Picture Books, Art and Illustration

From Newbery and Caldecott Medal Books, 1966-1975
edited by Lee Kingman, published by The Horn Book, 1975

Ten years, ten books. Ten books that, one by one, have been put forth as the best of the year’s picture books, by inference the best that America could produce.

This is the burden of the Newbery and Caldecott awards. As a means of focusing attention on children’s books, the awards have been singularly successful. Once a year children’s books are news. The choices arouse interest; people seek them out. On the basis of the awards, moreover, the winners are preserved in perpetuity. They acquire a permanent standing. For assorted reasons, this is especially true of the Caldecott winners. Anyone who frequents a library has seen students of children’s literature assembling a pile of Caldecott Medal books and diligently examining them in the belief that they represent a touchstone of quality, in particular of artistic quality. From the past ten years, this is the body of work they will find.

 

always room for one more Picture Books, Art and IllustrationAlways Room for One More, Sorche Nic Leodhas’s adaptation of a rhyming Scottish tale, is ingeniously pictured by Nonny Hogrogian as a shadow play rising out of the mists. Texture and silhouette are the basic components; or atmosphere and gesture — best seen perhaps when Lachie MacLachlan stands by his door hailing the first passing cart. The heather sweeps over the horizon; the house sits squat and low, hugging the hill; his upraised hand says “Welcome”; the wayfarer is the weary traveler incarnate.

When the figures cease being striped or cross-hatched shadows, however, and become individuals, persons with faces, one discovers that they all look alike. They not only have the same sharp-nosed long-lipped faces, they have the same looks on those faces. And they strike the same poses; they’re all striking poses. By the end there’s no more big-hearted Lachie MacLachlan — or tinker or tailor or sailor — but a passel of performers putting on a good show.

This was Hogrogian’s first full-fledged picture book and it seemed fresh — a new approach. Whether that approach has the appeal for children that it had for adults is questionable. Whether a more personalized, anecdotal approach could have turned a long rhyme in Scots dialect into a successful children’s picture book is open to question, too. But the book suffers most in retrospect because it has come to look mannered. As accomplished as the illustration is, the pictures have very little content. The point is made, but it doesn’t matter as it should.

sam bangs and moonshine Picture Books, Art and IllustrationSam, Bangs & Moonshine, written and pictured by Evaline Ness, is a classy book, as high-class an object as a Gucci bag or a Hermes scarf. This is not a matter of mere surface glitter. Just before the double-page spread illustrated in this volume, with its first line smartly set in larger type, its evocative pattern of boats, its picturesque peaked house, its small musing child, are two pages that are almost blank. The left-hand page is the copyright page, and its obligatory data is printed in sea-green; to the right is a half-title printed in black with the ampersand in green. Even when no one is looking, Sam, Bangs & Moonshine keeps up appearances.

The story is about a child “named Samantha but always called Sam” whose fanciful tales (called moonshine) endanger both the little boy who believes them and her beloved cat, known as Bangs. It is a story complete in words; there is no need for pictures. Nor do the pictures tell the story. Most of them, in fact, are static. Only once does something really happen before your eyes, something that you can’t wait to find out about: Sam sees hopping toward her on its long hind legs a tiny, funny-looking animal. (A gerbil, her father insists, not, as Sam would have it, a baby giraffe.)

Overall, Sam, Bangs & Moonshine is a conventional story, with pictures, gotten up as a picture book This is not a cardinal sin, but neither is it cause for celebration, Moreover the illustrations contain little of direct interest to a child, and their interest to an adult is chiefly in their technique and design. Characteristic are the pinwheel of slat fences and the file of twisted tree trunks, elements that have no bearing on the story and no meaning in themselves; they say nothing. Here as elsewhere Ness is not so much an illustrator as a set designer, and she seems to me an illustrator for children only by happenstance.

drummer hoff Picture Books, Art and IllustrationOn to Drummer Hoff, adapted by Barbara Emberley, pictured by Ed Emberley, an old cumulative rhyme made into a  heavy-treading, high-keyed picture book. Anything so lacking in variety and inflection can either be praised for its plainness or faulted for its obviousness, depending on one’s point of view. But it is difficult to imagine a plausible defense of the worked-up woodcuts that form the basis of its humor.

