July 29, 2011

Word of the Month - Tmesis

Tmesis comes from the Greek for "cutting."
        As far as I'm aware there is only one word in the English language that begins with tm-, making tmesis a nifty word to know about regardless of its meaning.  But imagine my delight when I discovered that tmesis has an interesting definition too!  It isn't mere spelling trivia -- it's the word for one of my favorite linguistic phenomena!

tmesis - the interpolation of one or more words between the parts of a compound word or between syllables

        My favorite example is a phrase that's been part of my vocabulary my whole life:
a whole nother.  This phrase sounds so right that I had no idea there was anything non-standard about it until the first time I tried to write it and discovered just how weird it looks.  (I knew nother wasn't a word.  But that's tmesis for ya; it does indeed set you up with bits and pieces of word.  That's why these phrases usually get spelled as one big compound.)
        The other common usage of tmesis is to provide additional opportunity for exclamations (especially swear words, of course.)  A classic example comes from the lyrics of "My Fair Lady:"
"Oh, so loverly sittin' abso-bloomin'-lutely still…"
Or, of course, such expressions as un-freaking-believable or guaran-damn-tee.
        One of the interesting things about the phenomenon is that although no one gets taught the "correct" way to infix expletives, native speakers of English show remarkable consistency in their choice of where to put the cuss for the best effect.  No one would say "guar-damn-antee" or "ab-bloomin'-solutely."  That would clearly be wrong.
        Tmesis is just one more of those wonderful ways in which language is alive and kicking, and so much more than a bunch of dry rules in a grammar book.  So keep your ears open and enjoy the tmesis.

[Picture: Tiny Scissors, linoleum block print by Sonia Romero, on her Etsy shop She Rides the Lion.]

July 26, 2011

More Alphabets

        I've recently got my hands on a few more block printed alphabets that I thought I'd share.  And while I'm at it I'll include another sampling from the ABC books already in my virtual collection.
        So, first up is a book from 1898, the oldest I've found so far.  The woodcuts are done by William Nicholson, originally printed in black with hand-painting of the swaths of dull color.  The book is simply titled An Alphabet, but it is specifically an alphabet of people, from artist, beggar, and countess, through yokel and zoologist.  I've shown here "U is for Urchin," which is my favorite.  I'm not crazy about the colors on most of these pieces, though, making all the people look rather sickly.  (Nicholson did a book of animals that I like better, so perhaps I'll feature that another time.)

        Another alphabet that focuses on people (the people of a distinctly upper class life, to be specific) has not, as far as I know, ever been made into a book.  Nor is it intended in any way for children -- but I'm still counting these 26 linoleum block prints by Dione Verulam, done some time around 2009.  I like this one, "I for Ironing."  Many of Verulam's scenes have English country house interiors, which are fun, but I find nothing too striking about most of the pieces.  You can see the whole alphabet here.

        Here's another sort of alphabet, printed from wood blocks by Antonio Frasconi.  This is really more of a font than full-fledged illustrations, and I'm not sure whether every letter of the alphabet was actually done.  But fitting the animals into the letters is cool, and I find a real charm in these pieces.  Here are J and R.

        Now since I wasn't so crazy about two of these new discoveries, I think I'll include a few favorites from some of the other books, too.  I love the color shading and texture of Frampton's rhino, done with multiple blocks.  I love Bowen's bears, shown with just a few cuts of the wood.  I love how the dense texture of Azarian's zinnias doesn't detract from the overall composition as I'm sure it would if I tried it!  And the butterfly is so beautiful in black and white even though I always assume that something so colorful wouldn't translate well to a block print.
        In case you haven't been here from the beginning, I've been doing a series of posts on all the block printed alphabets I've found (mostly alphabet books).  The previous posts in the series can be found here:
I plan to continue to post more alphabet images from time to time, as I find new ones, and as the spirit moves me.  Because really, I can never get too much of block printed alphabets!

