Curator’s Choice: Maud and Miska Petersham’s Toy Story Hary Janos and Get-Away

Recently a friend reminded me that when we were little, one of our favorite things to do was  noisily acting out stories from Margery Clark’s The Poppy Seed  Cakes.  Neither of our dress-up chests would have had anything as splendid as the “Old Country” clothes drawn by the Petershams, a husband and wife team of author-illustrators. Nor were our beds were painted with colorful decorations inspired by Hungarian folkloric designs. But the Petershams’ picture book world grounded my early notions of the exotic.

Years later after Mr. Cotsen hired me, I became reacquainted with the Petershams in the most delightful way.  Among the first treasures I saw in the cache at Neutrogena was the archive for their The Ark of Father Noah and Mother Noah (1930), which was my first look up close at a picture book from the rough pencil sketches to the finished artwork.  Eventually fortune  (or truthfully Helen Younger of Aleph-Bet Books) threw a second, even more splendid Petersham maquette Cotsen’s: 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. The inspiration for the soldier is the comic epic poem Az obsitos by Garay Janos.  The Petershams’ picture book is not a string of tall tales the old veteran spins about his service in the Austrian army; its dream-like narrative set in “a far-off land where old toys become new and gay” owes a little something to the more famous Velveteen Rabbit.

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…

Narnia Taught Me A Lot of What I Needed to Know

In Cotsen’s current exhibition, “Ice and Snow,”  an illustration of little Kai being carried off in the Snow Queen’s sleigh is next to the iconic image of Mr. Tumnus and Lucy walking through the snow from The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.  As much as I have always loved that picture by Pauline Baynes, the first volume of the Chronicles was not my favorite one:  I  preferred The Horse and His Boy to it, perhaps because it was the first book I remember buying with my own money.  

horseandboyThe Manhattan Beach public library didn’t own a complete set of the Narnia books, so my mother drove me to Either Or, the  independent bookstore downtown near the water, to place a special order for a volume I hadn’t read.  About two weeks later The Horse and His Boy came in and I begged to collect it first thing after school  My mother, who probably had a lot more pressing things to do that miserable, wet November afternoon, indulged me.

khan Decades later I understand completely why so many people find the Orientalism permeating The Horse and His Boy off-putting. The long exchange between the Tarkaan and Arsheesh the fisherman in the first chapter, which ends in their haggling over a price for Shasta, does deftly set in motion the lost royal orphan plot.  But the tongue-in-cheek dialogue in the style of an English translation of A Thousand and One Nights now grates.  For better or worse, the adventures of Shasta, Aravis, Bree, and Hwin thoroughly grounded me in Western conceptions of the other–East and West, black and white, North and South, the prince and the pauper.  At age nine, I doubt I realized that The Horse and His Boy also showed me at the same time how a cleverly constructed narrative subverts those seemingly inexorable oppositions and demonstrates their truthiness as much as their potency.

tisrocIt was the thread of political intrigue in The Horse and His Boy that brought me back again and again to the book.   I was simultaneously horrified and fascinated by the Tisroc’s calm betrayal of his eldest son Rabadash.  That the father could lucidly explain why the military expedition would serve his interests no matter how it turned out showed that he was as cold-blooded as a serpent.   Such a master of duplicity deserved to have his ambitions overturned, even though the absurd Rabadash would take the fall.

desertThen began the most harrowing part of the story–the forced ride across the great Calormen desert to mountainous Archenland.  The descriptions of the children beginning the journey across the sands in the cool dark of night, then continuing through the blazing day, was very real to anyone growing up in hot, dry Southern California.  It was so easy to imagine how thirsty they all were when they reached the secret valley after traveling nearly twenty-four hours.  That they fell asleep out of exhaustion and lost the advantage gained by finding the secret shortcut to Archenland was heartbreaking every time, even though I knew Rabadash would not succeed in extending the Tisroc’s empire into the free North. defileWhat the ending of The Horse and His Boy taught me I could have never anticipated.  Shasta, who was raised in a fisherman’s hut is dumbfounded with the news that he, not his twin brother Prince Corin, will be the next king of Archenland.  Shasta (or Prince Cor as he is now called) generously tries to return the crown he thinks must belong to his brother, but is told by his father King Lune that rulers are under the law and therefore cannot subvert the laws of succession at will.

“Hurrah!  Hurrah!” said Corin.  “I shan’t have to be King.  I shan’t have to be King.  I’ll always be a prince.  It’s princes have all the fun.”

“And that’s true than thy brother knows, Cor, ” said King Lune.  “For this is what it means to be a king: to be first in every desperate attack and last in every desperate retreat, and when there’s hunger in the land (as must be now and then in bad years) to wear finer clothes and laugh louder over a scantier meal than any man in your land.”

When the situation calls for backbone, quite often I hear King Lune’s words about what it means to be a leader.  They may be good thoughts to take with us into a new year.

king-lune