Side by Side: Five Favorite Picture-Book Teams Go to Work by Leonard S. Marcus
(Walker Books for Young Readers, 2001, 64 pages)
Side by Side looks at five different picture book teams who have worked together to create successful picture book collaborations. Each of the teams highlighted came into their working relationship in different ways and it was interesting to read about how they worked together. Prior to reading this I hadn’t realized that a lot of the time authors and illustrators don’t know each other in advance. Publishers will often read an author’s work and then reach out to an illustrator that they think would be the best fit for the feel of the story.
This book was interesting to me as a parent, picture book lover, and librarian, but it’s also accessible to younger readers who may have an interest in writing or illustrating children’s books.
A Caldecott Celebration: Seven Artists and Their Paths to the Caldecott Medal by Leonard S. Marcus
(Walker Childrens, 2008, 64 pages)
I’ve always had a deep appreciation and love for picture books. This feeling has only intensified now that I have a young daughter who I’m eager to expose to new and classic titles. In my desire to gain a better understanding of what goes into making a picture book a success I’ve gone searching for titles that can speak directly to that – which introduced me to the work of Leonard S. Marcus. Marcus is essentially my go-to guy for all things related to picture books.
I read the second edition of A Caldecott Celebration which was published to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the Caldecott medal. It highlights seven winners of the award (one for each decade) and looks at the process and inspiration that led them to create the books worthy of winning the medal. The illustrators highlighted in this title are: Robert McCloskey, Marcia Brown, Maurice Sendak, William Steig, Chris Van Allsburg, David Wiesner, and Mordicai Gerstein.
I came away from this book with a greater understanding and appreciation for the depth and consideration that goes into visualizing and creating the feel of a picture book. I’ll certainly be reading more of Marcus’s work… and spending a fair amount of my free time perusing picture books that catch my eye. It’s so easy to get caught up in them!
Vincent by Barbara Stok; translated by Laura Watkinson
(SelfMadeHero, 2014, 141 pages)
This graphic novel covers the final and most productive few years in the life of Vincent van Gogh. It depicts van Gogh in the countryside of Arles in southern France, frantically producing landscapes and trying to start an artist’s commune with Paul Gauguin. Unable to sell his work, van Gogh is supported financially and emotionally by his brother during this period, and Stok gives us a window into this patron/artist relationship through the letters they exchanged.
Stok’s artwork is simply rendered, and the colors are vibrant. She effectively portrays van Gogh’s frenetic energy as his creativity explodes and his mental health deteriorates. The dialogue communicates the essential points of van Gogh’s biography and artistic vision without becoming overly expository. I really enjoyed this quick read, and the final panels are particularly beautiful and moving.
The Sculptor by Scott McCloud
(First Second, 2015, 487 pages)
If you’re a fan of graphic novels and comics you’re probably familiar with Scott McCloud and his classic book Understanding Comics. When it was revealed that he had a new graphic novel coming out this year people got pretty excited. After I finished reading it this weekend it was easy to see why. Despite it’s size this was a book I got through in just a couple days and I really enjoyed my time in the story McCloud crafted.
David Smith is a young sculptor in New York. He made a name for himself early but then lost favor in the art world after making the poor decision of bad-mouthing his patron. Struggling to make ends meet David isn’t sure how he’s going to survive and it’s at this point that he expresses he’d be willing to give his life for his art. “Luckily” for him, this is a deal he’s able to make. Now he has 200 days and the ability to mold any material with his bare hands to create and display his art. Once the 200 days are up, so is David’s time on this earth.
After making this agreement David meets a young woman named Meg. Her outlook on life is open and inspiring and David falls in love with her almost instantly. Now he is faced with the dilemma of how best to spend the days he has left – creating the art he feels called to create or relishing in the presence of the woman who has changed his life.
The Sculptor grabbed me quickly. Not only did I appreciate the story but I appreciated McCloud’s artistic approach with this graphic novel. Knowing how he approaches his craft really encourages you to pay that much more attention to the graphic elements in the book.