[Pictures: "U is for Urchin," wood block print with hand coloring by William Nicholson, from An Alphabet, 1898;
     "I is for Ironing," linoleum block print by Dione Verulam, before 2010, image from Sladmore Gallery;
     "J is for Jaguar," wood block print by Antonio Frasconi, from Bestiary, 1965;
     "R is for Rabbit," wood block print by Antonio Frasconi, from Bestiary, 1965;
     "R is for Rhino," wood block print with multiple blocks by David Frampton, from My Beastie Book of ABC, 2002;
     "B is for Bear," wood block print with watercolor by Betsy Bowen, from Antler, Bear, Canoe, 1991;
     "Z is for Zinnia," wood block print by Mary Azarian, from A Farmer's Alphabet, 1981.]

July 22, 2011

More Field Guides (Part II)

        Back in November I listed a selection of Field Guides to the Creatures of Fantasy, but since then I keep finding more, so it's time for a supplementary list.  Some of these focus more on the myths and legends, while some make more of a pretense of non-fiction.  Some focus on traditional "information," while some are newly imagined, but they're all great celebrations of the fauna of the human imagination.

     The Book of Dragons & Other Mythical Beasts, by Joseph Nigg.  A nice collection of critters from all around the world.  And any book that includes the Bishop Fish has got to be good.
     How to Raise and Keep a Dragon, by Edward Topsell (i.e. Joseph Nigg).  This is a cute "non-fiction" style book, right up P and T's alley as they pretend to raise pet dragons of their own.  P points out that there aren't any other books quite like this,
and T says the only thing she doesn't like about it is that she can't really buy a dragon.  Myself, I think the concept of dragons is ruined when they become mere pets, but this is still a fun book.
     Bestiary, by Jonathan Hunt.  As its subtitle says, An Illuminated Alphabet of Medieval Beasts.  P really likes this one, somewhat to my surprise, since it's got less "information" than some.  What it does have are large illustrations set in attractive medieval-style borders, and a mix of animals that includes some more unusual ones in order to fill out the letters of the alphabet.
     Arthur Spiderwick's Field Guide to the Fantastical World Around You, by Tony DiTerlizzi and Holly Black.  This is based on the Spiderwick Chronicles series, which never really caught on at our house, so some of the "information" is fairly specific to those stories.  Neverthless, this has great illustrations and lots of fun tidbits of imagination that make it enjoyable to look at independent of the tie-in.
     The Essential Worldwide Monster Guide, by Linda Ashman.  This is actually a book of humorous poems about thirteen mythological creatures from around the world.  Several of the monsters were new to me, which is always fun, but despite the title there was very little actual information about each monster.
     Dragons: A Natural History, by Karl Shuker.  This book is good for slightly older children, at least eight or nine, I'd say, since it's a bit more scholarly.  I really liked the format of information about various dragonoids intermixed with legends from around the world.  Quite a few of the legends were previously unknown to me [and gave me all kinds of interesting ideas].  I also liked that the illustrations were gathered from all sorts of historical sources, from medieval illuminated documents, to antique photographs, to artifacts from around the world.  On the other hand, P and T seemed to like this one less than I did.

        I'm sure I'll have more to add to my growing list eventually, and until then, Enjoy!

[Pictures: cover of Bestiary by Jonathan Hunt, Simon & Schuster, 1998;
cover of Dragons: a Natural History by Karl Shuker, Simon & Schuster, 1995.]

