Category Archives: Illustrating Children’s Books

Is There a Pattern Here?

Rob Gonsalves

Rob Gonsalves

Art is the imposing of a pattern on experience, and our aesthetic enjoyment is recognition of the pattern.
Alfred North Whitehead

I collect images of books in art. And, just as philosopher Alfred North Whitehead noted, I love to find patterns and motifs among them. I imagine that’s the pleasure of most collections.

Recently I was looking at some of my images and noticed a type of illustration that is relatively unusual. I think of it as the surreal image.

There are tons of images focused on books and reading that are fanciful and unreal. They might be charming:

Illustration by Beatrix Potter

Illustration by Beatrix Potter

Or metaphorical:

Illustration by Rafal Olbinski

Illustration by Rafal Olbinski

Or startling.

Illustration by Jacek Yerka

Illustration by Jacek Yerka

But they don’t quite have the quality I’m talking about. I can’t put my finger on it. Maybe the word is “unsettling.”

Perhaps the forest is a little too encroaching, a little too dark.

Rob Gonsalves

Illustration by Rob Gonsalves

Or the vines too silently creeping.

Illustration by Chris Van Allsburg

Illustration by Chris Van Allsburg

Illustration by Nom Kinnear King

Illustration by Nom Kinnear King

With this one, I keep finding myself waiting uneasily for those eyes to open.

Illustration by Frances Cochiacchio

Illustration by Frances Cochiacchio

Although not all that is out of place is ominous.

Illustration by Michael Sowa

Illustration by Michael Sowa

The  most classically surreal image I have (echoes of Magritte for sure) is mostly just amusing.

Illustration by Patrick Desmet

Illustration by Patrick Desmet

Maybe what’s holding these together for me is the thing unnoticed. Something’s odd. Something’s off, but it’s only we, the observers, who are noticing.

Illustration by Rob Gonsalves

Illustration by Rob Gonsalves

In fantasy literature, there’s a type of story that fantasy writer and academic Farah Mendelsohn calls liminal. It’s a type of fantasy that’s a little hard to define, but basically it involves a protagonist who doesn’t quite cross through the portal into fantasy, but stays on the border between the real world and the world of the fantastic. Perhaps these images aren’t so much surreal, as “liminal.”

To pull this post back into the world of writing children’s books, I’ll just add a couple links here. One of the questions that almost invariably comes up when I teach classes in writing fantasy and science fiction is where someone’s story “fits.” Like most of children’s literature, there are defined categories in fantasy that are good to at least be familiar with. As a writer you may choose to match those characteristics or violate them, but it’s good to know what rules you’re breaking.

Here’s a list of 10 good terms to be familiar with if you read or write fantasy. And the other is a link to a little information about Mendelsohn and her books. She’s good to know about if you’re going to go deeply into fantasy writing.

In the meantime, don’t turn too quickly to find out about the rustling from that bookshelf behind you. Perhaps it’s best not to know.

In The Study Rooms at the V & A (Part II)

 

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When I wrote my last post for this blog, I had just moved out of our rented home in London. With most of our belongings headed to Seattle in a shipping container, my husband, daughter and I felt like tourists again.

Until two days ago, when we flew back home. My re-acclimation to American life has begun. But, for my next couple of posts I will be returning to London (in spirit at least) to write more about my visits (I went back a second time before I left) to the Victoria & Albert Museum’s Prints and Drawings Study Rooms.

The V & A has most of the original drawings by E. H. Shepard for A. A. Milne’s Pooh series. My mother used to read to me from Milne’s Now We are Six when I was young (the book made turning six sound very grown up) and I still hear my mother’s voice when I read it now.

Milne-The Good Girl

“Well? Have you been a good girl, Jane?”. . .

I was able to request several boxes of Shepard’s sketches. The drawings are all in pencil on the pages of a 9″ X 14″ sketchbook.

Shepard’s lines are fluid and confident.

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I like to see where he tried different options and erased or crossed out some.

