Monday, June 6

Spectacles

 written and illustrated by Ellen Raskin 
Atheneum  1976   

When a girl named Iris begins mistaking the fantastical for everyday items an eye exam is on order in a picture book by the author of The Westing Game...

Iris starts out by telling the reader that she didn't always wear glasses, but then one day a dragon showed up at her door.  Then came the pygmy nuthatch, the Indian, the chestnut mare. What Iris saw were the general shapes of different things that would come together to create something her brain could make sense of. The dragon, for example, turned out to be her Aunt Fanny standing against a tree, a house, and a trail that made the whole look more menacing by the sum of its parts. Finally, Iris goes to the eye doctor who gives her the bad news: she needs glasses. Iris fights all of her options when they are described by color and shape, but when her mother re-frames the question – "Would you like to look older or younger, sweeter or smarter, like a scholar or a movie star..." – Iris is instantly more interested in glasses. In the end Iris is happier wearing her spectacles but still takes them off once in a while for a glimpse at the spectacles she used to see.

Spreads feature Iris on the left side in a line drawing with what she sees done up in pointillist shading against a solid color, followed in the next spread by the same arrangement but this time with the scene clearly delineated and in full color. Ignoring that many of the things Iris sees would hardly remain stationary enough for her to hold these shapes, to say nothing of items like a TV which she couldn't have confused, there is still a bit of squinty-eyed whimsy at the way Iris approaches life. Too young perhaps to realize she's having eyesight problems (it happened to me in third grade so I can relate) she is fairly good-natured about the whole experience until she finds she has to wear glasses.

The concept has been done since, by Suzy Lee in particular, and perhaps before Raskin did it, but for a thirty-five year old it doesn't feel too dated or stodgy. Change "Native American" for "Indian" and I think it would be fine. 

There is something very 1960s mod in her style of illustration, and very approachable. In fact, what initially startled me was that it was small for a picture book. At just under 6 x 8 inches – one-fourth the size of many picture books today – the book's intimacy draws in a reader's attention. Almost as if the book had been designed with a nearsighted reader in mind. But it raises an interested question today as many publishers point out the high cost of producing picture books: why not simply make them smaller? Not every book needs to e lap-sized, and an argument can be made for picture books to be manageable for younger readers. Just a thought.

I only discovered this week that Raskin was also an illustrator and began her career (as many illustrators do) working on other's books before writing and illustrating her own. In fact, she is responsible for the iconic woodcut illustrations for the New Directions edition of A Child's Christmas in Wales by Dylan Thomas, a book I've owned and replaced without ever making the connection. A quick Google search for Ellen Raskin illustrations yields a number of surprises, including book covers I have seen before including adult titles like A Passage to India and a Nathaniel West collection.
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