American Picture Books from Max’s Metaphorical Monsters to Lilly’s Purple Plastic Purse

In the course of the last thirty years or so, American picture books have become a mainstay of American life — and items of merchandise — without altogether extinguishing the individual creative voice. They have also ceased to be, in any defining way, American.

tale of peter rabbit American Picture Books from Max’s Metaphorical Monsters to Lilly’s Purple Plastic PurseUntil very recently, children in Western societies teethed on nursery rhymes, took their first steps to the measure of Henny Penny, and set off for school primed with Little Red Riding Hood. Nursery rhymes, nursery tales, and classic fairy tales, along with Bible stories, were the literary underpinning of the preschool years, with or without pictures. Early in the century two new works were absorbed into the canon, Peter Rabbit and Little Black Sambo — in their original, tailor-made form or treated as public property and reconstituted. Caldecott, Greenaway, and Crane, Boutet de Monvel and Boyd Smith, all made picture-book history without making a dent in most children’s lives. The next book to become a byword, in the early 1930s, was the unprepossessing Little Engine that Could.

In popular appeal Wanda Gág’s Millions of Cats, the 1928 bell-ringer, was barely a contender. But it was a creative force: an original, timeless story in a fresh, vigorous form. A sterling example, to the world at large, of what could be done.

There followed two decades and more of individual accomplishments: the inventive picture-tales of Marjorie Flack and Kurt Wiese; the foreign colorings of the Petershams and d’Aulaires, Bemelmans and Politi; Lenski’s handfuls of information; the rousing Americana of Daugherty and McCloskey; Curious George and Little Toot and Mike Mulligan-cum-Mary Anne and the other personalities, animal and mechanical, of H. A. Rey, Hardie Gramatky, Don Freeman, Virginia Lee Burton, Bill Peet. And, less classifiable, the imagination and wit, variously deployed, of Duvoisin, Ets, and Pène du Bois.

Where The Little Engine that Could is “Strive and Succeed” for tots, the story of Mike Mulligan and his steam shovel Mary Anne is a tale of true gumption — in a book formally indebted to Millions of Cats that was also, in its tapestry of pattern and detail, a treat for the eye. Curious George, in turn, was easily a match for Peter Rabbit as a lovable scamp and more than his match as a modern Penrod. Who, after all, takes George seriously as a monkey? Even as picture-book makers were straining to compete with the comics — to the extent that Helen Sewell tried her elegant hand at a comic book—Curious George and his kin had natural mass-market potential.

What was largely absent in these well-done, well-loved books was child life — the ups and downs of an individual child, the thoughts and feeling of early childhood. Maybe it’s significant that the impetus came first from emerging writers of a poetic bent, rather than from illustrators or veteran storytellers. In watching children and listening to them, Margaret Wise Brown and Ruth Krauss found a way to express the inner workings of a child’s consciousness that was also a creative expression of their own. Writing for small children was a new option, a new literary outlet. Henceforth a person might write poetry, plays, novels; film scripts, song lyrics…or picture-book texts.

CarrotSeed American Picture Books from Max’s Metaphorical Monsters to Lilly’s Purple Plastic PurseTwenty years and six books took the new internal drama from cornerstone to capstone: The Runaway Bunny (1942) and Goodnight Moon (1947), by Brown and Clement Hurd; The Carrot Seed (1945), by Krauss and Crockett Johnson, and A Hole Is to Dig (1952), by Krauss and Maurice Sendak; and Sendak’s own Very Far Away (1957) and Where the Wild Things Are (1963). A funny thing happened, though, in Wild Things: the book not only had a distinct beginning, middle, and end — in short, a plot; it has a classic plot, the plot of Peter Rabbit and, even more closely, Little Black Sambo.  Everychild, with a subconscious.

The potential combinations of internal and external action were infinite. Some were already in the air. In Crow Boy (1955), Japanese-born artist and political exile Taro Yashima depicts the estrangement of an outcast in a hostile schoolroom through the boy’s own searching, tormented eyes. Bedtime for Frances (1960) not only launched the antibedtime story as a virtual subgenre, but demonstrated in words and pictures together, how funny, how serious, and how engrossing a passing incident in the life of a small child could be. Its successor, A Baby Sister for Frances (1964), takes the further step of addressing a real problem. 1964, as it happens, was also the year of Harriet the Spy.

Outward events were pitching children’s books into the mainstream — or just then, the maelstrom — of American life. Oddly, the social and cultural revolution of the 1960s and early 1970s, with its stress on openness, self-determination, and diversity, intersected with the transformation of children’s book publishing into Big Business, with its fix on the bottom line. But the two forces were not always or inevitably at odds.

