Friday, November 28, 2014

Beautiful Book #37

Zoo by Anthony Browne. Julia MacRae Books, 1992.

Art history playfully demystified. Human apes and ape humans. Anxious children encountering empathy. Simple stories that peel back family and societal dysfunction. The gap between text and image widened to profound inference. Damn. Fine. Art. Any single Anthony Browne picture book will entice you but his body of work as a whole will impress upon you the significance a single voice can have on the picture book genre. The Hans Christian Andersen medal committee saw this significance when they awarded him their medal, the highest international award for a body of work in illustration, in 2000. The British Booktrust also saw it when they appointed him the 2009-2011 Children's Laureate. Browne's books are highly decorated: two have won the Greenaway Medal (Gorilla and Zoo) with others making the honour list. He's also been awarded the Emil/Kurt Maschler Award, the New York Times Best Illustrated Book and The Boston Globe Book Award. Gorilla is his most highly decorated book (maybe _the_ most highly decorated picture book of the contemporary award age), but all his books are worth falling headlong into. Me? I'm a fan of his Willy books but his takes on fine art also always reel me in. I also have a soft spot for Silly Billy because it came to me and my daughter at exactly the right time.

I've chosen Zoo because in many ways it is his ugliest book (at least in terms of theme). The beauty of this book lies not only in the quality of Browne's art but in his ability to start a conversation that he leaves the reader to finish. You will never see a family trip to the zoo in the same way once you've read this book. What I find most astonishing about the book is how my reading of it has changed over the years. When I first read the book, all my empathy was for the animals. Now, my empathy shoots off in all sorts of directions at once. The book leaves me feeling deeply conflicted and, frankly, I can't think of higher praise for a book than that.

And a treat from Willy's Pictures:

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Beautiful Book #36

The Circus by Brian Wildsmith. Oxford, 1970.

Someday I would like to see Brian Wildsmith's original art for the well over 80 books he has illustrated. Sure, the mountains of trade paperbacks and beat up hardcovers that surround me are grand, but that art...those colours...those splashes and shapes...I want to see them big. I want to put my nose so close to them that the museum guard must clear his throat to hold me at bay. I want to stand 15 feet away from where they hang on a wall, close my eyes, inhale deeply, and then open my eyes to drink them in.

When his ABC was published in 1962, Brian Wildsmith gave birth to the joyous, 1960s revolution of colour in children's literature. In his books, each illustration is a work of art and most don't really need text at all. This is why the wordless Circus is my favourite of his books. I am afforded the privacy I so demand with his illustrations.

Some day, if I save my pennies and am lucky, I may get to the Wildsmith museum that has been built outside of Tokoyo--or maybe there will be an exhibition somewhere in striking distance to Atlantic Canada. Until then, I will content myself with his books. If you are looking to give a gift to a young child this Christmas, you can still get new copies of Brian Wildsmith's Favourite Nursery Rhymes and Brian Wildsmith's Favourite Fables for a good price. Many of his other books are also still in/back in print but the two I mention do make excellent gift books.

And here are a couple of online articles about him: one from an interview with The Independent and the other which is short and sweet but features pretty pictures

Monday, November 24, 2014

Beautiful Book #35

Under the Window by Kate Greenaway. Routledge, 1879.

There are so many Greenaway award winners on this list, but so far Greenaway herself has not made an appearance. That all changes today. Immensely popular from the moment Under the Window was released in 1879, Greenaway was imitated to the point of plagiarism. The pinafores, skeleton suits, bonnets, and mobcaps that defined her idyllic view of childhood harkened back to 18th Century Regency fashion, but Greenaway made the look so distinctive that her influence on late 19th-century children's fashion rivaled that of her influence on book illustration. It amuses me to think of a pretend Victorian HONY-style photographer snapping pictures of Greenaway children for a "Today in Microfashion" series. If you are interested in her influence on fashion, this short video put out by ABE Books is instructive.