Their antecedents, the crude woodcuts that once appeared in chapbooks and on broadsides, have served as models for many an artist. They have vigor, directness, concision, and withal a certain stiffness that, to our eyes, gives a stagey, sportive look to the matter at hand. The stiffness is archaic, a throwback to beginnings, but the clear-cut crisp quality derives from the very language of woodcut — the bounding line, the parallel strokes, the solid black.

Emberley cuts this way, that way, every which way. Far from defining form, all that wild cutting effaces it; and the arbitrary application of patches and stripes of garish color serves only to increase the disjunction between form and design. The simple, direct manner of the popular woodcut and its value as illustration are sabotaged by superficial elaboration.

A certain cachet attaches in picture books to the use of woodcuts, and derivative modes and techniques are much in evidence in books based on traditional rhymes and tales. It is as if a woodcut were ipso facto “art” — a higher form of creation than mere drawing, and as if a period or folk style somehow conferred authenticity. But a model can easily become a crutch, and an imitation can be a travesty.

fool of the world Picture Books, Art and IllustrationTo take up The Fool of the World and the Flying Ship as pictured by Uri Shulevitz, is to bite gratefully into a loaf of honest bread. Here is the Fool, looking simple and guileless; here are his brothers, looking gross and devious; here is an unconcerned cow and an attentive dog. The Fool sets out to seek his fortune and marry the Czar’s daughter. Does he know how to make a flying ship and win her? the ancient old man asks him. No, he doesn’t know. Then what is he going to do? “God knows,” says the Fool of the World.

They eat, they drink and make merry; then the ancient says to the Fool…that one must turn the page to find out. And there, on the crest of a golden road, is a flying ship. A ship all ready to fly, with its square sail billowing and its pennant flapping and its bowsprit pointed up and away. When you have taken your fill of the little ship, you spot the Fool stretched on the ground asleep, and while the story proceeds you have a page to anticipate his delight when he wakes to find it.

Next comes an exultant wordless doublespread, the Fool of the World sailing over the countryside, vast and minute, and there are other good pictorial moments, as well as some in the second half that seem feeble or clumsy. In concept and design the book is less distinctive than Shulevitz’s earlier One Monday Morning. But it has two great attributes that the preceding winners lack, memorable imagery and a sense of conviction.

sylvester and the magic pebble1 Picture Books, Art and IllustrationThe same can be said of William Steig’s masterly Sylvester and the Magic Pebble. Sylvester is an original story conceived in terms of images that constantly renew one’s interest in it. At its core is the most excruciating of all situations — ceasing to be. Donkey Sylvester, holding the magic pebble, wishes he were a rock; and he is a rock. Who then will ever pick up the pebble and wish that Sylvester was there? His parents, of course, because it reminds them of his penchant for collecting stones.

Steig’s characters are individuals and his pictures are lovely. Few picture book artists except for Beatrix Potter and Edward Ardizzone have used watercolor so felicitously. He has made lovely, touching pictures of a donkey who turns into a rock. The rock, for its part, lies on the hill through the seasons and each becomes a poetic metaphor for Sylvester’s condition and prospects. Come spring, he, too, must return to life. This is pictorial storytelling of a high order, beyond the reach of most illustrators. The idea that children’s taste in art is formed by what they see is to my mind overworked, and a poor excuse for exalting much artifice. But Steig has conceived nobly and, through his art, made his conception real. He has made us feel what it’s like to be a donkey become a rock on a hill in the snow.

