March 30, 2012

Words of the Month - Sneaky Critters

        Animals are a rich field for simile and metaphor, so it's natural that we have a huge number of words that use animal names to describe something else.  There's no mystery in calling someone a pig or saying you feel sheepish.  But English does have some words where the animals seem to have sneaked in where they didn't belong.  What's the dog doing in the dogwood tree?  This month I have for you a handful of words that have ended up with animal names in them just by coincidence.  We'll start with fraudulent felines and go on from there...
        The Greek prefix kata- (meaning "down, against, or back") has provided English with a large collection of words with cats in them, such as catastrophe and catatonic.  But I'm not counting those words, because it doesn't take much reflection to know that these cats are no proper felines.  But some words look like their cats might be a little more plausible.
catamaran - sailboat with a double hull
     You can also sail a catboat, and sailors might get whipped with the cat-o'-nine-tails, so clearly cats abound on the high seas.  But while the cat-o'-nine-tails has a perfectly straightforward metaphorical origin, the etymology of the cat in catboat seems to be uncertain, and the cat in catamaran is definitely no cat at all.  The word
entered English around 1690-1700 from Tamil katta-maram meaning "tied wood."

catty-corner(ed) or kitty-corner(ed) - diagonal
     These are both variants of the original catercornered, which is either from a Germanic root meaning "crooked" or the French root for "four."  Either way, no cats were involved until folk etymology turned the cater into catty around 1830-40.  By 1885-90 the kitty variant was in use, completing the feline infiltration.

crab apple - the wild apple tree or its fruit
       There are two possibilities for this one, too.  The crab in crab apple might come from the same root as the crustacean, the crabbed meaning "crooked, disagreeable"
applying equally to a crab's crooked walk or a crab apple's disagreeable flavor.  (By the way, the word crab apple entered English around 1710-15, but calling the fruit just plain crab is a century older.)  And that lends more credence to the entirely non-animal theory of this crab's etymology.  It might derive instead from an ancient Norse word for the fruit, cognate with Scottish scrab and Swedish skrabba.  In which case the crab really has no business up in that tree among the apple blossoms.

dogwood - small ornamental tree of the genus Cornus
     Here's yet another uncertain etymology.  (Yes, we have a lot of uncertainty in etymology!)  Some theorize that the tree is named for its fruit, which was called dogberry (the tree was called dog-tree before it was called dogwood) because it's not fit for human consumption.  But the animal-free theory is that the first element was originally dag meaning "to pierce or stab" (as in dagger) because the wood of the tree was used for making skewers.  Another name for the tree was actually skewer-wood.  So while the dog might belong under the tree eating those nasty berries, it might actually have crept into the tree disguised as a skewer.

quack (doctor) - fraudulent pretender to medical skill; charlatan
     Here we have a word wherein the sneaky duck is never actually named, but has given itself away because it couldn't keep its bill shut.  Our dishonest quack dates from around 1620-30 and is an abbreviation of quacksalver.  Quacksalver arrived in English in the 1570s from the Dutch kwakzalver meaning "hawker of salve."  And the Dutch word meaning "hawker" derived in turn from its earlier meaning "to boast," or "to croak."  So the duck in quack doctor is just a charlatan, but the thing that charlatans and ducks have in common is that they can both make a lot of unpleasant noise.

[Pictures: Three Little Kittens, rubber block print by AEGN, 2007;
Hermit Crab, rubber block print by AEGN, 2006.]

March 27, 2012

Another Woodcut Abecedary

        I've made another fun ABC discovery.  This is An Odd Bestiary: Or, a Compendium of Instructive and Entertaining Descriptions of Animals, Culled from Five Centuries of Travelers' Accounts, Natural Histories, Zoologies, &c. by Authors Famous and Obscure, Arranged as an Abecedary.  You might think that after that full disclosure of a title I wouldn't need to tell you anything more about this book, and indeed the title is pretty accurate (except that I'm not sure I would have called it particularly "Odd.")  But it manages to include a whole host of my favorite things all bound into one: block prints, ABC, animals, history, and even a few mythical beasts to add a fun surprise to the collection of remarkable real creatures.
        The artist, Alan James Robinson, has included two portraits of each animal.  The first is a line drawing, and the second a wood engraving.  Each animal is also given two quotations, one long and one short.  These quotations are a lot of fun, spanning the travels of John Mandeville to the travels of Charles Darwin.  They illuminate the way people have described and interpreted animals that were strange and new to them, from the Middle Ages to the rise of modern science.  The selected animals range from beasts that seem fairly straightforward to us, to oddities of nature, to wholly mythical beasts -- but all of them seemed equally bizarre and wondrous to the early naturalists whose descriptions are quoted.
        But of course it's the block prints that earn this book a proud place on this blog. Robinson's woodcut style is dense with lines of texture.  Feathers, fur, wrinkles and all sorts of shading are shown with delicate lines of white in the black.  The animals are generally isolated so that nothing distracts from the portrait.  Some of them have less contrast than I like, but in my favorites all that texture and detail contribute to giving the animals a real sense of individuality.  They have a delightful gleam of expression in their eyes.

