Tuesday, July 20, 2010

The Real Lives of Curious George, the Cat in the Hat, and Other Old Friends

Curious George, the BFG, Mike Mulligan and his Steam Shovel. Could anyone ask for better friends than these? Well, sure: their authors. Beatrix Potter and Dr. Seuss are every bit as well known as their fictional counterparts, and you can bet that their stories are just as interesting. The biography or autobiography of a children’s author is guaranteed to be one of color and creativity, and just as hard to put down as that original book that captured your childish heart all those years ago.

Beatrix Potter’s Journal by Beatrix Potter, edited by Frederick Warne Publishers, 2006, Warne Books (Biography/ Picture Book)

Beatrix Potter (1866-1943) was drawing backyard creatures, pet rabbits, and guinea pigs from her earliest years. A dreamy and creative child who loved art and nature and animals, it’s no surprise that her creations Peter Rabbit, Jemima Puddle-Duck, and Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle became very real and dear to her. This illustrated biography, in the form of a fictional journal based on real diaries and letters, is a true gem. Flaps lift to show beautiful reproductions of artwork, envelopes open, letters unfold (the letter from Beatrix’s brother about getting the exact measurements of a pet bat is a particular delight), and sketches and other documents from Beatrix’s life are scattered throughout her handwritten journal entries. From her drawings of fungi to her relationship with her publisher Norman Warne to her purchase of her own Hill Top Farm in England’s Lake District, Beatrix Potter’s life is one filled with old-fashioned romance, understated humor, and the charming little animal critters that have been loved by readers for over one hundred years.

The Journey That Saved Curious George: The True Wartime Escape of Margret and H.A. Rey by Louise Borden, illustrated by Allan Drummond, 2005, Houghton Mifflin Books (Biography/ Picture Book)

Curious George and his friend the Man with the Yellow Hat currently reside in picture books, television sets, and movie screens. But they got their start in a humble flat in Paris, where their creators H.A. and Margret Rey came to honeymoon and stayed to live and work. Both H.A. (Hans Alberto; 1898-1977) and Margret (1906-1996) were Jews born in Hamburg, Germany; when Hitler’s forces invaded France in 1940, the couple knew it was time to leave. Joining millions of people who fled the city and crowded the trains, the Reys made their escape on a pair of rickety bicycles—with the manuscript that would become Curious George (his original name was Fifi) strapped to Hans’ back. The book that tells of this amazing journey through France, across the Atlantic, and to New York City is a lovely work of art all by itself. Author Louise Borden conveys the Reys’ story in poetic style. Allan Drummond’s illustrations are charming and energetic, whether they show the romance of the Reys’ pre-war years or the more desperate rush to stay one step ahead of the Nazis. Photographs, letters, passport stamps, and intimate details lend authenticity to this story that has become a real legend in the history of children’s literature.

Boy and Going Solo by Roald Dahl, 2009, Puffin Books, originally published 1984 and 1986 (Autobiography/ Memoir) 

Roald Dahl (1916-1990) is the quintessential children’s author. From Charlie and the Chocolate Factory to The BFG to James and the Giant Peach, this perpetually popular author has the unique ability to tell a fantastic story. The man clearly had a wildly creative imagination, but he also lived a wildly creative life. He relates that life in two volumes: Boy and Going Solo. Boy is chock-full of antics and escapades from Dahl’s childhood—his vacations in Norway, his schoolboy pranks (including “The Great and Daring Mouse Plot”), and his eccentric family members. Savvy readers will spot not a few larks that clearly inspired his later fiction. Going Solo chronicles Dahl’s adult life, specifically his adventures in Africa working for the Shell Oil Company and his acts of derring-do as a RAF pilot during World War II. The real joy of his memoirs comes from Dahl’s distinct narrative voice—wry and tongue-in-cheek, full of dark humor and gleeful irony. Family photographs and documents dot the pages of both volumes, and the most recent edition collects the two memoirs in a single book and features lively cover art by Quentin Blake, whose illustrative style is practically synonymous with Roald Dahl’s most beloved books.

When Everybody Wore a Hat by William Steig, 2003, Joanna Cotler Books (Autobiography/ Picture Book)

William’s Steig’s autobiography is a story for children. But anyone who knows William Steig—author of the original ugly-loving Shrek!; creator of Sylvester and the Magic Pebble, in which the main character spends most of the book as a rock—will understand that anything by this author will feature his trademark matter-of-fact tone and understated charm. When Everybody Wore a Hat is about Steig’s childhood in the Bronx, way back when you could see a movie for a nickel and a hat was as essential as shoes and a shirt. Through bright, childishly expressive illustrations, Steig (1907-2003) shows us life through his own eight-year-old eyes: an outing on the river with Mama and Papa decked out in stripes and polka-dots; neighborhood characters like elegant Mrs. Kingman who was “looked on by the women in admiration”; Steig’s first haircut at Ditchick’s Barbershop. There’s a healthy dose of realism as well, conveyed with a child’s simple directness: Papa yelling at the radiator when there isn’t enough heat, Mama’s tears when she receives sad news from the Old Country, and the bombs and blood of World War I. Deceptively simple but instantly engrossing, this slim little autobiography offers a slice of old-fashioned life and a look at the formative years of an inventive and irreverent author.

