Z Is for Elastic: The Amazing Stretch of Paul Zelinsky

Paul O. ZelinskyWhat would Margaret Wise Brown have been without Clement Hurd? There’d have been no Goodnight Moon.

What would Ruth Krauss have been without Maurice Sendak or Crockett Johnson or Marc Simont? There’d have been no Hole Is to Dig or Carrot Seed or Happy Day.

Some of the most original, imaginative picture book scripts have come from writers who relied on artist-illustrators to reconceive them in pictorial terms. The rare illustrators endowed with a willing hand and second sight.

And just when it seems as if there’s nothing new under the sun, such a pair-up comes along, overturning — of all things — the very order of the alphabet.

Paul O. Zelinsky was born free, it appears. He drew avidly from earliest childhood, and by the time he was in high school he was illustrating his assigned readings and the writings of friends. Then he had the good fortune to be at Yale when Maurice Sendak was teaching a course on children’s books, their history and illustration.

As his own work testified, Sendak had an equally keen interest in high art, the art of museums, and popular art, the art of newsstands. He collected with discrimination and gusto: Randolph Caldecott and Beatrix Potter, among forerunners; Ruth Krauss and Crockett Johnson, among contemporaries; and at large, Lothar Meggendorfer, an inventor of books with movable parts. In this, too, he was a forerunner.

Zelinsky was an apt pupil.

His first three noteworthy picture books might be called two curios and a cameo — and you probably wouldn’t recognize them as the work of a single illustrator. Who launches a career by being unrecognizable?

The Maid and the Mouse and the Odd-Shaped House (1981) is based on an old tell-and-draw, add-on rhyme. The “wee maid” is an old-fashioned old lady, her mouse companion plays the sax, and the odd-shaped house they move into grows, addition by addition, into a page-filling, rampaging cat. In cottage-kitchen pastels, with costumed figures and decorative details to match, it’s quaint and perky, amusing and inventive.

The Sun’s Asleep Behind the Hill (1982) is an adaptation of an Armenian lullaby by the accomplished Mirra Ginsburg, empathically reconceived by Zelinsky. “The sun shone in the sky all day. / The sun grew tired and went away to sleep behind the hill.” In dusky, spacious watercolor and pastel landscapes, the twilight deepens; leaves, bird, and squirrel grow tired and seek rest; and a little boy, first glimpsed flying his kite, is carried homeward by his mother, to be last seen asleep, kite on wall, moon shining in window. Throughout, insets on alternate spreads illustrate the refrain and supply a kind of subtext. “The bird sang / in the bush all day. / The bird grew tired, / The bird is quiet.” Curled up in its nest, the bird is barely visible: to the onlooker, it’s snug and safe. A two-lap goodnight book, as we might once have said, with proportions and perspectives, as well as images, suited to very young eyes.

The Lion and the Stoat (1984) is a lark — three episodes in the competitive life of two rival artists, a lion and a stoat, partially derived by Zelinsky from (of all things) Pliny’s Natural History. Who is the better artist, lion in top hat and tails or stoat in scarf and beret? The contests are full of surprises; the drawings are spotted with amusing detail; there’s wit wherever you look — in the frown on a turtle’s face, in the converging, surreal ceiling lines. The takeaway message: art is engagement, art is fun.

Meanwhile, Zelinsky was doing line drawings for fiction by Avi and Beverly Cleary, among other commissions. Cleary’s belated Newbery winner, Dear Mr. Henshaw, has his pictures. He was building a backlist, and he was versatile.

But 1984 saw him shift, starkly, from the periphery to the mainstream: with Hansel and Gretel, probably the most famous of Grimm tales, rendered in weighty, great-masterlike paintings, a complement to poet and translator Rika Lesser’s grave retelling.

For all its popularity as a story and as a “property” (World Cat lists 3,772 in book form), “Hansel and Gretel” is inherently difficult to handle as a picture book. With its episodes of emotional cruelty and physical terror, it’s one of those stories best heard, or read, with a single arresting illustration. Most picture-book versions go light on the darker aspects; Zelinsky doesn’t. Opening by opening, one spine-chilling illustration follows another.

Narrative composition is one of his strengths, visible in the wordless mini-drama of little-boy-and-kite in The Sun’s Asleep. In Hansel and Gretel, the illustration of the children being hurried into the forest (a second time) by their unrelenting parents, the linchpin of the story, is a dramatic marvel. The road sweeps around from the immediate foreground to the mid-distance, where Hansel stops to drop his telltale crumbs; but the thrust is vigorously, almost violently forward — toward the forest, the next page, and what awaits.