[Pictures: Jerboa, woodcut by Alan James Robinson, 1982;
Walrus, woodcut by Robinson, 1982;
Flying fish, woodcut by Robinson, 1982;
Ostrich, woodcut by Robinson, 1982.
All images scanned from An Odd Bestiary, designed and illustrated by Alan James Robinson, text compiled and annotated by Laurie Block; University of Illinois Press edition, 1986.]

March 23, 2012

Boy Books vs Girl Books

        I was going to do a post on feminist fantasy, it being March and Women's History Month and all… but along the way I found myself off on this tangential rant…
        So, the world of juvenile literature is divided into Boy Books and Girl Books.  Certain books are targeted to the stereotypical interests of girls, while others are aimed at the stereotypical interests of boys.  That's inevitable and probably even a good thing, because of course not everyone is interested in the same things, and any child (as I was) with no interest in either of those genres (shopping vs survival in the woods? romance vs sports?  Ack!) doesn't have to read them.  What I find very much stranger, stupider, and more troubling is that all juvenile books seem to have to be separated by the sex of the intended reader.  And if a book appeals equally to both, it's got "cross-over appeal," instead of just being, well… just a good book.
        There are the irritable accusations that girls are expected to read Boy Books, but boys can't possibly be expected to read Girl Books… There are the articles about the disproportionate amount of juvenile fantasy being written by and for girls… which, when combined with the fact that (as Everyone Knows) Boys are Reluctant Readers, means that boys are apparently being left with nothing they could possibly enjoy…  There are the cover designs that tell readers clearly what they should and should not pick up (The rules: if there's a girl on the cover, boys should skip right over it.  If there's a boy on the cover, a girl can be shown in the background to indicate that girls may also read this one, and if it's really meant to be "cross-over," the cover must be carefully designed to show neither boys nor girls in close-up…  I've joked about giving a whole new meaning to the idea of boys covering their reading material in brown paper to hide the girly picture on the cover…)
        But none of this really seems to be accurate to my own experience as a reader or as a mother of two readers, one boy and one girl.  To begin with, it is absolutely true that as a girl I liked to read about strong female characters in books - not necessarily always, but definitely a lot.  But as I watch my children read, and see their reactions to the books we read together, I don't see either of them having any reluctance to embrace characters of either sex.  For example, we all enjoyed
     The Facttracker, by Jason Eaton, with the main character a boy
     Howl's Moving Castle, by Diana Wynne Jones, with the main character a girl
     The Phantom Tollbooth, by Norton Juster, with the main character a boy
     Tuesdays at the Castle, by Jessica Day George, with the main character a girl
        T and P are still only nine, and perhaps as they get towards the teenage years they'll start to insist on Girl Books and Boy Books… but what I see as a huge trend these days is books featuring at least one each of male and female main characters.  Among the fantasy books that both P and T have recently read that both have been into are
     Harry Potter series, by J.K. Rowling, featuring a boy and 1 boy and 1 girl sidekicks
     Fablehaven series, by Brandon Mull, featuring a sister and brother
     The Cabinet of Wonders series, by Marie Rutkoski, featuring a girl and 2 boy sidekicks (plus a male tin spider)
     The Familiars series, by Epstein and Jacobson, featuring a male cat and 1 female and 1 male sidekicks
     So You Want to Be a Wizard by Diane Duane, featuring a girl and 1 boy sidekick
        There are tons more examples, of course, and you'll notice that while there are usually more boys than girls, there is always at least one of each.  In fact, these boy/girl friendships occur in fiction at rates wildly exceeding reality.  (I certainly didn't have boy friends as a kid, and while P and T are often happy to play with each other's friends, I think that's just a twin thing.  Their own friends divide strictly along gender lines.)  In short, it looks like all these books with both male and female main characters exist for the very simple goal of "cross-over appeal."  But that's not a bad thing.  Indeed, it's a great thing.  First of all, why on earth shouldn't boys and girls be friends?  And why shouldn't boys and girls enjoy the same books?  Why wouldn't you expect all kinds of kids to enjoy reading about the heroism of people like themselves? (Hence the much-needed recent rise in books about characters of all different ethnicities and backgrounds, too.)  And simultaneously, why wouldn't you expect all kinds of kids to enjoy reading about the heroism of people unlike themselves? (Hence the much-needed recent rise in books about characters of all different ethnicities and backgrounds…)
        I think we aren't giving children the credit they deserve.  Girls don't need their stereotypical girly traits catered to in order to get them to enjoy a book.  They don't need pink covers, shopping, and crushes on Prince Charming to appreciate a story.  And boys don't need their stereotypically boyish traits catered to in order to get them to enjoy a book.  They can happily read about girls as well as boys.  They can enjoy characters with thoughts and feelings.  They can appreciate more than just fart jokes.  I'm afraid we do all our children a serious disservice when we (that is, the publishing industry, teachers, librarians, parents… all of us) teach them that some books are only okay for boys and others are only okay for girls.  Do we steer boys away from Tuesdays at the Castle because it features a girl in a dress on the cover? or girls away from The Sea of Trolls by Nancy Farmer because "it's a boy book?"  Well, quit it, okay?
        The good news is that I think fantasy books are much more likely than most other genres to be accepted as appealing to both girls and boys.  (Yes, see, once again, How Juvenile Fantasy will Save the Earth.)  Sure, each child has his or her own taste.  Each child will love some books and not others.  But let's strive to write, market, and read books based on personal enjoyment, not stereotypes.

