Tuesday, December 30, 2014


 I won't dive in to the deep waters of the discussion over whether to censor traditional fairy tales for young readers---whether to take out the gruesome or scary parts, whether to make sure they have morally correct endings, and so on. That discussion has been carried on by life-long students of literature, child development, mythologies, and the like; and it began with the very first publication of the Grimm's brothers collection in 1812---or even earlier. I would be in way over my head if I joined this group.
from "Grimm's Fairy Tales, Complete Edition, illustrated by Josef Scharl"
But I can dabble here in the shallows, and talk about my own experiences with fairy tales. 
from "Andersen's Fairy Tales", illustrated by Arthur Szyk

As a child, I read voraciously. I took armfuls of the books I had chosen out of the public library; and I read and re-read the volumes that filled the bookshelves and cluttered the rooms in our home. Fairy tales were one of my main staples.
from "Grimm's Fairy Tales," illustrated by Fritz Kredel
As a child, life could be bewildering, confusing, hurtful; even terrifying. I didn't consciously realize it then, but I know now that immersing myself in fairy tales helped me to navigate the turbulent parts of my days---to integrate all those contradictory parts into a cohesive whole.
Paper Sculpture, by Su Blackwell http://www.sublackwell.co.uk/#
I am glad that my parents did not try to control what I read. I am glad that I had access to the magic, symbolism, metaphor, and mythology of uncensored fairy tales. I was too young to understand logical and intellectual explanations about life, but I could understand the messages embedded in fairy tales. Fairy tales: for me, a treasure-house of wisdom. 

Monday, December 15, 2014


Ernest Shepard was born in December...
...and his daughter, Mary Shepard, was also born in December.

If you don't recognize their names, I hope you certainly know their work---Ernest Shepard's classic illustrations for Pooh, Piglet, and company;

and Mary Shepard's classic illustrations for Mary Poppins and the Banks family.

Not surprisingly, the two illustrators have several things in common. The work of both artists falls into the category of traditional British illustration, and both bring this style to a magnificent peak. Their penwork is masterful, and their control of this black-and-white medium is unsurpassed. It looks simple---but just try to replicate it yourself. The reason, of course, that there were so many more-than-competent artists of this media during the end of the 1800's and the first half of the 1900's is that illustrations almost always had to be reproduced in black-and-white---in other words, printed with just one color. It was usually too expensive at that time to fill a child's book, for example---which had to be marketed at a reasonable price---with four-color reproductions. Keep in mind also that newspapers, magazines, and so on were illustrated almost always with drawings, not photographs. So artists had plenty of opportunities to hone their black-and-white skills.
Illustration from "The Wind In The Willows"
 Ernest Shepard had illustrated the classic Wind in the Willows shortly before he created Pooh and his cohorts. And he would have been the illustrator of Mary Poppins as well, if the author P. L. Travers had had her way. As it turned out, he was too busy to accept the job. 
Illustration from one of the many "Mary Poppins" books
Lest you think that Mary Shepard then got the commission through some kind of pulling-of-strings by her father---not at all. P. L. After the turn-down from Ernest, Travers saw some samples of Mary's work at an exhibition, and suggested that she be the illustrator. Mary Shepard was 23 years old, fresh out of the Slade School of Art. In those days, youth was not an advantage; some people were skeptical that the inexperienced Mary could do the job. But what a happy marriage of text and art! I do think myself that, as it turned out, Mary was the better choice. The style of her illustrations wanders a bit further from reality than did Ernest's, which seems to me to suit the text admirably. And the sturdy, no-nonsense feeling of her pen line captures Poppins's character perfectly.
Illustration from "The Wind In The Willows"

I've emphasized the black and white media of these two illustrators' work. Quite some time after their books were first published, when full color reproduction had become much less expensive, many of their books were re-issued with colored illustrations. Just bear in mind that if the full-colored illustrations are what you know, they were not what earlier generations of readers saw. 

 Please do visit the two links below to see a nice group of the work of each artist. Both of them created illustrations for a variety of material, not just the famous characters they created. It's always interesting to me to see that an artist had a creative life beyond what the public generally knows about. And do try to introduce their illustrations to the children---and adults---in your life. When I Google "Winnie-the-Pooh" or "Mary Poppins", all I see are pages and pages of Disney renderings. In contrast to Disney, the Shepard interpretations of those characters are complex and satisifying, and stick well to the ribs over a long period of time. 



Tuesday, December 9, 2014


When my son was around 4 years old, he tagged along with me as I attended a short conference on storytelling. One of the traditional tales told was The Big Toe (http://www.creativetales.net/the-big-toe#.VHuEg0vtVt0). The storyteller was quite skillful, building up the tension with increasing volume, and manipulating his voice to ominous effect. He finished up with appropriately creepy groans and the final phrase, "You've got it!"---making all of us in the audience jump in delighted surprise. James enjoyed the telling right along with the rest of us. Next came Q & A. The audience asked about storytelling techniques, how to keep your audience's attention, and so on. Then James raised his hand.

"Was that a true story?" James asked.

The storyteller thought for a moment. Then he said to James, "There are Factual Events; and there are True Stories. This story wasn't a Factual Event; but it is a True Story." 

James listened; nodded his head. He understood completely. And I have never forgotten those words of wisdom from this storyteller. Isn't that what we artists are working with, always? The True Story---which may or may not be a Factual Event.

Note: In this day and age I feel compelled to defend my parenting techniques, in case readers think that a 4-year-old should not have been exposed to a creepy telling of a creepy story. My children---who both learned to read before they were five---read anything they wanted, including gruesome Grimms Fairy Tales, gruesome Mother Goose rhymes, and all those other pieces of literature from which children today are so often protected. I often remember what James---and I, too---learned about the difference between Facts and Truths from that performance, and how succinctly and clearly it was demonstrated to him. How fortunate my son was, to learn this at such an early age.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Tuesday, December 2, 2014


This piece is my donation to the The American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression (ABFFE)'s Holiday eBay Auction of art from children’s books. About 80 other children's book illustrators have also donated works. The auction runs from December 1 to December 8. Proceeds of the auction help support the Kids’ Right to Read Project (KRRP), which is co-sponsored by ABFFE and the National Coalition Against Censorship. For more info, go to http://www.abffe.org.

And here is the link to join the auction directly: