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Distinction in Picture Books

by Marcia Brown

Editor’s Note: Although addressed to librarians, Miss Brown’s paper speaks equally to parents.

What is a distinguished picture book? With the changes that have come about in publishing in the last few years, the fate of the picture book lies squarely in the hands of librarians. Today it takes real courage for a publisher to produce a picture book, especially one that is a little unusual. With the great competition from mass-produced, inexpensive books, the individually produced picture book can remain in print only through continued library sales.

A librarian hands along to others what she has found significant, interesting and beautiful in books. From the flood of picture books that pour off the presses each year it is increasingly difficult to select any that merit the designation “distinguished.” In selecting and interpreting hooks for children, librarians can actively encourage the production of good picture books. The problem of choosing good illustration in the books we give our children has many ramifications in our contemporary life.

A child can and must be trained in visual awareness if he is to become an aware adult. For the city child, there is the staccato excitement of geometry, subway lights, neon signs, sharp contrasts of light and shade, mass groupings of buildings and humanity. For the country child there are the subtle curves of landscape, a close-up of seasonal changes, the design of plant forms, a chance to observe the relationships of the parts of nature to the whole. Each child can be taught to enlarge his horizons.

Taste, the ability to discriminate, to cast off the false, the unworthy, and to retain the genuine; the capacity to see what is before us, to be alert; the pleasure in what is harmonious and at the same time various; the poise that is born of inner rhythm and balance — all these are best formed in early childhood. In our mechanized environment, mass media such as the comic book, the greeting card, magazine advertising, television, the motion picture and the animated cartoon influence the visual perception of a child. The child’s avidity for information, his need for excitement and adventure, his imagination, are exploited in this mass production of taste, with all its accompanying paraphernalia of saccharinity, sadism and frenzied destruction. Now, added to this we have the mass-produced, inexpensive picture book that must cost as little as possible to produce and be easy to sell, since the motive for production is profit. Millions of copies of this type of book appear on the market each year. The public library, the school library and the home — if in these places adults select good books for children — become islands in the flood. None of us would quarrel with the cost of these books to the children. Would that all their books could cost so little! But we can question their quality.

A picture book evolves from the combined effort of author, illustrator, publisher and printer. All, I believe, are interested in producing a good book, but they must also produce a salable book. From our discussion we shall have to exclude the book produced entirely as a business commodity by huge combines and those concerns whose large reserves of funds afford them

vast machines for production and distribution. The average publisher cannot afford to publish and keep in print a book that will not sell. And just as any united group of people accomplishes its work through a certain amount of personal compromise and mutual understanding of each other’s needs and problems, so the production of a picture book entails concessions from one member of the group to another.

When the artist is also author the chance for unity between text and pictures is usually greater, although it is conceivable that other artists could provide better illustrations than those of the author. Whether or not the author is artist, whether pictures and text form simultaneously in the author’s mind or the writing of the text precedes the execution of the pictures, the problem of unity remains. For the pictures must be true to the spirit and feeling of the book as a whole, the spirit of the author’s concept and the child’s acceptance. Once the artist has grasped this concept, and this can happen in the short space of time needed to read the text because all his life has been a preparation for this moment, the plan of the book’s appearance begins to take place in his mind. Perhaps he asks himself questions such as these:

What shape? How much space will I need for double spreads? Is the feeling of the book one of height, with tall buildings, trees that reach up, or is it horizontal, with long roads, the sea, a procession to stretch across a page? When Plato Chan had just finished the pictures for Magic Monkey he told us in the Children’s Room of the New York Public Library that he made the book vertical because monkeys go up and down and The Good-Luck Horse horizontal because a horse is shaped that way.

What colors are appropriate to the story? Also, how many colors can the publisher afford to let me use? If I must use only two colors, what two will provide one dark enough for a legible text? If the story has an exotic or historical background, how much of the style determined by the background shall I use in my pictures? What technique shall I use: fine line, reed pen, flat color, wash and line, crayon, spatter, linoleum cut, pastel and line? What type face shall I keep in mind that will be harmonious with my drawings and also with the spirit of the book?

Each book presents a completely new set of problems. That is one reason why illustrating is such interesting work. Certain methods of reproduction are suitable to certain media, and the costs of these vary greatly. Just as the printmaker does not expect from an etching the same effect he can get in a wood block, so the illustrator cannot expect from line reproduction the nuances of a water color. An illustrator today must acquaint himself with all these methods of reproduction to realize the best results from his work. His job does not end with the completion of his drawings, but only when the finished, bound book is in his hands. Many illustrators see their books through the entire ordeal of proving and printing.