The five remaining books, like three of the foregoing, are based upon traditional material; but there the similarity ends.

a story a story Picture Books, Art and IllustrationGail Haley’s A Story, A Story, the pictorial rendering of one of the African Anansi tales, is an unexceptionable book effective for reading to a group, commonplace as art. The spread represented in this volume perfectly illustrates its utility — the large scale, the clear-cut flat forms, the manifest action, the vivid coloring — and, equally, its deficiencies. What exists in African art as expressive simplification is here facile stylization, without meaning or force. The tree, for instance, is not an idea of a tree but a wallpaper pattern; and a similar lack of precise observation, variety or modulation is marked throughout. It needn’t be so. Janina Domanska’s drawings for The Coconut Thieves and Marcia Brown’s woodcuts for Once a Mouse are demonstrations, in their different ways, of creative as against rubber-stamp stylization.

funny little woman Picture Books, Art and IllustrationThe phenomenon of the deserving artist honored for something less than his or her best work is a familiar one, and examples turn up in this group, too. The first is Blair Lent — another illustrator who, like Domanska, might be called a creative borrower (and who scrupulously disclaims authenticity). The Funny Little Woman, a tale of “Old Japan,” is as likeable as can be but not in a class with The Wave or Tikki Tikki Tembo as an artistic and dramatic entity, or with some of Lent’s others for sheer illustrative verve.

A hallmark of Lent’s books is the cunning way he plots the action pictorially from the title page forward, and that we see here, too. On the title page, framed by the Japanese chrysanthemum motif, is the funny little woman holding her talisman, a small rice paddle. Next we take in her little house, the nearby river and bridge, and the approach of her elderly neighbor — the setting and circumstance of the story to come. Then with the turn of a page, the wall of the house opens up and we see her inside, making rice dumplings and laughing her first “Tee-he-he-he.”

But we also see, where part of the garden has fallen away, a tell-tale crack in the floor and, at the next moment, a dumpling about to roll into it. In a thrice the funny little woman is down the hole, too, running along an underground river, talking with statues, being seized by a wicked oni, while back at the little house her elderly neighbor knocks at the door, peers in the window, and starts back over the bridge.

The side action isn’t part of the story and in this case it doesn’t contribute directly to it (as, for instance, the stillness of the Old Man With The Ladder does in Tikki Tikki Tembo). But besides pleasing a child, it makes more graphic the passage of time and brings us to the heart-warming climax, the funny little woman’s return to her little house where her neighbor waits to help her up from the hole and trees, flowers, birds break out in welcoming array.

Lent has not simply pictured a story, he has made The Funny Little Woman a pictorial adventure, and consequential.

one fine day Picture Books, Art and IllustrationThe one merit of One Fine Day — a not inconsiderable merit — is that it tells a simple cumulative story clearly to small children. It  has momentum, and at every opening something happens. On the debit side the old woman is grotesque; the animals by and large are ungainly; and the afflicted fox, the focal figure, is neither a real fox nor a real character — that is to say he has neither verisimilitude (like the animals of Rojankovsky, Sendak and Garth Williams) nor personality (for which see Petunia, the silly goose, or Ferdinand, the peaceable bull). Altogether the treatment is ambitious; the execution is thin.

duffy and the devil Picture Books, Art and IllustrationMargot Zemach, who has to her credit The Judge, A Penny a Look and others of uncommon interest, is another splendid artist honored for a weak book — in this case the decidedly inferior Duffy and the Devil. A basic function of illustration is to make the meaning of the story plain; but if anything Duffy and the Devil is more easily understood paragraph by paragraph than picture by picture. Some of the compositions are crowded and chaotic, but there are other reasons, too, for the book’s difficulty.

The story is a Cornish variant of Rumpelstiltskin, the tale of a man of means who marries a poor girl under the misapprehension that she can “spin like a saint and knit like an angel,” while she has pledged herself to the devil who does it for her. She finds a way to extricate herself, predictably, but one could not say that the story ends happily. Rather, ironically and amusingly; happiness is not an issue.