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It’s also interesting to compare these drawings to the finished art from the published books.

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Screen Shot 2016-08-19 at 15.49.06Sometimes Shephard draws many lines till he finds the right ones (I can relate to that).

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On the sketches that were accepted for the final illustrations, you can see that Shepard rubbed a graphite pencil across the back and then traced over the image to transfer it to his drawing board.

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Shepard seems to enjoy drawing trees, especially the grand, gnarled ones.

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And of course, bears.

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THE END

When I was One,

I had just begun.

When I was Two,

I was nearly new.

When I was Three,

I was hardly Me.

When I was Four

I was not much more.

When I was Five,

I was just alive.

But now I am Six, I’m as clever as clever.

So I think I’ll be six new for ever and ever.

 

A New Childhood: Picture Books From Soviet Russia

The New Childhood entry poster House of Illustration

Last week I returned to House of Illustration to see their current show – A New Childhood: Picture Books From Soviet Russia.

It is an excellent, eye-opening exhibit. I snapped a few subversive shots to share with you.

Before the October Revolution of 1917, children’s books were beautifully illustrated but expensive. Only children of the upper classes were regularly taught to read. Children’s books were not for the masses.

bilibin feast cakeIvan Bilibin, 1895

After the end of the Tsarist regime, fairy tales were considered irrelevant. Children were reimagined as “builders of the new egalitarian future.” New children’s books would promote socialist beliefs and give practical instruction.

Galina & Olga Chichagova 1925-posterGalina and Olga Chichagova, poster design with text by A. Galena, 1925.

“The images of old storybooks. Out with the mysticism and fantasy of children’s books!! Give a new children’s book!! Work, battle, technology, nature – the new reality of childhood.

On the positive side, during this time there was a blossoming of creativity in children’s literature. The influence of folk art as well as past art movements and picture books from Europe converged in these new books.

Eduard Krimmer 1926-How The Whale Got His ThroatEduard Krimmer, How the Whale Got His Throat (Rudyard Kipling) 1926.

Illustrators explored new styles and techniques. The Soviet government lifted a Tsarist ban on Yiddish publishing.

Issachar Ber Ryback 1922-In The Forest coverIssachar Ber Ryback for In The Forest (Leib Kvitko) 1922.

Books were considered valuable tools in disseminating new ideals. Publishers flourished.

Eduard Krimmer 1925-NumbersEduard Krimmer, Numbers, 1925

Vera Ermolaeva 1925-Top Top TopVera Ermolaeva, Top-Top-Top (Nikolai Aseev), 1925

Absurdism proved useful in communicating the regime’s ideas.

Iureii Annenkov 1918-The FleaIllustrations for The Flea (Natan Vengrov) by Iurii Annenkov, c. 1918

Konstantin Rudakov’s work was humorous and zany, but considered “bourgeois dregs” by Nadezhda Krupskaya, noted theorist and Lenin’s wife. Some of his books were banned.

Kostantin Rudakov 1926-TelephoneKonstantin Rudakov, Telephone, 1926

Picture books would show children how to build the future.

Evgenia Evenbakh 1926-The TableEvgenia Evenbakh, The Table, 1926

Aleksandr Deineka 1930-ElectricianAleksandr Deineka, Electrician (B. Uralski), 1930

Tevel Pevzner 1931-The Cow ShedTevel Pevezner, The Cow Shed (Evgeny Shvartz), 1931

Tevel Pevzner 1931-The Poultry YardTevel Pevezner, The Poultry Yard (Evgeny Shvartz), 1931

Georgii Echeistov 1930-What It Carries Where It Travels 1 Georgii Echeistov 1930-What It Carries Where It Travels 2 Georgii Echeistov 1930-What It Carries Where It Travels 3 Georgii Echeistov 1930-What It Carries Where It Travels 4Georgii Echeistov, What It Carries Where It Travels, 1930

Unknown 1934-First Counting BookUnknown illustrator, First Counting Book (F. N. Blekher), 1934

The circus was still popular, but the Lion was no longer portrayed as King of the beasts. Instead he was President.

