Educating the Eye; Children's Book Illustrators and Editors Share Their Artistic Sensibilities

By McCormick, Edith | American Libraries, September 1990 | Go to article overview

Educating the Eye; Children's Book Illustrators and Editors Share Their Artistic Sensibilities


McCormick, Edith, American Libraries


Educating the eye

AT AN EXCITING PRECONference to ALA Annual, Margaret McElderry, Barry Moser, and Nancy Burkert delivered a fresh perspective on children's book illustration. They and other prominent illustrators and editors jarred many of the 360 attendees with a demand for more informed critical sensibilities among librarian reviewers and selectors.

Sponsored by the Association for Library Services to Children (ALSC), "The Educated Eye II: An Approach to New Critical Thinking on Children's Book Illustration" drew a sellout audience of librarians, writers, editors, and illustrators to Chicago's Art Institute. The June 21-22 program continued "Educated Eye I," an ALSC preliminary to the 1986 ALA Annual Conference in New York.

George Nicholson, vice president and publisher of Books for Young Readers at Dell Publishing Co., keynoted the event with a historical survey of the development of illustrated books for children in America.

"Since the founding of the first formal juvenile department at Macmillan in 1918," he said, "the real glory of the American picture book lies in the extraordinary partnership that has developed between the publishing world and librarians."

Emigre artists the great core

The other great, ineradicable core of children's book illustration in America, he added, came from emigre artists who arrived in the '20s and '30s with knowledge of European typography and design. These included Feodor Rojankovsky and Boris Artzybasheff (Russia), Gustav Tenggren (Sweden), Ingrid and Pari d'Aulaire (France), and Ludwig Bemelmans (Austria). More recent contributors are Eric Carle, Leo Lionni, and Ed Young. Influenced by stage design, motion pictures, entertainment, and popular culture, an American tradition of picture books began to develop.

Nicholson considers "excessive gentility" the curse of children's book publishing and literary criticism--in discussion, response, evaluation, and selection. Too often, he said, librarians and publishers sift their responses to illustration through their own prejudices.

He bemoaned how rarely such journals as Artforum and ARTnews give any attention to artists of children's books. Critics have a "back-of-the-bus" attitude toward picture books for children, Nicholson said: "They don't know anything about it and don't think it's worth their time."

He praised the contributions of editors Margaret McElderry (a "national treasure"), Charlotte Zolotow, and Ursula Nordstrom from World War II through the '60s. Then he charged that the conglomeratization of the industry has made today's young editors ignorant of the history of their own firms--their special points of view--such as Doubleday and Viking during the May Massee days or Macmillan under Louise Seaman Bechtel.

The "forming of an eye"

Margaret McElderry, who has her own imprint with The Macmillan Group, took the audience on a sentimental journey in the forming of her own "eye."

As a youngster, she said, her greatest influences probably were the film Way Down East with Marie Dressler and Polly Moran; Heinrich Hoffmann's picture book, Struwwelpeter, in translation from the German; and her favorite comic strip, "The Katzenjammer Kids."

Her first job after library school was in Anne Carroll Moore's office at New York Public Library--Moore had pioneered the first children's department there--in the late '30s. She talked about the inspiring Saturday sessions there with creative colleagues from the 42nd Street library forming a small literary group. "John Archer from the print shop, for example, taught us about type, ink, and methods of printing, while Karl Kup of the Spencer Collection introduced us to rare illuminated manuscripts.... The whole experience broadened our taste and enhanced our values," she said.

She urged librarians to keep an open mind when something unusual comes along and recalled how outrageous Dr. …

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