Happiness is not an issue because, one and all, the characters are buffoons. This may be true to the original; the illustration accentuates it. The girl, Duffy, is crude and gross, a carbon-copy of the squire; in pigtails she can pass as his daughter. The old  crone who keeps house for the squire is indistinguishable from Duffy’s termagant mother. The local folk, witches included, are so many more slatterns and louts. Which is witch? one might ask. One could certainly ask who’s who. Dramatically, psychologically, what are these people to one another?

Cornwall or not, this is Rowlandson country, a caricature of society. In The Judge, which pays homage to Rowlandson, too, we have a persecutor and victims (never mind that they’re not as innocent as they pretend); in A Penny a Look, one of the two brothers has his doubts about the freak-show scheme, and the one-eyed men put a deserving end to it. Zemach is adept at nuance; she can portray character by the twist of a foot, but Duffy and the Devil draws no distinctions. In every day terms the characters are all foolish, fat and funny, and what is particularly suspect, funny because they’re fat.

Arrow to the Sun Picture Books, Art and IllustrationArrow to the Sun, Gerald McDermott’s picturization of a Pueblo Indian myth, may be the most problematic of the lot. Contained within a thirty-two-page picture book — and the film that was made concurrently — is an epic quest in outline. A boy born to the Lord of the Sun and an Indian maiden goes to seek his father, passes the trials set him, and transformed, returns to earth bearing his father’s spirit to the world of men. “The people celebrated his return in the Dance of Life”, the book concludes.

To me this is meaningless. We are given to understand that the sun has power, but what power (apart from the ability to transmit a “spark of life”) and for what purpose? Light, heat, fire — none of these attributes of the sun are invoked. Nor is the Lord of the Sun portrayed as a broadly generative or beneficent spirit. In what altogether does the boy’s transformation consist? What is the spirit of his father that he brings back to earth?

The boy, the villagers, and the Lord of the Sun are all depicted as animated kachina dolls, an ostensible Pueblo touch that is also a good device for an animated film. An animated doll can be manipulated to broadcast action or emotion far more readily than a man — mouth down, he’s glum; mouth up, he’s glad — and, come what may, an animated doll is amusing. But in actuality kachina dolls represent supernatural beings, rain spirits and the like, not human figures. To blur the distinction is to rob the kachina-image of its point and to suggest, wrongly, that geometric dolls represent the Pueblo image of people. (From early times the Pueblos have drawn human beings realistically.)

Moreover, while some of the kachinas are genuinely, intentionally funny, many are stylized abstractions only; the same is true of other Indian spirit-figures. When such forms are used indiscriminately, the onlooker fails to realize “how few of the frequent distortions or exaggerations of human or animal likenesses are meant to be grotesque.”* They all take on a comic (or horrific)  aspect, to the detriment of a true perception of tribal art.

It is just because tribal art — Indian, African, Oceanic — been widely misconstrued and misapplied that discretion is called for. This is all the more so when a book, like Arrow to the Sun, takes on an allover “Pueblo” look — the consequence also of the patterned forms made from Pueblo patterns and the lush coloring broadly suggestive of the Southwest. On Pueblo pottery, however, the geometric patterns are applied with close attention to form, with discipline and restraint. Indeed, these are hallmarks of Pueblo art as a whole, which Miguel Covarrubias went so far as to characterize as “sober, formalistic and conservative.”**

In short, there is no basis in Pueblo art for this highly theatrical treatment, visually arresting though it may be. To what extent it is dramatically compelling is the next question.

Prospectively, the most dramatic passages are the four trials — the lions reduced to a frazzle, the serpents tied in knots, the bees put to rout, the lightning shaken-up. There is no real contest, the boy has so much the better of it; but in the film (where the passages crackle) there is action and duration — a period of time in which boy meets beast. On the book-page he triumphs instantaneously, ping.

