“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.

Storyographies of Famous Women: Gertrude Stein

Biography is being introduced around the third grade with the new mandate to integrate more non-fiction into the K-12 curriculum.  Who are appropriate role models for twenty-first century children?  List of names on teachers’ blogs and site with downloadable instructional content are still dominated by presidents, explorers, inventors, scientists, and activists, but those lists are somewhat more diverse than they were a generation ago.  In recent displays of storyographies at Princeton’s independent bookseller, I’ve seen more about notable women in general, which is encouraging.  Some of the new subjects are famous writers and that raises some conundrums.

Let’s suppose more children than before (at least in elite families) have been “introduced” to classic literary works via Cozy Corner board books, but will that trend significantly increase the number of eight-year-olds eager to learn more about authors they won’t encounter until high school or university? Will any author’s life, much of it spent hunched over sheets of paper, a typewriter, or computer, sound very exciting to third-graders?   Author Jonah Winter and illustrator Calef Brown put their money on Gertrude Stein, the mother of the twentieth-century avant garde and lesbian icon when they created a storyography about her in  2009.

The small type on the trim of the writer’s jacket promises young readers that they will find the large woman in purple fascinating because “Gertrude is Gertrude Stein, a most fabulous writer, who lived a most fabulous life.”  The cover design’s style hints that this book won’t be a dutiful chronological trot through a great writer’s career.  In fact the only hard facts are confined to the one-paragraph “Who was Who” on the final page.  Here the key to Stein’s “whimsical world” is her famous sentence “A rose is a rose is a rose is a rose,” which was first used in her poem “Sacred Emily (1913).  Winter riffs on it for thirty-two pages to conjure up the most famous part of her life as an American expatriate in Paris living at 27 rue de Fleurus, where artists and writers flocked to her Saturday night atelier.  These were no ordinary parties “heavens no.”   Why did anyone who was someone in the Parisian art world want an entree to Gertrude’s apartment?

  “Oh look.No wonder so many people thundered up the stairs to mill in the crowd paying their respects to this hostess with the mostest.  Who cared if Picasso was choleric?  “He just invented Modern Art, which is not the same thing as being angry but then again maybe it is.  Maybe it is and maybe it isn’t.  Then again maybe it is.  It’s so hard to invent modern art.”   Quibble one… Brown’s takes on some of Picasso’s most famous works aren’t identified, so it’s tough on the grown-up reader doesn’t recognize them and has to hurry past them to the next page on Matisse. Quibble two.  Gertrude’s guests would have associated Matisse with big colorful paintings not paper cuts–those were the works he made at the end of his career after Gertrude Stein had died of stomach cancer.  

Obviously Winter’s goal was to demystify modern art so any kid who reads this storyography will grow up receptive to instead of prejudiced against non-representational art.  Veering towards the truthy is always a risk when simplifying complex ideas for elementary-school students, but the author’s strategy of imitating Stein’s famous ” x is x is x is x is” makes any explanation nonsensical.  They may get a laugh when read aloud, but it’s fair to ask if they won’t give children rather peculiar and unclear ideas about modernism that may stick in their heads for years (shades of John Locke).

So readers never learn that “Queen Gertrude” was a patron of her artist-friends (she and her brother were ahead of the market) and her apartment was hung floor to ceiling with their works. In The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas there is a hilarious story  about the dinner party where Gertrude hung a work by every artist opposite of his place at the table that is completely in keeping with Winter’s tone, but this is what is said about Stein the prescient collector of contemporary art.The text continues, “Those crazy pictures sure are crazy.  Who cares?  A picture is a picture.  It can be whatever it wants to be.  It doesn’t have to make sense.  It doesn’t have to look like a waterfall, not if it doesn’t want to.  A picture can be whatever.  Why of course it can.”  And when Gertrude writes at night after all the company goes home, she does whatever…Modernism boils down to having fun not making sense? There’s no meaning whatever?   Pity poor Alice B. Toklas Gertrude’s amanuensis deciphering sentences (oops, I mean having fun) the morning after a nocturnal writing spree.

Speaking of Alice….  What about Miss Toklas, the other half of the most famous lesbian  couple of the twentieth century?  Here’s how Winter broaches the subject: “And Alice is Alice.  And Gertrude and Alice are Gertrude and Alice.”  A little later Alice is shown gazing at Gertrude over the text “Alice makes sure that Gertrude is happy.”  At first it looks as if Winter (or his editor) decided it was better to dance around the elephant in the rue de Fleurus and portray them as a couple who were best friends forever.  Actually Winter devised an oblique way of indicating the intimate nature of their relationship without using the s-word in the book’s apparently random ending.   The two ladies drive in their famous rattle-trap Auntie to the country for a picnic where they enjoy potatoes and strawberries and mushrooms Alice prepared (Winter would never devised such a menu if he’d ever read Alice’s cook book). The clue is the cow, who appears three times in six pages.  It’s an allusion to their private language in which  “cow” was code for “climax” in their love letters, but also in Stein’s erotic poem “Lifting Belly.”  At least I think that is what Winter was up to…

So will this storyography really going to connect with kids?  My focus group of three millenials with impeccable modernist creds were doubtful.  The ABD in modern American literature didn’t get the cow joke, but she’s not a Stein specialist.   My best guess is that  the ideal reader of Gertrude is Gertrude is Gertude is Gertrude is anyone who would be thrilled to be able to identify the caricatures of Dali, Joyce, Picasso,  Pound, and Matisse on the back wrapper, but isn’t under any obligation to explain the contents to someone small…