Sunday, November 23, 2008

An editor speaks of illustrators

Rod McKie has touched off a discussion of publishers who republish classic texts with illustrations that don't seem connected to the stories they have been commissioned to illustrate.

"It’s not that I’m against book illustrators per say, or for that matter the people publishers now tell us are “graphic novelists”, but I am against the needless illustration of texts, especially when those illustrations run counter to the author’s intentions or even instructions, and serve only to place limits and boundaries on the reader’s imagination. Far from helping to illuminate the text, which was once free-floating and open to an infinite amount of interpretations, the possible meaning of the text is now fenced in by, not the author’s vision, which we have been encouraged to ignore, but the illustrator’s vision. And often, by the illustrator’s lack of knowledge about not just the text, but the witting and unwitting testimony of the text, what the text does not say because of the rules and institutions at the time of production, and of the illustrator’s lack of knowledge of the signs and symbols at work.

There's much more there and I would encourage you to read it, but what it sparked in me was a respect for a certain core of children's illustrators who appear to have worked with the authors whose stories they illustrated. Garth Williams, for instance, wanted to work for the New Yorker, and, for that reason, I have to believe that he talked to E.B. White about Stuart Little and Charlotte's Web. I have less specific reason to believe that he also consulted with Laura Ingalls Wilder as he illustrated the Little House books, except that they were so well done that I suspect he did work with her, rather than simply working from a synopsis, with an editor.

My response to Rod, on one of the boards where he had initiated discussion, was that I don't know why modern publishers feel they need to find new illustrators (who will then ignore the intentions of the author) when there are wonderful illustrations that were published with the original material, and which I suspect were the result of collaboration between author and illustrator. As someone who has published both original and classic children's literature in the newspapers, I've been delighted to use the original illustrations -- and not simply for the ease and cost of dealing with artists whose work is the public domain. (I happen to work rather well with the living artists I've used, too.) But these classic artists did, indeed, try to connect with the stories they were illustrating.

One example is the work of folklorist Andrew Lang, who produced a series of classic fairy tale collections from around the world, each illustrated by HJ Ford. The picture at the top is a favorite of mine, part of Hans Christian Andersen's "Blockhead Hans" in which Andersen vented some spleen at the press. Which makes me laugh the harder at the story, and Ford's delightful pics.

But Ford was wonderfully adaptable, and produced this picture for a Japanese Cinderella story, in which a young woman disguises herself and works in the fields until, of course, her virtue is rewarded by the local young nobleman.

Lang was not all that specific about the provence of "The Green Monkey," but Ford comes up with a completely different style, yet one which is clearly his and which gives young readers a wonderful image with which to imagine the rest of the story as they read.

And this is a favorite, one of several he did for a Romanian story about a girl carried off as an infant as eagles, but then raised in their nest. I used this as the logo for my own stories for many years.

But I've also used this as a logo, an illustration for "Beauty and the Beast," one of the stories retold by Katharine Lee Bates in a 1923 book that was one of my mother's favorites as a child. The illustrator is Margaret Evans Price, who later was the artistic director for Fisher-Price Toys. I ran some of these stories in the paper, along with Price's illustrations, and heard from a reader who, like my mother, had marveled over the stories as a child and was delighted to see them being brought to a brand-new generation of young readers.

This is Price's illustration for a story in which a proud young woman is taught a lesson in humility when her exasperated father marries her off to a beggar who, of course, turns out to be a handsome prince and in on the lesson. It's a more charming variation of the story than "The Taming of the Shrew" but what I find particularly interesting in this illustration is the detail on the princess's dress.

But this is a favorite -- another Evans illustration for "Beauty and the Beast," and the texture here is wonderful, especially in the context of the 1920s when the furniture and fabrics and fashions in the Beast's palace were quite current!

Another classic illustrator was Charles Robinson, whose breakthrough book was Robert Louis Stevenson's "A Child's Garden of Verses." I don't know if they collaborated, but I see little reason to reproduce the one without the other. He also did a classic collection of nursery rhymes, and I'm pretty sure he didn't confer with Mother Goose, but he seems to have captured the themes rather well.