The picture-book market, in particular, was growing. For preschoolers, picture books had become a cultural entitlement and a prerequisite for reading readiness. In the early grades, picture books were becoming part of the literature-based “whole language” method of reading instruction and also served as adjuncts to social studies. With this stimulus, juvenile lists grew and juvenile imprints proliferated, some devoted specifically to picture books.

madelines rescue American Picture Books from Max’s Metaphorical Monsters to Lilly’s Purple Plastic PurseAnother response, a vital one, was paperback editions. Scholastic, already operating book clubs for teenagers and the upper grades, launched the Lucky Book Club for grades two and three in 1961, and the See Saw Book Club for grades K–1 in 1966. The first See Saw choices: Madeline, Curious George, Bread and Jam for Frances, The Carrot Seed, The Story about Ping. 1967 brought, among others, Little Bear and The Snowy Day. In Britain, Penguin introduced Picture Puffins, in 1968, as an addition to its Puffin paperback list of choice children’s books. The Snowy Day and Ping were among their early selections, too, in a lively mix of British and American titles.

The original publishers, collecting royalties, took note. Viking, publisher of Madeline and Ping and The Snowy Day, quickly tapped its million-dollar backlist for a new paperback line; and the 1975 merger of Penguin and Viking, combining the foremost juvenile reprinter and a formidable juvenile list, turned a trend into a movement. Lest their valuable properties slip away, other originating publishers launched paperback lists of their own, and the few remaining holdouts were won over in 1983–84 when books of theirs featured on the PBS “Reading Rainbow” program sold mightily in Scholastic or Puffin editions. Well might they blink: “Reading Rainbow” selections were not picture-book classics, they were new books, recent books; and seldom headliners. Boosted in the program’s early years by prominent display in the B. Dalton stores, sales took off for as modest and “special” a book as Vera Williams’s Three Days on a River in a Red Canoe. There was room, apparently, for nontraditional picture books.

sendak wilthingscov 300x269 American Picture Books from Max’s Metaphorical Monsters to Lilly’s Purple Plastic PurseOffhand, it’s reasonable to date the start of the bookstore boom in children’s books to 1978, the year the American Booksellers Association held its first Children’s Book and Author Breakfast — which was also the second year of the population bulge known as the baby boomlet and exactly a generation from the inception of the Great Baby Boom. Many of the boomers had teethed on Goodnight Moon and had gone off to school knowing, deep down, Where the Wild Things Are. Anyone who missed the books in childhood had heard them talked about — Maurice Sendak was a culture hero — and also caught wind of Madeline and Curious George and other, more recent favorites. They were hard to miss. By the end of the 1980s, Madeline and George, along with Peter Rabbit and other hot properties, came not only in hardcover and paperback but as pop-ups — as well as greeting cards, dolls, and other licensed paraphernalia. It doesn’t do to be too censorious: Palmer Cox’s Brownies, the first widely licensed properties, came in every form up to, and probably including, salt-and-pepper shakers.

Great popularity also turned certain illustrators with a signature style — Eric Carle, Tomie dePaola, Jan Brett — into the equivalent of pop stars. Here again there is clear early twentieth century precedent. In their time Howard Pyle, N. C. Wyeth, Howard Chandler Christie, and their counterparts were well-paid celebrities, too. Wyeth built his Brandywine manse on the advance for a Scribner Illustrated Classic.

In the marketplace, heightened color was another boost, as preseparated illustration gave way, decade by decade, to camera-separated illustration and the freedom, or license, of full color. In skilled hands, a vibrantly colorful book can be produced by preseparation: see Donald Crews’s Freight Train (1978), for a late, great example. But transparent watercolors, like William Steig’s glorious illustrations of that era, require camera separation. Insofar as it increases an illustrator’s technical options, full color can be a plus, an enlargement; or it can be a crutch, a chance to copy anything and everything.

What happened in the main was very like what happened almost a century earlier when full-color reproduction came to America’s magazines and deluxe books and “created a preference for realistic pictures, fully modeled,” as historian of illustration Susan E. Meyer has written. Realistic pictures, that is, in the form of oil paintings by Wyeth and others for the novels of Stevenson and Scott, and decades of popular-magazine illustration. Such pictures, in turn, serve as models for much of today’s picture-book illustration, and supply a Golden Age afterglow.

