“They Also Wrote Children’s Books:” An Exhibition at the Grolier Club, New York City

This thought-provoking exhibition, which opened at the Grolier Club (East 60st Street near Madison Avenue) on March 3rd , is scheduled to close May 23rd.    I’ll make a pitch for going to see this handsome selection of books from John R. Blaney’s extensive collection of modern firsts, hoping that the city will be coming back to life in the middle of May.

Blaney’s curatorial concept was to pick a pair of works by each author, one for adults, one for children.   The majority of the pairings are novels with  picture books and it’s quite interesting to compare the differences in packaging.   Kurt Vonnegut is a standout in this respect. Vonnegut is represented by Slaughterhouse-5, with the iconic dust jacket by the “Big Book Look” graphic designer Paul Bacon.  His only work for children, Sun Moon Star was illustrated by another heavy-hitter, Ivan Chermayeff, son of the distinguished architect (and ballroom dancer) Serge Chermayeff, and principal of Chermayeff & Geismar & Haviv, the firm responsible for some of the great twentieth-century Modernist logos.  Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest also has a typographical Bacon dustjacket, while his Little Tricker the Squirrel Meets Big Double the Bear has a full-color pictorial dustjacket with an illustration by Barry Moser repeated from inside the book (see above).  Blaney also showcased Gertrude Stein and Clement Hurd in The World is Round, John Updike and Nancy Ekholm Burkert in A Child’s Calendar, Robert Graves and Maurice Sendak in The Big Green Book, and  John Steinbeck and Wesley Dennis,the illustrator whose work is inseparable from Marguerite Henry’s horse stories, in The Red Pony.There are many other ways of breaking out the materials on display.  One unexpected discovery was the works that were collaborations between parents and children, most notably Toni Morrison and her son Slade, which first appeared in  Ms. Magazine’s series “Stories for Free Children” in 1980, seven years before Beloved,  later published as a picture book illustrated by Giselle Potter.  Also noteworthy are Ann Tyler’s Tumble Tower illustrated by her daughter Mitra Modaressi  and William Kennedy, famous for his series of novels about New York politics, and his collaboration with son Brendan on Charley Malarkey and the Belly Button Machine.

Another intriguing aspect of Blaney’s selection are the  books straddling the line between child and adult reader like Ian McEwan’s The Daydreamer  with illustrations by Anthony Browne (better known for his picture books starring Willy the Chimp).   My favorite chapter has always been the ghoulish one about the bad dolls of the protagonist’s sister, who come to life one night when he fails to put them back in their places before turning in.  There has never been any consensus about the effect of scary tales on children and it seems unlikely to be settled any time soon.

Perhaps the most sobering example of a book “for ages nine to ninety” was by Langston Hughes.  He wrote quite a few children’s books, many encouraging African-American children to take pride in their people’s accomplishments such as The First Book of Jazz or The First Book of Negroes.  Blaney chose the most heartbreaking of them all, Black Misery, the last thing he wrote before his death in 1967.  It was illustrated with great sensitivity by Lynette Arouni, who made a career of being a fine artist than a book illustrator.  One perceptive blogger pointed out that just because Black Misery is a picture book, doesn’t mean its portrayal of the coruscating effects of racism on young black child’s sense of self is only for that audience: it will surely sit heavily on any child or adult who takes the time to read it.The exhibition comprises only 39 pairs of books, due to the space  limitations on the Club’s second floor. But a crafty curator leaves us wishing for more.  Maurice Sendak could have just as easily been represented by his illustrations for Randall Jarrell as for Robert Graves. I missed the unforgettable picture book collaborations between Isaac Bashevis Singer and Margot Zemach and the unlikely pairing in Tucky the Hunter of James Dickey, author of Deliverance, and the exquisite calligrapher/illuminator Marie Angel.  Should T. S. Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats illustrated by Nicholas Bentley made the cut?   The Book of Adam to Moses, novelist and translator’s Lore Segal’s retelling of the Pentateuch illustrated by Leonard Baskin’s line art, would have added a note of grandeur.   Although it would have exploded the show’s concept, I would have tempted to show at one work interpreted by different artists.  The most obvious candidate would have been Dylan Thomas’s A Child’s Christmas in Wales, with the luxury of chosing from versions by Chris Rascha, Edward Ardizzone, Fritz Eichenberg, and Ellen Raskin.

