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A Kerlan Fellow Inspired by Two Particular Fellows: Arnold Lobel and James Marshall

As the recipient of the 2016 Ezra Jack Keats/Kerlan Memorial Fellowship, I was given the chance to spend several days at the Kerlan Collection at the University of Minnesota looking through original artwork, sketches, manuscripts, notebooks, and other items that have been donated to the Kerlan. It’s a vast, impressive collection with many of my favorite artists copiously represented.

I wanted to focus my research on Arnold Lobel and James Marshall. In particular, I hoped to gain insight into how they dealt with their human characters, as opposed to their animal characters. While I am comfortable drawing animals, I find drawing people a daunting task, and I have yet to find a completely satisfying way to do it. Similarly, I’ve always thought that Lobel’s and Marshall’s most successful characters are animals (Frog and Toad and George and Martha are obvious examples), while I have mixed feelings about their humans. Nevertheless, since they both eventually found their personal way to draw people, I wanted to understand how they did it, hoping this would inspire my own solutions.

If looking at other artists’ work in search of inspiration is expected and even laudable, you still run the risk of plagiarizing the model. One can see examples of this sort of unintentional plagiarism quite frequently, even in published books. While I will admit to a number of personal and artistic faults, I don’t think I can be accused of being a plagiarizer, at least not a conscious one. Since I was a kid, I’ve always considered copying other artists’ drawings lame, wrong, and, particularly, doomed to failure. My thought was, and still is: even if you could get really good at drawing Snoopy, for example, what’s the point of doing so when Schulz already did that? In elementary school, I had created a series of mouse characters called, very originally, “i topi” (the mice), drawn in black ballpoint pen, who had long, pointy noses and ears. My deskmate, inspired by those drawings, created a series of mouse characters drawn in black ballpoint pen who had long, pointy noses and ears. It was distressing for me. I couldn’t understand why he would do this rather than come up with his own ideas.

But it can certainly happen to any artist to unintentionally imitate another, so it’s always a good idea to stay alert and keep the stealing to a minimum. It was with this awareness that I started to open the boxes and folders that were waiting for me.

I began with Lobel’s early 1960s material: sketches, studies, finished ink illustrations, and color separations for some of his first published books. Little Runner of the Longhouse (1962) was executed in the most realistic style I’ve ever seen of his, even though the children, with their dot eyes, seem to have a more cartoony look than the adults. He quickly abandoned this direction, thankfully. In The Quarreling Book and Prince Bertram the Bad (both 1963), the drawings are sweet and funny, but I can’t stop wondering why Lobel decided to deprive most children of their noses.

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Prince Bertram the Bad. Illustration by Arnold Lobel. All illustrations courtesy of the Kerlan Collection, Children’s Literature Research Collections, University of Minnesota Library Archives and Special Collections, Minneapolis, Minnesota.

The first convincing interaction between human and animal characters I came upon in Lobel’s work at the Kerlan is in Red Fox and His Canoe (1964). The style here is quite comic and goofy, but you can see signs of Lobel’s forthcoming “serious levity.”

Red Fox and His Canoe. Illustration by Arnold Lobel. All illustrations courtesy of the Kerlan Collection, Children's Literature Research Collections, University of Minnesota Library Archives and Special Collections, Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Red Fox and His Canoe. Illustration by Arnold Lobel. All illustrations courtesy of the Kerlan Collection, Children’s Literature Research Collections, University of Minnesota Library Archives and Special Collections, Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Within just a few years, Lobel made considerable progress toward his own personal, unique style. The humans in The Great Blueness and Other Predicaments (1968) are among his most accomplished, and they made me think of the mice in Mouse Tales and Mouse Soup. They have the same kind of deceptive playfulness that can mask anxiety, and they live in an overcrowded fairy-tale world. My personal favorite of Lobel’s humans might be in Hansel and Gretel (1971).

Hansel and Gretel. Illustration by Arnold Lobel. All illustrations courtesy of the Kerlan Collection, Children's Literature Research Collections, University of Minnesota Library Archives and Special Collections, Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Hansel and Gretel. Illustration by Arnold Lobel. All illustrations courtesy of the Kerlan Collection, Children’s Literature Research Collections, University of Minnesota Library Archives and Special Collections, Minneapolis, Minnesota.

The pencil drawings are soft and lovely, especially when seen in the original. But they don’t lose this quality once on the printed page, also thanks to the delicate tints used. The two children, their parents, and the witch fit perfectly in the not-so-welcoming environment Lobel created around them. As much as I like them, though, something is still missing in these characters. It might be the subtle and mutable facial and body expressions that are such a distinctive part of Lobel’s later style, which can be found not only in Frog and Toad but also in Owl at Home, Grasshopper on the Road, Uncle Elephant, Mouse Tales, and Mouse Soup.

*    *    *

The sheer number of boxes and folders at the Kerlan containing James Marshall’s work is breathtaking. I was able to look at only a fraction of the whole corpus. His many thick sketchbooks are chock-full of pencil and ink drawings, notes, and entire drafts of stories. He must have been drawing and writing all the time: at home, on vacation, and while traveling. Being immersed for hours in this colossal amount of work was an intimidating experience for me, as I don’t normally even use sketchbooks, and for sure I don’t carry one around.

It was hard not to be distracted by the thousands of doodles and notes in the margins, but I tried to concentrate on Marshall’s take on humans. I went through the material for The Cut-Ups at Camp Custer (1989), a book with which I was not very familiar.

