistfulness and a whispering delicacy in “baroque” music, which to its own age was passionate and full-bodied. And so it is with literature. . . . A work of art has more facets than are turned to light at one time.

Thus, we have Charles Keeping’s striking new edition of Beowulf (Oxford); and Trina Schart Hyman’s work for A Christmas Carol (Holiday) represents some of her finest.

But think of William Pène Du Bois’s drawings for The Mousewife by Rumer Godden (Viking): their quiet lyricism identified beautifully with that miniature epic of heroism, captivity, and freedom — a story poorly served by Heidi Holder’s coyly sentimental pictures in the new edition. What about S. Michelle Wiggins’s garish, ornate, crowded, self-indulgent paintings for a newAlice’s Adventures in Wonderland (Knopf) — can they really be meant for Lewis Carroll? And since the enchanting original edition of The Reluctant Dragon (Holiday) is still available, why attempt to erase the enduring impression of Ernest Shepard’s crisp, impeccably right drawings with Michael Hague’s fussy, overburdened paintings? Come to think of it, how necessary is his sumptuous twenty-dollar new edition of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (Macmillan)?

About ten years ago, Margery Williams’s The Velveteen Rabbit (Doubleday) — after half a century — became for a time a cult book among trendy young adults. The English critic Margery Fisher has observed, “If the Velveteen Rabbit has personality, it is due rather to William Nicholson’s presentation of him in line and crayon than to the somewhat mawkish tone of his conversations with the Skin Horse and the Wild Rabbits.” Yet, although the original edition is still in print, it has passed into the public domain; newly illustrated versions have been hustled, somewhat redundantly, off the presses, and at the moment seven editions are listed in Books in Print.

Are we too beguiled by superficial glamor? Could not some money and artistic energy be invested in bringing back to today’s children a few superlative books of the recent past — books now hopelessly out of print? As new books pour daily into our office, even the younger members of our staff are reminded of the vanished treasures of their midcentury childhood. To these books we cannot say requiscat in pace; for while they remain alive in memory and in stable condition on the shelves of libraries, we propose, albeit belatedly, to highlight groups of them — as we have done in this issue.

— Ethel L. Heins

From the April 1984 issue of The Horn Book Magazine

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