To anyone who has taken the trouble to show fine paintings or reproductions to little children it should be apparent that there need be no condescension to their ages in the types of drawing and painting we offer them. They embrace all kinds and all subjects freely. Their own drawings may be realistic, near abstract or conceptual. The child of six does not become lost in a tangle of associations and rules as he looks at a drawing. If its message is clear, whether simple or complex, he will comprehend it. Perhaps not all at once. But most worthwhile things bear more than one examination.

As for deciding which medium of illustration is best for children, the great variety of media and the many fine examples of each type prove the foolishness of dogmatism. The important question is what medium is best for this book, tells its message clearly — and is economically practicable. The photographs of Tobe, the colored woodblocks of Falls’ ABC, the poster technique of Lewitt and Him in Locomotive and The Little Red Engine Gets a Name, Thomas Handforth’s stylized pen line in Tranquilina’s Paradise and his bold brush and crayon work in Mei Li, the black and white rhythmic line and mass of Millions of Cats, the beautiful abstract design of some of the Russian picture books of the ’30’s, the water colors of Little Tim and the Brave Sea Captain, the colored lithographs of A Child’s Good Night Book: these are just some of the media available to the illustrator. Why do many illustrators utilize so few of them?

Nor can we make rules about color in children’s books, except that it be harmonious and appropriate to the subject. We have become so saturated with color in our advertising, in our magazine illustration, and now in our motion pictures that we almost lose sight of the fact that children enjoy equally books with little or no color and books in full color. To refute the demand of those who want many colors, there are the richness of Wanda Gag’s black and white drawings, the sepia of Make Way for Ducklings, the two colors of Andy and the Lion, The Five Chinese Brothers, and many others. Color is not so important as the richness of the message told by the illustrations in these books so well liked by children.

At a time when production costs are more than double what they were before the war, the illustrator is obliged to become more skilled in the utilization of small amounts of color. He must know how to get everything out of his colors through overlays in his color separations. Some illustrators, like Roger Duvoisin and Leo Politi, use three colors more effectively than others use five. The line drawings themselves must provide more color.

After the artist makes a dummy and has completed some of his final drawings he may help select a type face with the book designer or person in charge of manufacturing details. This type must be legible to children and harmonious with the pictures; it must fit into the proper space on the page and be available in linotype, since the cost of hand-set type is prohibitive.

Before I worked on picture books I never realized the great number of manipulations that drawings and text go through before the completion of a book. I wish it were possible for all librarians to observe a large offset press in operation, to see how negatives are made, how they are stripped up for making the final printing plates, and then to witness the actual printing of the large sheets that form the body of the book.

But from all the picture books produced, how are we to pick those which are exceptional? I believe that they must be regarded as are other forms of visual art. There is no recipe for judging illustration any more than there is a recipe for producing it.

It is extremely difficult to be objective about a picture book because each of us brings something different to what he sees. What is beautiful to one of us might be merely dull to another — or worse. Recently I gave a colored woodblock print to a friend in the hospital. The print was an abstraction of a mask in which I attempted to show two aspects of ennui, the giddy gaiety that tries to forget and the withdrawal into oneself. When the nurse’s aide saw the print the next morning she said to my friend, “Miss, if you did that you deserve to be in the hospital! Them that can draw should draw pretty.”

All that the artist has seen and. felt deeply, his subconscious feelings and reactions to life, contribute to his work and will often be discernible there, setting up similar reactions in us as we look at it. Some illustrations set up reactions that continue long after we have ceased to look at them. Others we grasp at a glance because of the very narrow range of the experience they offer. Some books for children can be returned to again and again, not only because the child enjoys repetition, but because he will always find in them the reward of enjoyment.

Such books are those of the artist whose name is given to the greatest honor we confer on an illustrator of children’s books, Randolph Caldecott. From the insipid, oversweet atmosphere of many of our picture books today, it is like stepping out of doors into a fresh wind to enter his picture books. Here are vitality in every line, sweep, humor without acerbity that never had to worry about age-levels or suitability for children because it was born of rich observation of and enthusiasm for life itself. Here is such a thorough familiarity with the English countryside and its people that these scenes and characters could have sprung from no other soil. And all that is essential is clear to the youngest mind and yet stimulating to the adult who returns to it again and again. Much has happened in illustration and bookmaking since Caldecott’s time, but the positive quality of his spirit remains in our best picture books.

In his Last Lectures Roger Fry suggests a method of examining works of art by confining attention to one or two qualities at a time and by comparing a number of different works to see to what extent they possess or lack these qualities. He chose sensibility and vitality. It might be profitable for us to study how these qualities can be reflected in the picture book.

