Russ Kick’s The Graphic Canon of Chil­dren’s Lit­er­a­ture A re­cent col­lec­tion of­fers a sur­pris­ing spin on con­tem­po­rary and clas­sic kids’ sto­ries with edgy art­work

An il­lus­trated an­thol­ogy of chil­dren’s lit gets graphic

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An­thol­o­gist Russ Kick’s The Graphic Canon of Chil­dren’s Lit­er­a­ture: The World’s Great Kids’ Lit as Comics and Vi­su­als col­lects a va­ri­ety of chil­dren’s sto­ries, both clas­sic and con­tem­po­rary, each il­lus­trated by a dif­fer­ent graphic artist. The col­lec­tion is much like his three­vol­ume set, The Graphic Canon: The World’s Great Lit­er­a­ture as Comics and Vi­su­als, in which some 120 artists in­ter­preted works rang­ing from The Epic of Gil­gamesh to David Foster Wal­lace’s In­fi­nite Jest. Scat­tered through­out the kids’ lit book are sev­eral clas­sics, in­clud­ing fairy tales from Hans Chris­tian An­der­sen that are il­lus­trated by raunchy un­der­ground comic artist S. Clay Wil­son, and Lewis Car­roll’s “The Hunt­ing of the Snark,” with draw­ings by Canadian illustrator Ma­hen­dra Singh. “Part of the ap­peal [of chil­dren’s lit­er­a­ture],” Kick writes in his in­tro­duc­tion to the new vol­ume, “is my be­lief that ‘chil­dren’s lit­er­a­ture’ can be great lit­er­a­ture, pe­riod. Works meant pri­mar­ily for chil­dren or teens are usu­ally ghet­toized, con­sid­ered un­wor­thy of se­ri­ous treat­ment and study. But the best of it achieves a great­ness through height­ened use of lan­guage, through ex­am­i­na­tion of uni­ver­sal themes and hu­man dilem­mas, and through nu­ance and lay­ers of mean­ing.”

The chil­dren’s col­lec­tion brings to­gether 44 lit­er­ary se­lec­tions, be­gin­ning with Ae­sop and end­ing with J.K. Rowl­ing. Kick told Pasatiempo that he had as­sem­bled a wish list of sto­ries, which he then sent to the artists. “I told them, here’s a lot of things I’d like to see in the book, but I’m also open to things not on the list. It was a pretty big list and prob­a­bly had most of the ‘A-list’ of chil­dren’s lit­er­a­ture from the West­ern world. Most of the artists chose from that list. But not all.” In be­tween Ae­sop and Harry Pot­ter are clas­sics that in­clude Peter Pan, The Wind

in the Wil­lows, and Carl Sand­burg’s Rootabaga Sto­ries. Mark Twain, Leo Tol­stoy, and Jules Verne are rep­re­sented. Un­ex­pected adap­ta­tions in­clude a Hardy Boys mys­tery and Richard Adams’ 1972 novel, Water­ship Down.

The book holds a va­ri­ety of vis­ual in­ter­pre­ta­tions, many of them un­usual in their treat­ments of familiar tales. Vicki Nerino’s take on Alice’s Ad­ven­tures in Won­der­land presents an unattrac­tive, self­ish, even grotesque pic­ture of Alice that is noth­ing like the one drawn by John Ten­niel for the orig­i­nal 1865 edi­tion or like her por­trayal in the Dis­ney film. The story of “Goldilocks and the Three Bears,” drawn by Bill Nunez, is trans­ported to 16th-cen­tury China, com­plete with pan­das. Kate Glasheen’s word­less take on Margery Wil­liams’ The Vel­veteen Rab­bit comes in soft, var­i­ously sized and con­fig­ured pan­els that ex­press both in­no­cence and sur­re­al­ism. In her crowded, Where’s

Waldo-es­que “poster” pages, “Pot­ter­head” artist Lucy Knis­ley de­picts the Harry Pot­ter books on a sin­gle page each. Lance Tooks’ con­tem­po­rary turn on Ae­sop’s “The Fox and the Grapes” is made sexy by em­brac­ing al­ter­na­tive ex­am­ples of foxes and grapes. Not ev­ery­thing here is reimag­ined in strange or fan­tas­tic ways. Rick Geary’s de­tailed pen-and-ink ren­di­tion of Ed­ward Lear’s poem “The Owl and the Pussy-Cat” is straight out of the 1800s. “I’ve al­ways tried to do a kalei­do­scope of styles,” Kick said. “There was def­i­nitely an ef­fort to re­ally mix things up.”