[Pictures: Story Time, rubber block print by AEGN, 2003 (sold out);
photo of T and P, by AEGN, 2011.]

March 20, 2012


        Collagraph (also sometimes spelled collograph) is an entirely different method of making a relief print without carving.  Like all relief prints, the raised areas of the printing block will be inked and produce the design when pressed onto paper.  However, for a collagraph the block is made with an additive process instead of the subtractive carving process of linoleum, wood, and rubber block prints.  In essence, a collagraph is a collage that's inked and printed.
        The collage can be assembled using anything that will create differences in depth - variations in texture are also uniquely possible with this technique.  You can use cardboard, string, bubble wrap, sandpaper, grasses, textured plastics, screen, even lines of glue alone.  My fish includes crumpled tissue paper for the water, pieces of leaf for the fins, and a washer for the eye.  The possibilities are almost endless, although the one limit is that anything you use needs to be waterproof enough to withstand the inking and sturdy enough to withstand the rolling and pressing.  Many collagraphs end up with pretty small print runs for just
that reason - they tend not to be nearly as long-lasting as a traditional linoleum block, let alone a woodcut.  (Although there's no reason one couldn't make a collagraph from welded scraps of steel and have it last forever.)
        With my fish block, I only managed to get four pulls before my block started to lose its integrity.  The pieces of dried leaf and the thin bits of string were the first to start coming unglued, and that was the end of that block.  Using more waterproof materials and a more waterproof glue would no doubt have made it more durable, but on the whole I tend to enjoy the experimental feel of the technique, almost more like monoprinting than block printing.
        The technique is simple.  Start with a sturdy base - wood, strong cardboard, plastic… anything flat and glue-able.  Then build up your printing image, keeping in mind that you have to think about which surfaces will catch the ink, not what the surfaces look like.  For example, if you add a lovely textured shape and then glue something higher on top of it, that first texture will no longer be the area that receives the ink.  A normal printing block has essentially two levels: cut and uncut.  A collagraph can have more than that
because ink will catch a lower area if there's nothing too high nearby, but don't go building your designs with six and seven different layers or they won't all end up printing.  A very easy technique that works well for young children is to draw a design on a piece of cardboard, then simply run a nice thick trail of white glue over all the lines.  But however simple or complicated your collage, be sure that your glue has a chance to dry thoroughly before you try inking.  Impatience here could ruin everything!
        As for the inking, you can try rolling with a brayer, but that will deposit ink only on the very highest layers, as shown in this very faint frog.  To get more color I actually pounced the ink on.  It might work to use a stencil brush or something like that.  But the idea is to get the ink pretty much everywhere, because it will still transfer onto the paper only from the higher areas.  Compare with the more detailed frog.
        So that's my latest experiment in collagraphy.  (For me, all collagraphs are always experimental.)  Nothing too outrageous in the materials.  The main body of the frog is mat board, cut and arranged for differences in height between the different areas of leg, body, etc.  The most interesting materials are a milkweed seed for the nostril and dried hydrangea blossoms.  They're so delicate I was afraid they wouldn't show up, but their texture is so beautiful I had to try.  I think he's pretty charming.