Maria Siniakova 1929-CircusMaria Siniakova, Circus (Nikolai Aseev), 1929

Vladimir Lebedev 1925-CircusVladimir Lebedev, Circus (Samuil Marshak) 1925

Marshak quote

Some illustrators were still determined to show children at play and having fun. Some got away with it.

Vladimir Konashevitz 1925-Unpublished illustration-Pictures For Little OnesVladamir Konashevitz, unpublished illustration for Pictures For Little Ones, 1925

Vladimir Konashevitz 1925-MugsVladamir Konashevitz, Mugs, 1925.

Others delved further into the new reality of childhood.

Aleksandr Deineka 1930-Red Army ParadeAleksandr Deineka, The Red Army Parade, 1930

The atmosphere of experimentation ended in the mid-1930s when “socialist realism” became the assigned aesthetic ideal. Children’s books could only support Soviet approved aspirations. State censorship was enforced. Yiddish publishing was no longer tolerated and high taxes caused many Russian publishers to close. Many illustrators continued to work but ceased experimenting. Some fled to Europe. Others were arrested.

I visited Soviet Russia when I was a child in 1970. What I remember most about Moscow was how bleak it was. Saint Basil’s Cathedral rose like a glorious fantasy out of the concrete. Everything else, including the people, was grey and heavy. Our guide was afraid to answer any of our questions. People spoke to us in whispers if they spoke to us at all. They were the children who had grown up under the Soviet regime.

For those of you who aren’t able to make it to London to see this show before it closes in September, you can look for the book, Inside the Rainbow, Russian Children’s Literature 1920-1935: Beautiful books, terrible times, which inspired House of Illustration to exhibit works from this collection.

Gwen White’s Book of Toys

Book of toys038

While researching for my last post, Gwen White’s Pictorial Perspective, I discovered that she had written and illustrated other books as well. That led to research into whether I could buy any of them. Most were not available or beyond my budget, but I did find one copy of White’s A Book of Toys that was affordable. Gwen White and toys. I bought it based on that combination, and the cover, without knowing anything about the interior contents.

Book of toys037

I am happy to report that the book is as wonderful as I’d hoped. The images are simple and grand at the same time. The writing is straightforward yet playful. This is part of our heritage as children’s book illustrators and authors.

I want to share it with you here and I couldn’t decide what to leave out so I have scanned the entire book. It feels an appropriate companion piece to my earlier posts on A Book of Pictorial Perspective and Folk Toys -les jouets populaires

Book of toys003Book of toys036Book of toys004Book of toys005Book of toys006Book of toys008Book of toys009Book of toys010Book of toys011Book of toys012Book of toys013Book of toys014Book of toys015Book of toys016Book of toys017Book of toys018Book of toys019Book of toys020Book of toys021Book of toys022Book of toys023Book of toys024Book of toys025Book of toys026Book of toys028Book of toys029Book of toys030Book of toys031Book of toys032Book of toys033Book of toys034

I may have to go back to the London Museum and Kensington palace to see if any of the toys White has illustrated are still on exhibit. The museum at Bethnal Green is now the Victoria & Albert Museum of Childhood which I wrote about here.

I hope you have enjoyed reading this little book as much as I have.

(Maybe you figured this out already, but the Penguins on the cover aren’t just toys. The publisher is Penguin and the book is part of a King Penguin Books series)

Book of toys035

Puss in books

 

cat holding reader

No credit found

As some of you know, I collect images of books in art. I now have many hundreds of images I can peruse. And it’s fun to see the themes and motifs that show up over and over with books like birds, clouds, the moon, butterflies, oh, and Cats. Hundreds of cats, thousands of cats, millions and billions and trillions of cats.

Illustration by Emma Block

Illustration by Emma Block

Cats and books just go together like tea and hearths, rain and solitude.

