Wednesday, November 23, 2016

HvS | Best Illustrators of Children's Books, 1944

Kate Seredy's cover for Eva R.
Gaggin's book about a Swiss-
herdsman doll and a pet goose.
I just ran across an article in the May-June 1944 issue of The Horn Book by Hilda van Stockum, "Through an Illustrator's Eyes".

It is a remarkable survey of the relationship between the artist and author–in HvS's case, an internal dialogue–and the ways in which the illustrations help the story.

The timing of the article was also tragic. It appeared as HvS's brother Willem was piloting six missions in a Halifax bomber over occupied France during the ten days surrounding D-Day. As a mathematician, he knew well the tiny probability of his surviving so many missions during that period. On June 10, 1944 he and his six fellow crew members were shot down over Laval, France along with another Halifax, two of the ten planes on that mission.

But back to the article. Here is an early paragraph, which gives a flavor of HvS's message:
The author does need the illustrator. It is a terrible bore to have to write long descriptions, especially when you know everyone skips them anyway. It is much easier to jot down in the margin, "Picture of such and such," and have done with it. This is true of all literature, although nowadays it is respectable for publishers to pretend that only children like pictures (p. 177).
HvS has a good vantage point from which to survey the field, because she has been a writer with another illustrator, an illustrator with another writer and an author-illustrator of books for a variety of age groups.

She praises the engravings (by James Mahoney and others) in the Household Edition of Charles Dickens' novels:
  • They tell the story you're reading, not some other story the artist prefers.
  • One even suspects the illustrator read the book.
  • The people in the pictures are the same as in the book, with some details added...
  • The pictures are placed where you expect them.
  • At satisfying climaxes, the illustrator takes care of situations the author has to leave in a hurry. The illustrator must rise to the occasion and put the baby to bed, warm the soup, sweep the floor and show that the rest of the world is going on as usual (p. 178).
She much prefers the illustrations that Reginald Birch for the first edition of Little Lord Fauntleroy (one of her favorite books) to the ones he did for the second edition. "Gone is the sober little lad with the wistful eyes. Instead we see a wriggly girl masquerading in trousers and looking self-consciously from under the frothy wig" (p. 179).

She gives special praise to the following contemporary illustrators:
  • Fritz Eichenberg's pictures for Ermengarde Eberle's Wide Fields. "There is no showy quality about his work; it is all direct and simple and thoroughly sincere (p. 181).
  • Kate Seredy's adaptation of her style to Eva R. Gaggin's An Ear for Uncle Emil. "The pictures sing" (p. 181). Sylvia Plath had this 1939 book in her library and was inspired to copy at least one of the pictures in the book in July 1944. The timing of her copying of the illustration suggests that she read HvS's article in The Horn Book. Sadly, An Ear for Uncle Emil is out of print, despite its two distinguished fans.
  • Feodor Rojankovsky's fresh impressions of a child's view of bus tickets and bottle caps in The Tall Mother Goose, making them as beautiful as flowers (p. 182). It reminds me of Albert Camus, L'automne est un deuxième printemps où chaque feuille est une fleur.
Author-illustrators do not, HvS says, tend to rise to the pitch which two people can achieve together, but neither does it sink to as low a level of disharmony. She singles out Marguerite de Angeli not for the quality of her artwork but for its youthful quality. Her "constant trembling on the verge of an anatomical error" creates a child-like atmosphere. The example she gives is for Tom Robinson's story, In and Out (p. 183).

This article is an education, allowing one to appreciate the finer points of the teamwork between author and illustrator.


  1. Dear John,

    Thanks for alerting me to this article, which sounds fascinating. (I was just thinking the same thing about de Angeli after reading her Just Like David - there are some illustrations where she gets the human body into impossibilities.)

    I learned that this article was included in what looks to be a wonderful compilation titled The Illustrator's Notebook from 1978. I'm going to track that down immediately!

    1. I have ordered a pre-owned copy of the 1978 book from Better World Books. $6.66 including shipping! Thanks again.

  2. Thanks for the tip! I will add a P.S. or a new post after I have looked at the Notebook.

  3. I have looked at the book and my Mom has two stories in it – one about Caldecott's illustrations and the other about the art of illustration.