Heckedy Peg, 1987

In the small genre of picture supported stories, kid’s books are unique. Not only can an artist unabashedly depend on illustrations to tell at least half of their story, but these illustrations are also excused from doing anything other than simply telling the story. After all, the idea of “art” is less an issue when your audience might still wear diapers. This admittedly can lend itself to crayon drawings that a 5 year old might like (and make for that matter). But sometimes, just sometimes, the real craft of illustrative art finds its way into a children’s book. Illustrators like Marvin Bileck and Stephen Gammell. Their’s is art that surpasses the genre, the kind of pictures you look at and know that days worth of hours went into each page, that the craft and the skill is above the statement the picture makes. It’s just damn good drawing.

And Don Wood is a name that belongs on that list.

Wood grew up on a farm in California, sent himself to art school, met his artist wife, and, through her enamoration with kid’s books, they started making them together. She wrote, he illustrated. Sounds magical. Personally,  I’d say that reading about this husband and wife team might rub some people the wrong way. Anyone who makes loud and clear that they are Artists can accidentally trivialize their efforts. But, that said, if the books can speak for themselves, Art is indeed the word. At it for the past 30 years, they’ve made some of the most impressive books I’ve seen.  There are two in particular that blow the others out of the water: Heckedy Peg and King Bidgood’s in the Bathtub. I’ve got my own nostalgia for Heckedy Peg, so I’m going to start with that dark fairy tale.

Published by the duo in 1987, Heckedy Peg is a story about a witch who turns seven kids, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, etc, into food and brings them to her lair where she plans to eat them. Their brave mother tracks them down and must guess which kid is which food in order to save them (she also must cut off her feet in order to gain access to the witch’s house… yeah). Of course, motherly good prevails, as do her feet, and she chases the witch to her death. (The story was supposedly based on a children’s game from medieval Europe. The actual rules of the game are seemingly lost, but some pretty amazing reminiscences of those who played a version of this game as kids in the 30s are floating around, and you can read about the flow of the game here.)

With Heckedy Peg, Audrey Wood wrote a proper fairy tale. It’s dark and frightening, but in the end, the magic and terror are all dismissed through ingenuity, a moral is conveyed, and we are left with the black and white triumph of maternal good over a barren evil. Proper. That said, the story itself doesn’t really push boundaries in such a way that makes it stand out (though, I do laud Mrs. Wood for the bad-ass heroine mama and the bravery of calling back on this dark and disturbing genre for kids). I’d say that in this case, the crucial role of the plot lies in the legs it gives the illustrations to stand on, the way it couples perfectly with its other half. And, admittedly, the paintings are so good that it’s tempting to give the illustrations all the credit for Heckedy Peg’s success. But come on. It’s nigh impossible to imagine a successful illustrated book that has a gimping, limping other half.

That said, Don Wood’s paintings are immaculate. They are some of the most rockin’, magical illustrations I’ve ever seen in the world of kids books. Detailed, expressive, perfectly lighted, and horrifying, they’re… alive, his faces move on the page. His children dance with fire, his witch grows and shrinks as she reaches for a child pudding and cowers at the feet of an enraged mother… You can tell I want to rage and glow about its awesomeness, but really, the very reason for the pictures is the way they express things without words. Just go check it out. I promise that when and if you do, you are going to feel pretty excited. Definitely at the pictures.  But also… with the whole thing.  Whether its the nostalgia of an older art form- both in the quality of the drawings and the fairy-tale format- or just the thrill of coupling the dark and the childish, when I reintroduce this book to people who read it when they were kids, they get that flash of excitement and fear in their sparkling little eyes. Without fail. It packed a punch on impressionable minds. And still does.

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