Sometimes the cats are a subtle presence, barely there:

Illustration by Shawn Fields

Illustration by Shawn Fields

Illustration by Christina Tsevis

Illustration by Christina Tsevis

Illustration by Helen Oxenbury

Illustration by Helen Oxenbury

Sometimes it’s all about the cat:

Illustration by Blanca Gomez

Illustration by Blanca Gomez

Illustration by  Charle Vysotsky

Illustration by Charle Vysotsky

Illustration by Yusuke Yonezu

Illustration by Yusuke Yonezu

Illustration by Celestino Piatti

Illustration by Celestino Piatt

 

Sometimes they’re just part of the ambience:

Illustration by Jun Kumaori

Illustration by Jun Kumaori

Illustration by Karen Hollingsworth

Illustration by Karen Hollingsworth

Illustration by Christopher Silas Neal

Illustration by Christopher Silas Neal

No credit found

No credit found

 

But often, it’s the human, cat and reading experience all entwined:

Illustration by Alexander Sokht

Illustration by Alexander Sokht

Illustration by Sultanov Yuriy

Illustration by Sultanov Yuriy

No credit found

No credit found

Illustration by Linda lee Nelson

Illustration by Linda lee Nelso

Probably the most famous cats in literature are T.S. Eliot’s cats from Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats. I particularly like his “Naming of Cats.”

The Naming of Cats is a difficult matter,
It isn’t just one of your holiday games;
You may think at first I’m as mad as a hatter
When I tell you, a cat must have THREE DIFFERENT NAMES.
First of all, there’s the name that the family use daily,
Such as Peter, Augustus, Alonzo or James,
Such as Victor or Jonathan, George or Bill Bailey—
All of them sensible everyday names.
There are fancier names if you think they sound sweeter,
Some for the gentlemen, some for the dames:
Such as Plato, Admetus, Electra, Demeter—
But all of them sensible everyday names.
But I tell you, a cat needs a name that’s particular,
A name that’s peculiar, and more dignified,
Else how can he keep up his tail perpendicular,
Or spread out his whiskers, or cherish his pride?
Of names of this kind, I can give you a quorum,
Such as Munkustrap, Quaxo, or Coricopat,
Such as Bombalurina, or else Jellylorum-
Names that never belong to more than one cat.
But above and beyond there’s still one name left over,
And that is the name that you never will guess;
The name that no human research can discover—
But THE CAT HIMSELF KNOWS, and will never confess.
When you notice a cat in profound meditation,
The reason, I tell you, is always the same:
His mind is engaged in a rapt contemplation
Of the thought, of the thought, of the thought of his name:
His ineffable effable
Effanineffable
Deep and inscrutable singular Name.

Illustration by Francois Knopf

Illustration by Francois Knopf

 

 

Gwen White’s Pictorial Perspective

Pictorial Perspective cover

My favorite books to find in used book shops are those that are fun to look through, useful, and not easily available. Gwen White’s A Pictorial Perspective is that kind of book. I found it at Foster’s Bookshop (actually a visiting friend found it but didn’t buy it – thank you, Rachel!). It was published by William Morrow and Company in Great Britain in the 1950s. According to the jacket copy, “Miss White” presents all the fascinating tricks of Perspective “in the pleasantest possible way.”

Perspective has never been my strong suit. I learned only the barest basics when studying art in college. I think the style of my work has evolved to avoid perspective. It is still evolving in that direction.

However, sometimes I can’t avoid perspective. This book will be excellent reference.

At first glance, I thought the book was a children’s picture book. The images are colorful and charming, although they did seem oddly placed on the page.

G White-A Street-image

But then I realized their placement wasn’t arbitrary. It corresponded to the line art on the opposite side.

G White-A Street-line

So if you hold the image up against a light source, (like my window), it shows the perspective used to create it.

