Visual arts Christopher Allen draws some conclusions about children’s book illustrations
Bunyips & Dragons: Australian Children’s Book Illustrations National Gallery of Victoria, until October 4.
Humans are very good at distinguishing minute differences of facial features and the slightest nuances of expression — skills that help parents and children recognise each other and communicate, and which allow us to live in communities with other people. But we really look very similar compared with the extraordinary diversity of morphology in the features of animals.
Perhaps this is one reason why we have long been fascinated by the idea that some of us look more like one animal or another: Giacomo della Porta, in the 16th century, produced a book on human physiognomy in which he showed how some men looked like bulls, others like birds, and so on. Better known are the physiognomic diagrams of Charles Le Brun, inspired by della Porta and produced for a lecture at the Academy of Painting in Paris in 1671.
Underlying Le Brun’s memorable images of the Eagle Man, Donkey Man or Camel Man is the deeper intuition that particular human beings are like animals in their natures: one is a fox, another a pig, another a cat. It is a powerful idea and a potentially dangerous one: it would be disobliging, to say the least, to draw attention to the fact that a prominent individual looked, and therefore probably was in character, like an ox or an ass.
A similar intuition about the affinity of human and animal natures explains the very ancient tradition of animal fables, which go back to the semi-legendary figure of Aesop in the 7th century BC, and have been told and retold by countless subsequent writers in many different languages. The most famous modern incarnation of the fables is in the work of Le Brun’s contemporary Jean de La Fontaine (1621-95). It is in his exquisitely simple yet refined French that we know, for example, the tales of the fox who flatters the crow, makes him sing and drop the cheese he was holding.
Another tells us that the powerful will always be right: a wolf blames a lamb for muddying the water he is drinking; the lamb respectfully points out that he is drinking downstream, so the wolf alleges another grievance, equally fallacious, and finally eats him anyway.
Here the wolf stands for greed and violence, but he has a different meaning in one of my favourite fables; a wolf and a dog meet and begin to compare notes on their respective lives. That of the dog — well-fed, warm, looked after — seems more and more enviable to the wolf until he notices that the dog’s coat is worn around his neck. What’s that, he asks. Nothing, the dog replies, just where my master puts on my collar. A collar? No thank you, the wolf says, I’ll stick to my own life, hard and precarious, but free.
Stories, as we can see from Christ’s parables, lodge in the human mind far more effectively than sermons and moral lessons. They correspond to our natural way of thinking, reconfiguring the elements of common experience into compact and memorable form.
But there is another factor that contributes to a really effective story, and that is a deliber- ate distance from the everyday. The wolf is more readily an emblem of ravening cruelty or alternatively of stubborn independence because it is an animal rather than a man. In the same way, a filmmaker may find that certain ideas about our society and its moral problems are more effectively evoked in a period setting or a science-fiction alternative world.
There was a time when educational theory was obsessed with the idea of making the literature taught to children in schools more accessible or, in the inevitable buzz word, relevant. The assumption was that children can’t understand the world of Romeo and Juliet and would be more at home with a novel about suburban families struggling to make ends meet, with a single parent and rebellious teenagers.
Actually it turned out that children were bored stiff by relevant novels and really wanted to read JK Rowling, CS Lewis, Philip Pullman or such less well-known authors as Caroline Lawrence ( The Roman Mysteries) and Catherine Webb ( Horatio Lyle).
And why not? As a matter of fact, the Harry Potter books have an orphan brought up by ugly and stupid relatives in a suburb as dull as could be wished for, exposed to bullying and all those other relevant topics, but they also have mystery and fantasy and humour and the overarching theme of an epic battle between good and evil. Everyday concerns are more easily understood from the distance and in the moral perspective that literature affords.
One could draw the same conclusions from the current National Gallery of Victoria exhibition devoted to children’s book illustrations. It is from a collection donated to the gallery by Albert Ullin OAM, whose Melbourne book-
shop The Little Bookroom, established in 1960, was the first devoted to children’s literature in Australia, and who collected a large number of original drawings and watercolours from his favourite contemporary Australian illustrators.
Here too, the first thing we notice is the ubiquity of animals standing in for humans, and indeed there a couple of examples of La Fontaine’s fables produced for a 1994 exhibition, sponsored by the Alliance Francaise: in John Winch’s adaptation of Frogs Who Asked
for a King, the crane that eats the frogs has been replaced by a kookaburra, while the Hare and
the Tortoise, in Madeleine Winch’s hands, becomes The Kangaroo and the Tortoise.
