Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Beautiful Book #50

Classic Christmas Collection. Illustrated by P. J. Lynch. Walker Books: 2009.
containing A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, The Gift of the Magi by O. Henry and The Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey by Susan Wojciechowski.

Irish illustrator P. J. Lynch began making his mark early in his career. At 24, he illustrated Alan Garner's folklore collection, A Bag of Moonshine which won Britain's then-active Mother Goose Award, recognizing the talent of a newcomer to to the field of British illustration. He has since illustrated a number of tales and collections of folklore with specific emphasis on the Irish folk tradition. From the Rackham-esque black and white silhouettes that accompany Yeats' Fairy Tales of Ireland (1990) to the intricate, full-colour illustrations of tales such as 19th Century American, Frank R. Stockton's The Bee-man of Orn (2004), Lynch's work is always top-notch. I am particularly taken with his version of the Norwegian tale, East O' the Sun and West O' the Moon, so much so that I have included one illustration from it below. Lynch is a two-time winner of the Kate Greenaway medal for illustration, and he's only a smidge older than I am which I find simultaneously inspiring and humbling.

In 2009, Walker issued a gorgeous, slip-covered collection of Lynch's illustrated Christmas books: Dickens' A Christmas Carol, O. Henry's The Gift of the Magi, and Wojciechowski's contemporary and wildly popular, The Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey. I've decided to choose this collection as book # 50 on my promised list because it lets me squeeze in three for the price of one. I'm not entirely happy with how The Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey needed to be scaled down in size to fit the format of the collection, but, on the whole, this boxed set is such a great introduction to Lynch's work. The book design for the Dickens in particular is effective, with large type that makes it easy to read this holiday classic out loud--which, I might add, is no small feat given Dickens' predilection for periodic sentences and writerly flourishes and given my eyes' rapid decline with age. These three books are ones that any family who celebrates Christmas will return to time and again. If you can't get your hands on the collection, then seek out the books separately. Any public library worth its salts should have a copy of each of them.

If you want to know more about P. J. Lynch, his books, his posters and his other work, his website is here.

And with that, I have reached my promised 50 beautiful books by Christmas. Ta-da! I can now retire for the holidays. Come the new year, I will continue to chip away at all the titles that caused my list to spill over. I'll also assemble this list into some form of bibliography which will make it easier to go back to find posts on any given book, and which will also make it easier for you to look for them at libraries and new and used bookstores. Happy holidays!

 from A Christmas Carol

  from A Christmas Carol

from The Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey

 from East O' the Sun and West O' the Moon

Monday, December 22, 2014

Beautiful Book #49

Through the Animals' Eyes. By Christopher Wormell. Running Press: 2006.

Self-taught wood engraver, Christopher Wormell is a leading commercial artist in Britain. His Wikipedia entry presents him as a working class bloke who, at the age of 27, bought himself wood engraving tools and, inspired by landscape painting, taught himself the craft. The biography that accompanies the back of his books reveals a deeper artistic legacy. His father taught him and his siblings the art of lino-cutting and each Christmas the Wormell family mass produced handmade Christmas cards as a bit of a cottage industry.

His first book for children, An Alphabet of Animals (1990), was done as a lino-cut book and won the Graphics Prize at the Bologna International Children's Book Fair in 1991. Simple yet flawless in design, it reminds me of C.B. Falls' 1923 ABC Book which was featured on this list way back at #8. Since emerging on the scene with round about the biggest bang there is, Wormell has published several children's books, both those he has written and those he has illustrated for others. I could have easily chosen one of his two alphabet books for this list (because you all know my weakness), or, really,  any one of a number of his titles, but keeping things in the holiday spirit, I've chosen Through the Animals' Eyes. For this book, Wormell adapted the biblical story of the nativity into contemporary plain language, A naturalist at heart, his lino-cut illustrations depict the story as filtered through the perspective of animals who would have inhabited the Holy Land at the time of Christ's birth. An appendix describes each animal in more detail, thus making the book part Biblical text, part independent visual narrative and part zoological history textbook.

Images from the book are scarce online, but trust me when I say this book is stunning. I've included the cover below along with one illustration from this book and one from his award-winning alphabet. To learn more about him and see more of his stunning art, both commercial and book art, check out his profile on The Artworks Agency web page. There are a number of beautiful images there to peruse, including the many of the woodcuts he has become known for.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Beautiful Book #48

Pippin the Christmas Pig. By Jean Little. Illustrated by Werner Zimmermann. North Winds Press, 2003.