Bill Peet : An Autobiography by Bill Peet, 1989, Houghton Mifflin (Autobiography/ Illustrated Memoir)

In 1937, a young storyboard artist at Disney Studios got sick and tired of drawing Donald Duck over and over and stormed out, hollering “NO MORE DUCKS! NO MORE LOUSY DUCKS!” That artist was Bill Peet (1915-2002), beloved children’s author of The Gnats of Knotty Pine, Chester the Worldly Pig, and Buford the Little Bighorn (to mention just a few), and that anecdote is one of many that he relates in his self-titled autobiography. Peet got his start at Disney, becoming a lead story man for classic films like Dumbo, Cinderella, The Sword in the Stone, and 101 Dalmatians before his own career as a children’s book author finally brought him, fame, fortune, and artistic freedom. Peet tells his life story in pictures and words—his artistic creations dance across every page as he chronicles his childhood during the Great Depression, his storyboard presentations for the great Walt Disney, and his own studio where he wrote and illustrated his books. The insight into the workings of Disney productions is revealing and entertaining and Peet always has a sense of humor about whatever life throws his way. As engaging as one of the author’s own storybooks, Bill Peet: An Autobiography is a delightful portrait of an artist at work

Ezra Jack Keats: A Biography with Illustrations by Dean Engel and Florence B. Freedman, 1995, Silver Moon Press (Biography/ Picture Book)

He was born Jack Ezra Katz, but you know and love him as Ezra Jack Keats (1916-1983), author of The Snowy Day, Whistle for Willie, Goggles!, and many others. From his penny-pinching childhood in the Great Depression to his years inking comics for Five-Star Comics (creators of Captain Marvel) to his experiments with fabric and collage, art was a crucial comfort for Keats. In this biography, the events of Keats’ life are illustrated by his own artwork. When little boy Ezra gets picked on by bullies in his Brooklyn neighborhood, we see an illustration of a similar scene from Goggles!. When Ezra explores the city of Paris as a struggling young artist, we see a self-portrait on a colorful Parisian street. And when Ezra realizes that there are very few black children in picture books and creates his hero Peter, we see that iconic image from The Snowy Day of little Peter in his red hood looking at his footprints in the snow. Ezra’s life is reconstructed in a simple, straightforward narrative that rolls along like a storybook. It’s a heartfelt, poignant tribute to an award-winning artist, written by people who knew (Florence B. Freedman was his high school teacher!) and loved him.

Virginia Lee Burton: A Life in Art by Barbara Elleman, 2002, Houghton Mifflin (Biography)

If you have a lasting fascination with steam shovels, snow plows, and construction sites, you probably know Virginia Lee Burton—or at least her storybook creations Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel, The Little House, and Katy and the Big Snow. There’s also Burton herself, and she takes center stage in this elegant biography. From her student years in the early 1920s studying dance and design to the deliberate research methods she incorporated to write and illustrate her books, Burton (1909-1968) was a woman ahead of her time. She had an active career in an era when most women were housewives. She was an environmentalist before the term existed, a nature-lover who relished country living. She was an innovator in book design (Katy plows right through the text on the page in Katy and the Big Snow). She was an artist of many mediums—there’s an entire chapter dedicated to the folksy textiles created by her Folly Cove Designers. Author Barbara Elleman fills the pages of her biography with photographs, sketches, and images from the children’s books that made Virginia Lee Burton famous. The tone is highly celebratory (any trials and tribulations are very much glossed over) but the final product is a loving tribute to a talented and cherished storyteller.

The Seuss, the Whole Seuss, and Nothing But the Seuss: A Visual Biography of Theodor Seuss Geisel by Charles D. Cohen, 2004, Random House Books (Biography)

Dr. Seuss is a household name. We all know that Horton heard a Who and that the Grinch stole Christmas. But did we know that Theodor Seuss Geisel (1904-1991) first penned cartoons for Dartmouth College’s literary magazines in the early 1920s? Are we familiar with Geisel’s advertisements for Flit bug spray? Thanks to Charles D. Cohen’s extensive biography, we are now. The Seuss, the Whole Seuss, and Nothing But the Seuss offers a retrospective of Geisel’s life and art with a particular emphasis on his pre-children’s book days. Here we meet Geisel way back when he was a boy in rural Massachusetts, back when he was an ad man for Standard Oil and General Electric, back when he was a political cartoonist during World War II, back before he was Dr. Seuss. His whimsical animal-esque characters are present from day one, even if they are occasionally tempered by the commercial nature of his early work. And when the limits are lifted, watch out—richly reproduced examples of Geisel’s art cover the pages of this “visual biography.” Cohen lets Geisel speak for himself as much as possible and excerpts from letters, interviews, and articles tell much of the artist’s story. What ultimately comes across, in all its absurd Seusssian glory, is the very real sense of a man whose creativity knew no bounds.

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