Chil­dren’s lit­er­a­ture, with its wolves and child-eat­ing witches, can be dark and dis­turb­ing — and some of the

il­lus­tra­tions here might seem bet­ter suited for par­ents than chil­dren. An as­sas­sin in the form of a fox stabs Pinoc­chio with a twisted knife and leaves the pup­pet in agony, hang­ing from a tree. Dur­ing hand-to-hand com­bat, Cap­tain Hook sinks his spiked pros­the­sis into Peter Pan’s fore­arm with a bloody “poit” sound. The don­key dies in Ae­sop’s “The Miller, His Son, and the Don­key” and all but the cat and her kit­tens die in “The Ea­gle, the Cat, and the Sow,” in­clud­ing the ea­gle’s ea­glets and the sow’s piglets. Both char­ac­ters in “The Wasp and the Snake” are crushed un­der a wagon wheel. A svelte Lit­tle Red Rid­ing Hood doffs all her clothes and climbs naked into bed with the ogre who has al­ready eaten her grand­mother. In some cases, the il­lus­tra­tions to th­ese sto­ries avoid show­ing grue­some con­se­quences. In oth­ers, the il­lus­tra­tions make them even more graphic. ”Some­thing hap­pens when you change a story that’s purely text with il­lus­tra­tion,” Kick said. “The il­lus­tra­tions have a vis­ceral im­pact. While there’s some­thing dark and vi­o­lent in the text, it still doesn’t seem as in-your-face as see­ing it il­lus­trated. I have the feel­ing that some of th­ese sto­ries are not ap­pro­pri­ate for younger chil­dren. The larger ques­tion is about ap­pro­pri­ate­ness of a lot of chil­dren’s lit­er­a­ture: Does it help them han­dle the things life gives us? Does it pre­pare them for what’s ahead?”

Some child spe­cial­ists be­lieve that they can, in part be­cause they tap deeply into the hu­man psy­che. Jun­gian psy­chol­o­gists claim that fairy tales are a win­dow into the sub­con­scious. In his ground­break­ing 1976 book, The Uses of En­chant­ment: The Mean­ing and Im­por­tance of Fairy Tales, child psy­chol­o­gist Bruno Bet­tel­heim pointed out the sig­nif­i­cance of fairy tales to a child’s abil­ity to un­der­stand the world. “More can be learned from [fairy tales] about the in­ner prob­lems of hu­man be­ings, and of the right so­lu­tions to their predica­ments in any so­ci­ety, than from any other type of story within a child’s com­pre­hen­sion.” Those lessons can be hard. Kick, in his in­tro­duc­tion, cites an­other char­ac­ter­is­tic of child­hood sto­ries that at­tracts him: “Chil­dren’s lit­er­a­ture is wild. It’s of­ten bizarre, grotesque, dark, and vi­o­lent.” When asked about the ef­fects such wild lit­er­a­ture has on chil­dren, he cited his own ex­pe­ri­ence. “I can re­mem­ber be­ing trau­ma­tized by the Ian Flem­ing book Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. It’s about kids be­ing kid­napped by men in black trench coats.

That ter­ri­fied me. I was still young when I read that, and for years I was ter­ri­fied of be­ing kid­napped. A lot of ex­perts say kids can han­dle that kind of dark­ness. I’m not al­ways con­vinced.”

Still, there’s much here that’s in­no­cent, fun, and well suited for chil­dren. Emelie Öster­gren’s word­less take on Astrid Lind­gren’s

Pippi Long­stock­ing is col­or­ful and crowded with zany ac­tion. Shawn Cheng cov­ers all 14 of L. Frank Baum’s Oz books in a bright, Sun­day fun­nies style. De­spite its ab­duc­tion theme, the Peru­vian folk tale “La Pas­tora y el Cón­dor (The Shep­herdess and the Con­dor)” is warmly colored and has a happy end­ing. And what kid could re­sist John W. Pier­ard’s in­flated and rau­cous il­lus­tra­tions to a hand­ful of school­yard rhymes, in­clud­ing the ever-popular “Greasy Grimy Gopher Guts”?

While re­mind­ing us of the won­der and di­ver­sity of chil­dren’s lit­er­a­ture, The Graphic Canon of Chil­dren’s Lit­er­a­ture also re­veals the broad ar­ray of artists work­ing in comics and graphic nov­els. Kick, who said that many younger artists turned him down when he first ap­proached them with his idea for the orig­i­nal Graphic Canon vol­umes, now has artists so­lic­it­ing him for in­clu­sion in his projects. “I feel I now know an end­less amount of tal­ented artists out there,” he said. “The more artists I dis­cover, the more I re­al­ize how much I need to keep go­ing.” The next vol­ume in the se­ries, ten­ta­tively sched­uled for a 2016 re­lease, will zero in on crime and mys­tery. “We’ll fo­cus on clas­sic lit­er­a­ture through the lens of crime, the jus­tice sys­tem, the pri­son sys­tem, any­thing that cen­ters on a mur­der — from Oedi­pus Rex to Ham­let, all the way for­ward to Poe’s de­tec­tive sto­ries and Kafka’s The Trial.” Here’s a guess: Not ev­ery­thing in that vol­ume will be suit­able for chil­dren ei­ther.

“The Graphic Canon of Chil­dren’s Lit­er­a­ture: The World’s Great Kids’ Lit as Comics and Vi­su­als,” edited by Russ Kick, is pub­lished by Seven Sto­ries Press.

Above, Billy Nunez:

Goldilocks and the Three Bears

Left, David W. Tripp:

Lit­tle Red Rid­ing Hood Op­po­site page, top left, Lance Tooks: The Fox and the Grapes

Be­low, Kate Ea­gle and John Dal­laire:

Trea­sure Is­land

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