August 22, 2014

Three Billy Goats Blair

        Susan Blair used wood block prints to illustrate her retelling of the story of The Three Billy Goats Gruff in 1963.  The style of woodcut illustrations in the 60s seems to have been to look much more like carved wood.  (For example, check out the work of Helen Siegl and Ann Grifalconi.)  Nowadays most of the books illustrated with block prints seem to use a lot more hand coloring and mixed media such that the wood-carviness is less obvious.
        At any rate, Blair has done some very clever things with woodcut here.  First and foremost, I love the way she’s used the wood grain in the backgrounds.  You can see it most clearly in the first example, where a knot in the wood makes the sun in the sky, and the patterns of the grain make wonderful beams of 
morning light.  Blair’s use of separate blocks is interesting, too.  With the exception of the green and black, most of her blocks don’t cover the same ground.  Alignment isn’t an issue because the blocks don’t have to line up precisely on top of one another.  They fit into each other’s empty spaces with some white around the edges, or some acceptable overlap.
        I have to say that the troll looks rather adorable, but that’s probably a good choice.  The troll is supposed to illustrate greed and stupidity more than pure, chilling evil.  I’m also amused by the fact that Blair’s made the bridge sag under the weight of the largest billy-goat.  Compare the bridge in the two pictures shown here.  The poor troll’s getting squeezed under that bridge, and he looks rather frightened before ever he threatens to eat the biggest goat!
        The limited color scheme (three colors plus black and white) is practically unheard of in today’s picture books, but while Blair’s work certainly fits into the style of its time, I think that it doesn’t come across as unappealingly dated.  I like that it isn’t pretty or cutesy, but gives some rough strength to a story that isn’t particularly pretty or cute, either.  There are some other very nice versions of this classic Norwegian tale available, but I’d love to see children exposed to these wood block print illustrations instead of some of the triter, more cartoony versions.
        Tune in next time to see my illustration of this story, and compare the choices I’ve made in depicting the goats Gruff.

[Pictures: Three woodcuts by Susan Blair, from The Three Billy-Goats Gruff, 1963, Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Inc.]

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