Friday, October 31, 2014
The Ship that Sailed to Mars by William Timlin. George Harrap, 1923.
Published in a run of only 2,000 books, 250 of which were made available in North America, William Timlin's The Ship That Sailed to Mars is a rare and strikingly beautiful science-fiction/fantasy classic. Timlin, an artist and architect, began creating the book for his young son in 1921. This was no small feat given that the book comprises 48 colour plates and 48 pages of text handwritten in calligraphy by the author. When George Harrap agreed to publish the manuscript in 1923, he decided to keep Timlin's calligraphy rather than having the book typeset. The result is a book unlike anything I've ever seen: ancient, yet futuristic, fantastical yet grounded in early 20th century artistic traditions. It anticipates so much 20th Century science fiction and fantasy and does so with elegant whimsy; for example, the space ship is not a rocket but rather a sailing ship designed by fairies, and the old man who sails it does so in a vest and waistcoat.
One of my favourite bit of text reads: "On their arrival at Mars, following their flight from the Moon, they found the land fair and free of Man or Fairy, but roaming its woods were harmless but inexpressibly Hideous Things. Many were like unto the evil thoughts of a maniac at moonrise; others were sluggish, amiable beasts, and then there were those Monsters that flew."
When I first heard about this book, I knew I wanted a copy. Thankfully, Calla Editions, an imprint of Dover, created a facsimile of the original in 2011, one that can still be snagged new for a great price via online bookstores. Trust me when I say, you won't regret the 20-some odd dollars you spend on it. And if you are lucky enough to find a copy in your local library, all power to you.
Thursday, October 30, 2014
The Mysteries of Harris Burdick by Chris Van Allsburg. Houghton Mifflin, 1984.
Illustration and design of children's books in the last 40 years has been highly influenced by the Rhode Island School of Design. RISD boasts David Macaulay, Brian Selznik, and David Wiesner among other prominent illustrators as alumni. Barry Moser taught at the school for many years, as did Macaulay. Smack dab in the centre of this deep community of talent, you will find alumnus and former instructor, Chris Van Allsburg. Trained as a sculptor, Van Allsburg, on the advice of his wife, Lisa, turned to book illustration as an extension of his art. His use of sculptural form, child-centred perspective, eerie atmosphere, the darkness of folktale morality, and subtle humour have rendered his voice unique and ground-breaking in the picture book genre.
He is best known for his books that have been adapted to film, The Polar Express and Jumanji, but my personal favourite is and will always be The Mysteries of Harris Burdick. The book's concept is simple: a fictional children's book publisher is visited by an illustrator who leaves his portfolio for consideration but then never returns to collect it. Inside the portfolio are are series of evocative drawings containing nothing but a title and caption. Readers are encouraged to engage with the illustrations, to write the stories for themselves...and so they have, all over the world as part of classroom assignments and solitary flights of fancy. In 2011, noted authors, including Kate DiCamillo, Sheman Alexi, Walter Dean Myers and Stephen King, joined forces to publish, The Chronicles of Harris Burdick, 14 stories based on the book's original illustrations. While I very much enjoyed their takes, for myself, I prefer to let the mysteries behind each picture be.
I have included a few of these illustrations here, but I encourage you to find the book to linger over for yourself. And while you're at the library, look for his other titles: The Garden of Abdul Gasazi and The Sweetest Fig are other favourites of mine, and I cannot resist the post-modern charm of A Bad Day at Riverbend. Given that today is the 30th of October, I should also single out The Widow's Broom, a title well-suited to Halloween.
Thursday, October 23, 2014
Down Singing Centuries: Folk Literature of the Ukraine. Translated by Florence Randall Livesay. Compiled and Edited by Louisa Loeb. Illustrated by Stefan Czernecki. Hyperion Press, 1981.
When I logged into Twitter this morning, the day after the horrific violence on Parliament Hill, I was struck by the top two Trending Topics in Canada: #OttawaShooting and Happy Diwali. "This is my country," I thought. "This is the country that I love."
Today's beautiful book is a fascinating contribution to Canadian cultural history of another sort. Published in 1981, it collects and brings forward the translations of Ukrainian songs and folktales undertaken by Florence Randall Livesay in her Winnipeg home. Mother to famed Canadian poet, Dorothy Livesay, F.R.L. became interested in Ukrainian culture when she took in immigrant girls as 'mother's help' in the early years of the 20th Century. Her interest in their songs was so great that she sought help from Reverend Paul Crath, a Ukrainian Baptist Minister to learn the language so that she might translate these songs. She persisted in her efforts and brought her own poetic sensibilities to bear, publishing Songs of Ukania with Ruthenia Poems in 1916. She continued to work on translating Ukrainian folklore after this book's publication but didn't publish again. Down Singing Centuries is an academically impeccable bringing together of Livesay's translations from her original book and beyond edited by scholar Louisa Loeb, and gorgeously accented with colour plates provided by German-Canadian artist Stefan Czernecki. The book is a pleasure to read, to look at and to touch.
