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“Children are never as disturbed as grown-ups by contemporary arts, a streamlined plane, or a gallery of modern painting,” artist Leonard Weisgard asserted when he spoke in San Francisco in 1947 as he accepted the Caldecott Medal, the top honor for children’s picture books, for his illustrations in “The Little Island.” “They see an image with real meaning and vitality and sometimes with incongruous humor giving it a sharper reality.”
"The Little Island" is a poetic idyll on a Maine island as the seasons turn. Weisgard’s collaborator on the book was credited as Golden MacDonald. Which was actually a pen name (taken from a Maine lobsterman pal) of author Margaret Wise Brown. She was in the middle of writing a series of picture books that would become beloved classics: “The Runaway Bunny” (1942), “Goodnight Moon” (1947), “The Color Kittens” (1949). Weisgard didn’t illustrate those books and their spectacular success has overshadowed the fact that he was the legendary children’s book author’s most extensive collaborator. He worked on more than 20 books with her, a third of her output during her too-short life.
Brown and Weisgard shared an interest in combining modernist aesthetics with progressive educational ideas. “Historically, he was the leading illustrator in America to introduce the spirit of modernism to children’s book art,” says Leonard Marcus, perhaps the foremost scholar of children’s books in the United States and the curator of “Magician of the Modern: The Art of Leonard Weisgard” at The Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art in Amherst through June 5.
“His art was not modern for the sake of modern,” Marcus says. It saw modernism as a better, deeper way of communicating. “Art could be a kind of very distilled visual language that could be understood by just about anyone, from a 2-year-old to an illiterate peasant in Russia.”
Inventing A New Genre Of Children’s Books
Weisgard (1916-2000) met Brown in her New York office in 1938. Then an editor for the publisher William R. Scott, Brown had recruited the star modernist writer Gertrude Stein to author a picture book for the firm. And Weisgard was one of the artists being considered to draw the pictures.
Brown, herself an up-and-coming author who’d had her first children’s book published the year before, “was very interested in experimental uses of language,” Marcus says, “and how those experiments had relevance in books for children.” She was deeply influenced by her studies of early childhood education at New York’s progressive Bank Street School, which was founded by Lucy Sprague Mitchell to develop and promote a more child-centered form of teaching—and children’s literature. Mitchell had prodded Scott into publishing kids books that incorporated questions to answer, pictures to spot and other sorts of “learning by doing.”
Weisgard, too, sought to be near the creative experiments of the early 20th century. As a teenager, he studied with modern dance pioneer Martha Graham. But a leg injury pushed him into visual art instead. He published illustrations in Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar, Good Housekeeping and, at age 21, did his first cover artwork for The New Yorker.
Ultimately, Weisgard was passed over for the Stein collaboration, but Brown was keen to work with him herself. She quickly drafted a manuscript that would become “The Noisy Book,” their first collaboration. “I submitted it” to William R. Scott, she quipped, “and we accepted it.”
The 1939 book told the story of a dog exploring the sounds of the world—“Men hammering/ Bang bang bang … / Bzzzzzzz bzzzzzz / a bee … Horses’ hoofs / Clop clop Clop clop / Flippity flap flap flap / an awning in the wind.”
“The voice of that book is really similar to the voice of Gertrude Stein,” Marcus says. “Stein has that way of sounding like she’s talking to you.”
At the beginning of the 20th century, librarians began supporting a new branch of literature for children—but children roughly ages 6 and older. “Margaret Wise Brown was looking at 2-year-olds,” Marcus says.
“She was probably the best person doing what she was doing in her generation. She practically invented her genre—picture books for very young children. That hadn’t existed before she began,” Marcus says. “This whole body of literature for very young children, including board books, including books with very few words that involves a kind of repetition or game playing, that all comes out of her.”
Weisgard paralleled Brown’s avant-garde language with flat, graphic shapes in primary colors that had echoes of the cubism of Stuart Davis and the biomorphic surrealist abstractions of Joan Miró.