[Pictures: Star, collagraph by AEGN, 1997;
Strange Fish I, collagraph by AEGN, 1997 (sold out);
photos of collagraph process by AEGN, 2012;
Bullfrog, collagraph by AEGN, 2012.]

March 16, 2012

In Search of the Wild Ape-Leprechauns of Borneo

A Brief Account of an Unprecedented Cryptozoological Research Expedition With Conclusive Results
Excerpted from a Paper by Professor Pandareus von Grundenstein

        We humans have an enduring fascination with the idea that there may be outsized wild versions of ourselves striding through the remote wilderness clad only in matted fur and mystery.  Cryptozoologists have long searched for evidence of huge, hairy ape-men such as Yeti, Sasquatch, and the notoriously malodorous Skunk Ape, and yet hard scientific evidence for the existence of such giant wild-men has been elusive.  In the face of much eye-rolling from the established scientific community, cryptozoologists have a tendency to mutter consoling factoids about coelacanths and okapis.  Alas, such analogies fail to convince the skeptics.  What we need, if we wish to place the search for our hairy wild hominid relatives on a sound scientific basis, is not far-fetched tales and wild-goose chases after every tuft of fur in every Tibetan monastery.  No, what is needed, and what my research team has at last provided, is a solidly factual study of a closely analogous case, proving once and for all that long-lost giant hairy ape-versions of humanoids do indeed exist.
Fig. 1: The O'Hooligan photograph, a hoax.
        In order to explain the analogy between the case studied by my team and the case of our own semi-human relative Bigfoot, I shall begin with the history.  At the time of the Enlightenment during the eighteenth century in Europe, educated understanding shifted from a superstitious acceptance towards what we know today as the scientific method and a rigorous reliance on observable phenomena.  It was at this time that the native Irish little people, the hominid species known as Tuatha luchorpan, or leprechauns, came to view their own over-sized, hairy, wild relatives as mythological.  Ancient tales of such creatures were dismissed as there existed at that time no hard evidence to support them.
        It was not until the 1970’s, as the ability of leprechauns to mount expeditions to more remote areas increased, that new reports of huge, ginger-whiskered wild ape-leprechauns began to surface.  The famous “O’Hooligan photograph” [Fig. 1] set the leprechaun media on fire, and although Dr Seamus O’Seamus satisfied the scientific community that those photos were the product of a hoax, still the imagination of the leprechaun public was enflamed.  These photographs were followed by others, including the controversial “O’Shillelagh video,” and, perhaps most famous, the intriguing photographs of the intrepid leprechaun explorer Paddy O’Finnegas.
        So it continued, as it does still among humans today, where books and television programs endlessly speculate about the potential existence of wild humanoid relatives, yet are endlessly inconclusive.  For the leprechauns, however, this situation began to change in April 2010 when Professor Eóghan O’Gill of Burren University received some samples of long ginger hair collected from the supposed haunts of the Wild Ape-Leprechauns of Borneo.  It was then that he contacted me to join a team to travel to Borneo and search for conclusive evidence.  Because there are no leprechaun populations in Indonesia, Malaysia or Brunei, I was recruited as human liaison between the leprechaun team and the human populations with whom we would be working.
        Immediately upon arrival we received our first tantalizing evidence: the Malaysian guides who met us remarked that the leprechauns in our team looked “just like miniature forest people dressed up in silly suits.”  We asked them at once if they could lead us to these “forest people.”
        We set up a base camp in the jungle outside Sandakan, and prepared our search.  According to our guides, the forest men could be lured with all kinds of fruit, and more significantly, boiled potatoes and soda bread.  We had no idea what to expect after so many cryptozoological expeditions have ended inconclusively.  We tried to brace ourselves for disappointment.  And yet our guides seemed confident.
        “No, seriously,” our lead guide told us, “We’ve all seen these guys a hundred times.  And haven’t you leprechauns ever been to a major zoo?”  But nothing could have prepared us for the thrill of our first sighting.  Before dawn we gathered in the blinds, scientific instruments at the ready.  It wasn’t long before Professor O’Gill exclaimed “B’gorrah!  What’s that?”
        Peering eagerly through the jungle growth, we saw a humanoid creature climbing through the branches not thirty metres away.  Compared to an ordinary leprechaun it was huge, towering nearly as tall as a human’s shoulder, but its powerful build and bandy legs would have made it look perfectly natural at a traditional cobbler’s bench.  Red hair covered its entire body, and as it came closer to investigate the soda bread, we glimpsed a twinkle in its eye that dispelled any remaining doubt.  This could be nothing other than a giant ape-leprechaun.
        Other sightings followed the first, and we were able not only to photograph and record behavioral data, but also to collect DNA samples to be analyzed back at Burren University.  It was these samples that would confirm our incredible discovery, or leave us in the dark once again.  The leprechaun team could not hide their excitement, but until they received the results of the DNA analysis, no one could be sure.
Fig. 2: Sure and how could anyone doubt he's related to the leprechauns?
        In the meantime, we did our best to approach some of the bolder ape-leprechauns, and Professor O’Gill attempted to communicate with a flanged male who seemed especially curious about us.  Our guides had given him the name Patih, which Professor O’Gill has hypothesized must be a variant of the traditional leprechaun name Paddy.  Patih seemed unable to make the vocalizations required for the Irish Gaelic language, but he attended to Professor O’Gill’s conversation with an interest far beyond that of a mere wild beast.  When our expedition was nearing its conclusion, the team presented Patih with a traditional leprechaun style hat and vest, specially made to fit a giant ape-leprechaun. [Fig. 2] Patih used the hat to gather boiled potatoes, but wore the vest from that time on.
        Back at Burren University, I eagerly awaited the results of the analysis along with the other members of our team.  When all the data had been analyzed, we knew that this was one of cryptozoology’s watershed moments.  There were multiple clear indicators of common ancestry between Pongo pygmaeus: the “forest people” of Borneo, and the Tuatha luchorpan of Ireland.  In short, we had conclusively proven the existence of a giant hairy wild ape-version of a hominid, and this can mean only one thing.  If the giant wild ape-leprechauns are not mythical but in fact have been living all this time hidden from leprechaun scientists in the remote jungles of Southeast Asia, there can be no doubt that giant wild ape-men could also exist in some remote area where human scientists have yet to find them.