Two unaging elders, Barbara Cooney (b. 1917) and Marcia Brown (b. 1918), have instead used full color as an opportunity to innovate.

rumphius American Picture Books from Max’s Metaphorical Monsters to Lilly’s Purple Plastic PurseWho’d have guessed that Cooney, wizard of the scratchboard and a born silhouettist, was hankering all along for color? Who’d have imagined that, after forty years of illustrating other people’s stories, she had urgent, personal stories to tell? As a popular success, Miss Rumphius is a sleeper — the long, undramatic life of a spinster librarian who makes the world more beautiful by scattering lupine seeds. But what could easily have been mawkish is all business: a work of quiet passion with an undercurrent of humor. A children’s book, because everything Miss Rumphius does — her work, her world travel, her illness and recovery — is interesting and important. The illustrations, with their small, distinct, rounded forms, their sideline detail and airiness, resemble late medieval manuscript illumination, an intimate mode of painting ideal for close, repeated study.

In the case of Marcia Brown, what could she possibly do with full color that she didn’t do in the buoyant, delicately French drawings for Cinderella or the sturdy, London-to-the-life linoleum cuts of Dick Whittington and His Cat or the grave and witty woodcuts of the Indian fable Once a Mouse? So little was Brown inhibited by preseparation that she is one of those for whom composing in separate colors was a graphic-arts adventure. Shadow (1982), in collage and full, interpenetrating color, is another adventure: a shadow play, based on Blaise Cendrars’s evocation of Africa, whose silhouetted forms move like wraiths in a splendor of earth and sky and changing light, a phantasmagoria of color.

The explosion in picture-book publication, the entry of new, highly trained professionals, the availability of full-color reproduction, the popularity of retro styles — in the aggregate, disorienting — tended altogether to make looks matter more than content, and make anything that looked good seem good. Particularly hurt by the emphasis on appearance were traditional fairy tales, suddenly marketable after decades in which Marcia Brown, and the Swiss Hans Fischer and Felix Hoffmann, held the fort almost alone. Depending on taste, one could now have the exquisite porcelain tableaux vivants of Nancy Ekholm Burkert; the rustic, Arts-and-Craftsy dramatizations of Trina Schart Hyman; the sylvan New Age romances of Susan Jeffers; the high-style theatricalism of Fred Marcellino; the Old-Masterish elaborations of Paul Zelinsky. In virtually all, the artwork is more about itself than about the story.

Counterpart to the fairy-tale spectaculars, and equally meaningless to younger children, were the fairy-tale send-ups that hit paydirt in the parodies of Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith. Instead of spotting the potential humor in stock situations, many of the spoofs make fun of matters that are already funny. James Marshall knew better: his image of the wolf in Red Riding Hood taking a postprandial nap with a full belly is just what the story lacked. Kids at large, meanwhile, flocked to Paul Galdone’s good-natured cartooning for light entertainment and to Disney, where belief in fairy tales never died, for the real story, authentic or not.

harris burdick American Picture Books from Max’s Metaphorical Monsters to Lilly’s Purple Plastic PurseJudging by appearances goes beyond fairy tales. In Chris Van Allsburg’s work, even the impeccable surfaces, the freeze-dried forms, look uncanny — never mind the skewed perspectives, the distortions of scale, the dislocations. But on closer inspection the eeriness evaporates. The Mysteries of Harris Burdick, for instance, consists of stock ghost-story situations, identified in the captions, that are spookier in words than in (still) pictures. “He threw with all his might, but the third stone came skipping back.” “His heart was pounding. He was sure he had seen the doorknob turn.” In Ben’s Dream, on the other hand, the sight of the small frame house sloshing over the Great Wall of China or floating among the onion domes of St. Basil’s has its appeal, but the book’s imagination is strictly, narrowly visual. Why is Mount Rushmore’s George Washington giving Ben’s house the eye on the cover? So that, on the final page, George can tell Ben to wake up.

For the work of Leo and Diane Dillon, only one word will do. That word is arresting, and it will almost invariably do. They are intrinsically designers, not illustrators. Their elaborate, highly polished artwork can obscure a simple story. Or, standing alone — on a jacket, in a frontispiece, as a symbol — it can provide an indelible image.

Many of those images relate to African or African-American life, a major presence in the last thirty years of picture books. Multiculturalism, indeed, is not only an honorable word in the children’s book world, it has made picture books into a cultural imperative and a political agent.

keats snowyday American Picture Books from Max’s Metaphorical Monsters to Lilly’s Purple Plastic PurseThe story begins perforce with Ezra Jack Keats’s Snowy Day — the first picture book with an attractively drawn, perfectly natural black child (photographs had served heretofore as a substitute) and, of equal importance in 1962, a book in which the color of the child is incidental. Subsequent stories of Peter and his friends from the 1960s are similar. Though Keats’s flat, collage-patterned illustrations become somewhat looser and livelier, the stories continue to be generalized depictions of American child life.