The artwork of Hansel and Gretel is redolent of German Romanticism, with its combination of the bleak and the impenetrable. Rumpelstiltskin (1986), on the other hand, is set squarely in a reincarnation of Northern Renaissance painting.

Some of the illustrations are magical, in a fairy-tale way. Who can forget the double-page spread of the queen’s emissary, spotlit, as she pursues her stealthy midnight search through the forest for the little man, to somehow learn his name? But much of this simple story, about a young woman who makes a bargain with a wizard and how she gets out of it, is burdened with an immensity of architectural detail and other scenic effects. The verbal parrying between the two, the crux of the story, loses out.

Hansel and Gretel and Rumpelstiltskin were both Caldecott Honor books (as was Swamp Angel, coming up). When Rapunzel (1997) appeared, in an Italian Renaissance guise more imposing than its predecessors’, it was bound to win the Caldecott for effort and ambition.

The story of a lovely young girl imprisoned in a tower at puberty is problematic for children of picture-book age; and to my mind, the presentation is too much for the story. Oversize pages are the setting for oversize actions—the sorceress-jailer looms, contorts, shrieks, and pops her eyes. No misfortune goes undepicted: see the prince, overseen by the malevolent sorceress, falling in horror from the tower. Then see him, on the opposite page, lying inert on the ground. The physical action overshadows the emotional drama. But no one can forget that spectacular tower.

Zelinsky’s knack for animating almost any kind of material yielded, in the years between Hansel and Gretel and Rapunzel, a rich miscellany: two picture books about extraordinary women and a book with movable parts, among others. He was his own singular self.

The first picture book was Lore Segal’s sly comic turn, The Story of Mrs. Lovewright and Purrless Her Cat (1985). Segal and Zelinsky’s sly comic turn, rather, for no ordinary pictures would have done for the face-off between shivery string bean Mrs. L., with her vision of a cute and cuddly cat, and Purrless, who’ll have none of it. “I can’t believe how mean you are!” she protests when he pre-empts her footstool, then her bed. The drawings are done in colored pencil and pen-and-ink, mainly in shades of orange (for Purrless the tabby) and blue (for “chilly” Mrs. L.); they’re all over the page, and askew. It’s a look with the nip of Segal’s prose.

The book with movable parts was, of course, The Wheels on the Bus (1990), low-tech hijinks in the scatty, helter-skelter spirit of the Big and Little Golden Books. The rushing vehicles and teeming crowds of Tibor Gergely come to mind — except that Zelinsky has rendered his passengers and the passing scenery in oils: sticky, shiny oils. When “the wipers on the bus go swish swish swish” and the rain falls in torrents, the surface turbulence calls up a painting by de Kooning or Soutine.

It would be possible to write a paean to the simplicity and cleverness of the movable parts: the babies opening their mouths to wail, the mothers wagging their fingers, for instance. But when the last pull-tab has broken, the book will still be fun to look at, for the pictures will still be full of energy and action. Human interaction, too.

Swamp Angel (1994), Anne Isaacs’s whirl with tall-tale Americana, gave Zelinsky another go at historical reconstruction—this time, with a wink. The deftest piece of stagecraft may be the “formal” frontispiece: on a very large page, “wood-framed,” is a “primitive” portrait of a very large young woman, a giantess, with piercing blue eyes and a dome of red hair. Since she is alone in the picture, how do we know she is very large? Zelinsky has repeatedly dealt with issues of size, and his resources are incalculable. Here, Angelica Longrider, a.k.a. Swamp Angel, has a huge head…flowing down into smoothly rounded, sloping shoulders…which terminate in small, gentle, almost dainty hands…that clasp a tiny bunch of minutely detailed flowers, a touchstone of folk painting.

From baby Angelica’s birth, the pictures build in successive serial-narration images that wind around the double-page spreads until Angelica grows too large to be contained even in the double-width. Why, when she lines up behind the local frontiersmen for a shot at Thundering Tarnation, the biggest baddest bear, only her head and shoulders are visible behind the hill.

The book can be opened at random, and savored. For every one of Angelica’s feats, Zelinsky devises a new pictorial solution; a feat in itself. For a tutorial in narrative illustration, you couldn’t do better.

