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Happy 100th Birthday, Joe Krush

In a Venn diagram of people who have reached the notable age of one hundred, and of outstanding artists and illustrators, the intersecting circle would be quite small, and would include Joe Krush. Joe celebrates his centenary on May 18, 2018. Along with his wife Beth (1918-2009), he has left an indelible imprint on literature for children, having created the pictures for the American edition of Mary Norton’s The Borrowers, as well as those for Virginia Sorensen’s Newbery Medal winner Miracles on Maple Hill and Sydney Taylor’s All-of-a-Kind Family Downtown. The Krushes also collaborated with Beverly Cleary, who recently turned one-hundred-and-two, on her young adult novels Jean and Johnny, Fifteen, and Sister of the Bride. Their illustrations complement Cleary’s words in presenting portraits of girls on the verge of adulthood, learning that independence and confidence matter more than the approval of boys.

Perhaps because the Krushes did not illustrate picture books, but rather books with pictures, they may seem to play a secondary role. Yet in a recent interview in The New York Times Book Review, Brian Selznick, Caldecott Medalist (for The Invention of Hugo Cabret), cited The Borrowers as the “most influential book” he read as a child. Selznick’s affectionate tribute, including the confession that he had experienced the book as nonfiction and built furniture for the Borrowers, was a welcome reminder of the Krushes’ relevance today. They gave us the memorably detailed world of Arietty and her family, dependent on survival by appropriating objects from “human beans” and adapting them for their own scale. Children are conscious of the smallness of their own world relative to adults. The Krushes validate that sense of vulnerability, and their intricate black-and-white drawings of Arietty portray her courage and persistence through specific elements: using a huge pencil to record her thoughts in a makeshift journal, or holding a sack as she accompanies her father on her first “borrowing” expedition.

The Krushes’ other works also embody the partnership between author and illustrator in books for older readers. Jean and Johnny’s Jean Jarret becomes frustrated by her feelings of attraction for a manipulative and self-centered rich boy. The Krushes capture, not only her fifties plaid skirt and cat-eye glasses, but her facial expressions of confusion and anger as she realizes how worthless his attention is. Immigrant life in Sydney Taylor’s All-of-a-Kind Family Downtown is full of teeming activity, reflected in the Krushes’ busy scenes crowded with all the particulars of holiday celebrations and settlement house activities. Each sister’s carefully differentiated clothing and gestures make her stand out as an individual within these scenes.

Joe Krush served as a courtroom artist at the Nuremberg Trials after the Second World War. His images of the unspeakable evil of Nazi defendants, and the persistence of prosecutors and judges, may seem distant from his later career as an illustrator for children. Yet Joe Krush’s gift for capturing character and using pictures to add dimension to a story was the same one which defined his work for children. As we congratulate him on his birthday, it would be a wonderful time to revisit his work.

About Emily Schneider

Dr. Emily Schneider is a writer and educator living in New York City. She blogs about children's literature at Imaginary Elevators (imaginaryelevators.blog).

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