Meanwhile, the sixties were erupting with sit-ins, Freedom Rides, boycotts, marches. Negroes became blacks, Blacks asserted a separate identity. 1968 brought the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy; riots in Washington and more than a hundred other cities; the Kerner Commission Report on racial hostility; the tumultuous Chicago Democratic convention.

John Steptoe’s Stevie appeared the following year — the debut of a black artist still in his teens. The first major picture book by a black artist as well. The story, however, is less specifically black — young Robert resents his mother’s weekday care of neighbor Stevie — than uncommonly realistic, true to inner-city life. The illustrations are a departure, too: thickly painted, with heavy black outlines and brilliant colors, and unmistakably modeled after Roualt. No professional illustrator would have produced a book like Stevie; but as a talented black newcomer at a momentous time, Steptoe was not bound by conventions.

The next year Keats’s Hi, Cat! came out, thickly and brashly painted in a simulacrum of the inner city. Gone is the spick-and-span sparkle of the earlier books. In its place we have rounded, loose-limbed figures and almost constant motion — a whole new tone and look and storytelling mode that Keats built on in his later books.

Stevie was featured in Life magazine. Tom Feelings’s first distinctive illustrations, his full-page soft pencil drawings for Julius Lester’s To Be a Slave (1968) and Black Folktales (1969), made an immediate impression, too: in depicting the strength and grace and dignity of black people, he gave African Americans a self-image to be proud of. The majestic, white-clad figures of Jambo Means Hello, in turn, are a match for the Apollos and other idealized Greeks of the classic age that set the standard of beauty for two thousand years in the West.

Jerry Pinkney turned down-home reality itself into the ideal. In the post-Civil War South, African Americans had a life of their own. It wasn’t an easy life, and from the turn of the century, Jim Crow laws, along with poor economic prospects, made it harder. Millions of blacks migrated to New York, Chicago, Pittsburgh, Detroit, and other cities of the North and West. So much is history; what comes after is human nature. They returned home, to visit the places where mothers and fathers grew up, where grandparents still lived, for a holiday gathering or a vacation stay, much as descendants of Northeastern migrants returned for Thanksgiving in Connecticut or a summer holiday in Vermont. It took Currier & Ives and a half-century of greeting cards to make the New England village into an earthly paradise; and it would be an exaggeration to say that Pinkney has done the same for the old-time black South in twenty or twenty-five years — but, allowing for input from others, it would not be a mistake.

pinkney back home 2 American Picture Books from Max’s Metaphorical Monsters to Lilly’s Purple Plastic PurseOf his many, many picture books, Back Home (1992), with a text by Gloria Pinkney, is a fair representative. Pinkney’s animals, it’s often been noted, are as fully alive, as much characters, as his people. His landscapes come close; even a patch of garden flowers is part of the story, as Uncle June — great-uncle June — presents Ernestine with a bouquet, as Mama had predicted, when she gets off the train in North Carolina for a visit. The “old wooden farmhouse” is unpainted and embracing; the overgrown garden is indeed Edenic. The bedroom, Mama’s old bedroom, with a newel-post bed, a candlewick spread, and an old platform rocker, is a crucial presence: when Ernestine leaves for home, it’s where she leaves behind Mama’s worn childhood overalls, for next summer. Enveloped in the sun-dappled warmth and sheer affection of Pinkney’s watercolors is a world parallel to the very different sun-dappled, affectionately rendered world of Jessie Willcox Smith.

The full-page watercolor scenes in the picture books, as effective as they are, don’t represent Pinkney’s best work as an artist. See Pinkney uncrowded and unencumbered in the four vignettes of the Tar Baby story in Tales of Uncle Remus, vignettes reminiscent of Beatrix Potter. See Pinkney painting actual people, not prototypes, in Jean Marzollo’s Pretend You’re a Cat (1990) — where a group of individual children, of assorted shades and features, are captured at play, and three little girls in ballet tutus (pretend you’re a bird) could be performing for Degas.

Since Steptoe and Feelings and Pinkney made their early marks, a great many black illustrators have been active, on both traditional and nontraditional projects. The picture book itself — bigger, more imposing, grander altogether — has become something of a showcase for black art. And it is black art that is represented, the art of the African diaspora, not exclusively African-American art. The subject, too, is Pan-African life. In the internationalization of the picture book, black supra-nationalism is a considerable factor. In a few very busy years the young Philadelphian E. B. Lewis — whose illustrations convey the emotional crux of each quiet scene — has worked on (among others) Big Boy (1995), a story of African child life by Tanzanian-Canadian Tololwa M. Mollel; Magid Fasts for Ramadan (1996), a story about a contemporary Egyptian boy by English-born Arabist Mary Matthews; and Creativity (1997), a story by John Steptoe (previously unpublished) about the arrival of a new, Puerto Rican boy in a mixed American classroom, and the kids’ confusion about who is what.

