written by Alastair Ried, illustrated by Bob Gill
Harper 1961 / Reissued by Phaidon 2008
One of those strange things about the publishing industry I'll never understand: Why would they let something like this slip out of print and out of their hands? Things being what they are, it's sad to see the short-sightedness of ignoring your history and your backlist.
Based on the simple premise of "what would you trade me for this" a butterfly is offered up, and through a series of trades -- for wishbone, a wishbone for a flag, a flag for a straw hat -- finally is traded for an island and everything on it. Of course, when asked to see the butterfly in hand it flies to freedom, proving that some things cannot be possessed, much less traded.
The simplicity of the idea is matched by Gill's graphics, isolated images in thick, inky lines and filed in with a single spot color, occasionally two at the most. Gill, who is a major influence in graphic design (and, oddly, also co-created Beatlemania for Broadway) understands a concept seemingly lost in today's picture books: less is more. While I agree that modern printing has permitted any number of miraculous picture books to be produced, I sometimes feel like gazing at a wall of picture books in a bookstore these days is the equivalent of staring at the signage of Times Square at night when what one wants is a cup of tea in a zen garden.
There's a lot of similarity with the travel picture books of Miroslav Sasek, both in illustration and simplicty.
Simple stories, simply told, simply illustrated. No fancy digital manipulations, no full page bleeds, no extraneous cleverness or in-jokes or asides scattered throughout the illustrations. The book isn't trying to compete with movies or video games or the presumption that a reader needs to be inundated with images to hold their attention.
I understand Phaidon has reprinted another Gill title, What Colour is Your World, and has also reprinted Tomi Ungerer's The Three Robbers. They may be onto something.