July 19, 2011


        Bookplates, small decorative pieces of paper stuck into books to designate ownership, can serve as a miniature history of the decorative arts.  People have been marking their books since the invention of books, but the first proper bookplates, separately printed pieces with a picture in addition to a name, appeared in Germany in the fifteenth century.  The concept spread to France, Holland, and eventually throughout Europe and America.  These earliest bookplates usually consisted of coats of arms or other heraldic devices that identified the book's owner.  The styles of these coats of arms, however, varied widely over the centuries, because they reflected the current fashions in design, from simple to rococo.
        Towards the middle of the eighteenth century design branched out a bit, adding allegorical images, symbolic bits and bobs, and occasional scenery in the background.  These other elements gradually increased in prominence, pushing armorial subjects into subsidiary roles or even replacing them in some designs.  And so on, through the Victorian era, Arts and Crafts movement, up to the present.
        Of course, as soon as bookplates became popular there were designs mass-produced for all, as well as those individually commissioned.  I received a packet of stick-on bookplates when I was a kid, the kind with a blank left for me to write in my name, and just like most bookplates, the design of these was consistent with the prevailing styles of the time.  As the time happened to be the mid '70's, these bookplates were pretty dreadful, showing a full-color picture of some sort of overwhelmingly cute, fluffy, mouse-like creature sitting adorably atop a stack of books.  I loved those bookplates, and when I used them up I got more, (with a different design.)  I loved them so much that I now make and
sell bookplates using my block print designs.  All of these, however, are different from the individually printed, custom designed works of art that bookplates can be.
        Many of the most famous of printmakers have made bookplates, including Albrecht Dürer, Paul Revere, Thomas Bewick, M.C. Escher, Leonard Baskin, and Jaques Hnizdovsky.  I had a terrible time selecting just a few examples to share in this post, and you can see that I really wasn't able to rein myself in.  (Don't forget that you can always click on a picture to see it bigger.)  But I've included some links to some other places you can find collections of bookplates posted on-line, so if you're so inclined you can immerse yourself for hours.  I'm sorry to say that that's exactly what I did today, to the detriment of anything useful getting done!  But the small format, distilled design, and bookish connection are just too enticing to resist.  I'm feeling inspired - perhaps there will be some more bookplate designing in my future!

[Pictures: Bookplate for Brother Hildebrand Brandenburg, anonymous, 1480;
Bookplate for Willibald Pirckheimer, by Albrecht Dürer, c. 1501;
Bookplate by C. Stengelin, 1658;
Bookplate for and by (?I assume!) Francis Davis Millet, c. 1870-1912;
Bookplate for John Buck, anonymous, 1894 (Image from the Pratt Libraries Ex Libris Collection);
Bookplate for Roger Mougneau, by George Auriol, (Pratt);
Nursery rhyme bookplate designs by AEGN;
Bookplate for and by Edward Penfield, c. 1900-1925;
Bookplate for and by Henry Pitz, c. 1910's;
Bookplate for Meredith Nicholson, by Franklin Booth (1874-1948) (Pratt);
Bookplate for Gil Williams, by Jacques Hnizdovsky, undated (image from the Jacques Hnizdovsky web site);
Bookplate for Sylvie Junod, by Jacques Hnizdovsky, undated.]

July 15, 2011

The Tolstoy Fallacy

        Leo Tolstoy famously wrote that "All happy families resemble one another; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way."  This sound bite is representative of the rationale behind the current fashion for books about miserable people living miserable lives.  It is also, in my opinion, entirely backwards.
        It seems to me that falling into sadness or evil, or hanging out there, is always pretty much the same.  People suffer when people are selfish.  Whatever it is that a selfish person wants, whether it's power, riches, sex, or fame, their actions spring from the same small, closed, dark space inside them.  Unhappy characters are drearily predictable.  You know they'll always choose the path that leads to that same dark, boring hollow in themselves.  And really, don't all small, closed, dark hollows look the same?
        By contrast, the really interesting question in life is "How do you get to Happy?"  Or, to put it another way, "How do you hold on to Good?"  Because everyone gets to true happiness in his own way.  Happiness looks different to different people and there are many paths to reach it.  There are also many potential traps and detours and misdirections, so that which route any given person ends up taking is the very definition of her character.  What, out of everything in the universe beyond his own self, is important to someone?  Turning outward gives infinite possibilities, but turning inward has only one.  Why does someone choose to take the more difficult path instead of the selfish one?  How does someone resist the lures of selfishness?  What does she have to overcome to get to genuine happiness?  How will he hold onto goodness in a desperate world?  These are the really interesting questions, and the myriad different answers to these questions are what is original in each new story.
        I'm not saying Tolstoy couldn't write a compelling novel, but when it comes to this famous quotation I believe he had it dead wrong.  Unhappy families are interesting only to the extent that someone works to break out of the unhappiness by searching for a better path.  But every happy family gets to happiness in its own way, and every happy person holds on to goodness through his own unique story.  Those are the stories that pique my curiosity, draw me in, and ultimately satisfy me. What about you?