“We experimented with color for sound and shapes for emotion, letting the child bring the magic of movement,” Weisgard recalled a decade later in his Caldecott speech. “So that a radiator would be placed in a shape suggested by the hissing noise it makes, and the round sound of a ticking clock would put it into a circle.”
In her landmark 1976 history “American Picturebooks from Noah’s Ark to The Beast Within,” the critic Barbara Bader would declare: “’The Noisy Book’ is modern, alive and American — bold playful cacophonous American.”
‘Not Enough Wildflowers In Children’s Books’
“The Noisy Book” became a hit, spawning a Brown-Weisgard series: “The Quiet Noisy Book,” “The Seashore Noisy Book,” “The Country Noisy Book” and so on. Brown would lend her signature voice—poetic, dreamy—to other collaborations, like their jaunty 1944 traffic light tale “Red Light, Green Light” and their meditative 1949 text “The Important Book” (“The important thing / about grass is that it is green. / It grows, and is tender, / with a sweet grassy smell. / But the important thing about grass / is that it is green.”).
The most famous Brown-Weisgard collaborations are “The Golden Egg Book” (1947), about a cute bunny waiting for a duck’s egg to hatch, and “The Golden Bunny” (1949). They were published by Golden Books, which had pioneered a successful method of cheaply and widely distributing picture books. So the lush, oversized “Egg” and “Bunny” books reached millions of young readers.
“The Golden Egg Book,” Brown said in 1947, was inspired by her feeling “that there were not enough wildflowers in children’s books.” She invited Weisgard up from Connecticut (where he’d moved from Manhattan) to her summer cottage on the island of Vinalhaven, Maine, to sketch such wildflowers as well as weeds and bugs. A smaller, rocky isle in Penobscot Bay, visible from her home, inspired “The Little Island.”
“I’ve watched the mists blow in and hide the little island, sometimes leaving only the pine treetops exposed, hanging in space. I rowed to and from the little island with the seals spawning below the surface of the water,” Weisgard recalled in his Caldecott acceptance speech. “Everything is fast and fleeting around the little island; the sea is never still, the clouds fly quickly into different shapes, the colors change from sunlight to mistlight, the trees are moving and the birds are always flying and screaming. This active little island was too elusive for me to catch in its own time. It was easier to put as much of it as I could wherever it is you store such things, take it home to Connecticut, and remember it all in my own time.”
“The Little Island” (1946) and “Rain Drop Splash” (1946)—which was written by Alvin Tresselt and earned Weisgard a runner-up position for the Caldecott behind the medal he won for “The Little Island”—showed the illustrator moving toward more fully, sensuously rendered paintings of gulls and deer, windswept shores, placid forests and bustling harbors. That style reached its pinnacle in the lavish Golden Books. Bader would praise the “Egg Book” as “the orchid, or better perhaps the Easter bonnet—the sudden splurge of beauty-for-beauty’s sake.” Though she also sniffed that that it’s “vulnerable to criticism” for being too “pretty-pretty.”
Weisgard’s style would shift from project to project over the decades. The illustrations in his 1956 book “Mr. Peaceable Paints” recall the 19th century American folk painter Edward Hicks as well as the American folk art Weisgard liked to collect. A series of 1960s historical primers, ranging from “The Beginnings of Cities” to “The Story of American Coins,” seems to have left him constricted or uninspired. But during those years, he also produced delicate, realistic line drawings and some books that evoke classic Chinese ink and brush art.
“Adamantly opposed to the Vietnam War,” Marcus reports, Weisgard left the United States for Denmark, settling outside Copenhagen in 1970. He pretty much gave up children's book illustration by the middle of that decade. Marcus found him there in 1982, while researching a biography of Brown.
Brown had died at age 42 from an embolism after routine surgery in 1952. She left behind many manuscripts that have subsequently been published, and her fame continues to grow. Weisgard has been left more obscure.
Weisgard, like Brown, placed his faith in a new modern style of children’s picture book, committed — particularly in his early, graphic works — to “the idea that he was leaving more to the child’s imagination,” Marcus says. “He wanted children to think they were living in an exciting time. There’s always a sense of movement, always they’re leaning forward.”