The term sensibility includes two basic desires, the desire for order, harmony, and the desire for variety, chance, the unexpected. The first is expressed in the over-all design of a work, the coordination of the parts in the whole. The other is subject to the feeling and sensitivity of the artist in executing the design or plan.

Since the picture book is a unit composed of text and pictures, I am assuming that the text of the book is at least good, if not distinguished in itself. Without making set rules only to break them, let us subject the visual elements that compose a picture book to an examination for those qualities Fry suggests. We can learn something from asking ourselves questions such as these:

How appropriate are the illustrations to the spirit as well as the facts of the story? If the illustrations are merely decorations, is this treatment all the story demands? Is there extraneous gingerbread in the decoration that might better have been left out? Do treatments vary from page to page, or are many pages monotonously alike in design? Do the margins allow enough air for the pictures to move in? If the page is bled, is it best that way?

Is the type legible and harmonious with the pictures and feeling of the story? Is it balanced in weight as well as in position on the page with the pictures?

Is the color appropriate, interesting, or watered-down, sugary? If it is bright and harsh, is it appropriate so? We can expect bright color from a fire engine or a circus. Has the illustrator seen the whole book in terms of masses of color or are his illustrations merely tinted black and white drawings?

Is there a discernible build-up in the dramatic interest of the pictures as there is in the text? Is the characterization rich or meager, the people merely stereotypes, or do they have the qualities of individual human beings observable in life? Is there a build-up in characterization if the story requires it? Does the illustrator impose on us a reaction toward the characters that he wants us to feel? Does he nudge us to say, “This child, or this puppy, isn’t he charming? Do you see what I mean?” If pushed too far we are apt to be aware of nothing but a sense of falseness — the same falseness we feel at the rainbow shown over the home of the March family at the end of the recent film, Little Women.

How honest is the portrayal of various races and peoples? Do all of them resemble tinted Anglo-Saxons? What is the illustrator’s feeling toward races other than his own? What appreciation of differences are we going to give our children? False generalizations about the goodness or evil of a race do little to create understanding.

Is the humor genuinely funny, or is it the tongue-in-cheek humor of the over-sophisticated adult?

How do the varieties of treatment reflect the sensibilities of the individual artist?

As we consider vitality we see how even more difficult it is to formulate any rules concerning this quality. Is there rhythm of line, of movement, of shape and mass in the drawings, and are these rhythms suitable to that of the story? If the text has sweep, do the pictures move likewise? Are the drawings so finished, so slick and photographically perfect that they were dead before we had a chance to look at them? This question is related to that of sensitivity of drawing. Do the drawings continue in the mind, as do those of Edy LeGrand, or are they so complete there is nothing for our minds and imaginations to do? Sheer virtuosity is often more useful in a juggler than in an artist. Is the drawing alive by itself on the page, as Andy and his lion are so thoroughly alive, or does it seem to live only because of its accurate resemblance to life? In his The Spirit of Man in Asian Art Laurence Binyon wrote, “The full mind, the rich mind, makes itself felt in the tracing of a few vivid lines; the empty mind, the poor nature, is betrayed in the most elaborate composition.”

As we look at picture books we can find answers to all of these questions that will heighten our powers of discrimination. Perhaps the question that includes much of the foregoing could be — how rich is the experience in living the child gets, that I get, from looking at this book?

In their first books children begin to form their taste for art and literature. Any of you who have struggled to introduce mature writing to high school students saturated with comic books can appreciate this. It leads us into the question of our responsibility to children in training them to discriminate, to discard the cheap and ugly.

Perhaps exposure to good picture books in childhood will not assure an adult taste capable of appreciating fine art, but I do believe that a child unconsciously forms an approach to his visual world of order, rhythm and interesting arrangements of color from the books he sees when young. The cleanness and simplicity of a well-designed page may start a chain of reactions that will continue into adulthood. If the child is accustomed to seeing varied and interesting shapes in his picture books, abstract art will not have the terrors for him that it seems to have for some adults. His discrimination, along with whatever of his individuality he can manage to preserve, will be his main defense against the bombardment of visual material on his eyes in most of his waking hours.

Librarians can play an important part in the future production of good books. They can select a few good picture books rather than many mediocre ones. We often forget that each year new groups of children are seeing for the first time books we have long known. Librarians can write to publishers about their reactions to books as they come out. They can award honors to books that are truly distinguished.

An author expects the librarian to bring some experience with literature to her judgment of a text. I feel that an illustrator or artist has a right to expect in those judging his work some art background. Just as an appreciation for great poetry is fed by great poetry and not by doggerel, so an appreciation of art must be fed by something more than book illustration. I know from experience how difficult it is to nourish an interest in painting if one lives in a small community, but through the state library, through art publications, it is possible at least to see reproductions of paintings of our own time, as well as earlier ones. Some of the paintings I remember best from my childhood are those reproduced, on slides that my seventh-grade teacher obtained for us from the state library. Most of the names of the artists were forgotten until I met them again as an adult, but the images of the pictures remained.

