Sunday, October 16, 2011

inspiration: clare newberry

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.


Allie said...

Guh, cat illustrations... So so so cute.

Andrea said...

I know right?! I'm glad you appreciate them. Not everyone understands the importance of cat illustrations...

Jenny Anne said...

These are so beautiful! How have I missed them? I have to find them right now.

I simply love your perspective about children's book art, I couldn't agree more. They are innately curious, and they absorb EVERYTHING...why not expose them to as much beauty as possible?

Andrea said...

You simply must find them. There are so many amazing Newberry books. I am currently on the hunt for "Marshmallow" about a cat and a bunny who were buddies. Modeled from real life. What could be cuter?

Thank you for your kind words - means a lot coming from a mom. Sometimes I worry that I'm full of a lot of idealistic hot air that will eventually dissapate with the demands of actual child-raising and not just philosophizing. But I really do believe in exposing kids to as much beauty and truth as possible - it can only be good, right?!