Sunday, 10 May 2015

The Fifties - Didn't we have them once already? - Jonathan Allen


Well, fashions come and go in the world of children's books. I've been only vaguely aware of it throughout my time in the business, but recently it has really become much more obvious. We are in the middle (or the end, please. . .) of a 1950s obsession, and it's starting to get depressing. it's pretty universal, not just children's books, but this is a grumpy rant about Picture Books so I won't go into fabric and interior design. . . ;-)
Not that the style in question is depressing per se, just that the unoriginality of a lot of the stuff out there is depressing. It's the law of diminishing returns, people mindlessly copying people who are copying people who are copying people who are aping particular 1950's styles like that of the wonderful Miroslav Sasek -

http://www.miroslavsasek.com/index.html

– and Cliff Roberts -



and Mary Blair -



and the also wonderful Margaret Bloy Graham -



And Jim Flora -



Don't get me wrong, I love those original artists, and I love the best of the current artists that are influenced by them. There is nothing wrong with being influenced by others, even copying if it leads to your own style.

But. . . . I lose the will to live when I see a style being done to death by those who really should be trying to work out their own style and their own take on the world. Why do they do it? Is it a lack of confidence, or of self respect?
I never understood unthinking fashion following in the first place so it puts me at a disadvantage I guess. Not that I'm trying to occupy some sort of moral high ground. Well, maybe I'll claim a molehill's worth of hieght. After all, we all see ourselves as paragons of discernment, however delusional that view might be, I'm no different ;-)

Is it wholly market led? It may be that the market has pushed artists in this direction. If something is doing well, publishers will want more stuff like it of course.

Is there some correlation between our times and the fifties that leads people to this abstracted, flat, design led style? To the distance these styles keep the viewer from their subject? The fifties seems to have been a time when Modern was seen as good. Now in our more pessimistic times are we nostalgic about that idea and view of The Modern?
Are things so tough and uncertain that we want to stand a safe distance from the world, especially the world we present to our kids? I'm not any kind of psychologist so I don't know the answer to these questions, but I find the idea interesting.

What I do know is that I for one am getting bored sick of it. It's the illustration world's equivalent of all those young men with big beards, shaved sides of heads and plaid/check shirts ;-) That's getting really old too.

Talking of 'old', put the word 'grumpy' and 'man' in there too and you've defined me absolutely. . .

So as a card carrying Grumpy Old Man confronted by this Fifties obsession, I will say, as I've heard Americans say, 'Stick a fork in it and turn it over, it's done!' 

23 comments:

  1. The trouble is, Jonathan, that you've given such lovely examples of original '50s style that I DO want more of it! .... But only alongside a variety of other appealing styles, of course.

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  2. We published something similar recently about children's book tropes - story wise, but yep I do agree with you that certain illustrative styles have been 'done to death' in kids books. I can't get enough of US 50s 'golden age' kids books though, they were truly inspirational and groundbreaking.

    A few less folk inspired by Oliver Jeffers though...

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    1. Well, yes, they were all of that, except maybe the more cutesy ones, not that I'm an expert in 50's US publishing, but copying them isn't inspirational or groundbreaking, it's just taking the form without the reason for that form existing, therefore ultimately pretty empty, or emptily pretty ;-)

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    2. I'm a bit of a retronaut, but I can understand the fatigue you're expressing, and because I'm a non-illustrator author, I do take particular pleasure in picture books that tell longer, more complex stories than what's "allowed" now in the "Minimalist Era" so far as picture books are concerned.

      I believe the best books out now that harken to the past give it a contemporary twist, so it DOESN'T come off a total rehash of what's been "done to death."

      Two books in recent years particular I feel transcends that "sameness" you touch on. One is Peter Brown's "Mr. Tiger Goes Wild" which you could argue has a pop art look that mixes the 50s and 60s, but it fits the story which hinges on being stifled by being too composed and gentile.
      (Love this book so much I made a fan trailer for it!)

      The second title worth noting is "The Snatchabook" by Helen Dorcherty, illustrated by her husband Thomas Docherty (and is a author-illustrator in his own right).

