Tuesday, March 28, 2023

Q&A with Leonard S. Marcus


Photo by Sonya Sones



Leonard S. Marcus is the author of the new book Pictured Worlds: Masterpieces of Children's Book Art by 101 Essential Illustrators from Around the World, and the new middle grade book Mr. Lincoln Sits for his Portrait.: The Story of a Photograph That Became an American Icon. He has written more than 25 books, and is also a curator. He lives in Brooklyn.


Q: What inspired you to write Pictured Worlds?


A: As a history major in college, I wrote my senior honors thesis about early American children's books.


Alexis de Tocqueville, the famous French visitor to the US during the 1830s, had observed that American children were more free-spirited than their European counterparts, and I wondered if the American Revolution had brought with it a different attitude toward childhood, and if that change might be glimpsed in whatever children's books were published in those days.


A few years later, I became a children's book reviewer, and although most of the books I wrote about originated in the US or England, I developed a special interest in the few books that came from elsewhere--the work for instance of the Japanese creator of wordless picture books, Mitsumasa Anno.


Then a chance came to go to the Bologna Children's Book Fair, where publishers from around the world gather annually to buy and sell foreign rights, and my eyes were opened wide to the extraordinary number and variety of children's books that never make it to the US.


Ever since then, I have tried to have a global perspective in my work, and to understand why some books "travel" well across cultures and others do not, and what that tells us about cultural compatibilities and differences and about publishing as a business.


Q: How do you think children's book illustrations changed over the years, and what do you see looking ahead?


A: There have been a great many changes. Before color printing became available in the mid-19th century, many children's books had only black-and-white line art, although sometimes you could pay extra for a hand-colored copy, or color the pictures at home yourself.


Printing technology has been responsible for a number of changes. For a long time "full color" was so expensive that only older, seasoned artists could be trusted with it. Robert McCloskey wanted to illustrate Make Way for Ducklings, his second book, in full color but his editor said No!


Then in the 1980s, color became very affordable--and the mantra changed to "the more color the better" as picture books needed to vie for attention on the shelves of the cavernous new big-box chain stores.

In recent years, digital art-making has seemed to favor a flat, colorful, retro, and highly graphic style of illustration. Digital technology has also made it much easier for an artist living in, say, Argentina, to illustrate a picture book for a publisher based in Brooklyn.


The subject matter of picture books has also changed again and again. In Victorian England, the best illustrators were literally inventing the modern picture during the 1860s and 1870s--and trying all sorts of experiments. Nearly all of Randolph Caldecott's "toy books," for example, were about the comic misadventures of grownups.


These days, under the influence of developmental psychology, most picture books feature stories about children (or animal stand-ins) who more or less mirror the assumed reader's age.


Another Victorian illustrator, Walter Crane, packed many of his scenes with stylish home furnishings, presumably in the knowledge that it was the parents who buy the books.


During the 1940s and 1950s, artists influenced by early childhood education theories like Leonard Weisgard and Clement Hurd made illustrations that were semi-abstract in order to leave more to the young child's imagination.


After Maurice Sendak, it became acceptable to depict children throwing tantrums and characters like Sendak's Wild Things who represent the scary figments of a child's imagination.


As for the future, it's clear that e-picture books did not satisfy readers and that the traditional picture book will continue to flourish, sometimes becoming a little more like an artist's book with appeal for older readers as well as the core 3-to-7 demographic.


The graphic novel and picture book will continue to cross-fertilize. More and more of the world's most talented visual artists will discover the picture book as an artform worth trying.


Q: You also have another new book out, Mr. Lincoln Sits for His Portrait. Why did you choose to focus on this famous picture of Abraham Lincoln with his son Tad, and how would you describe the dynamic between the two?


A: The photo of Lincoln and Tad was taken along with several other Lincoln portraits at Mathew Brady's Washington studio on Feb. 9, 1864. It is probably the most intimate of all photographs of the 16th president.


In it, Lincoln is seen seated with a big book perched on one knee and appears to be reading to his 10-year-old son, who stands close beside him. The photo combines in one image Lincoln the great man with Lincoln the father and Lincoln the man of letters. He was after all a spectacular writer and eloquent orator and hilarious storyteller--and serious reader of Shakespeare.


I guessed that the photo might have a backstory worth exploring, and as I began my research I soon realized how interested Lincoln was in all the new technologies of his day: photography for its power to define his public image and help him connect with people; the telegraph as a means of quickly getting his speeches out to the nation (newspapers often printed an important speech in full) and of communicating with his generals in the field; and the railroad as one of the keys to binding the divided nation.


I came to think of Lincoln as a kind of artist who made brilliant use of each of these industrial age wonders to further his goals.


Q: The Kirkus review of the book calls it a "provocative study of Abraham Lincoln as a masterly media manipulator." What do you think of that description?


A: The word "manipulator" might to taken to imply devious intent, and I don't agree with that reading of Lincoln's fascination with images.


In deliberately presenting himself in photos as a person of strength and determination, he was in fact countering the malicious critics who misrepresented him as an uneducated country bumpkin and even (as one critic actually said) as a baboon. He was taking on the Eastern establishment and beating them at their own game.


Soon after Lincoln was assassinated, the image of him and Tad was published as a wood engraving on the cover of the widely read news magazine Harper's Weekly. From then onward, it has continued to shape our collective memory of Lincoln as a great man who was also a down-to-earth and deeply human one.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I am currently curating three exhibitions, all of which will open in November 2023. "Kid in a Candy Store: The Picture Book Art of Seymour Chwast" will be at the Eric Carle Museum (Amherst, Mass.). "Between Worlds: The Art and Design of Leo Lionni," which I'm co-curating with Steven Heller, will originate at the Norman Rockwell Museum (Stockbridge, Mass.).


And "Building Stories," an exhibition about the idea of home in children's literature, will open in November at the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C., for a 10-year-long run in partnership with the DC Public Library.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: Maybe two things: 1. Now that the pandemic is waning, I am looking forward to being back out on the road to give school and library and other public programs about my work. And 2. I have found another photo to write about...


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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