PS -- In the comments, I spoke of how Dylan Meconis had done an illustration for the story of Actaeon and Diana that was part of a collection of myths I put together. Here's that illustration. It's not grotesque or "scary" but I think she did a nice job of catching a moment of transformation and apprehension, and it sticks in the mind, which is the point, after all. In the myth, Actaeon doesn't quite understand what the goddess has done to him until it's too late and he is about to be torn to pieces by his prized hunting dogs. It has touched off debates for a couple of thousand years about proportionality, and Dylan's picture suggests a young man who has really, really messed up and is only on the verge of realizing it. There are also some small touches like the shape of his head and placement of his eyes that lift this above the usual. She's quite a talent and I was lucky to come across her when I could still afford her!


Rod McKie said...

These are very impressive and I have to say you've made me quite a fan of Margaret Evans Price.

I did a piece, a while back on Hokusai, Mike, and I think she captures a moment almost as well as he. It's a rare quality.

Dave Brown said...

And of course, there are Alfred Tenniel's gorgeous illustrations for the Alice books.

And of course, Pauline Baynes's wonderful and definitive illustrations for the Chronicles of Narnia stories. An edition of the Narnia tales without Baynes's illustrations is, to my mind, not a proper presentation of those stories.

Nostalgic for the Pleistocene said...

This was a treat! I grew up on the childhood books of my mother and my grandmother, and these illustrators are beautifully familiar.

Garth Williams did meet with Laura Ingalls Wilder - he also did several years of research, and visited all the real life locations. I think it's cool that Harper let him spend years on the project to get it right.

Frontier Girl said...

You wrote: "I have less specific reason to believe that he also consulted with Laura Ingalls Wilder as he illustrated the Little House books, except that they were so well done that I suspect he did work with her, rather than simply working from a synopsis, with an editor."

Garth Williams did indeed travel to Mansfield, Missouri, to meet with Laura (and Almanzo) at their home. He studied their old family photographs and also traveled to the sites where the books took place and took his own photographs (a couple of these are published in Laura Ingalls Wilder Country, by William Anderson). The amount of research he put into these illustrations is truly remarkable.

Anonymous said...

At the risk of sounding unsophisticated and uneducated, I'll pose the question that comes to my mind when I think about using past illustrations in classic children's stories specifically. Do publishers today spend more energy/time/$ determining which types of illustrations will soothe and delight both children and their parents during bedtime reading in this age of anxiety (post-9/11)? I wonder whether relatively simple, round (rather than severe), soft, colorful figures sell best? In other words, is there something inherently frightening to some audiences about illustrations from the distant past? Of course, it still shouldn't trump the need to match the picture to the story, but maybe it does these days!
Sis from Sleepy Hollow

Mike said...

Part of the problem, from the (artistic) illustrator's point of view is just that -- that publishers want to hit a certain mood they feel will sell. It's a reasonable thing, of course, to want to make money -- but it assumes some things not in evidence, including the anxiety we're all supposed to be feeling.

Harry Potter didn't play to that "anxiety" except perhaps in the sense of confronting it so that kids could deal with it. Kids are a lot more resilient than their parents think, and, IMHO, by not challenging them in this area, you're asking them to seek that kind of realism in places where you aren't able to keep track of what they're up to.

Remember that fairy tales weren't originally written for children, but were folk tales for the whole community, which is why the Grimm brothers stories were so ... well, grim. But even in relatively modern times when the stories were crafted with young readers in mind, Andersen wasn't afraid to show them a harsh reality, and the stories Katherine Lee Bates was retelling to our mother were pretty rugged in the perils they portrayed.

As a writer whose work needs to work in the classroom, I find myself toning things down, not for the kids, but for the teachers. And the teachers, in turn, live in panic that parents will complain if there is too much grit in a story.

Example: The story of Actaeon and Diana, in which he peeks on her at her bath and she turns him into a deer, which is then torn to pieces by his own hunting hounds. The objection I had from (some) teachers was not to his bloody death, but to the suggestion of voyeurism -- yet they will then turn around and spend a week on good-touch, bad-touch and lessons about personal privacy.

We did the story anyway, but the illustrator, Dylan Meconis, caught Actaeon at the moment of transformation, looking frightened as he saw his hands changing to hooves, and buds of horns sprouting on his forehead. It was a good and pretty stark moment, but it didn't feature nekkid wimmen or bloody retribution. I still heard objections about the story itself.

But not from any kids.