July 11th, 2011: Happy Birthday, Big Bird!


A little on the 19th Century in Children’s Picture Books

It’s true, many picture book artists slip through the net of art critics. But their work may in many cases outlast and outreach the hot tickets of the art gallery world. Here are a few gems from picture books linked by a connection to the 19th century, give or take a decade here and there. Each of these deserves to be on any child’s bedtime bookshelf, but will also nourish art lovers of any age.

William Steig was a poet, and his best stories deftly conceal his mastery as a storyteller. A wise editor once advised anyone wishing to learn about writing picture books to hand-copy his Doctor De Soto—a revealing exercise indeed.

Dreamworks cleverly adapted his Shrek! but Steig’s original is far messier and odd than the CGI version. Pick up any of his many picture books, or his other work. You won’t regret it. His last picture book was, I believe, When Everybody Wore a Hat, in which he reminisces about a bygone era.

Of course, Steig does it with sly tenderness, even narrating as a boy, ever the student of humanity…

Then there’s the very talented Barbara McClintock—a superb author and illustrator. When I first came across her work, it was with The Fantastic Drawings of Danielle, and I thought she actually was from another age, an overlooked master perhaps.

But no, she’s working right now, and producing amazing books. Her late nineteenth- and early twentieth century settings are amazingly researched, yet her characters have a loose expressiveness that is totally fresh and of today.

Plus her crowds are filled with a myriad lovely details, great clothing, and a dizzying array of cameos from famous paintings and literature. And probably a few of her friends… Click for a closer look at this NY scene from the second Adèle & Simon book.Oh and one more for today, an incomparable book by Jon Agee, called The Incredible Painting of Felix Clousseau
… Late 18th? Early 19th? It’s a masterpiece of economy and skill, and quite possibly the picture book with the best last line ever.

More on picture book art next time?