“You can’t swing a teddy bear around here without hitting an artist,” quipped Lane Smith, a children’s picture book artist (It’s a Book, The True Story of the Three Little Pigs) with two Caldecott Medal awards to his credit. Smith was sitting next to my friend Catherine at the Roxbury Minor Memorial Public Library in Litchfield County, Connecticut.
The geographical map of Northwest Connecticut is an “Area of Maximum Artist Density” where artists of all kinds reside. Catherine and I were spending Saturday afternoon in the small library conference room listening to a lecture by Leonard S. Marcus one of the world’s leading authorities on children’s books and their illustration. (See Catherine’s post here).
The subject of his talk was illustrator Leonard Weisgard who (no surprise here) had also lived in Roxbury until the late 60’s. The title of the talk was “Modernist in the Nursery: The Art of Legendary Illustrator Leonard Weisgard” and Marcus came prepared with multiple slides that highlighted the influences and illustrations in Weisgard’s long career as both a picture book artist and author and as a commercial artist (New Yorker). In offering this talk, Marcus was surrounded by members of Weisgard’s family and former Roxbury neighbors. For them, this was a reunion; for us, this was a star-studded affair.
Marcus is an author himself including: Show Me a Story!; Golden Legacy: How Golden Books Won Children’s Hearts, Changed Publishing Forever, and Became an American Icon Along the Way). He was the curator of the New York Public Library 2014 exhibit, “The A,B,C of It: Why Children’s Books Matter” (which I wrote about in a post here).
Introducing Weisgard as a Modernist, Marcus discussed the development of children’s picture books as separating into those “Once upon a time…” stories of morals and lessons or those stories in which a child could insert himself or herself. Weisgard illustrated the later, and he often paired with Margaret Wise Brown to create books that appealed to a child’s sense of play and imagination, including:
- Margaret Wise Brown, The Noisy Book, W. R. Scott, 1939.
- Golden MacDonald,The Little Island , Doubleday, 1946.
- Margaret Wise Brown, The Important Book, Harper, 1949.
In his 1947 Caldecott Acceptance speech, Weisgard spoke of this approach in his illustrations:
“We experimented with color for sound and shapes for emotion, letting the child bring the magic of movement, in a series of Noisy books. So that a radiator would be placed in a shape suggested by the hissing noise it makes, and the round sound of a ticking clock would put it into a circle.”
He also spoke of the brilliant colors in his pictures and pages filled with movement in this speech:
“There are times in illustrating when the artist of today must rub his nose against the reality of things and try to catch with the honesty of a child a yellow sun like a pat of butter in the sky, with clouds of cottage cheese and the smoke of boats flying in all directions, with no concern for north or east. Houses with windows gaping and people like raisins on the street, a fire engine tearing off the page and a policeman stopping everything.”
His appreciation and respect for his young audience is also summed up in this speech:
“Children are never as disturbed as grown-ups by contemporary arts, a streamlined plane, or a gallery of modern painting. They see an image with real meaning and vitality and sometimes with incongruous humor giving it a sharper reality.”
Weisgard’s acceptance speech contradicts some of the practices that have come about as a result of educators trying to increase rigor by choosing complex texts that are too often inaccessible for their young readers. Here in his Caldecott acceptance speech some 68 years earlier, was Weisgard defending the ability of young children to read his illustrations that are very complex but also accessible.
The only wrinkle in an otherwise perfect afternoon was the slight delay caused by a technology glitch. Marcus’s Powerpoint presentation was stuck in presentation mode, and try as he and the other artists might, they could not change out of the presenter’s view of showing several slides simultaneously.
“Oh, well, sighed Marcus, “You’ll get a chance to see what slide is coming up…”
While the artists Minor, Smith, and Marcus struggled together with uncooperative technology for those minutes, I did come up with this riddle:
Q: How many artists does it take to set up a powerpoint?
A: It doesn’t matter. Only their art does.