Greenaway's art was influenced by the Arts and Crafts movement with its nostalgic, pastoral depictions of childhood and its use of soft colours, formally framed on the page. Along with Walter Crane and Randolph Caldecott, she helped define what the modern picturebook would become. Her influence has never really faded; you can see it throughout the history of illustrated children's books from Tasha Tudor to Barbara McClintock and beyond. When I first saw a Greenaway illustration, it felt a bit like coming home, in part, I think, because of my childhood fixation with 1970's Holly Hobbie. 

While I've chosen Under the Window as today's beautiful book, I've also included the cover of A Apple Pie, her alphabet book, along with one illustration from it because I love the unspoken humour of it.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Beautiful Book #34

The Pied Piper of Hamelin. Retold by Sara and Stephen Corrin. Pictures by Errol Le Cain. Faber & Faber, 1988.

I recently turned 49 and kid myself on my good days that I've accomplished something with my life. Ah, but then I think of the life and productivity of Errol Le Cain and humility comes crashing down around me. Born in Singapore in 1941, Le Cain rode out the war years in India before he and his family emigrated to Britain. He died in 1989 at the age of 47, and during his short life he worked as both an animator and a children's book illustrator, producing roughly 50 books and working on many animation projects including the highly influential yet never released The Thief and the Cobbler, Richard Williams' 25-year epic animation project that has been described as "the greatest animated film never made."

I've chosen Le Cain's interpretation of The Pied Piper of Hamelin as today's beautiful book for its sinister medieval feel and its overall book design, but I've also included an image below from Thorn Rose because not only is it stunning, it shows a greater range to his style... and, well, because it's just damn hard picking a single book of Le Cain's to showcase. He won the Greenaway Medal once and was commended for it four times--not too shabby for an artist with no formal training. The man had talent in spades.  Do a Google image search on his  name and you'll see what I mean.

If you find yourself smitten, YouTube has several of his animation projects online from both his work with Williams' studio and his work with the BBC. I rather like this five minute short: The Sailor and the Devil. You could also watch Williams' 90 minute workprint of the Thief and the Cobbler if animation is your thing.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Beautiful Book #33

The Complete Alice by Lewis Carroll. Illustrated by Helen Oxenbury. Candlewick, 2007.

If you were lucky like me, you found this slip-covered edition of Oxenbury's Alice at a remaindered book store on Bloor in 2009 and picked it up for a song. This is the Alice I read to my daughter and, together with Tenniel's and Moser's, this is what I think of when I think of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. Carroll's text has remained clever, pun-ridden, maddening, and nonsensical in the nearly 150 years since these books were first published; as such, contemporary children often struggle with his style. Oxenbury's editions open a door to Carroll by showing an Alice who is young, contemporary, often bored, and always a bit confused. I read these books to my daughter when she was 6 and that seemed the perfect window for them: while she was still content to not know everything that was going on, before she became inured to the predictability of genre fiction, and at that precise point when she entered a more sophisticated and slippery understanding of language as word play. Furthermore, Oxenbury's illustrative world is familiar and comfortable to most children given the enormous popularity of books like We're Going on a Bear Hunt, Farmer Duck, 10 Little Fingers and 10 Little Toes, and The Three Little Wolves and the Big, Bad Pig, all of which (and more!) she illustrated.

Oxenbury's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland won the Kate Greenaway Medal when it was first published by Walker Books in 1999. It and Through the Looking Glass were published and sold separately as both hardcover and softcover editions, so even if you can't find the boxed set, you can still track down and enjoy these books.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Beautiful Book #32

Johnny Crow's Garden by L. Leslie Brooke. Frederick Warne, 1905.

There was no way L. Leslie Brooke was not going to be included on this list. No one else captures the humour of anthropomorphized animals quite like him, and legions of artists who have illustrated animals in 20th- and 21st-century children's literature, from Kurt Wiese (of Walter Brooks' Freddy the Pig books) to David Wiesner, owe an artistic debt of gratitude to him. I've chosen Johnny Crow's Garden for no better reason than one of my favourite illustrations of all time is in it: the pig who dances a jig.

