Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Wanda Gag

Quirky humour in children's picture books is a nod to the past

PUBLISHED : Monday, 20 October, 2014, 5:06pm
UPDATED : Monday, 20 October, 2014, 5:06pm

What we read to our children changes through the generations, as does how we dress them. When it comes to classic picture books, other than the date of publication, I have firm notions about how they differ from modern works. In my mind, the old classics use soft watercolours and gentle prose to tell stories that warm the heart.
Today's bookshelves are filled with picture books containing laugh-aloud text and eclectic art styles; words often seem to be coming straight from a wacky comedy show, and cartoon illustrations use bright colours to create emotional interpretations of the text.
The epitome of an old classic is Margaret Wise Brown's Goodnight Moon, and many other picture books from that mid-20th century era were created in a similar vein. However, when I went back a little further in time, to before the second world war, I discovered a treasure trove of stories full of magical realism.
In The Story of Ferdinand, written by Munroe Leaf in 1936, Ferdinand the young bull spends his days smelling flowers under his favourite cork tree, impervious to his peers jumping around and butting heads in macho showdowns.
When this pacifist bull is accidentally selected to fight at the important bullfights in Madrid, the reader can't wait to see what happens in the ring. Pages and pages about the lead up to the big fight include a parade of banderilleros and picadores, and the arrival of the matador, before Ferdinand is brought to centre stage.
This is an unconventional story about a bull that doesn't act like a bull, but still stays true to itself. Illustrator Robert Lawson complements the story with uncluttered black-and-white vignettes. It wasn't until my 10th reading that I noticed Lawson had cleverly drawn Ferdinand's cork tree with actual wine corks hanging from it.
Marjorie Flack's The Story about Ping was published even earlier. Ping is a duck who lives on his master's houseboat on the Yangtze River.
One day, Ping decides to run away rather than face getting a light spank on the bottom for being the last one home. But he is captured by a fisherman and narrowly escapes becoming a meal for the fisherman's family. Flack uses many quirky details to depict life in China, and to suggest to her readers that it's better to accept an unpleasant consequence rather than try to avoid it.
Finally, we come to Wanda Gág and her idiosyncratic style of marrying strange storylines with surreal cartooning. Her best-known work, Millions of Cats, has the honour of being the oldest American picture book still in print today.
Published in 1928, it tells the story of a man who goes to get his wife a cat but comes back with "hundreds of cats, thousands of cats, millions and billions and trillions of cats".
With a subtle lesson that humility can outlast pride, Gag introduces a bizarre solution to the problem of having too many cats. I am equally captivated by her other stories: The Funny Thing, about a creature that likes to eat dolls, and Nothing At All, about an invisible dog.
Just when the plot becomes stranger than strange, Gag finds a way to end her stories on a sincerely wholesome "happily ever after" note.
My children have been fed a steady diet of Sandra Boynton, Julia Donaldson and Jon Klassen, so I was curious to see how they would react to these oldies. They enjoy the stories, but tell me they prefer Madeline.
I am delighted to see that their first choice is also an oldie, written by Ludwig Bemelmans in 1939. Just as sartorial styles are cyclical, I wonder whether today's trend of quirky humour in picture books is merely an eye toward a distant past.

Annie Ho is board chair of Bring Me A Book Hong Kong, a non-profit organisation advocating for family literacy by facilitating easy access to quality children's books and empowering parents and educators to read aloud with children for future success in school and life.  bringmeabook.org.hk

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