“I paint for and because of my young daughter,” writes Bermudan painter and illustrator Sharon Wilson, “and the many children I have taught who hunger to see themselves portrayed positively…laughing, loved, and in love with life.” Wilson’s credo is that of many black artists, early and late, and it permeates their work. The Day Gogo Went to Vote (1996) is both an odd book for Wilson to illustrate right off, at first go, and a good one: an odd book because the cover subject is South Africa’s first democratic election and the author, Elinor Batezat Sisulu, is South African (the daughter-in-law, unremarked, of ANC leader Walter Sisulu); a good book, because the real subject is the determination of little Thembi’s great-grandmother to vote, with Thembi along to witness the great event, and that’s portrayed glowingly, tenderly, without cliché, in Wilson’s deep-toned pastels.

A generation of affirmation, of love and living-the-full-life, finds Brian Pinkney, son of Jerry Pinkney and Gloria Jean Pinkney, creating The Adventures of Sparrowboy (1997) — the all-American paperboy as comic strip hero.

If it was good for African-American children to see themselves in picture books, it had to be good for Asian-American children, Hispanic-American children, and others; for Jewish children and Muslim children. It would also be good — along “Teaching Tolerance” lines — for everyone to know something about everyone else. “Special children” were entitled to be represented too.

About tolerance it’s hard to tell, but the creative range of picture books has increased exponentially. There’s no encompassing the content, and hardly a way to sort out the art. The nature of the group, moreover, largely determines what the books are.

As a category, “books of Jewish interest” reflects nothing so much as the impossibility of disentangling the religious, historical, social, and cultural aspects of Jewish life. So we won’t try; the books reflect them all, more or less entangled. Blessed by Isaac Bashevis Singer, Jewish folklore has flourished — roundly, in Marilyn Hirsh’s The Rabbi and the Twenty-nine Witches (1986). Irving Howe’s history of the Lower East Side, The World of Our Fathers, sparked a nostalgic return to the old neighborhood — by Linda Heller in Castle on Hester Street and the duo of Elsa Okon Rael and Marjorie Priceman in What Zeesie Saw on Delancey Street (1996). Old Testament stories, along with myths and legends, inspired no other book like Mark Podwal’s witty, wise Book of Tens (1994). From real life, and Jewish fiction, came Dayal Kaur Khalsa’s Tales of a Gambling Grandma (1986) and the books of Arthur Yorinks and Richard Egielski.

say grandfathers journey American Picture Books from Max’s Metaphorical Monsters to Lilly’s Purple Plastic PurseAmong Asian-Americans, dual identity tends to be the main concern, regardless of nation-of-origin. How the conflict is resolved, or whether it is, differs from one book or setting to another. In Allen Say’s searching, retrospective Grandfather’s Journey (1993), the protagonist remains torn, as his grandfather was, between Japan and America. (More about Say, along with Yorinks and Egielski and others, later.) In Sook Nyul Choi’s warmhearted contemporary pair, Halmoni and the Picnic (1993) and Yunmi and Halmoni’s Trip (1997), American-born Yunmi and her Korean grandmother conclude that, shuttling across the Pacific, they “both have two families.” At times, dual identity can entail a serious conflict of loyalty — as, inescapably, in Baseball Saved Us (1993), about the internment of Japanese-Americans in World War II, by Ken Mochizuki and Dom Lee.

No other cultures, probably, are as abundantly visual as the cultures of Latin America and the Caribbean. For many islanders and Latin Americans, moreover, dual identity is not a concern, it’s a given, a fact of life; they’re not only bilingual, they’re bicultural. The books that have sprouted like spring grass in the last few years, consequently, are a mix of styles, and a mix of types, created by a mix of people, including African- and Caucasian-Americans.

To illustrate: Abuela (1991), a joyous Hispanic bird’s-eye tour of New York in paper-craft collage, is the joint work of two non-
Hispanic enthusiasts, author Arthur Dorros and illustrator Elisa Kleven; The Moon Was at a Fiesta (1994), an original, folkloric tale with heavenly Latino surreal illustrations, was written by non-Hispanic, Mexico-smitten Matthew Gollub and illustrated by Mexican painter Leovigildo Martinez; Pedrito’s Day (1997), a book with a becoming Mexican-mural look about a poor, honest boy in a Mesoamerican village whose father has “gone North to work,” is the creation of Nicaraguan-Canadian Luis Garay and came out first, the same year, in Canada.

