This blog isn’t primarily about children’s books; however, writing and designing children’s books is a large part of what I do and what I care about – and so a great number of the books on the Tsundoku Line are classified as ‘for kids’. I don’t always agree with that designation, but that’s a discussion for a future post.
The previous summer provided me with the opportunity to visit some flea markets and attic sales, and I found some books from the past that got me to thinking. That they happened to be about birds was a coincidence – I’m not a birder, and in fact they don’t really give too much information about birds at all. The thing that I found interesting was that they were illustrated by unknown or little-known artists, and that they were all strangely unique and impressive
In the case of children’s book illustration, I don’t mean ‘impressive’ in its general sense of ‘able to excite awe and admiration’. I mean that an illustrator’s work can make a lasting impression on a young mind. This capability, in my opinion, has less to do with technical skill than with understanding the unique perception that is a child’s.
Here’s what I mean – this is an illustration from 365 Bedtime Stories, a large, mid-1950’s omnibus of bedtime stories that I really enjoyed when I was little. I remember how much I liked Hustle-Bustle the parrot, and his funny adventures.
However, I have no memory whatever of liking the pictures, which were done by Jill Elgin, who also drew wartime comics and illustrated Catholic books for young children, among other things. Her pictures, at least in this book, are what used to be called ‘boilerplate’; they might have been drawn by any graphic artist in any publishing firm in any year between 1940 and 1965. Not one of them made any impression on me at all – in spite of the book being a favourite.
Oddly enough, Edward Lear (no amateur when it comes to drawing parrots) drew a similar picture for his More Nonsense in 1872.
The situation being depicted is almost the same, but whereas Jill Elgin draws as a kindly adult trying to amuse a child, Lear knows what a child finds funny in this event, and draws it as a child would draw it. And his picture is ‘impressive’; at least for me it was – I saw this illustration somewhere when I was very young and never forgot it. It didn’t look like any other picture-book picture I had ever seen. And when I rediscovered Lear much later, in my teens, I had a shock of recognition one day when I turned the page of my new Edward Lear anthology and recognized the Powerful Parrot Picture, as he might put it.
The books I’m going to share here were not known to me as a child, but they have the quality I’m talking about, and I can easily imagine how they must have impressed themselves on other people my age. The first is a book I discovered on holiday last summer in La Chaise, in the Morvan region of France. This town is very small; nonetheless the people there were taking part in the traditional mid-summer vide grenier, or ’emptying of the attic’, and lots of old junk was set out for sale on tables in their front gardens.
Birds of Wood and Field is part of the mid-60’s series of ‘Les Albums Roses’, which were the French equivalent of the ‘Little Golden Book’ series. They may even have been affiliated in some way, as the endpapers are full of Disney characters. Anyway, they were illustrated by someone called J F Marandin, about whom I can find practically no information whatever, except that he or she or they illustrated this book.
The pictures are not naïve or inexpert, but the birds don’t really look very much like how Marandin depicts them. They seem strangely intense to me, and overrun with odd colours and the obsessive texture of feathering.
This picture doesn’t help much if you want to find out who’s singing in your lilac bush, because no Eurasian Blackcap actually looks like this – but if you had looked through this book as a child, I’m willing to bet that you would have poured over the pages, lost in the surfeit of colour and patterns. And these pictures are the kind of thing that is ‘impressive’.
The next book I found in the Waterlooplein flea market in Amsterdam, where I live. It’s in Dutch, but was published originally in English as A Beautiful Dreamer by the Foreign Languages Press in Beijing. That was, as far as I can tell, in 1979. It was illustrated by two artists: Chiang Cheng-en and Wu Tai-sheng. I can’t find out any other information about these two, except that they illustrated another book, The Stuck-up Kitty, that looks rather disturbing when I see the cover for it online
The story concerns a very beautiful bird who becomes dissatisfied with his own loveliness and wants to be an excellent swimmer like the duck, or an excellent flier like the eagle, and so forth, but doesn’t care much about common sense or being useful to society
Perhaps not surprisingly, since the book comes from the People’s Republic of China, he is finally rescued by all the other little birds who take pity on him during a snowstorm. They teach him how to find food and build a house, and he learns how to live as a beneficial member of the bird proletariat.
I’m not sure if Chiang Cheng-en and Wu Tai-sheng did any other illustrated books; it might be that only the work they did for the Foreign Languages Press shows up in a Google search using Latin characters. But I think these pictures are technically wonderful and have a high degree of ‘impressiveness’.
Wanda Zacharias was a German illustrator who is almost unknown outside Germany, and she worked on Where is the Green Parrot? with her husband, Thomas. This was a favourite of my wife Reine, who had it in a Dutch translation as a child. When I started to explain to her about the subject of this blog post, she was reminded of the book, and asked if anyone in her family might still have it. And her sister did!
Reine hadn’t seen the book for at least forty years, but it was still fresh in her memory as she turned the pages. And while the style is a fairly common one for children’s books in the early 1960’s, it’s certainly easy to see why this book would have been impressive to a young reader.
The complex pictures really are a puzzle, and the simpler ones seem to have odd image rhymes – several parrots or representations of parrots, the similar postures of the horse and the dog – that help make the pictures haunting. Although this book was one of the few of Wanda Zacharias’ books to be translated into English, I had never heard of it or her before, but I could easily imagine being in Reine’s shoes, and remembering the green parrot vividly through the years.