Portrait of F.R.L
Tuesday, October 21, 2014
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There. By Lewis Carroll. The Pennyroyal Edition as designed and illustrated by Barry Moser. University of California Press, 1982 and 1983.
Number 25 of 50. When you hit the halfway mark in a project, a celebration is called for. What better celebration than a tribute to Barry Moser and his Pennyroyal Press? Moser, an illustrator, woodcut artist, painter and book designer (among other things) founded The Pennyroyal press in 1970. His Pennyroyal books are made from the ground up using a printing press (managed by typesetter Harold McGrath) and woodcut illustrations created and printed by Moser. In 1982, Moser and McGrath undertook their first large scale project on the press, an illustrated version of Alice that is meticulous in its textual history, stunning in its design, thorough in its concept, and innovative in its pictorial interpretation.
For these books, Moser situates himself in the eyes of Alice. While we do see her and her sister depicted in illustrations that frame the narrative, once she is in Wonderland, the reader sees the fantastic and frantic sights only as Alice sees them. This positioning heightens the horror and uneasiness of her adventure--of note, the Cheshire Cat is a skeletally thin Sphinx cat. Similarly, in 1983's Through the Looking Glass, the illustrations are all presented as if seen through the mirror's reflection. I could go on an on about the brilliance of these books--the chess problem played out in the illustrations, Moser's choice of accent colours, the faces depicted and who they represent, the layout of text and image on the page, the textual extras in each book--suffice to say, it is no wonder that Alice's Adventures in Wonderland won the American book award in 1983 for the trade edition of the book as published by The University of California Press.
I like to keep these posts short, but I do urge you to read more about Moser, Pennyroyal and the ground-breaking Pennyroyal Caxton Bible here. And please don't stop with Moser's woodcut Pennyroyal books. He has illustrated many other children's books as well. I've included an illustration from his Jump! collection of Brer Rabbit stories and an illustration from his collaboration with Virgina Hamilton on a collection A Ring of Tricksters below.
Monday, October 20, 2014
Hansel and Gretel. The Brothers Grimm. Illustrated by Lisbeth Zwerger. 1979.
Austrian illustrator Lisbeth Zwerger won the prestigious Hans Christian Andersen medal in 1990, the highest honour that can be awarded a children's book illustrator for a body of work. A simple Google-image search on her name will show you why. Her art is diverse, from dark to whimsical, she projects atmosphere deftly, and her style is unique despite being rich in influences. I particularly like the way she plays with space on the page--there is a balance to everything she does. She works mainly with folklore, bringing her own vision to classic tales and fables, but she has also illustrated canonical children's texts, such as Alice in Wonderland and The Wizard of Oz.
I have chosen one of her earlier works, Hansel And Gretel, because I am drawn to her Rackham-esque darkness. I have also included an image here from The Little Mermaid because I want to give a sense of her artistic range... and I've included one from The Selfish Giant to demonstrate her skill with space and balance.
Friday, October 17, 2014
How Summer Came to Canada. Retold by William Toye. Pictures by Elizabeth Cleaver. Henry Z. Walk, 1969.
It is not easy to pick a single title by Elizabeth Mrazik Cleaver. With 13 LC Catalog records for 9 distinct titles, she was not exactly prolific but her work is foundational to the histories of folklore and book illustration in Canada. A two time winner of the Amelia Frances Howard-Gibbon Illustrator's Award, she also gave name to her own award that is managed by IBBY Canada. A list of the winners of the Elizabeth Mrazik-Cleaver Canadian Picture Book Award can be found here.
I like How Summer Came to Canada for the texture and variety of its illustrations and because William Toye provides a spare and engaging version of this particular Mi'kmaq Glooscap legend. As one of Cleaver's first two books, it announces the breadth of her talent from the get-go. The illustrations below do not do the book justice. I recommend you sit down with all of her titles the next time you are at the library, and, in the meantime, if you'd like to see some of her illustrations from the influential early Canadian children's poetry anthology, The Wind has Wings (1969), there is a good blog post by Gary Andrew Clark here.
Thursday, October 9, 2014
An Alphabet by William Nicholson. Heinemann, 1897
William Nicholson is another artist and illustrator whose work you will know, even if you do not know his name, for late in his career he was asked to produce illustrations for Margery Williams' 1922 classic, The Velveteen Rabbit. It is his woodblock alphabet from very early on in his career, however, that I like best. With each letter representing a character type or profession, An Alphabet is simple yet complex in its reflection of character, social strata, fin de siècle fashion, and emerging graphic design principles. As one half of The Beggarstaffs, Nicholson was an influential artist for late 19th C poster design and he went on to create other books of woodcut illustrations, to become a painter who exhibited in London, and to illustrate and author children's books.