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Sight Reading: Something Old, Something New: Marla Frazee’s Picture Book Art

scanlon_all the worldThis year’s Caldecott committee sprinkled its fairy dust in three directions, bestowing its particular brand of good fortune on a trio of illustrators at distinctly diff erent stages of their careers. The big prize went of course to Jerry Pinkney, a draftsman and watercolorist par excellence who has long been considered in the running for the medal. Pamela Zagarenski received one of two discretionary runner-up prizes, or honors, for Red Sings from Treetops (written by Joyce Sidman). Though hardly a newcomer to the field, Zagarenski in the past has mainly given of her talents as an illustrator in the award-resistant genres of juvenile reference and the educational board book.

frazee_couple of boys have the best week everThe resumé of the second 2010 Caldecott Honor recipient, Marla Frazee (for All the World, written by Liz Garton Scanlon), falls somewhere in between, with a substantial backlist of picture books to her credit as well as a continuing role as illustrator of Sara Pennypacker’s widely praised Clementine series for chapter-book readers. Frazee won her first Caldecott Honor just a year ago for A Couple of Boys Have the Best Week Ever. All this, after twelve years of post–art school struggle when no publisher would take her on, followed by another five-year stretch when a second book contract eluded her. During that frustrating time, Frazee plied her trade elsewhere — in advertising, toy and game design, and educational publishing — but picture book illustration remained her goal. As she rethought her portfolio in the face of rejection, she finally reached a turning point when, as she told an interviewer for WETA’s Reading Rockets website, it came to her that picture book art, whatever else it sets out to do, must always tell a story. Tell stories she has done. But perhaps what a reader first notices about one of her books is how well Frazee draws.

This point would not be worth making but for the fact that, post–computer art technology, not all illustration students still believe that learning to draw even matters, let alone that drawing remains a foundational skill. Frazee’s books make the case, as eloquently as any being published today, that practiced, inspired draftsmanship has as much to communicate as ever.

smith_mrs biddleboxConsider the dazzling line work in Mrs. Biddlebox (2002), a picture book in verse written by Linda Smith. Th e story concerns a churlish old witchlike woman in a black dress who is having a majorly bad day, even for her. As though to put this comically disagreeable character in perspective, Frazee never gives more than a small fraction of the picture space on any given page to the scowling bundle of woe, leaving Mrs. Biddlebox to compete for our attention with the other principal element in her illustrations: the artist’s lushly gestural force fields of horizontal lines rendered in black grease pencil. The changing meaning of these mysterious darkened areas is easy enough to read from drawing to drawing: in one illustration, they indicate the darkness of night, in another they’re the shadow cast by a pie, and in others the ground on which Mrs. Biddlebox treads. Line work of this caliber of sophistication is as much about energy and rhythm as it is about the literal description of forms and light in space. A strong drawing starts to have its own vibe, which is why, for example, those funky, out-of-kilter cottages in Wanda Gág’s picture books look so right in their way. Frazee herself gives more than a passing nod to Gág here, especially in the final image of Mrs. Biddlebox curled up contentedly in bed, while the cascading spirals of stars with which she illuminates the night sky would appear to have been plucked straight out of one of the d’Aulaires’ stirringly lithographed treasuries of classical myths. In a Frazee book, there’s usually something old to give added dimension to the airy white expanses and gently ironic slant that, at the same time, combine to make her work feel so contemporary.

frazee_hush little babyIn the best of Frazee’s illustrations, narrative and graphic design elements briskly vie for the upper hand. The doggedly story-driven vignettes of Hush, Little Baby: A Folk Song with Pictures (1999) and The Seven Silly Eaters (1997; written by Mary Ann Hoberman) feel over-busy and emotionally thin, and the characters in these early books, limned at closer range than we’re ever permitted to view Mrs. Biddlebox, look a tad generic. With Everywhere Babies (2001; written by Susan Meyers), however, the outlook — and typical page layout — brightens considerably. In the variously formatted drawings of that engaging free-for-all, Frazee appears to be having as much fun as the little tykes in diapers and overalls she shows us crawling, tumbling, riding piggyback, sucking their thumbs, and — in the double-page stop-action sequence that is the book’s graphic highlight — learning by fits and starts to walk. She herself must have taken particular pleasure in drawing that spread, as she returned to its theme in Walk On!: A Guide for Babies of All Ages (2006), a tongue-in-cheek pep talk and instruction manual featuring stylish retro typography and a moon-faced one-year-old who might have crawled, button-eyed and curl-topped, out of the 1930s funny papers.