Baillie Scott: The Artistic House by Diane Haigh
(Academy Press, 1995, 128 pages)
This book includes some good photographs of Baillie Scott’s Arts and Crafts houses. However, it was published in 1995, before some of these homes underwent significant restoration projects. The best part of the book is the diverse collection of essays. They cover biographical elements of Baillie Scott’s life, the history of particular homes that he designed, and in depth discussions of the various design techniques and materials that he used. One of the most interesting portions is a reprinted essay by John Betjeman, former Poet Laureate of England. It is a “personal reminiscence” of the young poet’s relationship with the architect. Also of interest is a section of “Advice for Baillie Scott House-Owners,” which counsels owners on the best ways to repair, improve, and add-on to these homes while maintaining their original integrity. The fact that many have since been restored, and some opened up to the public, is testament to value of the book, particularly at the time of its original publication.
Arts and Crafts Master: The Houses and Gardens of M. H. Baillie Scott
by Ian MacDonald-Smith
(Rizzoli, 2010, 240 pages)
This book is a beautiful collection of M. H. Baillie Scott’s (1865-1945) Arts and Crafts style homes. These homes, mainly located in the U.K., are characterized by their tiled fireplaces, large halls, and simple use of local materials. The Arts and Crafts movement recovered elements of a medieval aesthetic and emphasized skill of craftsman. These emphases are obvious in the beautiful wood and stonework displayed in these homes.
Baillie Scott’s homes were designed mainly for middle class families in an attempt to make beauty, excellence, and simplicity in design more widely available. In his introductory essay, MacDonald-Smith quotes Baillie Scott’s principle that
“there should be no arbitrary division between construction and decoration…Everywhere construction is decorative and decoration constructive, and when the builder’s work is done the paperhanger and painter only help, by pattern and colour, to put finishing touches to a construction which has already gone far to make the building beautiful.” (8)
This principle is clearly displayed in the homes featured. The natural materials used in the construction are showcased in beamed ceilings, colorful plaster, and intricate tiles. Much of the furniture is even built-in – mainly in the form of the “inglenooks.” These recessed fireplaces with built-in wooden benches serve as living spaces adjacent to larger rooms, and they are found in many of Baillie Scott’s homes. MacDonald-Smith’s helpful essays and wonderfully executed photographs serve these homes well.
The House Girl by Tara Conklin
(William Morrow, 2013, 370 pages)
Two stories are intertwined in this novel. In 19th century Virginia we are introduced to Josephine, a young slave who wants nothing more than to escape from her life. One small outlet she has is when her mistress allows her to join her in her studio to paint and sketch. But Josephine has sights on running north…
In 21st century New York we meet Lina Sparrow, a young associate at a large law firm who has recently been given the assignment of finding a plaintiff for a reparations lawsuit her firm recently acquired. In her search for the perfect plaintiff she learns about the artist Lu Anne Bell – a 19th century southern woman whose art has recently come into the news as people question whether or not she was truly the artist behind her work.
Josephine and Lina’s stories inevitably cross. The book looks at history, art, and how people make the decision to claim the lives they truly want.
J. M. W. Turner by Peter Ackroyd
(Nan A. Talese, 2006, 173 pages)
This little biography of the great English landscape painter J. M. W. Turner (1775-1851) is part of the Ackroyd’s Brief Lives series. I recently watched Mike Leigh’s Oscar nominated film Mr. Turner, and it was so excellent that I had to read more about this irascible and brilliant artist. While Turner was the most accomplished English painter of his day, his career was riddled with both professional and critical controversies. His gruff personality (though Ackroyd does an excellent job of showing the varied sides of Turner’s nature) contributed to rivalries with other artists, and his exploration of new techniques in light and color caused many critics to dismiss his work. Grounded in classical techniques, Turner strove to represent the properties and effects of light, water, and the elements in unorthodox ways, making him something of a proto-impressionist. As Ackroyd puts it, “It was one of his great gifts to clothe the ordinary world with the majesty of poetry…he chose to depict the romantic side of familiar things” (86).