Jean Little has a way with storytelling. As one of Canada's most long-standing, prolific and diverse children's writers, she brings talent and skill to every project she touches. Partially sighted but legally blind since birth, her stories often speak of and to the outsider experience. Such is the case in Pippin the Christmas Pig, another take on the story of the nativity, this time through the eyes of the descendants of Bethlehem's stable animals. All the animals take great pride in what their ancestors offered to the baby Jesus, all except for humble Pippin who feels great shame that pigs were not part of the Christian Nativity. Feeling belittled and excluded, she runs away into a Christmas Eve blizzard--and that is when something rather remarkable happens.

Werner Zimmermann's soft colour scheme and his animals brimming with personality are well suited to this story. I also like the way he plays with line and direction to create a narrative flow for the eye on the page. When Pippin looks back at the warm barn, we look back in longing and doubt as well. When she leaps forward into the blizzard (and the page turn), we feel the tension created by the wind and the blue jay which force our eye to go back, as if to warmth and safety. Thematically, the illustrations are perfect.

I read this book every year with my daughter and even though I know the story almost by heart now and even though my rational brain tells me it is deliberately set up to milk my emotions, I openly weep every. single. time. Such is the power of Jean Little's storytelling.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Beautiful Book #47

The Nativity. Text from The Authorized King James Version of the Bible. Illustrated by Julie Vivas. Harcourt, 1988.

Goodness gracious. I am sitting in my office looking at the list of books I drew up one lunch hour in August when I started this project, and, even with prioritization, there's 4 too many titles for my list of 50, not to mention about another 25 on my 'reluctantly didn't make it' list. And that's just from that quick, preliminary jotting down of the illustrated books I love. And then there are those books that were new to me this fall which started to bump the list around even more. I can't deny it any longer: this Beautiful Books Series should continue in the new year, well past the original promised 50. Given the demands of my work-a-day life, it certainly won't continue at the same pace, but maybe I'll be able to wrestle time away from other tasks to put one up every week or two for a while longer.

With that off my chest, I can now relax into the final four I promised in time for Christmas. It also lets me juggle the list enough so that I can make all four of those books, Christmas books. The library Christmas party starts in just over an hour, my colleagues are bedecked in ugly sweaters of red and green, and the time for Christmas books just feels right.

Australian water colour illustrator, Julie Vivas, is perhaps best known for her collaborative work with writer Mem Fox on the titles, Hush, Possum Magic and Wilfred Gordon McDonald Partridge. She has also illustrated for Margaret Wild among others, including today's pick... The King James Version of the Bible. Vivas' playful, pastel nativity is infused with the joy that the story of the nativity is meant to inspire. Her colour scheme is warm and summery which just seems fitting for an Australian's view of Christmas. It's hard not to love this book in a warm and fuzzy sorta way. Vivas' Angel Gabriel wears workboots and lands like a puffin, as if descending from heaven involved anything but grace. Other angels ride sheep with looks that mirror those of preschoolers on their first petting zoo ponies. Her Wise Men ride camels so tall that dismounting from their backs becomes comic fodder. But it is the soft, round illustrations of Mary in her bedroom slippers and the baby Jesus in his birthday suit that crack the heart wide open. In a holiday that has become so crass and commercial, it is good for everyone, even for those of us who do not profess a Christian faith, to be reminded that the heart of Christmas is ultimately about goofy, giddy love for a newborn baby.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Beautiful Book #46

Lii Yiiboo Nayaapiwak lii Swer: L'Alfabet Di Michif/Owls See Clearly at Night: A Michif Alphabet by Julie Flett. Simply Read Books, 2010.

I know, I know. YET ANOTHER alphabet book, but when you see this one, you'll know why the list needed to make room for just one more. Métis artist, Julie Flett creates spare and stunning illustrations that balance light, space and colour beautifully. Her alphabet is a tribute to the highly endangered Michif language of the Métis, a language influenced by Cree, French and the Saulteaux dialect of Ojibway. As Flett explains, "Languages are precious: they capture the very essence of a culture. The exceptional night-sight of owls is akin to the insight that language offers in understanding a culture."

