Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Bathroom Reading

It's hard to imagine anyone living to age forty without knowing Mother Goose -- but that was the case with Feodor Rojankovsky.

The Russian-born illustrator grew up near the Baltic Sea, the son of a school headmaster. In the evening his father would read aloud from the Bible and PARADISE LOST; Feodor was particularly fascinated by Gustave Dore's artwork in the latter volume. A few years later he received a Russian translation of ROBINSON CRUSOE for Christmas and began creating his own illustrations for the text.

Rojankovsky was studying at the Moscow Academy of Fine Arts when the first World War began. For three years he was an officer in the Russian Army, followed by time in Germany, France (where he illustrated Esther Averill's DANIEL BOONE in 1931), and ultimately the United States, where he worked for the Artists and Writers Guild, a book-packaging company that developed works for a number of major publishers and was later instrumental in the creation of Golden Books, those cheaply-produced "drugstore and supermarket" storybooks so familiar to American children in the post World War II era.

It was the Artists and Writers Guild that produced Mr. Rojankovsky's breakthrough volume, THE TALL BOOK OF MOTHER GOOSE. Published in 1942 by Harper, this mass-market (sold for only a buck) nursery rhymer broke new ground in format (a foot tall and five inches wide) and style. As noted in Anita Silvey's CHILDREN'S BOOKS AND THEIR CREATORS, this was one of the first volumes that didn't depict Mother Goose as a little old lady, but rather as a goose herself. The color illustrations, in particular, are splashy and eycatching, filled with everyday kids and naturalistic animals (well, okay, the three blind mice are shown wearing dark glasses, but otherwise they look quite realistic.) Esther Averill noted that THE TALL BOOK OF MOTHER GOOSE "marked a change in Rojankovsky's style and touched off a controversy which has not ceased to rage around him in circles steeped in the fine book traditions of the past. The change in style was probably due to his wish to give his books appeal for the mass markets of this country. ... This matter of popular taste is complicated, and I for one am not qualified to comment...." at which point she goes ahead and comments anyway that, with this book and his later work for Golden Books, "Rojanovsky was typed, and let himself by typed, just as an actor in Hollywood often gets poured into a mold. And certainly this was at the expense of his great lyric qualities and his own brand of gentle humor which springs from nature rather than the world of man." These remarks were made in 1956 when Mr. Rojankovsky won the Caldecott Medal for FROG WENT A-COURTIN', a title that must have met with Ms. Averill's approval, since she sniffed, "Many of us felt happy when Rojankovsky finally obtained his freedom to work also for publishers who deal in smaller editions and represent a more traditional kind of bookmaking."

Actually, I have no complaints about Esther "Buzzkill" Averill's criticism -- she's entitled to say what she wants -- but I just wonder why she waited till Rojankovsky's biggest moment of literary triumph to publish these remarks in a profile that was meant to honor him. Boy, she must have been fun at parties.... And to be fair, in that profile she does acknowledge that THE TALL BOOK OF MOTHER GOOSE "brought joy to innumerable children who had never encounterd such gaiety as it possessed."

The book certainly did make an impression on kids of the era and is still widely-loved, with collectors willing to pay $300 for copies of this childhood favorite

...But I wonder how many of those collectors know that this was not Mr. Rojankovsky's first attempt at Mother Goose and that another volume is out there somewhere.

Eleven years before THE TALL BOOK OF MOTHER GOOSE was published, while still living in France, Feodor Rojankovsky took a trip to London. During that visit, he accepted an assignment to create twenty drawings of Mother Goose. At that time, he had never even heard of Mother Goose. It would be interesting to know if he was instructed to draw her in the traditional granny-in-a-bonnet style or if this was when he first envisioned her as a goose.

It was not until after he completed the work that he learned his Mother Goose illustrations were being used to decorate packages of toilet paper.

Later, these pictures were collected in a book and given out as a freebie by the company that manufactured that brand of toilet paper.

I've done some searching and can find no reference to such a book, but a few copies must still be out there somewhere. Maybe you'll come across one in an old box in an attic or basement someday and discover one of the earliest -- and rarest -- books by this future Caldecott winner, issued by a tissue company.

1 comment:

fantasiabooks said...

Great..I have read this mother goose story..Its really cute..the title of children books that you have given seems very exciting..I would like to buy those for my nephew.