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
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: