Draw Me A Story

The “Draw Me A Story: A Century of Children’s Book Illustration” exhibit at the Frick Collection in Pittsburgh is a rare treat.  The pieces in the exhibit range from Randolph Caldecott and Kate Greenaway to modern illustrators such as Maurice Sendak and Chris Von Allsburg with a wide range of mediums, subjects, and styles.

I was struck by L. Leslie Brooke’s piece of the handsomely clad bear striding down the path in front of the lion from Johnny Crow’s Garden as seen below.  L. Leslie Brooke (1862-1940) was an English illustrator and occasional author of children’s books.  Some of his better known works include Johnny Crow’s Garden, The Jumblies and Other Nonsense Verses (written by Edward Lear and illustrated by Brooke), and The Golden Goose Book.  Brooke’s work was my favorite of the collection because of the gentle humor with an emphasis on facial expressions.  The composition of an illustration can set the scene with each character in his or her place, but facial expressions are what deliver the emotion.  In my opinion, Brooke’s adeptness in depicting expressions and body language might be credited to his deafness if he depended upon visual emotional signals in everyday life.

Lion Loses His Pride

The characters’ expressions can also be used to tell mini-stories within the story.  For instance, the text only explicitly talks about how the lion had a green and yellow tie on, and the bear had nothing to wear so the ape measured him with a tape.  The preceding illustrations of the lion have him preening and strutting around Johnny Crow’s Garden.   Even without knowing the story behind the illustration sample at the Frick, the viewer can plainly tell the lion is crestfallen, envious, and upset over being shown up.  The bear’s upturned nose and purposeful stride show that he is more than happy to show up the lion.  The more complex emotional story comes through in the art.

As silly as it is, I actually felt bad for the lion.  Sure, maybe he did get a bit vain there, but he was just showing off his dashing new tie to his friends.  Look at that face!

The Brooke illustration in the exhibit is a vivid example of a visual pun: The lion loses his pride.  The text that talks about the lion’s green and yellow tie shows the lion strutting down the garden path, and the very next illustration shows the ape imitating the lion in a negative way, or the ape “aping” the lion.  The ape is being “catty” when he apes the lion.  I’m not generally a fan of puns, but this is clever use of visual wordplay by Brooke.  Well played, sir.

Jerk

The other illustration that caught my eye was W. W. Denslow’s The Crooked Man, the original illustrator of The Wizard of Oz mentioned in the previous post. The picture depicts the English nursery rhyme that goes: “There was a crooked man, and he walked a crooked mile.  He found a crooked sixpence against a crooked stile.  He bought a crooked cat, which caught a crooked mouse, And they all lived together in a little crooked house.”  The reason I liked this piece is because it’s off kilter in a fun, highly creative and stylized way.  The Crooked Man is black and white with ink on paper, but it has a real sort of energy about it that some of the other collection pieces in color lack.

The Crooked Man

The expressions on the faces of the crooked man and the crooked cat take what could be a slightly threatening tableau to a child and keep it silly.  Denslow himself talked about this facet of his approach, “To make children laugh, you must tell them stories of action… I tell my stories with pictures, and I can often indicate action by expression. Action and expression, then, are two of my mainstays, and when you add the incongruous, you have the triad that I rely on (Hearn, 2006).”

“Draw Me A Story” is incredible.  I highly recommend a visit if you can catch up with it on its tour.

Resources:

Hearn, M. P. (2006). “The Man Behind the Man Behind Oz: W. W. Denslow at 150.”  Retrieved from the American Institute of Graphic Arts website, http://www.aiga.org/the-man-behind-the-man-behind-oz-w-w-denslow-at-150/ on April 14, 2012.

Please forgive the rather obvious repurposing of my paper.

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