Thursday, 30 April 2015

Martin Salisbury discusses five great picture books

We're delighted to have this guest blog from Professor Martin Salisbury, course leader for the prestigious MA course in Children's Book Illustration run by Anglia Ruskin University in Cambridge. An illustrator himself, Martin has written a number of important books about picture books for children and here he looks at five great picture books.

By Ludwig Bemelmans

Published by The Viking Press,
New York, 1934
Though best known for his subsequent, hugely popular Madeline books, of which there were five, Bemelmans’ first picturebook was this clearly semi-autobiographical tale of a childhood holiday in the Tyrol. Hansi is packed by his mother onto a little train and journeys up into the mountains where he stays with Uncle Herman, Aunt Amelie and their daughter, cousin Lieserl for the Christmas holidays. Various adventures are described through words and pictures in a generously sized format with alternating colour and black and white pages.

Born in 1898, the author had experienced a troubled upbringing in what was then Austrian territory (now Italian) and was sent to the United States at the age of eighteen to work in the hotel industry, eventually opening his own restaurant. This first venture into writing and illustrating came at the suggestion of friends and was well received by reviewers. It marked the beginning of a successful career as a humorist, novelist and artist. His work was characterized by an idiosyncratic, occasionally sentimental approach to the anecdotal.

There is far more text here than would be found in a modern picturebook. It falls somewhere between an illustrated book and what we now think of as a picturebook, with several beautiful double page spread illustrations in colour. Hansi was printed in the United States. No further details are given about the printing but it is clearly produced autolithographically. Bemelmans presumably would have needed to acquaint himself with this process, producing separations for each colour directly onto the plate and in places overlaying colours to create further hues, thereby maximizing the potential of the process. He appears to have used both lithographic crayon and inks. The first edition was issued with a dust jacket. Bemelmens’ extremely limited, at times appalling, draftsmanship is somehow always surmounted by the exuberance and charm of his vision.

The Moon Jumpers
By Janice May Udry
Pictures by Maurice Sendek

Published by Harper & Row Inc.,
New York, 1959
This copy, 1st UK edition
(The Bodley Head, 1979)
One of Sendak’s less well-known titles, this is a book that finds the great master in lyrical, sensual mode. Udry’s richly evocative text tells of a sultry, moonlit summer night, from the perspective of a group of children, out playing before bedtime. Sendak’s images give an almost pagan, ritualistic layer to the book as he uses heavily opaque paint to create formalized shapes of trees, buildings and children in intense moonlight. Using an almost pointillist technique, the artist eschews representational interest in architecture or flora in order to create a primitive, Rousseauesque atmosphere. The children seem to float and dance ritualistically across the pages in an operatic performance, brought to a close only by the call from the house: Mother calls from the door, “Children, oh children.” But we’re not children, we’re the Moon Jumpers!
“It’s time,” she says.

By John Burningham

Published by Jonathan Cape, London, 1965

One of the greatest picturebook innovators of his generation, Burningham has consistently pushed at the boundaries of the medium with works such as Grandpa and Come Away from the Water Shirley. His precocious, Greenaway Medal-winning debut, Borka: The Adventures of a Goose with no Feathers, which was published in 1963, just over three years after receiving his diploma from the Central School of Art in London, gave notice of a unique talent that was emerging at a key time for illustration and in particular the picturebook. The development of new methods of lithographic printing and the vision of important figures in UK publishing such as Tom Maschler at Jonathan Cape and Mabel George at Oxford University Press helped initiate a ‘great leap forward’ in expressive picturebook art.

Humbert was Burningham’s fourth picturebook in these early post art school years. The book tells of a humble working horse in London whose owner trundles him daily through the city, collecting scrap onto his cart. One day, the Lord Mayor’s parade comes by and Humbert leaps into action to save the day as the mayor’s grand coach breaks down. More than anything though, the book is a visual celebration of London, a tour through the deep browns of dirty Victorian buildings and the heavy, smog laden nights, lit by a yellow moon.

Doctor De Soto
By William Steig

Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux,
New York, 1982
Steig died in 2003 at the age of 95 after an illustrious career as a humourist, writer and illustrator. He did not begin making picturebooks until into he was into his sixties after working for many years as a cartoonist. Having managed to sell his cartoons at a very early age and become the family breadwinner, he went on to produce over 1600 drawings and 117 covers for the New Yorker magazine alone, characterized by his a highly distinctive, sardonic sense of humour. Of his children’s books, it is Shrek! that has become the most widely known in recent years, thanks to the success of the Hollywood film. Sylvester and the Magic Pebble (Simon & Schuster, 1969), the Caldecott Medal winning story of Sylvester’s the donkey’s discovery of a magic pebble that can make wishes come true has also become a Twentieth Century classic. It also caused some controversy due to the casting of pigs as police, a derogatory association that was particularly prevalent in the hippy era. Although Steig insisted no offence had been intended, the book was banned in some places.

As with all of Steig’s books, Doctor De Soto is firmly underpinned by a profound and meaningful narrative yet delivered with an easy lightness of touch, and great humour. A fox is suffering from acute toothache and begs the dentists, who happen to be mice, to remove the painful tooth. Despite their stated policy of ‘Cats and other dangerous animals not accepted for treatment’, the mice take pity on him and perform an extraction. Throughout the story, the fox is faced with the dilemma of whether or not to eat the mice after his dental surgery is complete. Steig’s text is hilariously matter of fact: “On his way home, he wondered if it would be shabby of him to eat the De Sotos when the job was done.”

The Monster from Half-way to Nowhere
By Max Velthuÿs

Published by Nord-Sud Verlag, Mönchaltorf,
Switzerland, 1973

This copy: 1st UK edition, A&C Black, London, 1974
Born in The Hague in 1923, Max Velthuÿs studied painting and graphic design at the Academie voor Beeldende Kunsten (Academy of the Visual Arts), before working for some time as a graphic ‘all-rounder, designing for advertising, TV and film. He came relatively late to picturebook making but found great success with the Frog books, beginning with Frog in Love, which was championed by the legendary Klaus Flugge at Andersen Press. Flugge went on to publish numerous subsequent tiles in the series. Velthuÿs’s Frog books are characterized by a graphic economy and an ability to address complex existential themes in an elegant understated manner, always stressing the innate nobility of human kindness.

The Monster from Half-way to Nowhere was one of the artist’s earlier picturebooks but already displays this lightness of touch and quietly philosophical approach. The page designs are masterful in their use of space and distribution of weight and colour. A fire-breathing monster arrives in a village to the consternation of the inhabitants, whose firemen immediately douse him with water. They try to put him to work as a military weapon but his natural good nature prevents him from wishing harm on anyone. Eventually he harnesses his fire to the newly built power station, providing electricity to the village.

Max Velthuÿs received the Hans Christian Andersen award for his contribution to children’s literature in 2004, a year before his death.

A discussion on further great picture books can be found in Martin Salisbury's 100 Great Picture Books, published by Laurence King in April 2015.

We wonder what you think of the intriguing selections? What books would be in your personal top three?


Lucy Mitchell said...

I don't think I will ever tire of reading Doctor De Soto aloud. Frank oo berry mush is said daily in our house. Its my favourite William Steig book, with Gorky Rising coming a close second. I'm off now to see if I can get my hands on a copy of The Monster From Half Way to Nowhere - it looks like it would be a hit at bedtime. Thanks for the tip.

Unknown said...

There are good news for all admirers of Max Velthuijs' work: The Monster from Half-way to Nowhere has been new released by NorthSouth Books unter the original title: The Kind-hearted Monster. Best wishes, H.B.