Children's Books

Here’s the assignment: Read the story of Cain and Abel (King James version please). With the text reprinted on lovely thick stock, draw one marginal illustration.

Here’s what you probably will not draw: Two young men seated facing each other, one stroking a goat, the other cradling a bowl of fruit. Their gaze is cast downward, their costume nineteenth-century rural romantic. An immense quiet surrounds them. This is the moment before the cruelty and shame of the story itself: two brothers sitting together as they must have done for days and years before the story.

That drawing and angle of vision are the particular genius of Lisbeth Zwerger, one of the great living children’s book artists. She has just brought out an illustrated bible, Stories from the Bible (North-South Books, $19.95, 160 pp., all ages) that, no exaggeration, will change the way you read the book.

For a month I have been sitting with Stories from the Bible thinking about why it is so beautiful and true. Zwerger bases illustrative choices on her regard for poetic knowledge or what might be called the wisdom of images, and that makes all the difference. Illustrators have many ways to build bridges between the biblical world and our own. One strategy, taken by DK publishers, is to do so empirically: sidebar illustrations show what people at the time wore, what coins they used, how sacrifices were practiced. More to the center of the illustrative spectrum is a direct rendering of the words into images, with fidelity to the time period and to the details and emphases of the text. This is where most illustrated Bibles come down.

But against these trends, Zwerger reclaims the high art of illustration, not as a stepsister to the fine arts but enjoying the same imaginative privileges as Giotto and company. Her illustrations approach the stories indirectly, with immense intelligence. Her settings are nineteenth- and early twentieth-century European. For influences she counts Arthur Rackham, though she has evolved into, and is here, far sharper and more modernist.

As for the indirection, here is an example of how she uses it to comment. The illustration of Moses’ birth and rescue, the most gorgeous in the book, foregrounds Moses’ mother and the moment of her surrendering him to the bulrushes: Moses is enclosed and unseen, signified by the basket that already separates him from her. Directly behind, Zwerger places the daughter of Pharaoh, a wisp of a figure accompanied by a huge attendant and an even huger umbrella. Also accompanying her, in this spirit of juxtaposing the grave and comical, are two Egyptian gods (Zwerger has a fine sense of humor, as the little monkey peeping out of Eden’s tree testifies). Between the women are a calm body of water and a round shadow cast by the umbrella, perfectly echoing the shape of the mother’s skirt. This is the shadow, the landless water world, in which Moses, neither of this riverbank nor that, will always dwell. It is an arresting picture, true to the emotional gravity of both the moment and of Moses’ entire life. Studying it, I finally grasped the connection between the story of the bulrushes and Moses’ death before entering the Promised Land.

Because they are so strong, Zwerger’s illustrations set up a counterpoint to the text itself. Zwerger uses theatrical coloring (see the amazing striped pants in the Garden of Gethsemane illustration), but she has a quiet imagination and is domestic in her focus. The truth of the Bible that she wants to put before us is about separation and restoration: the fall from Eden, the loss of mother, and the promise of loving restoration to the Garden, to the Land. All children (each of us, once a child) know this truth of loss and longing. You may even remember the moment in which the world (of mother and father or of larger proportion) which once seemed perfect and whole, no longer appears so.

Set next to Zwerger’s illustrations, the Bible stories seem wildly theatrical. I had never noticed how over-the-top the Passover story is (How many plagues? How many riders in the sea?) until I saw it accompanied by a mere two illustrations: the first of a gentleman carrying two jammed satchels and a child; the second of Miriam and company swishing their ample hips while beating triumph on tambourines. In fact, if there is any complaint about the book, it is that one longs for more illustrations, though in fact the interior stillness produced by this version depends on that parsimony.

This Bible will never be top of the pops: The King James language is wondrous but not transparent. (Get it into your child’s ear! And try to ignore those idiosyncratic italics.) And the selection is unusual. The story of Joseph is out, David is in and dwelt upon; the New Testament extends beyond the Gospels to Acts, Paul, and the New Jerusalem. Contra current reticence about this Christian symbol, a cross adorns the title page. For all that, this is not a "conservative," monarchical version. Rather here the majesty of the tale and telling is given its due and is anchored in the everyday drama of life.

