Lately, I have taken to collecting Clare Newberry books. The first, Mittens, I discovered by chance at Tacoma Book Center while sorting through used books over a lunch break. While the story itself is terrific, I (of course) was absolutely smitten with the illustrations. I guess it wasn't just because, as a little girl, I was smitten with kittens. The New York Times also praised the book, calling Mittens' 1936 ink drawings "the very best cat pictures that have ever been made." High praise for something so humble as cats.
I went back to the Book Center some time later with a friend and discovered Barkis, which won the Caldecott Honor in 1938. The charcoal, pencil and watercolor wash illustrations are so breathtaking.
I love coming across the old and wonderful by chance. Both of these books were published when a loaf of bread cost eight cents, our country was lingering between wars, and the depression was still underway. Come to think of it, things don't feel much different to me now, except for the part about bread, and the fact that the vast majority of children's book art isn't what it used to be.
While the art may truly suit the text, I have found that so many of today's children's book illustrations are ugly, gestural, angular, loud, and otherwise unlovely - really, unloved, if that's not too far a stretch - and they don't ask for more than a quick flip through. What I love about Clare Newberry's illustrations is the obvious time, talent, and pure joy of seeing poured into them. Although Newberry's pictures are simple, they tell so much, evidencing hours of practice and of studying the minute details until the characters came alive.
While I don't think that realism is the best and only style, I do believe that Newberry's commitment to realism continues to say so much about persistence, and about truly seeing. I don't know that today's children have enough opportunities to absorb that message in such a captivating and disarming way.
So, when I see old books as lovely as these, I have to snatch them up, intend to read them to my children often, and hope that the visual messages sink in just as much as the stories.