G White-A Street-both

Each concept has a diagram and explanation,

G White-Birds Flying-line

and an illustration demonstrating its usage,

G White-Birds Flying

which you can hold to the light from either side to see how the perspective works.

G White-Birds Flying-image

Brilliant!

Gwen White writes in her introduction to the book:

Just as a study of verbs is necessary in order to speak a language, … so is a knowledge of Perspective helpful if you wish to convey a feeling of depth. It is not concerned with Flat Design or Decoration, but it enters into outdoor sketching, scenery, film backgrounds, dioramas, and many book illustrations.

For example, if you wanted to illustrate a book about rabbits in moonlight…

G White-Moonlit Rabbits-imageG White-Moonlit Rabbits-line

or pigs in sunshine…

G White-A Pig In Sunshine-imageG White-A Pig In Sunshine-line

Or mice playing…

G White-Mice PlayingG White-Mice Playing-iline

or a variety of other scenes, Pictorial Perspective will help you.

G White-Another BoxG White-Another Box-line

G White-View Through A Window-imageG White-View Through A Window-line

G White-A Street-imageG White-A Street-line

G White-Going Down and Round-imageG White-Going Down and Round-line

G White-A Road With Brows-imageG White-A Road With Brows-line

G White-A Greenhouse-imageG White-A Greenhouse-line

G White-A Lodge With Gables-imageG White-A Lodge With Gables-line

She called this technique of holding the pages to the light her “lift up” idea.

G White-Mice Playing-imageG White-Another Box-imageG White-A Street-bothG White-Going Down and AroundG White-A Long Straight Road-image

Even the endpapers are explanatory.

Gwen White EP2pinkGwen White EP2 blue

I tried to find out more about Gwen White, but there doesn’t seem to be much on her that is easily accessed. She did illustrate children’s books, and authored a book about patterns as well as others about dolls and toys. She was also a painter who exhibited at the Royal Academy and was ARCA (Associate Royal Cambrian Academy). She dedicates this book to her three sons. I hope to find out more with continued research.

In the meantime, I will continue to enjoy learning perspective in the pleasantest possible way.

THE SPELLBINDING MOMENT

The first time it happened I was at Girl Scout Day Camp, in the oak ravines of Tuolumne county. Camp Apalu. I was 11. We were standing in the closing circle, baking in the sun, when I noticed how beautiful Mrs. Walsh and her adopted daughter Donna were, right there beside me. I grabbed my trusty Brownie Starlight camera and turned it on the diagonal to capture this mother-and-daughter image bathed in sunlight.

I was careful to conserve my film, so I only took one photo of Mrs. Walsh and Donna. But I knew the love of a mother and her daughter would shine through with the intensity of thestainedglassma&child Madonna and Child in the stained glass window of the Little Red Church where I’d spent a few Sunday mornings daydreaming.

I was shocked when I opened my envelope of developed prints and saw Mrs. Walsh in curlers. daycampphotoNot at all what I had seen when I snapped the picture.

 Making art is about creating a vehicle that transfers the image in your head into someone else’s head — through photography, music, dance, art, story, film, etc. On that day at Camp Apalu, the yawning chasm between what I thought I saw and what the photograph recorded was disconcerting.

So you can imagine my delight when the spellbinding moment of imagination did come true.

In the process of creating artwork for LITTLE WOLF’S FIRST HOWLING, John and I traveled to Yellowstone last September, scouting locations. I had my sketch dummy in hand, based on images in books and Googled.

We watched for wolves in the LaMar valley during the day,jklamarheard them howl across the ridges in the evening, saw the full moon rise.

lamarnight

Then, driving through the park, I saw a ridge that looked just like the place I imagined Little Wolf first howled. How amazing! Luckily, this time the photo was the same as what I imagined I saw.

LW bench

We walked up and looked around, taking photos of the sage and grasses, the snags of dead trees and rocks. The specificity of these photos has informed the final art.

GHOSTYTREE

 

I have stood on the grassy bench where the Little Wolf of my imagination first howled.