The Cut-Ups at Camp Custer. Illustration by James Marshall. All illustrations courtesy of the Kerlan Collection, Children's Literature Research Collections, University of Minnesota Library Archives and Special Collections, Minneapolis, Minnesota.

The Cut-Ups at Camp Custer. Illustration by James Marshall. All illustrations courtesy of the Kerlan Collection, Children’s Literature Research Collections, University of Minnesota Library Archives and Special Collections, Minneapolis, Minnesota.

The Cut-Ups at Camp Custer. Illustration by James Marshall. All illustrations courtesy of the Kerlan Collection, Children's Literature Research Collections, University of Minnesota Library Archives and Special Collections, Minneapolis, Minnesota.

The Cut-Ups at Camp Custer. Illustration by James Marshall. All illustrations courtesy of the Kerlan Collection, Children’s Literature Research Collections, University of Minnesota Library Archives and Special Collections, Minneapolis, Minnesota.

I was pleased to learn that for his finals he used the same watercolor paper I use, Arches Rough 140 lb, and that he did the pen line-work on one side and the watercolors on the back (because of the printing process of the time). His children here are funny, sweet, messy, and very alive. They have big heads and nominal bodies, but they are completely credible.

In a pencil sketch for Pocketful of Nonsense (1992), small Jack Hall doesn’t seem to mind the mouse who’s about to eat him and his hat.

Pocketful of Nonsense. Illustration by James Marshall. All illustrations courtesy of the Kerlan Collection, Children's Literature Research Collections, University of Minnesota Library Archives and Special Collections, Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Pocketful of Nonsense. Illustration by James Marshall. All illustrations courtesy of the Kerlan Collection, Children’s Literature Research Collections, University of Minnesota Library Archives and Special Collections, Minneapolis, Minnesota.

The kid’s blithe expression in spite of his impending tragic end makes this drawing the epitome of Marshall’s art. It’s worth pointing out, though, that Marshall was not happy with the “dull composition,” and that he would change it in the final version.

Judging from what I saw, he must have always gone through many versions of the same composition, redrawing the whole thing again and again with subtle changes. His finished art still looks as spontaneous and improvised as his first sketches, and one might wrongly assume it took him just a couple of days to illustrate a whole book. Because of Lobel’s more polished and elaborate style, and because of a lack of physical evidence to the contrary, I had come to the conclusion that he must have had a different method than Marshall, and that he would instead craft and perfect a drawing on the same piece of paper. But Lobel’s daughter, Adrianne, informed me that I was “wrong! My father made many, many rough sketches of his creatures. I think I have at least one hundred ‘Baboon with Umbrella with Holes in It’ drawings on rough tracing paper for Fables.” I’m glad I asked.

*    *    *

In terms of method and personality, I feel a stronger affinity with Lobel than with Marshall, while at the same time I wish I possessed the carefree attitude Marshall’s work shows. Lobel, in some of his work, appears to be self-conscious and reluctant to let go, but he ultimately found his most congenial place with the all-around masterpieces that are Frog and Toad and Owl at Home, to mention only two. While generally well-drawn, charming, and perfectly consistent with the other visual elements around them, Lobel’s humans lack the magic aura that permeates Frog and Toad, or Owl, and that gives those characters and their stories a universal, timeless appeal. His more wary approach to drawing people might be explained by what he said in a 1977 interview in The Lion and the Unicorn:

When you write about children, you usually wind up writing about a certain kind of child. I think it’s unavoidable. You either write about poor children, the ghetto. Or you write about middle-class children. […] But by using animals, by pulling it away from everybody, everything, you bring it to everybody. I mean, Frog and Toad belong to no one but they belong to everyone, every sector: rich children, poor children, white children, black children. Everybody can relate to Frog and Toad because they don’t exist in this world.

Much too quickly, my days at the Kerlan Collection were up, and I left Minneapolis thinking with sadness of the countless drawings I didn’t have time to plagiarize…I mean, be inspired by.

Sergio Ruzzier About Sergio Ruzzier

Sergio Ruzzier is an author and illustrator of picture books. His most recent, This Is Not a Picture Book!, was published by Chronicle last spring. He was a recipient of the 2011 Sendak Fellowship.

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Comments

  1. James Preller says:

    Fascinating piece about two of my children’s book heroes. Well done.

  2. Rusty True Browder says:

    Thank you, Sergio Ruzzier! What a delightful piece on two of my favorite creators. And, yes, the Kerlan holds many treasures.

  3. Enthralling, informative and passionate report focusing in on two of the all-time greats. We lost both of these great artists and human beings way too soon. Marshall was one of the most unforgettable comic illustrators and his books continue to provide endless entertainment every time you pick them up. I do completely understand why you’d have a stronger affinity for Lobel’s method, which would seem to embrace the full gamut of emotions in the human experience as transcribed to the animal world. What an opportunity, and what a way to celebrate all they have given us.

  4. Both, Lobel and Marshall, have done derogatory and stereotypical illustrations. Lobel did some characters meant to be Indians. Marshall did some who were playing Indian. The one you’ve got here, of kids at “Camp Custer” is new to me. Thanks for including it.

  5. I really enjoyed reading your article, Sergio. I grew up with “Prince Betram the Bad”–still have it and one of my favorites. It is interesting what you write about Lobel’s people and also your own struggle and process around creating human characters for children’s books and finding your style with them. I look forward to seeing some of them someday.

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