Swamp Angel was done in oil in a range of woodsy to swamp-grassy hues. The Wheels on the Bus flaunts the sharp pinks and reds and yellows of city and town life. Mrs. Lovelace is distinctly orange and blue. In the three books, distinctive colorations, acquired by different techniques, give each book a particular identity. Would you, then, recognize the three as the work of a single illustrator? Well, you might venture a guess. Agitation, elongation, and headlong momentum are common to all three, along with the inventiveness and humor that have been Zelinsky hallmarks from the start.

Not that he’s predictable, never that. The text inspires the response, and Zelinsky’s originality is a match for the author’s.

Let one character be a red ball named Plastic; the second, a plush stingray; the third, a stuffed buffalo. Such are the Little Girl’s cherished toys in Emily Jenkins’s Toys Go Out (2006) — and by not having them be teddy bears or baby dolls or anything else familiarly cuddlesome, Jenkins stretches a child’s power to imagine, to identify and sympathize. But can these oddities be objects of affection? Using a close focus, knee-high perspectives, and tightly framed compositions, Zelinsky achieves an intimacy that makes the pictures as toy-centric as the text. The soft black-and-white pencil drawings, on stubby pages, are velvety and enfolding. You sink into them with Plastic and StingRay and Lumphy.

Awful Ogre’s Awful Day (2001), on the other hand, is Zelinsky on the loose, capturing the wit and zest of Jack Prelutsky’s suite of poems in pictures of comic abandon. All shrewdly calculated, of course. Awful Ogre, almost adorable despite his single centered eye, his bulbous nose, and potato head (thanks to his big lopsided grin), stars in a drama of size and space and detail. Horrifying, disgusting detail.

Starting the day, Awful Ogre grooms himself with onion-juice mouthwash and dragon-blood rouge — and his face in the mirror is in our face, filling the page, with a teeny, tiny skunk inhabiting his nose. But when he proclaims himself “Statuesque!” on top of a mountain, all we see of him are his feet, at the top of one page, and his dripping nose hanging down from the top of the page opposite. The infill is imagination, Zelinsky’s and ours.

Call it drawing with a wink and a nudge; or call it cartooning.

Kelly Bingham’s Z Is for Moose (2012) is sheer madcappery. What is more basic than the alphabet, more familiar than an alphabet book, more explored than the possibilities of the alphabet book? Its very order invites us to categorize, to proceed from an ABC of animals to alphabets of almost everything imaginable.

Once, we also had true nonsense alphabets: in verses by Edward Lear and other early wits; in Sendak’s Alligators All Around, more latterly. These artist-illustrators have fun with, make fun of, the very structure they’re exploiting. And we, the reader or listener, laugh to see how each expected letter brings forth an unexpected line of text, and with it a comical picture.

In Z Is for Moose, Bingham takes the structure seriously; subverting it is her story, the unimaginable her starting point. Zelinsky, as her co-conspirator, makes the book itself an orthodox ABC, with plain borders, flat colors, and an item per letter — only to have Moose flout those conventions one after another in his impatience to appear, alphabetical order be hanged.

He’s a personality now — we laugh, we gasp, we cringe — yet still a prototypical alphabet figure. He’s both real and unreal.

The pictorial climax, a great bit of vaudeville, has Moose, denied even his proper place in the alphabet by Mouse, crayoning antlers and feet on a Ring and antlers and tail on a Snake (to turn both into representations of you-know-who)…and Zebra, in desperation, trying to protect the Truck and Umbrella, Violin and Whale, from his alterations. And Z? See the title, read the story. Savor it to the last mischievous tailpiece.

Yes, there’s more than one tailpiece. And why not? In Z Is for Moose nothing goes according to custom — and Zelinsky, accordingly, is in his element. Never more so. What he might be inclined to do next, from one book to another, is an open invitation to writers to think afresh. If you can dream it, he can draw it.

WANTED: Bright Ideas

Artist has pen, pencil, brush. Experienced in
illustrating many kinds of books, in diverse
styles and techniques. Nothing is too tricky.

Let your challenge be our opportunity!

Barbara Bader
Barbara Bader is a longtime contributor to The Horn Book. Most recently, she has written a dual portrait of the editors Elisabeth Hamilton and Margaret McElderry, and taken a Second Look at Virginia Hamilton’s The Planet of Junior Brown.
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