A few days ago, I paid a visit to the Legion of Honor’s exhibit on Making the Modern Picture Book. I had hoped for more than the tiny dark room with some 16 odd books on display. The books themselves are behind glass, propped open to certain illustrative pages– in other words, the overwhelming desire to pick up and manhandle a book is effectively thwarted. The museum does provide a computer with all of the illustrations scanned in for a better sense of the whole. Sadly, since I suppose the exhibit is more about the pictures than the text, you don’t get to read the whole thing, even on the computer. But, all imperfections aside, the books themselves were…gorgeous.
Of course these pictures that I’ve included (which I’m not sure I was supposed to take) don’t do the books justice. But think of any old, romantically faded picture you have ever seen, with its muted bright colors, and you know the magic that just sort of emanates from the pages. It might just be the magic that goes hand in hand with anything old and precious, but in this case, there’s also the magic of this particular moment in history: the moment when pictures became equally important as text in the illustrated book, if not more so.
The exhibit showcased the works of four authors: Walter Crane, Randolph Caldecott, Kate Greenaway, and William Nicholson. Each of these illustrators was a very successful part of the boom of picture books that began at the end of the 19th century, but it was a man named Edmund Evans who seems to have been behind all the scenes. Evans was a wood engraver who perfected a form of color printing in the 1860s that allowed him to reproduce the water color drawings of illustrators at a rather efficient (and cost-effective) rate. It was called chromoxylography (yeah,mouthful), and it involved making separate wood cut blocks for each color used in the picture (yeah, shit ton of work). In cooperation with the publishers Routledge and Warne, Evans recruited illustrators such as Crane, Caldecott, and Greenaway and brought the new commercially viable full-image picture book crashing into the public eye.
The books on display range from as early as 1870 to as late as 1900, and they vary in theme and color quality. Children’s books were meant to impose “socially acceptable behavior while providing entertainment.” Sounds familiar. Many of the display books are about fairies and nursery rhymes such as the Pied Piper (written by Robert Browning!), Old Mother Hubbard, The Queen of Hearts, and various alphabet books. There was even a Babies Opera. In fact, it was surprising how many of the 16 stories were familiar. So of course, it was the one’s that weren’t that I found the most intriguing (though Caldecott’s Queen of Hearts and Greenaway’s Pied Piper are mind-blowingly elegant).
The texts that particularly struck my interest were those by Caldecott and Nicholson, purely because they didn’t seem quite right for children (perhaps for the very reason that the ones that are familiar have shaped our modern day sentiment of what a child’s story is). The exhibit mentions that picture books at this time were not only meant for children. It stands to reason that the new abundance and availability of brightly colored books would appeal to everyone in its novelty, not just kids. But in viewing some of the lesser known texts, it seems that aside from the impressive pictures some of these books could also appeal to adults via their content. While the title is
painfully sexist, Caldecott’s An Elegy on the Glory of Her Sex, Mrs. Mary Blaize is a sarcastic and witty treatment of a hypocritical upper-class woman. Caldecott began his artistic career with newspapers, illustrating satirical cartoons of politicians. His picture books (which he both wrote and illustrated) show the obvious residue of his earlier career. Would today’s child be the intended recipient for the somewhat subtle humor of “At church in silks and satins new, With hoop of monstrous size, She never slumber’d in her pew– But when she shut her eyes”? I’m not talking about the sophistication of an older form of speech. Crane has a childish book about fairies that goes “The sullen Winter nearly spent, Queen Flora to her garden went, To call the flowers from their long sleep, The year’s glad festival to keep.” Formal, but simply the tone of the time. Rather, I’m talking about an obvious content appeal for adults.
The Victorians are known for their treatment of children as little adults, with mini adult clothes and mini adult manners. It seems to me that if sarcastically witty books were meant for children (and, on the same token, the picture books meant for adults), the Victorian approach to the illustrated kid’s book points to less of a gap between what was appropriate for kids versus adults. For whatever reason a wider gap exists now—the increased focus on individuality, war’s reminder to protect the homefront, smaller households, etc– we approach our children from the distance of their childhood. And we produce books like Everyone Poops. True, the Victorians would probably never have found humor in what we see today as a necessary learning moment. In fact, Everyone Poops might exist mainly as a reaction against today’s residual Victorian prudishness surrounding bodily functions. But I will say: that decrease in distance between what kids read and adults read let those guys produce some really cool, clever illustrated stuff, and Everyone Got to Read It without feeling abashed.
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