With Australia, Canada, and Britain also multiethnic today, books of almost any derivation can originate almost anywhere. It isn’t only the thematic book, however, that’s become international. Spider Spider (1996), engagingly patterned after The Runaway Bunny (“If you are tired,” says Peter’s mother to Peter-the-spider, “then I will put you in a drawer”), represents the collaboration of American writer Kate Banks, who lives in Rome; German artist Georg Hallensleben, who used to live in Rome; the French publisher Gallimard; and American editor Frances Foster, who has her own imprint at Farrar, Straus. It appeared in French the same year.

It was natural for ethnic stories to be topical, to be related to a particular condition or event. The Middlest American, however, can also be in the swim. Thanks to docudrama, realistic illustration, and the revision of social studies, we have gone from realistic books about almost nothing to realistic books about almost everything. As a genre, picture-book realism can even achieve eloquence.

When Carol Carrick and Donald Carrick created the Christopher “nature adventure” series in the early 1970s, the books were unique: brief, realistic stories, scaled down from juvenile fiction, realistically illustrated. Timeless stories like Lost in the Storm (1974), about the night Christopher’s beloved dog Badger doesn’t make it home.

Today’s equivalent is Flood (1997) — a precise, almost novelistic account of one family’s experience of the 1993 Midwest flood by old pros Mary Calhoun and Erick Ingraham, who have surpassed themselves. And from Eve Bunting, master of every popular-fiction genre, one would not have anticipated The Wall: spare, subtle, and beautifully shaped. Nothing outward happens during the visit of father and son to the wall, “my grandfather’s wall,” except the coming and going of a few other visitors; but one pair, a grandfather and grandson, give the book an absolute, wrenching conclusion. Illustrator Ronald Himler, too, has the confidence, the control, to let quiet figures speak. Has the meaning of the Vietnam War Memorial been conveyed so well in any other medium? Could there be a better memento of a visit?

There are still, welcomely, books without a subject — books about nothing but childlife. They have grown older in content, like other kinds of picture books, but they have also grown younger. And the initiative has not been exclusively or even primarily American. A common interest in early childhood has brought picture books with international roots.

In the early 1950s Dick Bruna, a Dutch poster designer with a publishing background, began to produce small, square books with stiff, staring, baby-headed figures — prototype figures not unlike pictograms. The books swept the world — over three million were sold in Britain in twenty years, almost three million in Japan — and ushered in the second board book age, of board books for babies about babies. But not immediately.

zolotow hatingbook 300x279 American Picture Books from Max’s Metaphorical Monsters to Lilly’s Purple Plastic PurseFirst, board books had to be regarded as books, rather than as playthings. In the US, where the Bruna books were inescapable too, they were sold mainly in conjunction with toys. And the doings of babies had to be regarded as worth making books about. Was there any value, really, in a baby having such a book? In the 1960s and 1970s, picture-book makers were occupied with other things — in the US, with the psyches of children old enough, like Frances, to have a baby sister. Or of an age to fall out and make up, like the friends in Charlotte Zolotow’s Hating Book. Or of a size, like Rosemary Wells’s Noisy Nora, to have two younger siblings to try to attract attention from. And it was Wells who introduced Max the indomitable infant in four board books in 1979, when the picture-book world was ready to go beyond Dick Bruna.

Helen Oxenbury, in Britain, said as much. She also eschewed sequence and whole-family appeal, attributes of the Max books, and started making board books on the revolutionary premise that what a baby did, in a particular line (like Dressing), was in itself a story. That, audaciously, a highchair and a baby in a highchair, and a potty and a baby on a potty, was a story for a baby, about Working (1981). A second set of apt if less original Baby Board Books followed in 1985 — I See, I Hear, etc. — and then, startlingly, close-ups of toddlers together, a commotion of toddlers in motion, in the billboard-like Big Board Books of 1987.

Studies of early childhood development, along with late parenting by baby boomers who took such studies seriously, brought a boom in the market for board books in the 1980s — even libraries gave way — and scores of name illustrators weighed in, often doing in board-book form what came naturally. Tana Hoban, in her rightful element, put together some of the freshest, most beautiful photographs of objects ever seen: seven animal crackers face eight scarlet and magenta poppies in her number board book 1, 2, 3 (1985). But it was new studies of infants’ visual perception that brought forth, in 1993, the spanking Hoban books of black silhouettes on white, and especially white silhouettes on black: Bauhaus books, in spirit, for Rizzoli and Toys R Us alike. By the late 1990s standard picture books, already in hardcover and paperback editions, were getting a makeover so that they too could be sold as board books in the toy superstores, alongside Dick Bruna revivals.

Children growing out of board books had real stories, too, written stories. The simpler the story, the fewer the words, the more important the writing. From Barbro Lindgren in Sweden, Eve Rice in the US, and Shirley Hughes in Britain, came new kinds of stories for toddlers that easily qualify as literature.

