Slice of Life: The Art of Leonard Weisgard

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In Minders of Make: Idealists, Entrepreneurs, and the Shaping of American Children’s Literature (Houghton Mifflin, 2008), Leonard Marcus writes, “To those who worked in the children’s book industry of the early 1940’s, New York could seem as small as a fairy-tale village.” By the 1950’s and early 1960’s, many writers, illustrators, and editors of the children’s book world had moved to my corner of Connecticut, trading one fairy-tale setting for another. Renowned illustrator Leonard Weisgard was among them.  Although I didn’t know until Saturday that he had lived nearby, Weisgard’s books were a staple of my childhood.

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Weisgard illustrated classics such as The Golden Egg Book and The Golden Bunny. My sister and I loved Pussy Willow so much we wore out several copies. Weisgard won the Caldecott Medal in 1947 for The Little Island, written by Golden MacDonald, a pseudonym for Margaret Wise Brown. 

Last Saturday, neighbors, friends, and family gathered for “Modernist in the Nursery: The Art FullSizeRender-2of Legendary Illustrator Leonard Weisgard, a talk by children’s literature historian Leonard Marcus. (Connecticut is still a mecca for the children’s book world; I sat next to Lane Smith!) Marcus talked about Weisgard’s love of color and nature. He discussed Weisgard’s many collaborations with Margaret Wise Brown and how her work at the Bank Street Writers Laboratory influenced his art. Weisgard loved folk art, and Marcus shared several examples of how that love influenced his art.

Weisgard's daughter, Abby, with Leonard Marcus
Weisgard’s daughter, Abby, with Leonard Marcus

 When Marcus concluded his remarks, Weisgard’s  daughter, Abby, answered questions and shared  memories of her father. Neighbors and friends   shared recollections of Weisgard’s generosity and humility, then told stories of  wonderful meals with Weisgard and his family.

 Throughout the afternoon, it was clear from both his art and everyone’s  memories that Weisgard respected children and trusted their ability to “see  and hear and feel with simple intensity.” In his Caldecott Medal Acceptance  Speech, Weisgard said that “books…have always been a source of real magic in  this wildly confusing world.” Thank you, Leonard Weisgard, for sharing your singular magic with the world.

 Thank you to StaceyTaraDanaBetsyAnna, and Beth for this space for teachers and others to share their stories each Tuesday. Be sure to visit Two Writing Teachers to read more Slice of Life posts.

Slice of Life: Why Do Children’s Books Matter?

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“There are no good books which are only for children.” W.H. Auden

It’s no secret to anyone who knows me or reads this blog that I love children’s literature. I have always loved to read, but it wasn’t until my first son was born that I truly understood the importance of sharing books and reading with children. I’ve written about this before, but I’ve been thinking about it again after visiting the outstanding exhibit at the New York Public Library, The ABC of It: Why Children’s Books Matter, curated by Leonard S. Marcus, one of the most respected scholars of children’s literature today.

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When I was little, people cared about me enough to read to me and to see that I had books to read to myself. How sad it was for me to realize that this is not true for every child. My love of books and my passion to share them with children is what led me to teaching and is what drives me still.

And yet, there are always new discoveries to be made. Earlier this summer I was at a local library’s book sale. I love going to these sales; they’re like treasure hunts to me. What unappreciated book has someone casually discarded? What long lost favorite of childhood is waiting for me to discover it among the many copies of yesterday’s fad? Among other treasures, I found The Quiet Noisy Book, by Margaret Wise Brown and illustrated by Leonard Weisgard. The bright, bold illustrations are distinctly mid-century, but I was captivated by Brown’s text.

ImageIt was a very quiet noise.

Such a quiet noise.

As quiet as quietness.

It was a very quiet noise.

As quiet as someone eating currant jelly.

As quiet as a little kitten lapping milk.

The teacher in me was very excited at all the possibilities for using this as a mentor text for writing. In an instant, this book was in my bag and I felt a rush of excitement that I had rescued it from oblivion. I also had a new Margaret Wise Brown book to add to my collection.

So last Saturday at the New York Public Library, I was surprised to see this in the section of the exhibit devoted to Lucy Sprague Mitchell, the Bank Street Writers Laboratory and it’s impact on children’s literature.

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I recognized the style of the illustration right away, but didn’t think it was the same book. When I got home, I checked on-line and discovered that Brown and Weisgard had created a series of Noisy books. How had I never heard of them?

Another section of the exhibit highlighted Alice in Wonderland. Among the items on display here are a photo of Alice Liddell, her own copy of Carroll’s book, and a charming carving of Tweedledee and Tweedledum that was used as a parasol handle. The highlight for me, though, was this Alice, whose neck would lengthen and then shrink back to it’s normal size.

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How fitting that her neck was made of books! To me, Alice’s extended neck represents the endless possibilities to be found in books. One book leads to another, which leads to the next, and on and on forever. It also represents how books connect us, one to another, each one leaving a piece of itself within us. Why do children’s books matter? Because, in the lovely words of  Julius Lester, they “link our souls like pearls on a string, bringing us together in a shared and luminous humanity.”

Thank you, as always, to Stacey and Ruth at Two Writing Teachers for hosting the Slice of Life Challenge.