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.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Beautiful Book #43

Imagine a Night. Paintings by Rob Gonsalves. Text by Sarah L. Thomson. Athenaeum, 2003.

Canadian magic realist painter, Rob Gonsalves, has published 3 picture books of his paintings: Imagine a Night, Imagine a Day, and Imagine a Place. The formula for each book is simple: paintings are paired with suggestive captions by Sarah L. Thompson and the rest is left to the reader's imagination. While Thomson's captions bring a dream-like quality to the books, Gonsalves' art is really where it's at. On the books' end papers, he acknowledges the influence of the Surrealist movement, particularly artists, Remedios Varo and René Magritte, but his work also owes a lot to the architectural illusions of M.C. Escher. Each painting is a work of precision but one does not follow the underlying logic or math needed to make it work, one simply surrenders to its visual sleight of hand. Imagine a Day won the Governor General's Literary Award for illustration in 2005, but I think Imagine A Night is my favourite because the combination of magic realism with a dream-like duskiness takes the imagination in so many directions at once.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Beautiful Book #42

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland:  A Pop-up Adaptation of Lewis Carroll's Original Tale by Robert Sabuda. Little Simon. 2003.

While we're on the topic of movable books, I might as well share my contemporary pop-up selection. Robert Sabuda has been designing pop-up books since 1994 and is widely considered a contemporary great of 3D paper engineering. He won the biannual Meggendorfer prize three times in a row between 1998 and 2002, and he's the one name people tend to know off the top of their head when the topic of pop-up books comes up. I'm sure you've seen at least a few of his his books, as he has been remarkably productive over the last 20 years. On occasion, I've seen his books show up at Chapters and Winners in their bargain books sections. If you ever have similar luck, snatch them up, because they are fabulous to own, to show off, to collect and to give to others.

I could have chosen any one of a number of his titles for this list but not only am I partial to his take on Alice I am also keen to have his version stand next to those of Moser and Oxenbury who are also on the list. Influenced by paper engineering greats such as mid-20th-century, Czech Vojtěch Kubašta who also produced a pop-up version of Alice, Sabuda has pushed the boundaries of the movable format further than any of  his predecessors. His 3D designs spring high from the page, he uses uses ingenious devices to accommodate text, he hides sub-pop-ups inside attachments on the page, and he sometimes uses telescoping devices to play with perspective (as shown below with Alice's fall into the rabbit hole). Enjoy the pictures I've included here, but make a point to get your hands, delicately, on the real thing. And if there is someone on your Christmas list for whom a wow-book would be appropriate, Sabuda might just be the answer you're looking for.

Friday, December 5, 2014

Beautiful Book #41

Magic Windows and Playtime Surprises. Reproductions of late Victorian movable books by Ernest Nister. Philomel. 1980 and 1985.

"Keep these posts short," I tell myself. "Limit yourself to one book per person," I tell myself. "You have 10 books to go before Christmas," I tell myself. "Don't get bogged down in the details."

But then my mind jumps up and down like a puppy: "but I haven't had a single pop-up or movable book on the list! I don't know how to choose a single pop-up or movable book! Nister is a must but so are Lothar Meggendorfer and Raphael Tuck! And that's only the pre-20th Century tradition of movable books! I'll want to talk about Bavarian colour printing and the influence of Germans on movable book history!..."

And that's when I try to calm the mental puppy down and get on with the business of selecting and featuring a book. So, Nister it is. Many of my choices so far have featured a compelling darkness in children's literature. Not so today. It's hard to imagine children's books more sweetly sentimental than the late 19th movable books of Ernest Nister. With verses likely written by Edward Weatherly (the writer is not acknowledged on the books nor are any specific artists) and pictures of cherubic Victorian children and kindly animals, Nister's books drip with the nostalgia of an idealized childhood. And, you know, sometimes, that can be a very good thing indeed.

The two books I've chosen each use a different form of dissolving picture mechanism that I've tried to show in action below. Magic Windows relies on the reader twisting a circular image until it creates an entirely new picture. Playtime Surprises is constructed more like pull down blinds where one picture dissolves into another. If you want to see these books in action, we have 25 of them in the Wallace collection thanks to a generous donation from J.C. Belzile. We also have a small handful of reproduction Meggendorfer books as well. Feel free to stop by. While you're here you might want to linger over Peter Haining's Movable Books: An Illustrated History, so that you too can turn your mind into an exited, book-loving puppy.