[Picture: Intertwined, rubber block print by AEGN, 2003 (sold out).]

July 12, 2011

Terry Winters: Printed Works

        Here's another artist I offer by way of variety and interest.  To quote the blurb from a 2001-2002 exhibition of his prints at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, "Born in 1949, the American artist Terry Winters is primarily known for his painting and drawings.  He is also, however, one of the most distinguished printmakers working today."
        To my mind, one of the more interesting of his series is called Graphic Primitives, and was done in 1998.  These woodcuts are printed with white (or possibly grey?) ink on dark paper, so that, unlike most relief prints, what Winters has carved are the lines that appear black in the prints.  My son P remarks, "They just look like scribbles to me," and so they do.  However, I think when the pieces are all grouped together there's a certain pleasing pattern to them, like frost on a windowpane.
        It seems to me, looking at the variety of his prints (which you can do at the collections of the Colby Museum of Art and the Met) that Winters must be a lot more interested in drawing than in printing.  He clearly favors print techniques that allow him essentially to draw, and then have his drawings reproduced.  He doesn't do the actual printing himself, but has it done by professional print workshops.  In the Graphic Primitives series he uses "backwards" ink and paper so that he can carve the lines he wants, and I think he's used a different technique to the same effect in this piece, from his
Shadowgraphs series.  This piece is labelled as a wood engraving, which normally would indicate a relief print.  It looks to me, however, as if it must have been printed as an intaglio plate.  That is, the ink is forced into the carved lines and wiped away from the rest of the plate, so that what prints is what is carved, not what is left behind.
        In any case, although I'll probably never number among Winters's biggest fans, these pieces caught my eye, and I thought a little something different would keep us all on our toes!

[Pictures: Graphic Primitives, portfolio of 9 woodcuts by Terry Winters, 1998 (image from Barbara Krakow Gallery);
Graphic Primitives, 4, woodcut by T. Winters, 1998;
Shadowgraphs, 2, wood engraving by T. Winters, 2002.]

PS.  Until July 15, lulu.com, which prints many of my books, is offering a 20% off coupon on everything.  Now's the time to buy my books for yourself and as gifts for everyone you know!   ;)

July 8, 2011

The Golden Age of Children's Book Illustrators

        Many people call the period between around 1850 to 1930 the Golden Age of children's books illustrators.  (There's a lot of variation in those dates, depending whose opinion you consult, but you get the general time frame.)  This was also a period of great technological change in the printing of illustrations, from hand coloring of wood block printing to full-color lithography.  The interesting thing (to me, anyway!) is how many of these books that truly began the modern era of children's literature were illustrated in a manner remarkably similar to that used for the previous four hundred years: artists drew black line pictures, carvers converted those designs into wood blocks, and printers produced the pages of the books.  Perhaps the only thing that had really changed radically from the time of the Nuremburg Chronicle was the insistence on originality, and the perception of the artist's equal importance in the making of a successful and beloved book.
        I say that originality was valued, but if one didn't have original talent, one could still happily steal it.  This was especially the case between the USA and Britain, where copyright laws didn't cross the ocean.  US publishers regularly printed knock-offs of British books gleefully and with impunity.  My mother has an 1881 book that calls itself "Under the Window after Kate Greenaway."  It has numerous small changes from the 1879 original -- and lower-quality printing.  The US had lower quality printing in general, and in 1865 the first edition of Alice in Wonderland, which illustrator Sir John Tenniel rejected as not up to his standards, was sold in the US, while a better version was quickly printed up for the British market.  (Here, a piece by Tenniel (1820-1914) shows Alice, the Gryphon, and the Mock Turtle.)
        There tended to be a lot of back-and-forth between the artists, the carvers, and the publishers, as the artists tried to make sure that their vision was being accurately reproduced in the wood blocks.  Apparently those artists like Walter Crane (1845-1915) who had some training in making woodcuts or wood engravings themselves, and who understood what the medium could do, were most successful in their designs.  Crane had a good relationship with his engraver and printer, Edmund Evans.  There's an interesting description of their process for color prints at the University
of Washington Digital Collections.  (Plus you can see lots more illustrations there, too.)
        Ernest Shepard (1879-1976) is best known for his illustrations of Winnie-the-Pooh and other books by A.A. Milne, and secondly for his illustrations of Kenneth Grahame's The Wind in the Willows.  In both of these he does a lovely job of giving all his creatures an endearing blend of innocence and spunk.  But although some people classify those two great works as fantasy, I really don't, so for my example of Shepard's work I give you instead a real fantasy scene from Grahame's The Reluctant Dragon.
        Arthur Rackham (1867-1939) has a wonderfully dreamlike style and is best loved for his illustrations colored with a technique of transparent washes that he developed himself -- very far from the style of block printing!  These illustrations could not be reproduced with relief printing, although they are perfectly suited to fantasy.  (They appeared in books only after the invention of color lithography.)  Of course Rackham also did plenty of black-and-white illustrations, and I have to include one of his famous silhouette illustrations, which have such kinship with the plain
black and white of block prints.
        I feel in duty bound to include W.W. Denslow (1856-1915) for his fame as the illustrator of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, but I have to admit I never cared much for his style.  I much prefer the work of his successor as Oz illustrator, John R. Neill (1877-1943.)  It is funny, though, that Neill's work was considered to be a trendy modernization over Denslow's!  Denslow seems much more modern (if not necessarily more attractive) now.
        It isn't for nothing that these illustrators remain beloved.  They have inspired generations of artists, fantasy-lovers, children, and of course, me!

