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From Caldecott to Caldecott

by Helen Adams Masten

once a mouseIt has been only seven years since Marcia Brown won the Caldecott medal for her Cinderella. Comparing the exquisite little gouache drawings for Cinderella with the strong and rhythmically beautiful woodcuts for Once a Mouse…, one realizes that this artist has come a long way in seven years.

An artist grows by living, by traveling, studying, reading, looking with a seeing eye, drawing and painting everything that comes his way. What he does when he is not working on a book often determines not only the nature of his future work but also the quality of it.

A trip to Europe in 1956, which culminated in nearly a year spent in Paris and, later, almost three years living in Venice, opened up a whole new world to an artist whose eyes are quick to take in beauty of form, line, and color. During her years in Italy, Marcia studied Italian, which she now speaks and writes very well. While there the year before last, she did a good deal of research in the Marciana and Querini-Stampaglia Libraries for a prospective book for children somewhat older than the picture-book age.

Marcia uses her large collection of art books as one does an art gallery, for refreshment and study. She usually leafs through a book after breakfast until she finds something she wants to study. Reading, listening to music, and playing the flute are very important to her; but, when she is working on a book, almost nothing is allowed to interfere with her work, except the telephone. Sometimes even its persistent ringing is ignored.

Everywhere Marcia goes — whether it is Brittany, Denmark, Holland, or Spain — she sketches people, in the parks, on the subways, at the ballet, the circus or the beach. Many days are spent sketching at the zoo: goats, the big cats, birds, scenes through the trees. In her sketchbooks are some of the best drawings she has made. Later, some of these sketches form the basis for paintings in oil. Sometimes they are unintentional preparation for drawings for books.

The Three Billy Goats Gruff sprang onto the pages so fast that the artist’s dummy was completed in five days. To create an entire picture book in a few days is only possible when an artist has lived with a story a very long time, when each picture is crystal clear in the mind’s eye. The Three Billy Goats Gruff was always a favorite story with Marcia and it has proved to be the children’s favorite as well.

In a story hour at The New York Public Library, I had the pleasure of using the artist’s dummy with the children. There was never any doubt in the minds of the children, from the moment the goats appeared on the Norwegian hillside, that they would get the better of the troll. Little moans of pleasure and anticipation could be heard as I turned the page and they saw the Big Billy Goat Gruff fairly bursting with energy and confidence) sending forth his challenge to the troll. At the end of the story hour every child was clamoring to take home the artist’s copy. No other book would satisfy them. For weeks they returned to the Library to ask for The Three Billy Goats Gruff, “the one with all the pictures.” The drawings for this book are in crayon and ink. Marcia’s conception of the troll is based on nature — fog, rocks, earth, and the roots of trees. One sees in the drawings small, rocky islands, some of the hundreds that dot the Norwegian coast. They are the troll after the Big Billy Goat Gruff has disposed of him.

Anne Carroll Moore’s obvious delight in the artist’s drawings settled the matter of the dedication, which reads, “To Anne Carroll Moore and the Troll.” Miss Moore had a deep love of Norway following a visit there years ago.

All during the fall and through the winter of 1956 Marcia worked on The Flying Carpet. Being one of the more complicated and sophisticated of the Arabian Nights stories, The Flying Carpet is seldom included in editions intended for children. After research into translations and versions, the threads of the story were rewoven by Marcia to make a cohesive story, understandable to children. The original drawings for the book have great beauty. Unfortunately, some of this is lost in the printing, because the artist — always eager to experiment with new technical processes — used a combination of gold dust and gum Arabic in making color separations. This combination allowed less light to filter through than was intended, with the result that a sky, spangled with stars and filled with beauty, became ominous with black clouds. In spite of the difficulties of printing, it is a beautiful book, greatly enjoyed by older children. Much of its distinction comes from the beautiful typography of Margaret Evans. Marcia has been most fortunate in her association with Margaret Evans, who has given of her time and knowledge of printing and design in the making of distinctive books. Felice, Peter Piper’s Alphabet, and Tamarindo! were chosen by the American Institute of Graphic Arts for their Children’s Book Show 1958-1960. The New York Society of Illustrators selected Felice and Once A Mouse… for their shows.

Marcia has been fortunate, also, in her long association and friendship with her editors, Alice Dalgliesh and Margaret McElderry. The latter she met the very first day she came to work in the Library. The understanding and respect of her editors have given her the necessary freedom to work.

One St. Nicholas Eve in the Central Children’s Room, Anne Carroll Moore read aloud Peter Piper’s Practical Principles of Plain and Perfect Pronunciation. Miss Moore’s reading of the rhyme was inimitable. It brought out all the wit and humor in the verses. Marcia immediately saw the possibilities of the rhyme as a picture book. Almost at once the pictures began to evolve.