[Pictures: manipulated photo by Rory O'Hooligan, 1973;
completely authentic photo by Tomás O'Grandeigh, 2010.]

March 13, 2012

Four Book Covers

        In 2009 British publisher Faber & Faber issued a set of six books of poetry with newly designed covers featuring specially commissioned relief print art.  (I assume we owe thanks to the series's art director Miriam Rosenbloom for the most excellent idea of using black and white prints.)  I stumbled across one of the covers and loved it, and looked up all six.
        My favorite, I think, is Nick Morley's cover for W. B. Yeats, poems selected by Seamus Heaney.  The flowing lines, the clouds and water, wind and rain, the hills and birds and lonely buildings…  It's all wonderfully evocative of Ireland and of Yeats's poetry, which seems so often to come from a place of solitude looking out.  I think the use of separate boxes with separate scenes that still flow into each other is also very effective, and the sort of thing I would never think of doing.

        By contrast, Paul Catherall's cover for W. H. Auden, poems selected by John Fuller, has a completely different look and feel.  Instead of lines it's got geometric blocks of black and white, shapes that look almost abstract and yet resolve themselves into an industrial landscape.  Perfect for a poet struggling with the changes and challenges of modernity.

        Different again is Mark Hearld's linoleum block print for Ted Hughes, poems selected by Simon Armitage.  His fierce hawk filling the entire cover suggests Hughes's fascination with the visceral reality of the natural world.  Yet, like Hughes's best poems, Hearld's block print takes something brutal and makes it beautiful.

