Vis­ual arts Christo­pher Allen draws some con­clu­sions about chil­dren’s book il­lus­tra­tions

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Contents - Christo­pher Allen

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

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