Thomas Handforth’s “Mei Li”

handforth meilicover Thomas Handforth’s “Mei Li”reviewed by Elizabeth Coatsworth

No picture book of the year is more beautiful than Mei Li, the story of the adventure of a little Chinese girl going with her brother to the nearby town to see the winter fair, and returning by camel to their farm in time to welcome the arrival of the Kitchen God and the New Year. The lithographs, spread across each page, are bold and extraordinarily vital. The children, like bundles swathed in their padded cotton winter clothes, are yet instinct with a touching grace, and their experiences on the ice-sleds, with acrobats, fortune tellers and bareback riders, with mummers and giant kites, are filled with an exuberant gaiety, mingling the unreality of a dream with the close observation of everyday life. It is a delight to see how every pose of brother and sister brings out the little-boy or little-girl way of standing and moving. The beauty of composition, of mass and line, the heavy grace, the flowerlike detail, delight the eyes and mind, but to me the outstanding quality of the book lies in the respect that the artist shows for his subject.

In these curious waddling little figures of brother and sister, in these little slant-eyed faces, Thomas Handforth has written the poem of childhood, vulnerable and lovely. It is his particular gift to feel and portray the dignity of little children and of old men and women, of races close to the soil, and of animals. Among the animals he most often returns to the goat, the duck and the horse, a creature which he uses partly as a symbol of wildness and escape, kin to the unicorn. In Mei Li one finds the camel and the pig, the goose and the donkey, the bear and the horse, together with a small dog as bright-eyed as its little masters.

If one compares Mei Li with the other large picture book Thomas Handforth has done — though in the earlier case he did not write the text — it is easy to see how different was his manner of approach in Tranquilina’s Paradise. The first book was done in Mexico and the pictures have the delicate flowing lines of some super-tile enclosed in a tile’s square borders. Here one finds a fancy at once sophisticated, exuberant and tender, a summing-up of all that quality which delights one in the flowered crafts of Mexico and the angel-swarming decorations of its Indian churches as seen in the mirror of a highly civilized mind.

But when the artist went to live in China he was immediately impressed by the ancient stonework to be found there, the low, flat bas-reliefs of religious processions which may be studied in our museums also. From his interest in this aspect of Chinese art came a corresponding change in his own approach to China. While still working in etching, he turned also to lithography for his beautiful series of Chinese wrestlers. This graver, deeper perception underlies the gaiety of Mei Li. It is a dream, but warm with humanity. It is filled with violent action which, however, never breaks through the mood of calm in which the action is perceived. And for all the Oriental detail the pictures remain universal in their total effect.

Thomas Handforth himself has had a life as interesting as his work. Born in Tacoma, Washington, he studied art in New York and Paris, and is represented in the Metropolitan and many other of the great museums throughout the country. But much of his adult life has been lived abroad, working over a period of years in the courtyard of his native Moroccan house in Marrakech, or watching the Mexican life about him in that unreal and lovely town of Tasco, or finding his models at the fairs and festivals of Peiping where he first went eight years ago on a Guggenheim fellowship, and remained until driven out by the war. Quiet, reticent and observant, he has done what so many artists fail to do, and has pondered the scenes upon which he has looked and has given significance to his subjects. In Mei Li he has been able to bring together many of his favorite interests of farmyard and fair, all set to the vibration of childhood, in a work of the imagination which happens to have taken the form of a picture book, to the good fortune of all, young or old, who open its covers.

This review of Thomas Handford’s Mei Lei was written by Elizabeth Coatsworth. It originally appeared in the July–August 1939 issue of The Horn Book Magazine and is part of our Caldecott at 75 celebration. Click here for more archival Horn Book material on Thomas Handforth and Mei Li.

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