Flett's book begins with these two sentences as part of a brief introduction to the history and nature of Michif. The book ends with a helpful pronunciation guide, but it is the art and the words chosen in between that make this small book expansive and uncommonly beautiful. I've included a couple of images below but please go to Flett's website to see more images from this book and to browse her other titles. Her recent Wild Berries/Pakwa che Menisu was chosen as the First Nation Communities READ book for 2014-2015, and she was the inaugural winner of that organization's Aboriginal Literature Award. And for those of you looking to buy a book for a baby this Christmas, might I recommend Richard Van Camp's Little You which is illustrated by Flett.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Beautiful Book #45

The Gilgamesh books, retold and illustrated by Ludmila Zeman.

Gilgamesh the King. Tundra, 1992.
The Revenge of Ishtar. Tundra, 1993.
The Last Quest of Gilgamesh. Tundra, 1995.

Czech-Canadian author-illustrator Ludmila Zeman's adaptations of the Epic of Gilgamesh are gorgeous to look at. If I could blow her paintings up to wall-size, I would surround myself with them, so golden, intricate and calming they are. Adapted for child readers using the picture book format, these books are also remarkable for how simply and effectively they present the ancient epic's thematically complex narrative of power, love, friendship, mortality and humanity. The Last Quest of Gilgamesh won the Governor General's Literary Award for illustration in 1995, but each of these books is wonderful on its own, as are Zeman's other folklore-inspired picture books. Make sure you look her up next time you are at the library.

Zeman is also an animator. Our library has access to the National Film Board of Canada's collection where you can watch her short film, Lord of the Sky, based on the Pacific Northwest First Nations' legend of raven. If you can access it from UNB or from your own local library, it is a wonderful way to spend 13 minutes. If you have a bit more time, this 30 minute documentary on the Epic of Gilgamesh is on the open internet and features both Zeman and her daughter, Linda Spaleny, along with other artists and historians. It is engaging and informative. And, finally, if you want to catch a glimpse of where Zeman's immense talent originated, here is a link to one of her father's (the great Czech filmaker, Karel Zeman) films on YouTube. You won't need the language to follow along.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Beautiful Book #44

A Book of Nonsense by Edward Lear. Originally published 1846. I am working with the facsimile edition of the 1875 Frederick Warne reprint that was put out by The Osborne Collection of Early Children's Books, Holp Shuppan Publishers, 1981.


The Dong with a Luminous Nose by Edward Lear. Drawings by Edward Gorey. Adama Books, 1968.

I am getting close to the finish line at book #50 which means I am trying to squeeze as many books onto the list as I can. Edward Lear's A Book of Nonsense is a must, especially the Osborne facsimile edition with its 130 beautifully reproduced colour illustrations. Alas, most of you won't be able to get your hands on this particular edition (and cheap paperback editions just won't do), unless you pop up to my office or find yourself in proximity to a good research collection of children's literature. And so, today, I give you a bonus title that might be a bit easier to get your hands on.

But first, the original.Where to start with Edward Lear? His love of language and his willingness to play with sounds to the point were sense snaps meaningfully into nonsense is his greatest legacy to children's literature--and to poetry in general. But that just scratches at the surface of his genius.  He popularized the limerick form long before it became a bawdy rhyme. A gifted artist with a background illustrating birds for the Zoological Society and the orthinologist Earl of Derby, he brought a self-deprecating playful whimsy to his children's book art. At a time when children's books were intended to teach, with some attempting to delight along the way, Lear pushed straight on through delight to a hedonism of sound and image that is tethered only gently to meaning. If I'm not mistaken, A Book of Nonsense, Lear's collection of limericks, is the earliest title on my list, thus making it the cornerstone for all that comes after it both in terms of art and language. It's hard to imagine there being a Sheree Fitch, a MaryAnn Hoberman, a Jack Prelutsky or a Dr. Seuss without there first being an Edward Lear. And among all the illustrators who owe a debt of gratitude to him, foremost among these is Edward Gorey.

And thus, today's bonus book. Edward Gorey is Edward Lear for the 20th Century. More macabre in his outlook, he remains tethered firmly to the glorious nonsense world first envisioned by Lear. As such, it is no surprise that Gorey illustrated two of Lear's poems: The Jumblies and The Dong with a Luminous Nose. Each is presented in a slim, hard-covered volume that rotates in and out of print. If you can find copies, do so, because each is a little sliver of enjoyment.