Zwerger, who is Austrian, has many books for children, and having won the prestigious Hans Christian Andersen Medal, now illustrates only books of her choosing. Among these are a collection of Hans Christian Andersen stories, a selection of poems by Christian Morgenstern (the German Edward Lear), and illustrated full-text versions of The Wizard of Oz and Alice in Wonderland. My favorite is her delicate illustrations for Oscar Wilde’s wondrous moral tale, The Selfish Giant.

An illustrative focus on scenery or background is the particular genius of Beni Montresor, who died this past October. His final book, Hansel and Gretel (Atheneum, $17, ages 4 and up), sums up a life’s work in opera and in children’s books. Montresor illustrated the fantastical 1965 Caldecott-winner, May I Bring a Friend? by Beatrice Schenk de Regniers, one of my most treasured childhood books. He was also a set designer for opera and for Fellini films. His vision is rooted in the experience of Italian Catholicism: "Being Italian," he once told a reporter, "I was practically born in the church. I grew up surrounded by pageantry, imagery, fantasy." Hansel and Gretel follows the opera by Engelbert Humperdinck, right down to the page in which you can count the fourteen angels of the opera’s best-known song. Like the opera, Montresor’s presentation is mythical and spectacle-based, not interior or psychological. The poverty is actual. And the mother is too. There is no dynamic of duped father/wicked stepmother, or of not wishing to share the little there is with children. The witch, unlike many versions of the tale, is impersonal and mythical, one of many scary creatures of the woods.

Montresor is in top form, working with bold colors and paper-cut silhouettes. Especially grand is the sequence of pages in which Hansel and Gretel remain in the same position, but the background changes: First they are prostrate in the woods, exhausted from their search for food; then they are prostrate with angels descending to console them. It’s a terrific example of the axiom "context is all." In the end, the children triumph over what menaces them-hunger, fear, things that cannot be named but are embodied as witches and devils-and the story concludes: "everything ended joyfully for everyone." At the center of that happy page, showing children in procession with Hansel and Gretel holding the magic wand, is a benign smiling sun. That sun is repeated alone on the last leaf: a great emblem of the Good (call it what you will: God, love, the benign) that Montresor believed is the last word on our world.

Great illustration can expand the reach of a story. That is the case with The Little Wing Giver by Jacques Taravant, illustrated by Peter Sís (Henry Holt, $14.95, ages 5 and up). Taravant, a French diplomat, originally wrote the tale for his son. It was later transcribed in Le Monde. The Czech-born Sís, who has a considerable following for his philosophical, sophisticated books (The Three Golden Keys about Prague; Tibet: Through the Red Box, about his father’s travels there), will bring many more readers to this story. The Little Wing Giver follows the spirit and lineage of The Little Prince, and like it, is quirky, fine, and right at the edge of the sentimental. A small boy completes creation by giving a basket full of wings to creatures so that bugs and birds can fly, and windmills can spin. The jealous wind eventually steals the basket and hurls the wings into the ocean (where in an interesting image waves are wings seeking flight). A self-sacrificing poppy gives her petals to a caterpillar, allowing him to become a butterfly, so that there is no longer need for the wing giver’s basket so the creatures can have flight. The boy, exhausted, dies. A last pair of wings is found, and he becomes the first angel. Sís remains faithful to the sweet spirit of the story. He lets himself have fun showing the boy, astonished, riding a goose, approaching a puzzled wingless owl, inching across a stick suspended between mountains in order to distribute his wares.

And speaking of books in which story and illustration are perfectly matched, will Goodnight Moon continue to be the bedtime book of the culture? Very likely, given its quirky beauty and power. But other contenders should be collected. Top among these I would put Hushabye, written and illustrated by England’s John Burningham (Alfred A. Knopf, $14.95, ages 3 and up). A cat and her children, a baby, three bears, a fish, the man in moon, a goose, and a frog are tired, need to go to bed, and do. What I like about Burningham’s selection is that he mixes purely quirky animals (the cat mother strolling through a snow storm) with animals who have storied associations (the three bears pointing as they do to Goldilocks). Hushabye has a felicitous visual and verbal rhythm. The alternation of full-color illustration with a pencil drawing of the larger landscape is quite lovely. Burningham really knows how to convey fatigue with the lightest of touches (the strokes of pen that make the eyes do much of the work). And the man is funny! The book is worth having just for the picture of the exhausted baby leaning on a punt oar.