I wonder if any of you have experienced this convergence of imagination and art in a life experience?

 

LISTEN

I spent a lot of time playing the ukulele in 2015, including ukulele camp at Fort Worden where one of my teachers was Aaron Keim. Aaron and his wife Nicole form the duo The Quiet American, picking and singing their way through the folk Americana songbook. He’s a gifted teacher, too. While leading us through his transcription of John Fahey’s Sunflower River Blues, he advised: “By the time you start working on a piece, you should listen to it so much that it is already living in you.”

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The duo called The Quiet American: Nicole and Aaron Keim of Hood River, OR

I like that idea: listen until it is living in you. I know how that feels for a song and also for a story. In fact, I think songs and stories dwell in the same heartful place.

It is a mysterious process, bringing a story into the world. You head out with a few phrases, a character maybe, a situation. You tell yourself your story, imagine it into the world scene by scene. Pretty soon, if you listen closely, that story you are making begins to make itself, you meet anew the story that has been living in you.

I know I am not alone in this way of looking at the writing process. Back in the early 2000s when I was teaching at Vermont College of Fine Arts, Katherine Paterson often came by. She told us that after a certain point in drafting a novel, she feels her attention switch from generating characters and plot etc. to listening to the story that is already on the page, and shaping the book as that material dictates.

My sister Kate McGee, who is a pastel painter in Philomath, OR, is collaborating with me on illustrations for LITTLE WOLF’S FIRST HOWLING. I ran this listening idea by her. She said she comes to a point in every painting where, if she pays attention, it starts bossing her around in its effort to become what it is meant to be.

We talked about this while looking at the black and white layer I’d just painted for one of the spreads. We were both listening and paying attention to what the piece still needs. I will make the changes digitally, then email that layer to Kate so she can add the color. We are new to using Photoshop for our artwork and are swimming upstream – but how fun to work together on a project!

And it’s great to have another pair of ears to listen as we find our way through the woods.

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Final spread for Little Wolf’s First Howling, due out from Candlewick Press in 2017.

(to hear The Quiet American play Sunflower River blues on the ukulele click here)

 

 

 

 

 

Yoko Tanaka – Emotion In Detail

Y Tanaka holding ME 2

Looking carefully at one of Yoko Tanaka’s images rewards you with details that on a quick perusal you could easily miss. They are feather-light, with the delicacy of a dragonfly’s wing.

Yoko Tanaka Magician's Elephant 2 detail

I met Yoko through Rotem Moscovich, an editor at Hyperion Publishing who saw her in New York last Fall and thoughtfully introduced us to each other over e-mail. Yoko has lived in London since 2011 and Rotem knew that I had recently relocated here.

I have enjoyed talking with Yoko and learning a bit about her process and approach to imagery. She was kind enough to consent to my featuring her on this blog, and invited me to her studio.

yoko04_2

There is an ethereal, dreamlike quality to Yoko’s illustrations. Monochromatic in tone, the elements emerge out of shadows as if lit by the moon. Since her paintings are often dark with a limited, earthy palette, she says she receives many jobs whose stories deal with “winter, snow, night, death, witches and magic, and children with problem parents.” She is excited that her next picture book project has “100% happy components.”

Yoko Tanaka with Magician's Elephant Chap 1

There is a sadness in many of the pieces, but there is humor as well. Each face tells a story. There are no abbreviations when it comes to elements that convey emotion. Emotion is a word Yoko uses frequently when talking about her work. It is the element she strives to communicate visually. She succeeds.

Yoko Tanaka Magicians Elephant Chap 1 detail

It surprised me to learn that Yoko first studied Law in Japan, her native country, before moving to California in 2000 to study design. She was then accepted to Art Center College in Pasadena where she changed direction to study painting, intending to become a gallery artist. Her first painting was of a large coffee cup.

She enjoys painting on a bigger scale, but that isn’t practical for reproduction, and her current studio space is small. Her illustration work is done to size or slightly larger (which is tiny for the amount of detail she includes).

