Browsing the Shelves of Yinka Shonibare’s American Library

Last weekend I attended the preview for FRONT International, the first Cleveland Triennial for Contemporary Art.  I can’t claim to have taken in all eleven cultural exercises, which translates into 110 artists showing in twenty-eight venues across the city from the emerging Hingetown district in Ohio City to Gordon Square arts district, from the Cleveland Museum in the elegant University Circle area to the Akron and Allen museums outside the metropolitan area..

The first installation my husband and I had to see was Yinka Shonibare’sThe American Library, in the downtown branch of the Cleveland Public Library, a beautiful historical building on Superior Avenue, which FRONT commissioned. It was perfectly appropriate that librarians of the “People’s University” at Cleveland Public were involved in the creation of this new work.  It is designed as two monumental back-to-back rows of book stacks, which contain some 6,000 books bound in myriad patterns of colorful batik fabrics.  Their spines are stamped in gold with the names of first- or second-generation immigrants to America who have influenced their adopted country’s culture.  It is a counterpart to Shonibare’s British Library, which was unveiled in 2014 at the British Library.  The American Library is installed in Brett Hall, shown below open for business as usual and as transformed for  FRONT this summer.Shonibare has not designed a labyrinth that stores, arranges, and conceals knowledge like the Aedificium in The Name of the Rose.  His open book stacks are meant to be freely browsed by any visitor. Even though the books here cannot be taken off the shelves and read (I assume they are all blank inside), the quiet process of skimming the names on the spines encourages discovery of those people represented in the library’s collection.  We spotted musicians, writers, movie stars, inventors, athletes, businessmen, and public figures (I would have given Mitch McConnell a pass).   We didn’t (but could have) whipped out our smartphones and Googled intriguing names we didn’t recognize.  The American Library has a dedicated site where you may  leave your stories of emigration.Were children’s book writers and illustrators represented here?  I discovered two…  The first was Ohio-born Lois Lenski.

Her series about children across America, which I remember borrowing from the public library over and over again, made me uncomfortably conscious of living in a very different time and place they had.  I’m not sure I felt as lucky as guilty.The second author I found was Peter Sis, an emigrant from Prague, Czechoslovakia, whose illustrations remain within the creative arc of Eastern Europe and continue the  cross-fertilization of the American children’s picture book by European-trained artists..

I immediately thought of his picture book Madelenka, where his daughter goes around the world when she tells all the neighbors on her block that she’s lost a tooth.  It’s a twenty-first century to urban diversity by an emigrant who has made New York his home.Sis, like Shonibare, understands that a library’s welcoming yet mysterious stacks holds out to any reader who  desires for knowledge the right to search for it.  It’s a gesture that we tend to take for granted in the Internet Age.  But when the power goes down, the stacks are still open.  Thanks to the enlightened organizers of FRONT for paying tribute to an institution that is foundational to American liberty.

The Phantom Tollbooth’s Classic Cover Morphs

Norton Juster’s 1961 fantasy The Phantom Tollbooth is that rare classic in which the text and original illustrations are inseparable, rather like Lewis Carroll’s Alice In Wonderland.  Mention Alice and some illustration of her drawn by  John Tenniel probably pops into the mind.  Is Milo ever anyone but the skinny boy in a black sweater Jules Feiffer drew?   And there’s only one cover design for the book.  This one.

But when a work becomes so famous that translations in other languages are called for, covers and dust jackets have a way of changing publisher to publisher, country to country..

Here’s the front board of the Korean-language version.  The right illustration is on the turquoise background, but the shade of turquoise is not quite the same as in the original.  Look carefully and you can see that the figures of Milo and Tock are shiny.  They were printed on a material other than paper and applied to the dust jacket.  American books almost never have a colored band that wraps around the boards, but it’s common in the packaging of Japanese books–and I assume elsewhere in Asia.  And the raised white characters below the banner with the English title are interesting typographically whether they are legible or not.

The selection of typefaces are the most noticeable change in the design for the Lithuanian-language.  The slate blue background is handsome, but perhaps a little dark, compared to the turquoise original.  The color did not photograph true, so you’ll have to take my word that it’s quite dark..The cover artist for the Romanian-language edition substituted another illustration for the original one of Milo and Toc and colorized it. Some of the figures  were also printed on the same shiny material and laminated to the cover just as in the Korean translation.  Should Milo’s car be orange?  Why does he have blue hair?  By the way, the sea in the middle distance is actually turquoise and the sky slate blue.

Now for the covers that are completely different from Feiffer’s.  All the familiar characters are there, but without making any reference to the original illustrator.  The  Hebrew and German covers are in a surrealistic style, which underscores the possibility that the journey was all in Milo’s mind.  The German translation has no text illustrations except for road signs, a concept that works very well.

The brightly colored cartoony covers for the Japanese- and Serbo-Croatian-language editions impose themselves on Juster’s world, rather than bringing out different dimensions of it.   It’s unclear why Tock was given the teeth of a human being instead of a dog, unless the change was to make him look more friendly.

The French Livre de Poche paperback is unique in placing Tock and the Humbug center stage, with Milo and his car floating in the background along with the author’s name in an extremely small sans serif type.  The French translation is, incidently, completely unillustrated except for Juster’s map. Last but not least is the Polish translation with a cover design by Grzegorz Kierzkowski.  The title set in a wild mixture of different typefaces hints that what is to come may violate rhyme and reason!   Kierzkowski deserves credit for having the confidence to reimagine Juster’s story without reference to Feiffer.  

Norton Juster himself presented to Cotsen this delightful tasting menu of modern cover design on the translations of his celebrated fantasy.  Thanks, Norton, for this very welcome and unexpected addition to the collection!  You can hear Cotsen’s Outreach Coordinator Dana Sheridan’s interview with Norton on the Bibliofiles.