When the book was more than half completed, Tip-Toe Tommy turned Turk and went right off on a carpet. Marcia apparently went off on a carpet, too, for she dropped Peter Piper and nothing more was seen of him until The Flying Carpet was off the presses.

When Peter Piper’s Alphabet was finally completed in 1959, I went with Marcia to show it to Miss Moore, who had been very ill. Her laughter over the funny drawings, and her eagerness to keep the book for a few days to enjoy it further, confirmed Marcia’s feeling that the book really belonged to Miss Moore.

It is a delight to use this picture book in the picture-book hour, the story hour, or with class groups. All one needs to do is to read the witty “P-Preface,” found in the first American edition, to send boys and girls off into gales of laughter and pursuit of the riddles in the pictures. The drawings have caught completely the ridiculous nonsense of the verses.

Marcia is always quick to see cats, wherever they are, as individuals with marked personalities. Most of her books have a cat somewhere in them. One night while she and I were exploring some alleys in Naples, we saw a cat quivering with anticipation, watching a darkened window high up in a wall. We stopped to watch; and in a few moments a light flashed on. A woman watching with us cried out “Ecco!” and out of the window came a basket on a long cord, lowered by an unseen hand. The cat raced across the alley, snatched a fish, and ran off with his supper. We stared at each other, delighted. Out of this incident Felice was born in Venice. Marcia’s studio in Venice is on the same canal where the children swam in Felice. All winter long eight or nine stray cats were fed by her in the same way that Gino fed Felice.

From the moment Marcia saw Venice, she, like other artists, fell in love with it. Its decaying architectural beauty, its sparkling waters, tiny campi, and mysterious canals are there in Felice for children to enjoy and explore, along with the story of the homeless little cat. The original drawings are done in water colors. Margaret Evans and Marcia finally succeeded in getting this book printed from process plates, using the artist’s own colors. It is a truly fine printing job.

In the spring of 1956 Marcia was in Sicily. The fields and hills were covered with daisies and poppies under the ancient, gray-green olive trees, the blossoming fruit trees, and the tall, black cypresses. Everywhere was beauty. Everywhere were big-eyed children and small, worn donkeys. Years before, a Sicilian friend had told Marcia of a childhood experience with a lost donkey. Now the story came alive for her once more as she saw for herself the Sicilian countryside and the village life so vividly described by her friend. The result was Tamarindo!, published in 1960. In the crayon-and-ink drawings the Sicilian landscape blossoms again in a happy story of four little boys and the lost donkey of her friend’s childhood. The amusing and delightful pictures reveal many Sicilian ways. One has only to look at the picture of the men eating under the arbor to see that the women know their place.

It was while Marcia was working on Tamarindo! that she stopped long enough to help a friend by designing some charming stage sets, costumes, and a flyer. The designs were for a production of Eleanor Farjeon’s The Glass Slipper presented by The Pocket Players during the Christmas season.

In 1960 came also the publication of Une Drole de Soupe, a French translation of Stone Soup made by Marcia’s friend and teacher, Hilda Grenier Tagliapietra. Une Drole de Soupe has been a welcome addition to the small collection of books which add interest to the learning of a new language.

On Marcia’s return from Europe she drew and painted at the Art Students’ League and other studios, sketched often at the Bronx Zoo, and worked on paintings in her own studio overlooking the East River. The paintings were abandoned when she became interested in an old legend from the Sanskrit.

The legend, “The Hermit and the Mouse,” she found in a book sent from Italy. Marcia decided to rework the story and cut the pictures in wood. She had made wood carvings as a young student, using only a jackknife, and had cut Dick Whittington and His Cat in linoleum. Since, after studying with Louis Schanker, she had made many woodcuts, she came to the book with knowledge and skill. I think, however, she was unaware of the enormous amount of sheer physical labor the book was to exact from her. Since Marcia is a perfectionist, many blocks and prints were discarded. There were nights when she worked until two o’clock, carving, printing, proving the blocks. In July of 1961, after she had seen first proofs, Marcia sailed for Spain, exhausted and drained. Later, she returned to Venice and a studio to paint and draw for a year.

After she had sailed, I found in our wood basket some of the discarded blocks for Once A Mouse… Since they seemed far too good and too interesting for kindling, they did not light my fire. Once A Mouse… has, in some of its pages, a Biblical quality. I have seen pictures of Moses which had less authority than the drawing of the hermit rebuking the tiger. There are fine composition, glowing color, humor, tenderness, and strength in this beautiful book which make it truly worthy of the Caldecott Medal.

The books by Marcia Brown mentioned in this article are all published by Charles Scribner’s Sons, with the exception of The Three Billy Goats Gruff, which is published by Harcourt, Brace & World.

From the August 1962 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

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