It was literary agent Steve Malk who first encouraged her to pursue illustration rather than gallery work. She has been working with Steve since 2005. One of the first book contracts Steve brought to her was to illustrate Kate DiCamillo’s The Magician’s Elephant for Candlewick Press in 2008.

Y Tanaka-ME cover_04

yoko03

Four months is Yoko’s ideal amount of time for a children’s book project; one month to sketch and three months to paint. She doesn’t like projects to go on much longer than that. One project at a time is better for her than overlapping jobs.

yoko02

Yoko says that ideas don’t come to her while she is sitting at her drawing table. Driving a car is where she prefers to do her thinking – in quiet isolation, following a well-known route. In London, she walks instead.

When she gets an idea, it comes to her fully formed, in 3-D, sometimes even with sounds and smells. She then sketches it with pencil and paper as quickly as possible. Revisions are relatively few. She will use Photoshop to add color and value for preliminaries to show clients, but her finished work is usually done in acrylic paints on illustration board.

Y Tanaka-ME CHAP9_01 Y Tanaka-ME CHAP9_02 Y Tanaka-ME CHAP9_03 Y Tanaka-ME CHAP9_04

Yoko recently completed a cover for a new edition of The Magician’s Elephant as part of Candlewick’s reissue of five of DiCamillo’s books in their Fall/Winter 2015 catalog. The publisher wanted a brighter palette with the animal in the center of the composition, in keeping with the rest of the paperback collection.

Y Tanaka-ME new cover

Yoko also showed me the art she created for the first edition of Tiny Pencil, an art-zine “devoted to the lead arts.” These illustrations are done in graphite, not her usual medium. She used stencils and chamois cloth to create the gradations of value. The images have a ghost-like quality that is both poignant and spooky.

Y Tanaka holding Tiny Pencil 1

Y Tanaka Tiny Pencil 1 detail

Y Tanaka Tiny Pencil 2

Y Tanaka Tiny Pencil 2 detail

I am grateful to Yoko for taking the time to welcome me to her studio, and for sharing her ideas and process, as well as her time. I look forward to seeing more of her work in the future, perhaps on a gallery wall as well as in books.

Y Tanaka balcony arrangement

 

 

 

The Museum of Childhood

Museum of Childhood entry

Last Wednesday, I visited the Victoria & Albert Museum of Childhood in London’s Bethnal Green area.

This is not a simply a children’s museum, though many thousands of children visit here each year.  This museum houses the British “national collection of childhood-related objects and artifacts.” The extensive array ranges from the 1600s to modern times.

As you enter the exhibit area, the signage includes this quote from Plato:

“You can discover more about a person in an hour of play than in a year of conversation.”

So, Plato isn’t just talking about children here? He was implying that adults should be observed playing too? Those Greeks.

It would be a hardened and steely adult who would not feel the pull towards play when viewing this collection. No matter what age you are, you will see items that remind you of toys and games you played with as a child, and the rest will make you envious of the children who played with them before they became museum pieces.

Isn’t that writers and illustrators of children’s books are supposed to be able to do –  access the emotions and wonderment of being a child? This museum would be a worthwhile field trip for any of us.

Troll Dolls-Denmark(Troll dolls are what I played with as a child. I spent many hours making clothes for them and styling their luxurious hair.)

Viewing the collection as an illustrator, it was fascinating to see the progression of imagery through time and across cultures.

Game of Goose-Italy-1750The Game of Goose, Italian, 1750.

Cloth toy owlSoft toy owl, designed by Kristin Baybars for Ostrobogulous, England, 1964.

My favorite part of the exhibit was the Optical Toys section. Some of these toys use special visual effects – tricks of the eye – to make two-dimensional pictures appear to be three-dimensional. Others make pictures move, or appear to move.