Lindgren’s books about Sam and Doggie, illustrated by Eva Eriksson, play a few unadorned nouns-and-verbs, in mock primarese — “Can Doggie sit on Sam’s potty?” — against scruffy, wildly playful, often contradictory pictures. Eve Rice’s early, very young books make a touching drama of ordinary infancy: Sadie goes “Ghee ghee ghee,” only “Ghee, ghee, ghee”; “But Mama did not worry. She knew a song when she heard one.” Shirley Hughes’s picture-stories about Alfie, a lovable tyke in action, are as full of incident and detail, both verbal and visual, as a crusty British movie, on a three-or four-year-old level.

Books-in-general for the Alfie audience took on new life, too. Mirra Ginsburg, inspired by Russian children’s poet Kornei Chukovsky, turned out one after another poetic teaser like Where Does the Sun Go at Night?, virtually inventing new literary forms. Charlotte Pomerantz, an innovator by instinct, produced picture book narratives — Where’s the Bear? is one — to rival Ruth Krauss’s for economy and effectiveness of words. They had the good fortune to be illustrated by Byron Barton, Nancy Tafuri, the team of Jose Aruego and Ariane Dewey — who, on their own, styled their work for the very young. These were writers and artists sophisticated enough to be intriguingly simple.

Somewhere along in the Hughes series, Alfie clings to a scrap of baby blanket, a situation that can be a problem. If there seem to be lots of problem books, well, the problems themselves are nigh universal, and the ways of dealing with them highly individual. But creative solutions exist, in life and in books.

zolotow my grandson lew American Picture Books from Max’s Metaphorical Monsters to Lilly’s Purple Plastic PurseCharlotte Zolotow didn’t address problems, she examined situations and feelings. My Grandson Lew (1974) wasn’t intended to bring on a stream of stories about the happiness of having grandparents, or to initiate a new era of openness about death and loss. It could be said, though, that Zolotow recognized the importance of grandparents and the sorrow of losing them, and her sensitive, acute, unfussy treatment of the subject, indirect but not evasive, offered encouragement to others. Lew’s grandfather died four years back, it seems, when Lew was two. Why hasn’t Lew ever asked about him before? “He always came back…I’ve been waiting for him.”

At the simplest level, Marc Brown’s Arthur and his sparring mate Francine and their friends overcome the ordinary obstacles of childhood with a few comic flourishes, courtesy mainly of Francine. No sooner do Arthur’s new glasses pass classroom muster, in Arthur’s Eyes (1979), than Francine has to have her own fake, movie-star pair.

Holly Keller’s Horace, the leopard son of tiger parents, finds out for himself, by joining up with a leopard family, that looking-alike alone does not a family make. The problem is more serious than Arthur’s being called “four-eyes,” and calls for thoughtful treatment. Deftly negotiating the border between winsome and poignant, Keller makes adoptee Horace likable enough to mainstream, in effect, in the 1998 Brave Horace.

Divorce is probably the most difficult subject for picture books — disturbing in itself and demanding. The subject is out in the open, without the protection of fiction, and so is the reader. It’s a big subject, too, hard to be honest and helpful about in thirty-two pages. Judith Caseley, in Priscilla Twice (1995), has a scheme: Priscilla, split physically and emotionally between her mother and father, draws herself twice, once on each side of a dividing line. Why, asks the teacher? “They both need me.” The use of children’s drawings to interpret their feelings, a use familiar to children, becomes a cheery measure of Priscilla’s adjustment.

In a way Helen Griffith’s Georgia Music (1986) is My Grandson Lew become, in a dozen years, long and complex, with illustrations to suit. James Stevenson’s dusky watercolor of grandfather relocated from his scraggly Georgia cabin to a rocker in Baltimore is the background against which one reads that “nothing seemed to interest him anymore.” The little girl’s antidote, a little Georgia music on the mouth organ, is a palliative, she knows, a loving intercession, not a cure. Georgia Music and its sequels are about people and their feelings, and death as a part of life.

All topics and themes accounted for, that leaves the singularities — individuals whose vision has expanded ours.

sylvester and the magic pebble American Picture Books from Max’s Metaphorical Monsters to Lilly’s Purple Plastic PurseWilliam Steig’s work is beautiful and touching and funny. For almost twenty years, from Sylvester and the Magic Pebble (1969) to Spinky Sulks (1988), he turned out one delicate triumph after another. A contest could be held for children, adults, or both: “I like Amos & Boris (or Brave Irene or Doctor De Soto) best because…” The one prize: a visit to Charlotte’s barn.