The triumph is mechanical and abstract. This is not to disparage symbolic abstraction. Leo Lionni’s Little Blue and Little Yellow, the most abstract picture book extant, is one of the most moving. Blair Lent fills a hut with symbolic figures in Why the Sun and the Moon Live in the Sky, and convinces us that they represent the sea and its creatures. But Lionni’s blobs of blue and yellow, for all that they are blobs, have individuality. This is a small thing but enormously important: the book would not have nearly the same impact if they were circles. Lent’s symbolic personages have individuality too, as do the masked figures they’re based upon. In contrast, McDermott’s symbolic representations of man or beast are formalized designs. Two or more designs can play out a comedy, briefly; it happens in television commercials all the time. But high drama is beyond them. And in fact the effect of the trials is comedic. They’re funny.

The trials are also done in pantomime. Indeed, the book as a whole is pantomime, whether or not there’s an accompanying text.  The depersonalized gesticulating figures are the essence of pantomime (to efface themselves similarly, professional mimes dress in black or white); and so is the concision. Jean-Louis Barrault, a student and master of the art, once observed that pantomime “is an action which takes place exclusively in the present; it contains neither narrative nor explanation.”*** Macbeth, he noted, “could be reduced to a pantomime of forty minutes.”

Arrow to the Sun is a myth of divine birth and transfiguration become a brief spectacle — eye-filling, transitory, and to me, empty.

 

These, then, are the ten prize-winners. Some are effective picture books, very few merit applause as art or illustration. Since an award must be given each year, it is fair to ask what might have won instead. Were these as good as any or were other, better books passed by?

Some come to mind immediately. In the year of Drummer Hoff, a banner year, either One Monday Morning or The Wedding Procession of the Rag Doll, pictured by Harriet Pincus, or Tomi Ungerer’s Moon Man. (None of these was an Honor Book.) In the year of A Story, A Story, Maurice Sendak’s cartoon triumph In the Night Kitchen, followed by the Lore Segal-Harriet Pincus collaboration Tell Me a Mitzi. (The first was an Honor Book.) In the year of One Fine Day, William Pene du Bois’s Bear Circus foremost, but also Look Again! by Tana Hoban; Changes, Changes by Pat Hutchins; and If All the Seas Were One Sea, pictured by Janina Domanska. (Only the last was an Honor Book.)

Because the choices of these years are among the most deficient of the ten, the alternatives are particularly striking. The citation of One Fine Day, for instance, and the total neglect of such a richly imagined and brilliantly executed book as Bear Circus is hard to fathom.

Pene du Bois has never won the Caldecott, however, and neither has Tomi Ungerer. Very few books based on original material have won, even fewer in recent years. Pene du Bois and Ungerer are also original creative talents: the two often go together. Jean Charlot, Leo Lionni, Crockett Johnson, Garth Williams…what they have in common is a body of unusual, skillful, uncited work — books that stand on their own.

By the large the prize books are imposing editions of folk and fairy tales, or splashy ones. Other ethnic and folk material is well represented on the list of Honor Books. Such books lend themselves to artistic effects and artistic referrals (Indian or antiquarian or whatever). They have setting, decor, costumes: more art per square inch. They look like art.

It’s an illusion, the consequences of equating art with artiness. Art is a line that talks, an averted head that speaks volumes. Art is a single tulip growing on a curve of the world in Esphyr Slobodkina’s Caps for Sale, to take an example out of the blue. Artists are the source of art; subject and style, as such are immaterial. Bernard Waber, defining Lyle by an outline, is more the artist than many who aspire to paint murals in picture books. Art is substance, not appearance. It has character.

Picture books that qualify are not lacking. Were they given their due, there might be more.

This article, originally published in Newbery and Caldecott Medal Books, 1966-1975, is part of our Caldecott at 75 celebration. Click here for more archival Horn Book material on Ed Emberley and Drummer Hoff.


*Douglas, Frederic H., and Rene d’Harnoncourt, Indian Art of the United States, New York, The Museum of Modern Art, 1941, p. 11.
**Covarrubias, Miguel, The Eagle, the Jaguar and the Serpent: Indian Art of the Americas, New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 1954, p. 224.
***Barrault, Jean-Louis, The Theatre of Jean-Louis Barrault, London, Barrie &. Rockliff, 1959, p.29.

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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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