Colin Thompson’s Imaginary Book Case for Puzzling through the Pandemic (and National Library Week)

Here is a detail of an imaginary library by English-Australian author-illustrator Colin Thompson.  But it’s not from a book illustration.It is several shelves from a design for a Ravensburger jigsaw puzzle.  After writing and illustrating twenty-four pictures books, writing another nineteen picture books illustrated by other artists, three volumes of poetry, six young adult novels, and the Flood Series in fifteen volumes, Thompson has changed his focus.  Since 2016, he has concentrated on producing illustrations for a smashing series of jigsaw puzzles.

The pieces spread out on a table make an intriguing and colorful display.   Some puzzlers consider a five-hundred piece jigsaw hardly worth bothering with.  Kind of like the Monday New York Times crossword.   If you are the only person in the house putting it together, it’s large enough to take a while, but not so long that despair sets in on those days when nothing wants to fit together.

One of the pleasures of a Colin Thompson puzzle is its whackiness.  This one features fractured book titles. Some of the edge pieces go together relatively fast becauseof the added clue of completing the titles.  And it’s more fun that frustrating to see where some of the some of the surprising details like a flower pot or a honking goose are going to land.

Last week the New York Times ran an article about Ravensburger in Germany.   Demand for their jigsaw puzzles has increased so much since the beginning of the pandemic, that the firm can’t produce them fast enough.  And the process can’t be sped up because of the emphasis on quality.  So have fun scrolling through the list of Colin Thompson puzzles and dream for the days when stores will be able to keep them in stock again.

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.