How remarkable is it that so many writers risk their laurels by creating books for the sometimes inattentive but often ruthlessly acute audience of small people.  Expect no sympathy from this crowd if the book was written to fulfill a contractual obligation AND pay for a new roof on the house.  Be braced for the Amazon customer who points out “every child with whom I shared this book was not interested.”   Be prepared for a review that starts with “Rein in your expectations”  or the one that ends with  “a ludicrous book [that] should more than please the most fervent among the gross-out set.”    It does not follow that if you can win the Nobel, Man Booker, or Pulitzer Prizes, that you can garner the John Newbery, Caldecott, Carnegie medals or the Children’s Laureate.  Kudos to those who have tried for both.

Do visit the Grolier Club website if you’d like to see more of the exhibition on Flickr.

Marks in Books 9: Daydreaming Boys Draw in Their Schoolbooks

Cotsen 1638.

Many copybooks do not look especially interesting, until you go through them carefully page by page.  This one is tacked into a raggedly limp leather wrapper is a case in point.   It was made by a David Kingsley of Rehoboth, Bristol County, Massachusetts between 1797 and 1799.  Much of the contents consist of proverbs, precepts, and sets of words copied out doggedly line after line after line after line.  David signed every single page, one, two, three, or four times, usually in different places, perhaps at his teacher’s bidding.  An undated signature “Mary S.” was written in a different hand was  in the upper right hand corner.  Perhaps she was responsible for the great looping scribbles on top of David’s writing…

Cotsen 1638.

David’s copy book looks like a textbook demonstration of how rote instruction deadens children’s souls and stifles their curiosity except for the page he filled with an illustration of a two-story building with two doors and six windows.  Snaking down the left-hand margin is “David Kingsley made this house.”  David’s source of inspiration came from somewhere other than the facing text on the  comparisons of measures and a practice word problem.  Nor does the copy below it have anything about houses: “Wonce more the year is now begun David Kingsley This Second day of January 1799 the Shool Book of David Kinglsey of Rehoboth February 11 day 1799.” . Perhaps it was supposed to be the home of the “gallant female sailor” the subject of the ballad written on the back of the leaf…    David’s drawing is undated so we cannot know when or where he drew it. At school, when he should have been concentrating on finishing his lesson?   Or somewhere else when he was free to design a house in which he would like to live when a man grown.

Cotsen 52980.

Cotsen 52980.

Cotsen 52980.

Seventeenth-century school master Edward Young’s The Compleat English Scholar in Spelling, Reading, and Writing (1726) was in  a fifty-second edition by 1752.  Cotsen has the only copy of the twenty-seventh edition of 1726 and it belonged to a Lumley Tannat, who may be the child baptized on the eleventh of July 1726 in Saint Dunstan’s in Stepney, London.  He wrote his name multiple times on the book’s preliminary pages but without a date, a  common but annoying habit of children centuries ago.   Of course they had no idea that people nearly three hundred years later would want to be able to calculate their age when they used the book.   On the final blank page Lumley put his name and doodles.

The sketches of boats seem to be preparatory drawings for his masterpiece on the rear board, which even with the book in hand is quite difficult to see unless the light is just right.  Lumley’s ship has one mast, carved figurehead on the bow, gunports for the artillery, two flags.  Was he intensely bored by the lessons, which were mostly drawn from Scripture?  Would he have rather been reading Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719)?Was he dreaming of going to sea in defiance of his father’s wishes to find his a place with a merchant?

Not all of the marks pupils put on bindings are legible, by the way, and they are far more common than drawings of ships of the line or houses. The front board on this book appears to have been poked decoratively with a pen knife, an essential part of a pupil’s academic tool kit in the days of quill pens. How exactly this binding got in this state I cannot guess, but scenarios with small boys, a handy sharp object, and a book bound in leather are easy to dream up.  But then again maybe this is a girl’s handiwork.

Cotsen 362.

Cotsen 362.

Children should not always be blamed for the marks on bindings. Booksellers’ marks can be distinguished easily enough from those children make.  It’s not at all unusual for prices to be written at the head of the paper wrappers on pamphlets.  It’s less common to find such marks on books bound in boards.  The back board of Cotsen’s copy of the 1791 twentieth edition of James Greenwood’s London Vocabulary  has both a paper label identifying it as a copy of the “London Vocabulary with Pictures” and note in ink on the canvas  that it is in two languages.