If more adults were familiar with modern art movements and the problems artists today are trying to solve, we might hear fewer set conceptions and snap judgments of drawing and painting such as: “It’s too modern! There’s no perspective! I could draw as well myself and I can’t draw a straight line! A child could do better!” Since art is a communication only in its own terms of line, color and mass, we must learn to enjoy pictures with our senses instead of demanding logical explanations. It is senseless for us to be indifferent to art and to the training of children to see and select and then to deplore their lack of taste once they have become adults.

Let there be among librarians a wider examination of picture books of all types, past and present, American and foreign, so that their judgments will reflect a rich acquaintance with the whole field of illustration. Familiarity with some of the best picture books will show us how often we are content with the shoddy and the ordinary.

The effect of the popularity in America of Hollywood-inspired illustration is now coming back to us from Japan, France, Argentina, even from Switzerland — all countries that are also making beautiful books for children. Our responsibility to children does not stop with our own boundaries. We must show to other countries the best we have to offer.

In judging I believe we should leave our personal prejudices for the illustrator or subject out of consideration. If an award is to be given to a distinguished book, let it be given to just that, the book that will carry the seal of your recognition to the public. If a picture book does not wear well, can’t we rightly ask ourselves was it ever really good, or merely timely? The book itself has not changed.

This awarding of honors has an effect on other librarians who do not have an opportunity to see much of a year’s output of books, as they buy for school and public libraries, as they suggest purchases to parents. It has a great effect on boek store sales and the production of similar books by publishers. A great part of the public is impressed by prizes, and slavishly follows the edicts of the critics and book reviewers, instead of judging for itself. Most people have neither time nor opportunity to examine large numbers of children’s books, even if they were interested. They rely on the judgment of those they consider experts.

Awards have an effect on the artists themselves. It has always been the fate of some artists to be either misjudged or to feel that their best work is unrecognized. Often an artist receives recognition for work inferior to what he has done previously.

Librarians can demand high standards from their illustrators and publishers. Why is it that as we examine the output of many of our outstanding illustrators we find so few who have grown appreciably since their first books? A story about a child of 1800, one of 1949, one in Mexico, one in Alaska — all get the same illustrative treatment from them. Their growth has been in perfecting what they already could do rather than in experimenting and reaching out into new fields. Perhaps we have directly or indirectly asked these artists to repeat themselves. An illustrator must produce what sells in order to live. Many illustrators are doing other art work as well as illustration in order to work in complete freedom. By buying only work that resembles an illustrator’s earlier books we force him to stunt himself to our prescription. Let us encourage him to grow, to experiment, to try new techniques, by being at least receptive to the new.

Books Mentioned

Ardizzone, Edward, author-illustrator. Little Tim and the Brave Sea Captain. Oxford.

Binyon, Laurence. The Spirit of Man in Asian Art. Harvard University Press.

Bishop, Claire Huchet. The Five Chinese Brothers. Illustrated by Kurt Wiese. Coward.

Brown, Margaret Wise. A Child’s Good Night Book. Illustrated by Jean Charlot. Scott.

Chan, Chi-Yi and Plato. The Good-Luck Horse. Illustrated by Plato Chan. Whittlesey.

Chan, Plato and Christina. The Magic Monkey. Illustrated by Plato Chan. Whittlesey.

Daughtery, James, author-illustrator. Andy and the Lion. Viking.

Ets, Marie Hall. In the Forest. Viking.

Falls, C.B. A B C Book. Doubleday.

Fry, Roger. Last Lectures. Macmillan.

Gág, Wanda, author-illustrator. Millions of Cats. Coward.

Handforth, Thomas, author-illustrator. Mei Lei. Doubleday.

Ley, Madeleine. The Enchanted Eve. Illustrated by Edy LeGrand. Howell.

McCloskey, Robert, author-illustrator. Make Way for Ducklings. Viking.

Ross, Diana. The Little Red Engine Gets a Name. Illustrated by Jan Lewitt and George Him. Transatlantic Arts.

Sharpe, Stella Gentry. Tobe. Photographs by Charles Farrell. University of North Carolina Press.

Smith, Susan. Tranquilina’s Paradise. Illustrated by Thomas Handford. Putnam.

Tuwim, Juljan. Locomotive. Illustrated by Jan Lewitt and George Him. Minerva. (London)


From the September 1949 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

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