29 June 2011

“An osmosis between the oral and the visual”

Today’s New York Times quotes Tomi Ungerer as saying:

Look, it’s a fact that the children’s books that withstand the grinding of time all come from authors who did both [writing and illustrating]. Because the author has a vision, and there’s an osmosis between the oral and the visual, which come together and mix.
Is that true? Context suggests Ungerer was talking about picture books rather than illustrated novels like Carroll and Tenniel’s Alice in Wonderland, Baum and Denslow’s Wonderful Wizard of Oz, or Milne and Shepard’s Winnie the Pooh. But even in the picture book genre, is it too reductive?

I bopped over to Betsy Bird’s Top 100 Picture Books poll from 2009. Second on the list is Margaret Wise Brown and Clement Hurd’s Goodnight Moon (and #74 is their Runaway Bunny, which I prefer). Other titles from author-illustrator teams in the top forty that have lasted over a generation include:
  • Ferdinand the Bull, by Munro Leaf and Robert Lawson.
  • The Monster at the End of this Book, by Jon Stone and Mike Smollin (and, of course, all the uncredited collaborators who helped to create your lovable furry pal Grover).
  • Bread and Jam for Frances, by Russell Hoban and Lillian Hoban.
  • Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day, by Judith Viorst and Ray Cruz.
  • Brown, Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?, by Bill Martin Jr. and Eric Carle.
  • Tikki Tikki Tembo, by Arlene Mosel and Blair Lent.
  • Eloise, by Kay Thompson and Hilary Knight.
  • Harry the Dirty Dog, by Gene Zion and Margaret Bloy Graham.
In some of those cases, we know the author and illustrator worked together closely. In others, I suspect, picture-book publishing traditions kept them apart, so that only the text, the editor, and a few notes guided their collaboration. Yet they still produced “books that withstand the grinding of time.”

Then again, that list may not be Ungerer’s list. (None of his work appears on it.)


MotherReader said...

You have to love the "it's a fact" aspect of the analysis, because certainly there is nothing subjective within this topic, huh?

I see his point about the necessary merging of words and visuals for an outstanding picture book, but I don't agree that it has to take place inside the same head.

J. L. Bell said...

Ungerer offers a seemingly objective measurement of quality in how long a book has lasted, but, as you see, I don’t think his conclusion stands up.

I’m especially intrigued by Monster at the End of this Book. It’s so obviously a corporate product, with trademark symbols everywhere, yet also immensely popular and really good. It goes against modern prejudices that great art comes from a lone genius battling society to produce a totally original vision.

Michael said...

It's surely subjective enough to try and create any list of books that have stood the test of time. I mean, we'll never really know that, will we?

J. L. Bell said...

Books that people still recognize and respect after a third of a century have stood the time of some time, at least. Of course, we don’t know if they’ll continue to attract readers in the next thirty years, but that seems more objective than some vaguely defined “quality.”