      It might appear like a Dr. Seuss ripoff, but I've read it, and in my humble opinion, it's It's a TRUE homage versus trying to be a copycat worlds removed. Not just in terms of how Seuss used his trademark wordplay and nonsense words which takes what Edward Lear did before him and amped it up.

      But the story behind how his art had this two or three tone look was out of necessity I find fascinating, yet we don't talk about it much, at least among authors we tend to focus on his writing and characters, perhaps illustrators more often comment on the two or three toned look to a lot of his books.


      What I like about The Snatchabook is that illustrator Thomas Docherty used Seuss' illustration style as a base, but puts his own spin on it, and unlike the Seuss tomes of old, he uses a wider and more vivid color pallete (since we don't have the color restrictions existing decades ago), and author Helen's rhyme is tight and on point, and I LOVE she had the gumption to make up a word for her tome-stealing antagonitst.

      Especially since when we live in a time where writers are chided for making up words, which can be annoying or confusing if overused, but when it works it works, and it does here.

      To be continued...

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    3. I also feel compelled to mention my friend Tara Lazar's "The Monstore" (illus. by James Burks) that has a LIGHT 70s feel, but is very much a more modern style.

      Ame Dyckman's "Wolfie the Bunny" (illus. Zachariah O'Hora) is another book that has a 60s style which I describe as "Punk Lucy Cousins" but again, use of line art and a angular strokes of the character designs that set it apart from the soften edged look of Lucy Cousin's iconic "Maisy."
      (I reviewed it on "Talking Animal Addicts" back when it launched, I also made this fan video for it)

      Like you mentioned, Jonathan, people copying what a past era (in particular the 50s) without thinking about the story/technique behind it does get trying, but I can tell you, it's HARD to sell books that are really unconvential (whether we're talking style of artwork or the style of the prose or verse), so it can be a paradox in publishing in general, but Children's/YA books in particular.

      Sometimes it's a timing thing, and as MANY people will tell you, sometimes the market's not ready for something radically different, and despite the opinions to the contrary, it's harder to start your career with something unconventional, it's why "The Invention of Hugo Cabret" is a book that released later in Brian Selznick's career instead of at the outset.

      A lot of writers who beta-read my upcoming debut middle grade novel "GABRIEL" told me what a "Hard Sell" animal stories are in general, and in particular for new writers, and it didn't help that my book's a novel and not a picture book, but I couldn't write the comtempoary, realisit fiction that's having a resurgence after the book of Fantasy or Paranormal fiction, and don't even get me started on the "Naturalistic versus Fantastical" debate.

      Just because I'm not "National Geographic" accurate about everything my animals do, doesn't mean I didn't do research and weave in some aspects my chraracters share with their "real life" counterparts.

      But I can't include everything, and sometimes certain traits I have to set aside certain factual bits because they're not relevant to the story I'm telling.

      There's a reason why "Shiloh" is different than Snoopy from Peanuts (even though they're both the same breed of dog), it's a matter of what works for a specific character and how "real" our story's world is.

      Sometimes, I wish I had the bank and team to start my own animation studio because if people could more easily "See" what the various worlds of what my fantastical fauna looks like, I'd get less "suspesnion of disbelief" issues, and I'm jealous of author-illustrators who can head that off at the pass, but we non-illustrator writers have to work ten times harder for the same level of immersion.

      Anyway, that's my 22 cents, but I do think the tide is turning toward more bold and stylized books that aren't overly harkening back to the past in general.

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    4. Thanks for your thoughts Taurean, I'll have to check out some of the ones you mention. I agree, it's so much nicer when someone has their own vision, albeit sometimes quite heavily filtered through their influences, or vice versa. . . ;-)

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  3. I need to get out more. I hadn't realised this trend.

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    1. 'Mid Century Modern' is big. . . ;-)

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  4. The only plus is that it's a trend which will at some point fade away. I'm hoping this will also happen with the 'sorry your story is too quiet' trend publishers are going through at the moment.

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    1. Submit the stories all in upper case? ;-)
      Let's hope for an outbreak of subtlety.

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  5. Can you please clarify the difference between "the best of the current artists that are influenced by them" and "those who really should be trying to work out their own style and their own take on the world"? How is one admirable, while the other one lacking self-respect? Or are you purely talking on a subjective, personal opinion level?

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    1. Without naming names, no. Obviously I'm not going to do that. And yes, equally obviously, it is entirely my personal subjective opinion. Hence the grumpy old man stuff. You must have at least some subjective metric for the difference between 'influenced by' and 'mindlessly copying' surely?

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  6. I was a child in the fifties and early sixties, so I remember when this style was all the rage. It left me cold then, and it still does. My opinion is purely subjective and has nothing to do with the actual merit of the artwork, but the flat, graphic style just has never much appealed to me.

    As an artist who does not illustrate in this style, I find it a bit depressing that it has so taken over
    the market. I wonder if part of the reason is that a flat, graphic style is much more easy to animate than more rendered artwork, and thus would be easily made into apps. If this is a reason, then I'm afraid we'll have this style dominating for a long time.

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    1. I 'blame' Adobe Illustrator partly. It makes it easier to work in that flat style. I really enjoy using it but have bent it somewhat towards my more expressive style.
      Yes, I am one who doesn't work in that style, and have to say that it is not a good time not to work in that style right now ;-) ;-(

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  7. Be as grumpy as you like, Jonathan! Although I know what you mean about the suffeit of retro 50s picture books, I've always liked this style and it's one of my favourites in picture books. What I feel will be disappointing is if it then becomes totally unfashionable and we stop seeing it. Plus I wonder if the retro look appeals more to adults as it tends to be the more arty books (and then trickles down?). I've noticed more collage and mixed media too (which I like).

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    1. Bloody parents! The bane of an illustrator's life ;-) Mea culpa, I imposed my tastes on my kids too. Yes, it would be a shame if the style vanished, but if it stopped being absolutely everywhere it would be nice. . .

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  8. I think you can partly blame Orla Kierley for this, Jonathan! The retro style is what's in fashion in interiors, and since picture books are mainly bought by women, publishers are appealing to their current overall taste. I like it but know what you mean about inferior 'knock-offs'. I wonder what will be an upcoming fashion...with the increasing popularity of nature writing in adult books (I'm thinking Robert McFarlane et al), perhaps we might get a return of beautiful nature-inspired work. I'd like that! Or maybe the Kit Williams fantasy moment will return. At the moment, though. it's flat graphics that complement the wallpaper.

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    1. Spot on, Moira. All the Lucien Gray and Annie Groag knock off stuff. I love some of it, but if i see another spidery Miro-Picasso-esque line crossing a rounded flat form I shall . . . . sigh deeply. . ;-)

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  9. As you say, I think it's part of a general trend but I agree it's problematic. For me, one big problem is that gorgeous as some 1950's picture books are, they are hardly bastions of diversity or inclusion. So, I think that art which follows this style now is equally lacking diversity but it is somehow not so noticeable. I suspect that both the trend in aping 1950s art and some of the re-hashing of done-to-death tropes is due to a lack of confidence and an abundance of risk aversion. It's a 'lets find something that was successful before and do it again'-publishing versus taking a creative risk on something new. sad.

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    1. Yup, publishing has always done that up to a point though. I agree about the inclusion aspect, and portrayal of women and men's roles etc. Not something i want to go back to that's for sure. The other thing that bugs me is the cute little birdies everyone draws, like wildlife is a generic, decorative thing with no intrinsic value. To reduce something to a simple form you really need at least some knowledge and if possible some emotional connection to that something. imho etc etc.

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  10. Interesting points raised in your pos and in the comments. Up to now, I hadn't really thought about it - I was just enjoying the retro look which appeals to me (and probably a lot of book buying grandparents) because I was a child of the 50s.

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    1. Aha - book-buying grandparents are a strong market! When we children of the 60s get to be grandparents we'll be buying the swirly hippy look, perhaps. The publishers will be bringing on lots of sub-Beardsley fairytale business and a lot of paisley! It comes around...

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