Most are from books, often written and illustrated by different people, but sometimes, as in the case of Peter Pavey’s One Dragon’s Dream (1978), the work of a single author. This is ostensibly a counting book, but develops an extraordinarily dense pictorial narrative around the most predictable structure imaginable, the sequence of cardinal numbers: “one dragon had a dream” is followed by another double-page spread “that two turkeys teased him”, then “three tigers told him off”, and so on.
The book makes one realise that although children have, in some respects, a remarkably active imagination and are capable of playing for hours with one or two old toys, they also love to have their imagination stimulated by elaborate, detailed and quirky images. In fact their capacity to imagine, not yet fully developed, still requires visual prompts, which is why they prefer illustrated books; later, as it matures, they are able to read chapter books and form vivid ideas from the suggestion of the words they read. For the fully mature reader, visualisation virtually disappears and meaning exists in the evocative power of language alone.
Here and elsewhere, we see how the child’s narrative world, even when presented in a completely fantastic manner, is filled with topics and events drawn from their most immediate and intimate experience: going to bed and to sleep, for example, dreaming — where the boundary between dream and waking may still be blurred — as well as relations with parents, siblings and friends.
Other elements will be themes recycled from books they have read, echoes and variations, in- cluding references to things only encountered through reading, such as sailing ships and pirates. Many of the favourite animals in children’s tales are ones that are known mainly from storybooks. Most children have known of lions, tigers or elephants from reading about them and seeing pictures long before they encounter a living specimen in the zoo.
Familiar animals like cats and dogs, however, are also inexhaustibly interesting to children and often appear in stories that involve more subtle interaction with humans, such as John
Brown, Rose and the Midnight Cat (1977), written by Jenny Wagner and illustrated by Ron Brooks. Here the setting is in no way fantastical, but the charming, old-fashioned interior and the rural setting of the house provide the element of strangeness that stimulates the reader’s interest and prepares them for something mysterious to happen.
Giving human names to animals is common, perhaps particularly when the story is about intimate relations between them and humans, as in the case of Edward Wilkins and His Friend
Gwendoline (1985), written by Barbara Bolton and illustrated by Madeleine Winch. The title itself suggests a quasi-human status for this cat that can speak, as could John Brown. In the illustration exhibited here, he is introducing himself: “‘My name is Edward Wilkins,’ I said.”
Even in a story whose protagonist is clearly human, such as Robber Girl (2000), written by Margaret Wild and illustrated by Donna Rawlins, her companions are animals, and in another primarily human story, Wings (2004), written by Carol Chataway and illustrated by Declan Lee, it is clear that the atmosphere of fantasy and magic would be impossible to conjure up without the help of creatures such as the monkey in a fez and the disturbing insect with a human face that flank the entrance to her aunt Joessa’s house. Even the predicament of the heroine, Saffy, and the reason for her going to live with her aunt are related to the animal — or in this case the insect — world: her parents have gone away on an expedition to look for the rare Madagascan moon moth, leaving her either really or effectively an orphan — another example of the way that painful experiences and childhood fears are most effectively evoked in an indirect manner.
Perhaps the best example of this and the most memorable story in the exhibition is The
Bunyip of Berkeley’s Creek (1973), written by Wagner and illustrated by Brooks. The book tells of a creature born from the muddy depths of a creek, gradually coming to consciousness and wondering what he is.
A platypus informs him that he is a bunyip, but he has no idea what this means, or what a bunyip really looks like, apart from the bits of his own oddly disparate body that he can see, partly covered in feathers and partly in scales. He sets off and asks various animals he meets what a bunyip looks like: Does it have feathers? Does it have scales? And above all, is it beautiful?
Unfortunately, they all reply that bunyips are horribly ugly. Then it gets worse: he meets a scientist who tells him flatly that bunyips simply don’t exist. At last, when he is reduced almost to despondency, he is sitting by a creek when another dark, muddy and amorphous thing rises from the waters. He recognises a fellow bunyip.
The story is striking in its evocation of loneliness and alienation, as well as its suggestion that self-knowledge comes through recognition of the other.
But why this is so effective is because of the general and symbolic level of the fable: if the protagonist had been a boy or girl, the story would of necessity have become too narrow and specific. Instead, the animal protagonist allows the tale to have a universal resonance beyond both prejudice and preaching.
Madeleine Winch’s April (Child and lorikeets in a tree), an illustration for the 1993 Little Ark Children’s Calendar compiled by Albert Ullin
From left, detail from Ron Brooks’s illustration ‘Handsome webbed feet?’ called the Bunyip (1973) for The Bunyip of Berkeley’s Creek by Jenny Wagner; and Dragon going to bed (1978) for One Dragon’s Dream by Peter Pavey, above
Detail from 1996 illustration by Stephen Michael King for Flying Foxes by Lydia Pender in Beetle Soup, compiled by Robin Morrow