The biography is well written and engaging. It offers helpful evaluations of Turner’s possible thoughts and motivations at various stages of his life, though Ackroyd is always clear about where he is dealing with facts and historical records and were he is speculating or evaluating. An excellent balance is struck between recounting the recorded developments in Turner’s career (the paintings he showed at the Royal Academy, the logs of various trips that he took, paintings that he sold to wealthy patrons, etc.), assessing the significance of specific paintings, and offering personal anecdotes to help develop a well-rounded portrait of the artist.
Ackroyd does, however, give short shrift to the final phase of Turner’s life. Turners last eighteen years are covered in two chapters (a mere 25 pages). This brevity is understandable in certain respects, considering Turner’s increasing privacy and decreased production in his final years. However, some of Turner’s most recognizable paintings were created in this period as well. For an artist who developed so drastically in the final stage of his career, it would seem that this phase demands a fuller treatment. That quibble aside, this is precisely what a brief biography should be. It is like one of Turner’s sketches – quick, skillful, and evocative.
Prelude to a Million Years, Songs Without Words, Vertigo (v. 2)
by Lynd Ward
(Library of America, 2010, 728 pages)
This second volume of “wordless novels” by Lynd Ward is made up of two shorter stories or movements and one long novel. Prelude to a Million Years depicts an artist who desperately pursues his ideal of beauty in the midst of the despair and chaos of the Great Depression. In Song Without Words an archetypal women wanders through a world corrupted by capitalism and fascism. She despairs of bringing a child into such a world, but in the final scene, she holds her newborn child in her arms as she and her husband gaze past the dark city and look to the horizon in hope. Vertigo is the longest of Ward’s novels. It follows three characters, “The Girl,” “An Elderly Gentleman,” and “The Boy.” The story critiques the failures of capitalism as it shows how each character is effected by the Great Depression.
As in the first volume, all of these woodcuts are beautiful and intricate. There is something particularly appropriate about the black and white medium for expressing the despair and fear of American society during the Depression. The shadow is cast not only by a devastating economic crisis, but also by the rise of fascism in Europe. The contemporaneity of these themes and the sophistication with which Ward utilizes such an old technique combine to give the images in these novels a very modern feel. They may in fact be forerunners to what we now call graphic novels, but I wonder if any contemporary graphic novels can actually rival their effective use of this visual storytelling medium.
Gods’ Man, Madman’s Drum, Wild Pilgrimage (v. 1) by Lynd Ward
(Library of America, 2010, 812 pages)
Each novel in this collection consists of a single woodcut per page without any text. These “wordless novels” were early forerunners to today’s graphic novels. Lynd Ward’s visual stories deal with themes like the role of the artist in society, the consequences of industrialization, the plight of the worker, the failures of capitalism. In Gods’ Man a young artist arrives in the corrupt city and makes a Faustian deal with a mysterious stranger that results in his rise to the top of the art world. He eventually flees the city and finds love in the country, but the deal he struck ends in tragedy. In Madman’s Drum, a murderous slave trader returns home with a demon-faced drum, bringing with it a curse that sets the man’s family on a disastrous trajectory. Wild Pilgrimage follows a factory worker as he leaves behind the dirty and violent environment of the factory for the unsullied countryside. However, he finds hatred and violence even in this rural setting, and he returns to the factory to lead a worker’s rebellion.
The woodcuts that make up these novels are beautifully executed and remarkably detailed. In Gods’ Man, the ominous shadows cast by looming skyscrapers communicate the corrupting influence of the city on the idealistic artist. The faces of the characters in Madman’s Drum are remarkably expressive. In Wild Pilgrimage, Lynd alternates black and white woodcuts with red “dream sequences” to communicate the reality versus the ideal of a socialist agenda. God’s Man has a strongly allegorical feel. It is the simplest of the stories, and it flows smoothly. The images in Madman’s Drum are more complicated. The story is more complex and it is not easy to follow at every point.
The collection includes an introductory essay by Art Spiegelman which helps to contextualize Ward artistically and socially. In the back, there are three essays written by Ward that correspond to each novel. These are very helpful, both for making sense of some of the more difficult parts of the stories and for appreciating the artistic techniques that Ward employs.