UPDATED for 2014: Beautiful, chilly, fattening October. Here again, and happily so. Along with the usual waterfall of dead leaves, fun-sized chocolate bars by the bagful, and if the drop in temperature is any indication, snow, I bring you my annual celebration of Halloween books. Yes, this is a re-hash of previous Halloween posts, but for this year~a few gorgeously ghoulish additions for your reading and visual pleasure, along with the ghosts of Halloween’s past (click on the links for longer reviews.)
New For 2014, the truly scary WHAT THERE IS BEFORE THERE IS ANYTHING THERE by the Argentine cartoonist Liniers. This beautifully illustrated book is wildly funny, and surprisingly disturbing. As a former scaredy-cat kid, I can relate to the boys’ nightmarish visitations when the lights go out. Liniers balances humour with creeptastic (and yet somehow affable) creatures that do nothing but stare at the boy – until the thing that is there before there is anything there arrives. Yikes!
I spent most of my childhood scared stiff. As the youngest in a family of seven, I was first to bed. There were no bedtime stories. I don’t recall being tucked in. It was ‘get to bed’ and that was it. Light on in the hallway. Door open. Once I was under the covers, I did not move a muscle or shift a single finger, for fear that I would disturb whatever or whomever was lurking in the shadows. It didn’t help that I would often smell fried baloney in the downstairs kitchen, as if the party started once I went to bed. Otherwise innocuous early 70’s television theme songs like Mission Impossible wafting up the stairs deepened my anxiety, becoming synonymous with my banishment. Forty years later I no longer remember what I was afraid of, just a vague recall of the anguish bedtime represented.
What There is Before There is Anything There, the newly translated book by the Argentine cartoonist Liniers, is a perfect reflection of that nameless fear. The boy in this story, like every similarly afflicted kid, knows that once the lights are turned out and ‘the ceiling disappears’, the dark is not empty. Indeed, as he lay in bed, the first in a series of strange little creatures descends from above – on an umbrella. It stands at the foot of his bed, staring and silent, and yet its lips are pursed, as if whistling. One by one, the rest of the creatures appear, surrounding the boy’s bed. None of these ghouls are particularly scary, and in fact are rather whimsical, but their wordless vigil is incredibly unnerving. Once all the creatures have gathered, the dark void takes shape, transforming the bedroom into a nightmarish wood. Gorey-esque branches surge toward the child, and a face appears in the murk.
The boy runs to his parents’ bedroom, where he is the recipient of that time-honoured parental admonishment – it’s just your imagination. When you’re a kid, there is no room for subtlety. It’s all real. Unlike so many ‘scary’ kids books, Liniers does not rationalize, dismiss, or even resolve the boy’s fear. It is what it is. Indeed, when the boy is allowed to sleep with his parents ‘for the last time’, the creatures follow him (or at least the little guy with the umbrella) to bed. It is a devilishly mischievous ending, and it made me giggle.
Individually, these nightly visitors are not particularly threatening, and in a less menacing context they could be the boy’s imaginary playmates (with the exception of that, um, bit of weirdness in the dark). Liniers is, after all, a cartoonist, and while the story may be nightmarish, his gorgeous watercolour and pen illustrations (in particular his characterizations of the boy and his bedtime crew) are little gems of wicked humour and expert draftsmanship. What There is Before There is Anything There is a validation of the imaginative mind, regardless of where it leads. As the title suggests, making something out of nothing, literally pulling it out of the darkness, is the very essence of imagination.
Some children (and adults) might think this book too scary, but others will find the boy’s predicament familiar (as I did), and therefore reassuring. Most will appreciate the humour. As Liniers is keenly aware – it’s fun to be scared, and What There is Before There is Anything There is a lot of fun.
Liniers (full name Ricardo Siri Liniers) is an internationally well-known Buenos Aires-based cartoonist, whose daily comic strip Macanudo has run for over ten years in Argentina’s La Nación. His work has appeared in newspapers, books, and magazines, including The New Yorker and Rolling Stone. Liniers’ first North American picture book, The Big Wet Balloon was named a Parents Best Book of the Year. On the dedication page of What There is Before There is Anything There, Liniers states, “…to my parents, who turned out my light and lit up my imagination.” Perhaps, just perhaps, What There is Before There is Anything There is not just a quirky picture book, it is also an autobiographical story of a kid who grew up to be a brilliant artist.
What There is Before There is Anything There by Liniers (translated by Elisa Amado). Published by Groundwood Books, 2014
I had purchased tickets in March to see Kate Bush in London September 9th, but was unable to commit to the trip until three weeks prior to the concert date. Not sure why. A lot of money, I guess, for a short trip, but in the end, I realized that if I didn’t go, I would regret it for the rest of my life. It had been 35 years since Kate had last performed, and if I had to wait another 35, we’d both be dead. So, in mid-August, I finally booked my ticket. As it turned out, I would have about a day and half to explore London. I’d visited the city on previous occasions and did not feel compelled to hit all the the touristy stops, nor did I have the time, but I did want to see if there were any illustration galleries I could visit. Edmonton is a lovely place to live, but illustration, even at the University level, is not a visible, or truly appreciated art. There are fantastic illustrators in the city, and in Alberta, but no gallery caters to illustration art. We have neither the population nor the interest. In fact, I had never been to a gallery specifically dedicated to what I consider to be the finest of all the arts – picture book illustration.