        I also really enjoy Joe McLaren's block print for John Betjeman, poems selected by Hugo Williams.  I love the train across the top, and how the book's title is enclosed in a fenced field.  I love the trees with their leaning white in black, contrasted with the geometry of the little town's architecture.  I love the truck, and the tiny bicycle, and the crooked gravestones…  I have to confess that I know nothing about the poetry of Betjeman, so I can't speak to whether or not
McLaren's captured its spirit.  But I will say that even though I know I shouldn't judge a book by its cover, this cover is enough to make me curious to go find some of Betjeman's poems now!

        You can go to the Faber & Faber site to see the other two books in the series, too: Clare Curtis's cover for T. S. Eliot and Peter Lawrence's cover for Sylvia Plath.  (That last is the only one I'm not at all fond of.  But then, I'm not very fond of Plath's poetry, either, so I guess it's fitting!)

[Pictures: linocut by Nick Morley, from W.B. Yeats, 2009;
linocut by Paul Catherall, from W.H. Auden, 2009;
linocut by Mark Hearld, from Ted Hughes, 2009;
block print by Joe McLaren, from John Betjeman, 2009.]

March 9, 2012

Three Creatures that Never Were

        As foreshadowed in a post a few weeks ago, here are three poems from Eric Carle's Dragons Dragons.  Each captures in its way not just a description of the mythical creature in question, but the way fantasy at its best makes us feel: that we can come to a place where there is mystery and wonder, and beauty even in danger, and where anything is possible.

As the sun
Is going down,
And shadows mix
With yellow sand,
He rises slowly,
Stretches, stands,
Wades into the Nile to wash
Mummy-dust and sand fleas off -
Licks heavy paws
With heavy tongue
Until the cool night air is gone.
While on Egyptian earth
He drops dry purrs,
Ground out like powdered rock.
                - Deborah Chandra (1991)

          He could not be captured,
          He could not be bought,
          His running was rhythm,
          His standing was thought;
          With one eye on sorrow,
          And one eye on mirth,
          He galloped in heaven
          And gambolled on earth
          And only the poet
          With wings to his brain
          Can mount him and ride him
          Without any rein,
          The stallion of heaven,
          The steed of the skies,
          The horse of the singer
          Who sings as he flies.
                          - Eleanor Farjeon, from The Children's Bells (1969)

        And my favorite, just a fragment…

        The Unicorn
Oh this is the animal that never was.
They hadn't seen one; but just the same, they loved
its graceful movement, the way it stood
looking at them calmly, with clear eyes…
                - Ranier Maria Rilke (1922, translation by Stephen Mitchell, 1982)
[Pictures: fragment of limestone relief from Persepolis, fourth century BCE (image from the British Museum);
Unicorn, mixed media collage by Eric Carle, from Eric Carle's Dragons Dragons, 1991.]
Poetry from Eric Carle's Dragons Dragons and other creatures that never were, compiled by Laura Whipple, Philomel Books, 1991.

March 6, 2012

Two Round Woodcuts

        Here are two woodcuts from the very beginning of the sixteenth century, both of a philosophical nature, and both designed in a circular form.  And both have lots of wonderful details that I'm really enjoying.
        The first depicts Adam and Eve.  It was originally made for a 1498 Bible and thereafter used for all subsequent editions by the same publisher.  What's so pleasing to me about this version of the Garden of Eden is how beautiful the garden really is.  The architectural fountain somehow doesn't seem to belong in a garden symbolic of the natural  state, but it's quite lovely.  I like all the plants and animals, too, the spotted creature in the foreground, the birds filling every space in the sky, the stag and unicorn, the leaves and flowers all across the ground…  But perhaps most interesting is the circular composition beneath the roots of a tree.  That design seems to emphasize the symbolic rather than literal importance of the story.  This isn't just about some disobedient people, it's about the very roots of life growing up into the present in all its richness.  And that break in the border at the top... was that a mistake where the blade slipped when the carver was clearing the white area on the tree trunk?  It could easily be, yet somehow it just serves to give one more opening where growth continues right out of the box that defines the story.
        The second print looks somewhat more "primitive" to me, despite its slightly
later date.  It dates from a 15o4 book called The Heart of Philosophy.  The outer circle depicts the signs of the zodiac, the next tier is seasonal scenes representing the year, and the middle shows a man and a woman, though their significance is beyond me.  But once again I like the telling details.  I can see plowing, harvesting, and threshing.  Everything is sparely depicted, but with nothing important left out.  (And although this image isn't big enough for me to see the details as well as I'd like, it looks to me like the Gemini are a girl and a boy, like my T and P.)