frazee_roller coasterIn Roller Coaster (2003), Frazee hit upon an ideal subject not only for herself but also for the picture book as an art form. Capturing on paper the dizzying twists and turns of an extreme amusement park ride — and an amusing cross-section of riders’ reactions to it — is exactly the kind of pictorial challenge Randolph Caldecott set for himself when, perched at his London drawing table in the 1870s, he broke loose from traditional illustrated-book decorum and sent jovial horsemen and bowlegged dishes and spoons scrambling across the printed page, thereby inventing the modern picture book. In her wonderfully assured drawings, Frazee deftly balances a delight in architectural detail and in abrupt shifts in perspective against a mildly satirical view of human behavior, and scores her punchline in the hardy response of a pony-tailed young first-timer as grown-up fellow riders clasp their stomachs in distress.

Santa Claus FrazeeFrazee reshuffles and expands her graphic repertoire from book to book. In Santa Claus: The World’s Number One Toy Expert (2005), she brings back passages of Mrs. Biddlebox line work and Everywhere Babies spot illustration while also exploring, more intensively than in the past, the myriad possibilities of decorative pattern. In A Couple of Boys Have the Best Week Ever (2008), the moon faces of Walk On! return but are assigned now to somewhat older children, whose speech balloons suggest, along with the faux hand-lettered type selected for the main body of text, a fresh curiosity about comics.

That remains to be seen. If Frazee’s 2010 Caldecott Honor winner, All the World, borrows at all from the book that immediately preceded it, it’s in the mood-drenched skies that come toward the end of A Couple of Boys. In All the World, Scanlon set out to craft a big statement from small words, and Frazee has responded in kind with grand yet folksy-feeling vistas decked out with windswept trees, scudding clouds, the most spellbinding depiction of a rainstorm in memory, and a multicultural variety pack of children, parents, and others going about their lives. Ultimately, Scanlon’s sinewy, smart read-aloud lyric goes soft, ending with a wistful everything-but-the-kitchen-sink pronouncement about “hope and peace and love and trust” and the us-ness of everything. (Hmmm.) Which leaves readers free of course to wander the wide-open spaces Frazee has gathered into the pages of this visually captivating, outsized book. The illustrations hark back to Depression-era American Scene regional art—the time when Robert McCloskey, Virginia Lee Burton, and James Daugherty came of age — even as they point to an exciting future for drawing.

Other Marla Frazee Books

World Famous Muriel and the Magic Mystery (Crowell, 1990) by Sue Alexander

That Kookoory! (Harcourt, 1995) by Margaret Walden Froehlich

On the Morn of Mayfest (Simon, 1998) by Erica Silverman

Harriet, You’ll Drive Me Wild! (Harcourt, 2000) by Mem Fox

New Baby Train (Tingley/Little, Brown, 2004) by Woody Guthrie

Clementine (Hyperion, 2006) by Sara Pennypacker

The Talented Clementine (Hyperion, 2007) by Sara Pennypacker

Clementine’s Letter (Hyperion, 2008) by Sara Pennypacker

Clementine, Friend of the Week (Disney/Hyperion, 2010) by Sara Pennypacker

The Boss Baby (Beach Lane/Simon, 2010)

From the July/August 2010 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

Leonard S. Marcus About Leonard S. Marcus

Leonard S. Marcus’s forthcoming books include Helen Oxenbury: A Life in Illustration (Candlewick) and, as editor, The Kairos Novels (Library of America) by Madeleine L’Engle. His exhibition Garth Williams: Illustrator of the Century opens at the Curtis Memorial Library in Brunswick, Maine, on May 1, 2018.

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