The first thing that popped up on Google was THE ILLUSTRATION CUPBOARD in central London. And, in a delightful twist of fate, the upcoming exhibit would be featuring the art of Anthony Browne – former Children’s Laureate of Great Britain, primate painter extraordinaire, and one of my all time favourite illustrators. What a crazy random happenstance! So, the Illustration Cupboard was added to my list of destinations, along with the Tower of London (to meet the Raven Master), and a bookstore, if I could find one.
In the early afternoon of September 9th, I emerged from the Green Park District Line underground and, after several missteps, detours, and many failed attempts to orient myself using a map, I found the Illustration Cupboard, located in a very picturesque area of London (St James). A very busy, and high-end area as well. The gallery is tucked into a sloping street of shops, close to Fortnum & Mason (and its provocatively displayed sweets). I knew I was in the right place when I saw Anthony Browne’s newest book, Willy’s Stories, in the window. It was tremendously exhilarating to a: have found the place, and b: stand in front of Anthony Browne’s original artwork. The title of the exhibit was 30 Years of Willy the Wimp, his frequent protagonist (and chimpanzee) who is arguably Browne’s ‘shadow’ self. It was very interesting seeing the illustrations up close – they are far more delicate and beautiful than I could have imagined. This is not to suggest that the printed illustrations are anything less than magnificent, but the originals have a virtuosity of detail that, I can see now, is impossible to reproduce. There is genius in every line, whether in a chimp’s face, or the trunk of a tree. It is also oddly cheering to see areas of white-out. Watercolour, even for the great Anthony Browne, is a bitch.
The Illustration Cupboard not only has original art, it also has the most exquisite collection of picture books, most of which have been signed; a crack house, in other words. I spent a long time in front of the Anthony Browne display but in spite of the first edition signed copies, I settled on his most recent book Willy’s Stories, which was also signed. I have most, if not all of his books at home, and as much as I would have liked to purchase ALL of the signed first editions, I just couldn’t. My addiction, thus far, is manageable, but given the right circumstances (robbing a bank), I could imagine spending many thousands of pounds in this gallery, starting with a certain chimp.
In addition to the Browne, I picked up a signed edition of The Selfish Giant by Oscar Wilde (Hutchinson, 2013), with illustrations by Alexis Deacon – an illustrator I’d never heard of, but fell in love with on the spot. Also, The Wonderful Egg by Dahlov Ipcar (Flying Eye Books, 2014). It’s a reissue of a book originally published in 1958. What can I say, I have a soft spot for vintage illustration, and the Ipcar book has the most wonderful dinosaurs!
There were many temptations at The Illustration Cupboard, including a selection of very beautiful limited edition books, in particular Through the Looking Glass, with illustrations by John Vernon Lord, but time was ticking, and I wasn’t at all certain that I could find my way back to the Green Park Underground. Turns out, I was right, ending up on embassy row, but a kindly man in a guard’s uniform came to my rescue, and I was soon on my way back to Hammersmith. My directional challenges were no fault of the Illustration Cupboard – the location being quite straightforward (once I found it). For reasons beyond my comprehension, I enjoy a certain, shall we say, mental distance from maps and logic, and at no point during my stay in London did I have a single clue as to where I was, or what direction I was facing.
It was several days (and many, many hours in airports) before I read through Willy’s Stories, which is a companion of sorts to Willy’s Pictures, published a few years ago. In Willy’s Pictures, Willy introduces the reader to his favourite works of art. In Willy’s Stories, it is great literature that inspires the affable chimp, and it begins with a trip to the library ~
“Every time I walk through these doors something incredible happens. I go on amazing adventures.”
Yes, and that’s just how I feel every time I open a new Anthony Browne book.
Reading, for Willy, is a full-immersion sport. One day he is Peter Pan, sword fighting with Captain Hook on the deck of a ship. Another day he’s a character in Alice in Wonderland, falling down a book-lined rabbit hole. As these classic children’s stories inspire Willy, so do they inspire Browne to create some of his most beautiful work to date. Typically, an Anthony Browne illustration is awash in bright colour, a counterbalance to the muted monkey-browns of Willy and his primate kin. Occasionally, however, Browne goes full on, fairy-tale dark, as in the painting that accompanies Willy’s description of a scene from the Wild Wood in The Wind in the Willows. The ghostly spectre of a fantastically gnarled tree sits in the middle of the page, every branch scarred by half-formed creatures. Eyes stare out from the murk while Willy, almost invisible in the autumnal colours of the forest floor, hides in a hollow at the base of the tree, terrified. Who knew Wind in the Willows could be so creepy, or inspire such dark imagery? There is nothing wimpy about that chimp’s imagination! And yet, in spite of the spookiness, Browne’s masterful illustration retains his signature playfulness in the humourously camouflaged details, like the row of books tucked into a hollow of the tree. In fact, books are present in every illustration in Willy’s Pictures (much like the bananas that have so often made appearances in previous books). As always, nothing is quite what it seems.
As gobsmackingly wonderful as it was to see Kate Bush in concert, the opportunity to see Anthony Browne’s original artwork was, in its own way, equally exhilarating, and inspiring. My deepest gratitude to the Illustration Gallery for having the foresight to run this show while I was in London. So kind of them! And of course, for their continued celebration and promotion of great illustration and illustrators. My only regret is that I couldn’t stay a longer. The current show (Sept 24 to Oct 18) is The Art of Shaun Tan, another one of my absolute faves. Ah well…
WILLY’S STORIES by Anthony Browne, published by Walker Books, 2014