Books about the building of pyramids and cathedrals were old hat when David Macaulay came along, and did better. By making the process not only interesting and informative, but involving; by encompassing the historical setting and the human presence, he gave descriptive illustration a new dimension. For Macaulay himself, there are no limits.

Arnold Lobel is the illustrator as freelance genius. Whatever the medium, the format, or the nature of the material, whether Lobel had written the text or not, his work has vitality, expression, momentum. See his illustrations for Prelutsky and his own Frog and Toads, see his Day Peter Stuyvesant Sailed into Town and Cheli Durán Ryan’s Hildilid’s Night. Don’t see Fables, it’s not representative.

An etcher who likes to draw pigs and build houses, who does etchings of pigs constructing letters of the alphabet, would seem to have a limited future in picture books. Arthur Geisert, encouraged to follow his quirky muse, now has to his credit two wordless, noisy books of pigs saying “Oink,” a tour of the etcher’s studio, and — why not? — a tribute to the old-time Midwest haystack.

Every James Marshall picture is funny in a different way, independent of the text. It may be a detail; it’s usually composition, too. George, raiding the refrigerator at night, is a study in gray, buttercup, and black, with fuzzy green slippers. Or, keenly, it may be an image. Representing the Stupids, “heavy sleepers,” are four pairs of feet, two of them shod, protruding onto the pillow. And Viola Swamp, a real horror, isn’t pretty Miss Nelson in false-face, she’s Marshall’s creation, another of his drawn-to-life characters.

With Vera B. Williams, you might forget publishing is Big Business. It’s not just the looseness and spontaneity of her artwork, or the unconventional formats, from the notebook of Three Days on a River in a Red Canoe to the family scrapbook look and sound of “More More More,” Said the Baby. The artful amateurishness, the exuberance and abundance, all speak the same human language, sometimes called populism.

James Stevenson breathes imagination, with an edge. An elderly gent, out of John P. Marquand, who tops his grandchildren’s mishaps with outlandish tales of his own childhood . . . where he appears as an infant with a mustache. Two discarded toys the night after Christmas. “The Worst” person in the world. And then, from childhood: “Grandpa thought there was a right way to do everything.” The voice is familiar; the magic remains.

Of all the unlikelihoods in latter-day picture books, nothing quite matches the success of Louis the Fish, early in the Arthur Yorinks-Richard Egielski partnership. The minimal text is in a muted Jewish idiom; Louie’s butcher-father is only a little overbearing. The plain, almost drab pictures make the inconceivable natural, and make Louis-the-happy-fish the only possible conclusion. Other Yorinks and Egielski books are strange, too. Louis the Fish is a rarity, another Carrot Seed.

sis starry messenger American Picture Books from Max’s Metaphorical Monsters to Lilly’s Purple Plastic PursePeter Sís’s work is precise and elusive, clear and enigmatic. He has an utterly distinctive style and he is a great illustrator of other people’s writings. His own small, early books — Having, Going Up! — are marvels of sly, concise storytelling. His big, later books, though often overelaborate, always have one or two imperishable images: the double-page of swaddled babies in Starry Messenger, for instance. One always awaits what he’ll do next.

A picture book by Allen Say is an encounter with self, head on. You are Allison, seeing in the mirror that the features of your adoring parents aren’t like yours. You are Billy Wong, the would-be matador, deciding if you should be Chinese. You are, horrifically, young Sam, not wanting to grow old like your grandfather, and seeing in the mirror the next morning…Who are you? Only exceptional work has such an impact.

A bunch of indistinguishable mice who can handle just about any human problem is Shakespeare in picture books, neat. “Lilly loved school,” begins Kevin Henkes’s tragicomedy, Lilly’s Purple Plastic Purse. Lilly loves the pointy pencils, the squeaky chalk, the “privacy of her very own desk.” Most of all, Lilly loves her teacher, Mr. Slinger. Lilly will hate Mr. Slinger, of course, when she gets in trouble on account of the purple plastic purse, cause of a moral crisis. As Lilly finds the things Mr. Slinger has put in her returned purse, down to “a small bag of tasty snacks,” she shrinks visibly, frame by frame. Laugh and cry.

The conclusion is simple. Picture books can do just about everything other kinds of books can do, and in the vibrations between words and pictures, sometimes more.

From the March/April 1998 issue of The Horn Book Magazine: Special Issue: Picture Books.

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About Barbara Bader

Barbara Bader, a longtime contributor to the Horn Book, is the author of American Picturebooks from Noah’s Ark to the Beast Within. She has written extensively on picture books, folklore, multicultural literature, the history of libraries, and publishing for children. She is being honored in September 2013 by the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art.

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