Below are various views of a teleorama from Germany, circa 1800-1820.  teleorama 1-Germanyteleorama 2-Germany teleorama-GermanyI think making a teleorama of sorts could be a fun project to do with children. If I could figure out the telegraphing part.

P1020361 P1020363Magic lantern slides, 1890 – 1900. Made in Germany by Gebrüder Bing & Planck.

P1020368 P1020367Kaleidoscopic lantern slides, 1850-80. Using a double rackwork mechanism, these slides show a changing pattern of colors by turning a handle.

Le Phenakistiscope discs detail Le Phenakistiscope discDisks for a Phenakistiscope from the late 1800s.

viewing Praxinoscope 1880By looking through slits into a mirror while spinning the disk of a Praxinoscope, the pictures appear to move.

These and other such moving-picture toys led to the invention of modern moving-picture technologies,

Movie Makerwhich then led to the invention of toys like the Movie Maker, 1960-1970, made by the Arnold Arnold Toy Company, USA;

Star Wars slide setthe Star Wars Slide Projector set;

Early computer gameand, eventually, computer games.

And then there were the toys that really do move, like the amazing automata of the French company Roullet et Decamps, 1870-1880.

cat emerges from the hat, sticking out its tongye to the sound of a music boxThis cat emerges from the hat, while sticking out its tongue to the sound of a music box.

Rabbit in a cabbage, French 1870-1880, Roylet et DecampsThis rabbit rises out of his cabbage while wiggling his ears and munching.

plays ‘Rigoletto’ and ‘Carmen’ opera tunesThis French monkey musician, 1870-80, plays ‘Rigoletto’ and ‘Carmen’ opera tunes. This wasn’t a toy for children. Adults got to play with this one.

cuckoo on wheelsThough far less elaborate in mechanism or decoration, this hand-carved and hand-painted wooden cuckoo on wheels is also beautiful. Pressing down on the bird’s tail makes the white-leather bellows create bird-like noises. A traditional toy from Germany, circa 1900.

Lajkonik horsemanThis ‘Lajkonik’ horseman is from Poland, 1958. When pulled along, a wire swings the horseman’s club.

Russian musical bearA clockwork Russian bear plays music on it’s balalaika.

wind-up toy monkeyA Chinese wind-up monkey, circa 1970.

Clockwork bugJapanese clockwork bug that jumps around when wound, circa 1950-70.

1940-ishMarx Company, New YorkTin Plate novelty toy1940s tin plate merrymakers. The Marx Company, New York.

animatronics 2 animatronics 1Lots of robotics. Even some robots.

Of course, an exhibit of toys that move must include toy cars.

Hillman Minx car The Hillman Minx battery operated car, made in the 1960s in England by the Tri-ang company.
Pedal carThe Royal Prince pedal car, also by Tri-ang, England, 1930.

Chevrolet blanc et noirThe sleek Blanche et Noir, made in France by Vilac, 1989.

And other vehicles with wheels.

wire motorcycle-Africa wire bicycle 3 wire bicycle 2-AfricaThese bikes were made in Africa from scrap wire, 1980 – 1983.

Puppets are moving toys that have taken to the stage.

PuppetsYellow Dwarf theatre, 1868The Yellow Dwarf theatre, 1868; a theatre made for one family and designed to perform one play, The Yellow Dwarf. The story comes from fairy tales published in France in 1697 by the Clountess D’Aulnoy.

St George and the Dragon puppet-1920-30A Saint George and the Dragon puppet, circa 1920-30.

paper puppetsA shadow puppet theatre, 1850s.

1963-70, EnglandAnd finally, one more toy that moves, as if by magic. England, 1963 – 70.

What I like so much about all the toys that move, or seem to move, or move with us, is the ingenuity and inventiveness involved on the part of the creator. The artists and craftspeople that invented these toys knew how to access their childlike imaginations to fill our hearts with wonder, which is something children, and adults, will always be drawn to.

Maybe creativity is really just another form of play. If so, it’s something I never want to grow out of.

Cloth Clown