This Moose Belongs to Me by Oliver Jeffers is like the shreddie in a bag of Nuts ‘n Bolts: impossible to resist, and so spectacular in flavour it makes the pretzels and cheesy things pale in comparison. I know. Could this metaphor be more strained? I will confess that I’m experiencing difficulty coming up with adjectives for the singular brilliance of artists like Oliver Jeffers, Jon Klassen, Lisbeth Zwerger, and the other illustrators who populate this blog (and elsewhere.) While these artists are few, they are without a doubt masters of their respective mediums, and at the core of what is arguably a highpoint in the history of illustration. A low-point as well, as there are many more bad books than good, and e-readers threaten to erase or at least diminish the sensual and visual pleasure of a truly great picture book. At this moment, however, the privilege still exists, and I would strongly recommend that you get your hands on This Moose Belongs to Me.
In my world, a new publication from Lisbeth Zwerger is an event. At the risk of veering into hyperbole, she is the Arthur Rackham of her generation and will be remembered well beyond her time on earth. Zwerger’s latest is Tales From the Brothers Grimm, a collection of previously published stories and a few new yarns, including The Frog King or Iron Henry, The Brave Little Tailor, Briar Rose, The Poor Millers’ Boy and the Little Cat, and Hans My Hedgehog. The stories chosen by Lisbeth Zwerger to illustrate and include in this book speak to her quirky sensibilities and unparalleled talent for visual storytelling. From beginning to end, Tales From the Brothers Grimm is an impressive and extraordinarily beautiful overview of an astonishing career.
Although Lisbeth Zwerger has a recognizable style, her work continues to evolve. Early in her career, she favoured the sepias and high contrast hues of her predecessors, in particular the aforementioned Arthur Rackham with whom she “…landed in a Rackham-vortex.”* His influence can be seen in Hansel and Gretel and The Seven Ravens, which are included in Tales From the Brothers Grimm. Although these stories and others from this period are lovely and possess the seeds of what was to come, they fall within the continuum of classic children’s illustration, rarely transcending it. As her colours brightened, so did her playfulness. The true genius of Lisbeth Zwerger emerged alongside a deeper, richer palette fully integrated with a wit and visual complexity well suited to the peculiar world and work of the Brothers Grimm.
One of the best examples of Zwerger’s mature style is The Frog King or Iron Henry. In the first illustration, the King’s youngest daughter moves swiftly down a hedgerow in an attempt to outrun the amorous frog. The hedge appears to be a slice of plant tissue as viewed from under a microscope. Beautiful of course, but unusual and strikingly inventive. Who would have thought to do this but her? The frog is persistent, and when he asks to join the young lady in bed (‘I want to sleep in as much comfort as you’), she responds by throwing him against the wall, where he turns into a handsome prince. If only it were that easy.
When I bought Bear Has a Story to Tell a few weeks ago, I had planned to write a review in a post about Autumn picture books. Since then it has snowed more than 30cm and Bing Crosby has had a play or two on my iPod. Autumn is a short season in the north. Early September looks like summer. Late September, all the leaves are yellow. By mid-October, the leaves have migrated south and snow has erased all evidence that we had any autumn at all. It’s no wonder that Halloween and Christmas vie for space on the shelves of department stores.
I welcome the snow, but I long for a more patient autumn, where leaves are not in such a hurry to change clothes and fly away. The lumbering bear in Philip and Erin Stead’s new book would agree, I think. Wandering through the woods in search of an audience for his story, Bear finds no takers; just a lot of busy creatures readying themselves for winter. Untroubled by the lack of receptiveness, this would-be storyteller instead offers to help each animal with their various preparations. Bear gathers seeds for a tiny mouse, checks the direction of the wind for a duck who is about to migrate south, and ever so gently, tucks a frog into a blanket of leaves and pine needles. This is a very kindly and patient bear, not to be confused with a real bear. Real bears don’t tell stories.
Once everyone is settled for the winter and the first snowflakes begin to fall, Bear snuggles into his den. His story will have to wait until the spring. But will he even remember what it is he wanted to say?