Artists At Work: Maud and Miska Petersham Create a Picture Book

An old friend reminded me that when we were little, we loved to noisily act out stories from Margery Clark’s The Poppy Seed  Cakes.  We loved the colorful illustrations inspired by traditional Hungarian designs by Maud and Miska Petershams, a husband and wife team of author-illustrators.  Years later, I was reintroduced to the Petershams, when I accessioned the archive for their The Ark of Father Noah and Mother Noah (1930), a document of the creative process, from the pencil roughs to the finished artwork. Eventually fortune in the form of Helen Younger of Aleph-Bet Books threw a second, even more splendid Petersham maquette Cotsen’s way: Get-a-Way and Hary Janos (1933).  The title characters are a worn-out stuffed horse and his friend, a wooden soldier doll “faded and one armed…but still proud and boastful” as befits a Hungarian hussar down on his luck. Set in  “a far-off land where old toys become new and gay,” the dream-like narrative owes a little something to the more famous Velveteen Rabbit.  The inspiration for the soldier, however,  is the comic epic poem Az obsitos by Garay Janos, in which old veteran spins out a series of tall tales about his service under the Austrians.

Pairing the art in the maquette with the illustration in the published book is a delightful exercise in observing the artists at work.   Here are our heroes, making their weary way to the entrance to the promised land for toys who have outlived their owners’ love somewhat worse for the wear.  If you look closely at the drawing, you can see that the pencil design for the decorative capital S is supposed to fit in the box to the left of “eady boy!”  Notice how much more saturated the blues are in the illustration–tribute to the skill of the William Edwin Rudge firm that printed it.

The art and the printed version for this image shows how the Petershams fleshed out their idea for the gate to the promised land.  The architectural elements seem to be fully formed at this stage, but many of the little figures filling out the composition have yet to be worked out.

Here are Get-a-Way and Hary Janos telling their sad stories to the sympathetic governor.   The drawing is shown here with the printed version tweaked for the cover design.  At the bottom of the drawing, you can make out the note “same as the cover except blue.”  That’s not strictly true because the sun in the upper left hand corner had to go to make room for the hand lettered title.  And expression on Hary’s face is less perplexed.

Fundamental changes were made in certain pictures.  Here is the drawing of Hary Janos, chest puffed out, stepping out with a lady on either arm.  The adoring matryoshka doll in the drawing was changed out for a rather sly-looking woman wearing a pink apron with a zigzagged border over purple dress.  Notice how much the posture of Get-a-way in the upper left hand corner has been altered.  And he’s crying as well. 

A number of full-color illustrations, like this one of Hary Janos taking the lovely brunette in yellow for a spin, had to be sacrificed on the altar of the budget.  “Now only black & white” reads the note at the bottom.   The silhouette of the car became more streamlined in the printed version as well.

And last but not least, here is a series of drawings showing how the initial idea changed as the Petershams worked through the preliminary pencil sketch to a full-color drawing to the final version in the book.  It’s Hary Janos telling tales again…  I love the way the  clothes,  the postures, and expressions of the three figures change.

This post is lovingly dedicated to the memory of Helen B Younger, co-proprietor with her husband Marc, of Aleph-Bet Books.  Thanks to Helen, this glorious maquette and many, many other wonderful things are part of the collection of the Cotsen Children’s Library.   She succumbed last week to FSH, which she valiantly battled all her life and yet refused to let define or slow her down.  One of  her generation’s great dealers in children’s books, Aleph-Bet always had one of the grand double booths at the entrance to the New York Antiquarian Bookfair.  It will be sad indeed to pass through the doors into the bustle and not stop to see Helen and Marc first…