[Pictures:  "Thus the Princess cometh forth," pen and ink by Howard Pyle, from The Wonder Clock by Howard Pyle, 1887;
     "Alice, the Gryphon, and the Mock Turtle," pen and ink by John Tenniel, from Alice's Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll, 1865;
     "Rumpelstiltskin," pen and ink by Walter Crane, from Household Stories from the Collection of the Brothers Grimm translated by Lucy Crane, 1882;
     "Now you're tickling, George," pen and ink by Ernest Shepard, from The Reluctant Dragon by Kenneth Grahame, 1939;
     "Cinderella working," silhouette (whether cut paper or pen and ink I don't know) by Arthur Rackham, from Cinderella retold by C.S. Evans, 1919;
     "The Wicked Witch of the West," pen and ink by W.W. Denslow, from The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum, 1900;
     "The copper man walked out of the rocky cavern (Dorothy, Tik-tok, and Billina)," pen and ink by John R. Neill, from Ozma of Oz by L. Frank Baum, 1907.]

July 5, 2011

"House Fear"

        When I think of the poetry of Robert Frost (1874-1963), fantasy is not what springs to mind.  Indeed, Frost is known for realism, for comfortable colloquialism, for ordinary moments in ordinary lives.  Yet he wrote a number of poems involving the
supernatural, particularly ghosts.  These include "The Ghost House," "The Fear," "The Lockless Door," and one I particularly like, "House Fear," published in 1921.  With so few words, and such ordinary ones, Frost has evoked what I can picture as a moment of thinness between worlds, a twilight between real life and all the things we don't understand.

     House Fear
Always - I tell you this they learned -
Always at night when they returned
To the lonely house from far away
To lamps unlighted and fire gone gray,
They learned to rattle the lock and key
To give whatever might chance to be
Warning and time to be off in flight:
And preferring the out- to the in-door night,
They learned to leave the house-door wide
Until they had lit the lamp inside.

        I think a block print could make a dramatic illustration of this, just black and white, the lit and unlit worlds.  Perhaps Wanda Gág could have done it best with her brooding arcs of shadow.  This isn't a scene of horror with anything so gothic as grinning skulls or rattling chains.  It is rather a perfect picture of simple and subtle uneasiness.  The unnamed people involved react as they would to any troubling shadow in their lives: it's wiser to take certain precautions.  All will be well as long as we uphold the truce with the things beyond our knowledge.

[Picture: Silent Night, wood block print by AEGN, 1998 (sold out).]