       Both these images come from the Library of Congress's on-line exhibition "A Heavenly Craft," and there you can read lots more details about the images and the books they come from.  (Scroll about halfway down the page to find these two, but feel free to dawdle on your way down, enjoying some of the other amazing block prints along the way.)

[Pictures: Adam and Eve in the Garden, woodcut probably designed by Antoine Vérard's "Chief Designer," 1498 (this imprint from a 1517 edition of the Bible);
Cycle of Life, woodcut from The Heart of Philosophy by Jean de la Garde, 1504 (this imprint from a 1515 edition).

March 2, 2012

Illustrations by Krommes

        Beth Krommes is an illustrator of children's books who works in scratchboard.  Although physically unlike carving wood or rubber blocks, the thought process of scratchboard, and the resultant image, have a lot in common with relief printing.  Both are subtractive, in that you work by removing the areas that are to be white and leaving behind the areas that are to be black.  Both media have that strong black and white, where shading is achieved not with grey but with crosshatching or other textures of white removed from black.  So scratchboard results in a look that appeals to me in much the same way block prints do.
        (Scratchboard, of course, doesn't leave you with a printable block for making multiples, but nowadays in the world of computer scanning and printing from jpgs, that's just fine for book illustration.  You need only one copy of the original image anyway.  For some more scratchboard illustration, check out a post on Mikhail Belomlinsky.)
        I'm featuring here illustrations from two books illustrated by Beth Krommes.  The first book is fantasy, and Krommes's illustrations are depictions of various magical people.  Although the tales these pieces illustrate do reveal the darker, more dangerous side of fairy folk, the illustrations are more sweet than otherworldly.  With the bright, rich watercolor over the scratchboard they evoke more delight than awe.  I like the way
Krommes provides lots of detail, sometimes whimsical, as in the image of the selkies in their underwater home, where, according to the story, they have human shape.  I also like that Krommes leaves us lots of black, especially in the castle under the starry night sky.  After all, black is one of the things the subtractive process of scratchboard and relief prints does best.
        The second book is especially rich in black.  The entire book is set at night, and these illustrations, too, have a fantastical element as the child in the verse is shown in a dreamlike nighttime flight on a bird's back.  I love this book, especially the nighttime scenery - both the bird's eye views of the town and the ant's eye view of the flowers.  I love that Krommes shows the glorious beauty of flowers without any color at all.
        But although I think this book, The House in the Night, is beautiful, it brings up an interesting side note.  P and T's school librarian runs a mock Caldecott project each year.  All the students in the school examine a number of picture books and rate them on the quality of the illustrations.  The librarian, Ms M, compiles the data and determines the recipient of the school's award.  She was mentioning to me how seldom the students end up awarding their top honor to the actual Caldecott winner.  In other words, the Caldecott award goes to the books the grown-up judges like best, not the one children like best.  When I saw The House in the Night in the school library and picked it up, Ms M told me that the year this book was awarded the real Caldecott Medal, only one child in the school had voted for it in the mock awards.  And to confirm this difference in taste, my daughter T says she really dislikes the book.  It's too dark and boring, says she.  (And this from the daughter of a block printer, who's had plenty of exposure to plain black and white pictures.)  Of course I could claim that T's taste just isn't sophisticated enough yet, and that eventually she'll come to appreciate the richness and beauty of
Krommes's illustrations…  And since I tend to agree with the Caldecott judges in their assessment of this book, I hardly want to say they're wrong…  But it's an interesting question to keep in mind: how much should adults be enforcing their own tastes on children in order to stretch and educate them, and how much should we be responding to their tastes and natural impulses?
         Whatever the answer, I can say at least that I like Krommes's illustrations, and the more black they have the more I like them!

[Pictures: "…song in the bird…" scratchboard and watercolor by Beth Krommes;
Hidden folk, scratchboard and watercolor by Krommes;
The Wedding Feast, scratchboard and watercolor by Krommes;
Selkies in their underwater world, scratchboard and watercolor by Krommes;
"Through the dark glows the moon," scratchboard and watercolor by Krommes;
"…all about the starry dark,"  scratchboard and watercolor by Krommes.
Pictures scanned from
The Hidden Folk: Stories of Fairies, Dwarves, Selkies, and Other Secret Beings, by Lise Lunge-Larsen, Houghton Mifflin Company, 2004;
The House in the Night, by Susan Marie Swanson, Houghton Mifflin Company, 2008.]