Brooke illustrated and wrote-and-illustrated numerous books, many of which can be viewed at Project Gutenberg. Make a point to linger on his interpretations of Lear's nonsense verse as well as his many nursery books. Along with Beatrix Potter, Brooke was a darling of Frederick Warne and Co., although his Johnny Crow has not become the household name that Peter Rabbit has. Brooke published a total of three Johnny Crow books: two while he was in his 40s and a third when he was in his 70s. I like looking at them all together for a longitudinal comparison. The bear who was naked in the first book, only to be styled in a fashionable vest, striped trousers and a waistcoat by the apes, retires to his pyjamas in the final book. Similarly, the lion who comes to the first party in his green and yellow tie abandons it on the final page of the last book as he bids goodbye to his friend, Johnny. The final book also features a venerable looking turtle contemplating the 19 mile journey to Johnny Crow's garden, which, to me, is a lovely, understated comment on age and retirement.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Beautiful Book #31

The Simon books by Gilles Tibo. Tundra. 1992-2001

Philosophical magic realism for the pre-school set: this is the most apt description I can think of for Montrealer Tibo's 11 Simon books, each of which was published first in French and then in English. The books are small, gentle, imaginative, playful and practically perfect. I don't think I could pick a favourite among them, although Simon and the Snowflakes and Simon and his Boxes hold special memories for me of reading them with my daughter. The way Tibo combines light and colour to depict the natural world as seen through Simon's 1st person narrative is so complex in planning and execution yet so simple in presentation that the books seem meant to be. When I imagine a three-year-old, book in hand, the book is usually a Simon book, unless, of course, it's one of Roslyn Schwartz' Mole Sisters books or one of Marie-Louise Gay's Stella and Sam books. What's with Montrealers and their insight into the preschool mind?

Friday, November 7, 2014

Beautiful Book #30

Seven Blind Mice by Ed Young. Philomel, 1992.

Chinese-American illustrator, Ed Young, stands atop an impressive body of work: over 80 illustrated children's books with several of those titles also written by him. His art spans a range of styles, from pencil drawing to collage, and the genres of books he illustrates are equally diverse, although I think he is at his best when interpreting folklore. His work philosophy sees illustration in conversation with text: when a book is successful the two complement each other to create a balanced and complete work. He is best known for Lon Po Po: A Red Riding Hood Story from China for which he won the Caldecott Medal in 1990.

I am rather fond of his take on the fable of the seven blind mice. Its black background, brightly saturated colours and paper-collage texture make it a visual feast. The text is spare, as is fitting a fable, and the moral is revealed neatly and succinctly at the end. Its simplicity makes it easy to read with very young children who are too often alienated by the maturity of folklore. Whether you're young or old, the book is a treat.

Despite the longevity of his career (his 1st book was published in 1962), he is still active as an illustrator and has two forthcoming books for 2015. You can learn more about those and his other works at

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Beautiful Book #29

A Farmer's Alphabet by Mary Azarian. David R. Godine, 1981.

Every few years I mount a book display outside the collection called, "Black and White and Re(a)d All Over." You'd be surprised how many illustrated books use this simple yet stunning colour combination. Key among them is Azarian's 1981, woodblock tribute to the agricultural history of New England. Yes, I know: yet another alphabet book on this list and yet another woodblock artist. I confess that both are weaknesses for me. But there are many reasons to love this particular alphabet. The design of the book is simple, effective, and as matter-of-fact as its subject matter; the paper it is printed on is thick and creamy, making the book feel anything but mass-produced; and the representation of rural life depicted on its pages is honest: sentimental without being reductive or saccharine.

Too often in children's books the word, "farmer," is synonymous with "man," as if Old MacDonald is the only lens through which a child is allowed to imagine rural life. Azarian depicts a broader reality. The work on her farm is shared equally by man and woman, and the children represented live in a world of play. The book is a tribute to the family farm and that feels historic today, but was perhaps more contemporary to the time in which the book was published. I spent part of my childhood on a farm like this one, and I can't help but wonder how many such farms have been lost in North America over the last 40 years.