Friday, January 25

Little Golden Book Favorites

Goodnight, Little Bear (1961)
Chipmunk's ABC (1963)
The Bunny Book (1955)
by Richard Scarry
Golden Books 2008

At first blush there isn't really much one can say about these classic picture books featuring early Richard Scarry artwork. The stories themselves are practically ur-picture book archetypes: the little bear that won't go to bed and "hides" on his father's shoulders; a basic animal ABC book; an exploration between parent and child about what a bunny will be when it grows up. But then, another look and we see that two of the three stories feature a father prominently in a nurturing role. Why does that stand out to me?

These thoughts are quickly replaced by the art. Staring at these anthropomorphic woodland creatures I can't help but think how awkward they look. They're stiff, almost as if Richard Scarry didn't know how to draw animals doing human things.

No, wait. Richard Scarry knows exactly how to draw animals and in putting them into human clothes he has captured the true awkwardness of the situation. Just as a house pet looks ridiculous when forced into baby clothes or doll accessories, the animals in Richard Scarry's world look as if they are happily playing along but clearly not cut out to be handling knives or riding bikes and whatnot. In a way, Scarry has preserved some of the animal dignity by recognizing that they aren't human. Though he has forced them into human clothes, homes and situations he has not negated their animal nature to make them more human.

Suddenly I am aware that modern animal picture book illustrations go out of their way to give the animals more of human fluidity in their movements, more of what animators call an "action line" in their stances, and less anything even resembling animal anatomy. Compare these happy little Scarry animals...

With the pose of this friendly little bear, one of the four food groups in Emily Gravett's Orange Pear Apple Bear.

Let me state right here that Gravett's book is pure genius, using only five words (four of them in the title) to riff on color, shape and size, so I don't mean to suggest that I find fault with it. But Gravett's bear throughout holds the sort of contrapposto perfected by masters of the Renaissance and contains no resemblance to a real bear at all aside from it's most characteristic of shapes. It's as if there is a human being trapped inside Gravett's bear, while the Scarry animals are as stiff as a taxidermist's diorama. Look again at the small mouse above attempting two-handed to cut that cheese and compare it with the cocked ease of that bear who has skillfully just pealed that orange.

Sometimes I wonder about the use of animals as human stand-ins in picture books. Have studies been done to show that children better connect with animals in picture books -- there are a LOT of animal books out there! Do we use animals to teach them about creatures in the world, or are they a calculated way around the thorny issue of racial representation and the possible cost in sales through alienation? Have children become so desensitized to the novelty of walking-talking animals that they now expect them to look and behave human instead of a playful-if-accurate representation?

I think it might be interesting to see if smaller children can tell the difference, or have a marked preference, in the various styles of illustration or if an animal in clothes is an animal in clothes no matter how stiff.

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