"Tell all the Truth but tell it slant-/Success in Circuit lies." A great Emily Dickinson verse, but not quite what one wants children to live by. Two books for older readers take up the question of truth-telling. In her Carnegie Award-winning novel, The Other Side of Truth (HarperCollins, $16.95, 252 pp., ages 10 and up), Beverly Naidoo tells the story of two Nigerian children who are smuggled into England after their mother’s murder. Their father is a progressive journalist and the deadly bullet was intended to shut him up. Once landed in England, the children are abandoned by the woman paid to take them to a relative. They make their way through the social welfare system, with the older child, Sade, telling slanted truths because she is afraid, disoriented, and traumatized by her mother’s violent death. Gradually Sade recovers her appreciation for the truth, and fights back against bureaucrats who have imprisoned their father in England for his own subsequent illegal entry. That rediscovery of truth, something both her parents fought hard for, also gives her courage in her struggle against school bullies. It’s a well-told story, one which works on several levels. It introduces readers to international politics, to refugee policy, and, quite sketchily, to the conflicts in Nigeria and Somalia. And it is a traditional coming-of-age story, the struggle of an adolescent girl to find her voice.

I’ve written about Jack Gantos and his excellent novel, Joey Pizga Loses Control, in a previous column. Gantos is also the author of a funny, fine picture-book series about a less-than-perfect cat named Rotten Ralph. Gantos’s new memoir, Hole in My Life (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $16, 200 pp.), tells the story of an adolescence gone sour in drugs, pretense, and drug smuggling, and of his terrible stint in prison. It’s a hair-raising tale, and though I loathe it when critics call books brave, this one earns the adjective. Gantos wanted adventure so that he could become a writer. But he discovers that to write you have to do it, and not turn away from anything that you see or feel or experience. For the turth, he has to abandon all the self-escape, the lying, drugs and the patterns given him by a family that literally moves every year. The book puts the truth of prison right in our faces: it’s very, very frightening about what human beings will do in hate and despair. I recommend the book for adults, but not for anyone under seventeen, unless a parent previews it. There are images I will never forget: Gantos picking his face over and over as he waits to go to trial is one of the more benign. Gantos said he wrote the book because he is alarmed by the turn in our society toward punishing teens for their mistakes rather than forgiving or offering guidance. Is the compassion he was ultimately shown by one interested state worker available today? Should we count on it?

And finally, in the spirit of the children’s game Telephone, I pass on a tip from Gregory Maguire. Maguire is a Catholic novelist, critic, and all-around angelic connector of people in the children’s book world. He writes principally for children but has adult works as well, among them the highly acclaimed Wicked. He lives in Thoreau’s hometown and has just published his fifth "Hamlet Chronicles" novel, Three Rotten Eggs (Clarion, $16, ages 7 and up). My son adores this series: "This is a writer who knows how to make a kid laugh." As I was typing the last paragraphs, I was excited by Maguire’s praise in the Horn Book magazine for a collection of "elliptical and epiphanic" stories, Counting Stars (Delacorte, $18.99, 209 pp., ages 14 and up), by David Almond, whose roots are rural Catholic. In Maguire’s words, the best of these childhood tales, real and imaginatively reshaped, "convey the elusive succor of Catholic mysticism within the strict setting of a moral tale." Doesn’t that sound intriguing? Let’s read these stories; and let me know what you think.

Published in the 2002-04-19 issue: 

Daria Donnelly (1959-2004) was an associate editor of Commonweal from 2000 to 2004. In 2002, after having been diagnosed with multiple myeloma, a cancer of the blood and bone marrow, she became associate editor (at large) and co-editor of the poetry section.

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