Friday, October 15, 2010


IN 1932, ARNA BONTEMPS AND LANGSTON HUGHES collaborated on the children's novel Popo and Fifina. Several years after that book, Bontemps began to collaborate with the novelist Jack Conroy on several text-heavy picture books. Their 1946 collaboration, Slappy Hooper: The Wonderful Sign Painter, was illustrated by Ursula Koering. Koering went on to illustrate the children's book The First Book of Negroes (1952) written by Langston Hughes. It would seem that Hughes perhaps chose to work with the illustrator that had so beautifully illustrated his friend's book six years prior. But Koering had already illustrated several books for the Franklin Watts First Book series before the Hughes book was published and was likely assigned by the publisher. This happy coincidence has more of the flavor of a "chance meeting" à la Rachel Cohen (who discusses Langston Hughes at great length in her brilliant book) than a deliberate choice. Koering just happened to work with both authors of Popo and Fifina, and she brought to each very different illustrative styles.

Bontemps, Conroy: Slappy Hooper (1946)

 Hughes: The First Book of Negroes (1952)

THE WRITERS OF SLAPPY HOOPER met in the 1930s at the Writers Project of the Works Progress Administration. Jack Conroy (1898-1990) was the first worker-writer (a practitioner of socialist realism) in the United States. He grew up in a coal mining camp in Missouri during the early years of unionization, and went to work in the railroad shops nearby at age thirteen. His initial success as a writer came when H. L. Mencken published his work in the American Mercury. Conroy later returned the favor to many young writers as the founder and editor-in-chief of the socialist literary magazine The Anvil where he published Langston Hughes (another chance meeting!), Richard Wright, Nelson Algren, and Erskine Caldwell.

With Arna Bontemps, the African-American novelist and poet who had played a major role in the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s, Conroy conducted hundreds of interviews that resulted in They Seek a City (1945), a comprehensive study on African-American migration and settlement. It was during this work that they turned their attention to a series of three children's picture books based on folktales that Conroy had collected (or composed) for another WPA project. The second of those picture books was Slappy Hooper: The Wonderful Sign Painter.

MIKE FLINT, a wholesome all-American kid, becomes aware of Slappy Hooper, "the world's biggest, bestest and fastest sign painter" when Hooper paints a billboard of a loaf of bread for his town's bakery. Mike is surprisingly passionate about quality sign painting, something that sets him apart from most.
"'Folks don't appreciate a man like Slappy nowadays. Times have changed. They got so blamed many new inventions like smoke-writing from airplanes and painting signs from a stencil that people don't pay no mind to sign painters that do their work right from the muscle.'"
When Mike next goes to look at Slappy's loaf of bread, he's dismayed to find that it's gone--the whole billboard gone. It turns out that the sign was so realistic that birds started killing themselves against it trying to eat the bread. Slappy has quit painting he's so upset about it.

Mike sets out to find him. As he races about town, he thinks he spots Slappy high in a bosun's chair, painting letters on a smokestack. It turns out it's another painter, painting from stencils with an assistant on the ground. The assistant is amazed that Mike could ever mistake his boss for Slappy.
"'I see you don't know much about Slappy. Anything Slappy wants on the ground he lassos with his special long and tough rawhide lariat and pulls it up to where he's working. And he can let hisself up and down in his bosun's chair as fast as a monkey can skin up a cocoanut tree.'"
The assistant suggests Mike try looking for Slappy on a bench in the town's square. While heading over to the square, Mike runs into another person searching for Slappy. This man comes from Wyoming and is out to apologize to Slappy for tar and feathering him out of town. The sign that got Slappy that treatment was an election poster that was so realistic that an opponent in the election shot at the billboard scaring away the town's only milk cow, and it's hard to come by a good milk cow.

At last Mike finds the dejected Slappy in the town square. When he expresses his admiration for the sign painter, Slappy opens up a bit about his career. He used to be the best sky painter out there, painting big advertisements on the clouds.

Now he figures he'll have to give up sign painting, maybe get by painting signs for small shops, just as long as he "can stay off public works" by which "he meant a big factory or some place where he would have to punch a time clock."

Mike says his own father is a fan of Slappy's and might employ him at his shop the Jim Dandy Hot Blast Stove and Range Co. Mike's father does just that and Slappy paints a billboard of a piping hot stove. The trouble starts almost immediately when flocks of bums come by to warm themselves at the realistic painting. To drive off the bums, the shop's manager asks Slappy to paint the stove hotter so that it will be too hot to sit near. Slappy follows those instructions, but soon people are complaining that the paint on the cars parked by the sign is starting to blister.

Next thing they know, a nearby house catches on fire. The fire department arrives and puts out the flames, but that's the end of Slappy in Mike's hometown. Before he ventures off into the sunset, he hands Mike a paint brush that Mike promises to keep in his "'collection--a kind of museum of important things.'"

TO READ ALL OF SLAPPY HOOPER and enjoy the rest of Koering's phenomenal illustrations, see my Flickr set here.

Background material on Jack Conroy came from Douglas Wixson's introduction to a 2000 edition of Conroy's second novel A World to Win (1935).

Coming soon: Ursula Koering

All images are copyrighted © and owned by their respective holders.

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