Monday, February 28, 2011


OUTSIDE OF HIS MAGAZINE WORK, it is hard to imagine John Updike as a hired writer. But his entry into children's literature was just that, as a hired writer. Through the 1960s, Updike wrote three adaptations for Warren Chappell's music series: The Magic Flute (1962), The Ring (1964), and Bottom's Dream (1969). All of the books follow the same form as Chappell's other books  in the series, which can be gleaned from the highly accurate credits. For example, Bottom's Dream adapted from William Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream by John Updike with music by Felix Mendelssohn and illustrations by Warren Chappell. In short, a synopsis of the source music's story with selections of staff music and Chappell illustrations throughout.

So who just decides to "hire" John Updike to write the text for a children's book? To give you a sense of who Warren Chappell was, I quote from his autobiography:
"I had thought of The Magic Flute for a very long time but wondered about a writer who could tell the story in the mere three thousand words which were mandated by the format. The one person who seemed right was John Updike, and I inquired to find his editor at Knopf. It turned out to be Alfred himself who served as contact."
In case you missed that, it was Alfred Knopf himself that made the introduction. At this point, Updike had published a book of poetry, a book of short stories, and only two novels. He was a rising star--that second novel was Rabbit, Run--but was still a relatively young and new talent. It was Chappell, illustrator, designer, author, typeface designer, who was the great master.

He continues:
"John agreed to the Mozart and then suggested The Ring. Finally, we did Bottom's Dream, the dream sequence from A Midsummer Night's Dream. It was a very satisfying collaboration, and that promise made by Bottom, the weaver, that he would get Peter Quince to write up his experience and it would be called Bottom's Dream, had finally come to pass."
Chappell is best known now as a typeface designer and as the author of A Short History of the Printed Word (1970), but his work in books is so long and varied that it is hard to condense while still giving it the necessary weight. He worked on well over four hundred books published over fifty years including editions of Winnie the Pooh, Moby Dick, and Don Quixote, not to mention any additional works set in the types he designed, Lydian series, Trajanus series, and Koch Uncial (co-designed with Paul Koch). I will skim the surface of that career and talk more about the music series in a future post.

As for Updike's texts in the series, they serve their purpose. The prose is unmistakably Updike, but all of the weaknesses of the original stories are carried into the books, which makes for thin and confusing children's books.

The best of the books is undoubtedly The Ring. Even people without any knowledge of the Wagner opera can follow Updike's telling of the story, which reads like a children's version of Lord of the Rings.

"This is a story of greed and love, of giants, dwarfs, and gods. It happened long ago, in Germany, the land of the mighty river Rhine. Even to this day the river glitters as if with gold--but people say it is just the sun striking the water.

In those old days the gold was real."

In all three of the books, the amount of text and the complexity of the language make these suited for elementary school age children.

I have posted all of Chappell's color illustrations for The Magic Flute and The Ring on my Flickr page. I hope to post Bottom's Dream in full later this week to better show Chappell's overall design, and the way music is integrated into the text. The quotes and background material for this post come from Warren Chappell's autobiography in volume ten of Gale's journal Something About the Author (1990).

Coming Soon: Warren Chappell

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

Thursday, February 17, 2011


MOST BIOS OF NANCY EKHOLM BURKERT, illustrator of John Updike's A Child's Calendar, sum up her career as follows: she is the original illustrator of Roald Dahl's James and the Giant Peach, which was her first published illustration work for children, and she received a Caldecott Honor in 1973 for Snow-White and the Seven Dwarfs. This is not a shabby biography. But there must be more to the career of the illustrator chosen as the second artist ever to be given an exhibition at the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art after none other than Maurice Sendak.

NANCY EKHOLM BURKERT was born February 16, 1933 in Sterling, Colorado. By the time she was twelve she had lived in five states, settling in Wisconsin in 1945. "Because I felt very alone as a child," she wrote in 2007, "drawing became my companion, and my bridge to the World." She wrote and illustrated her first picture book (unpublished) in high school while also serving as editor of the year book and taking art courses at the Wustum Museum. "As a picture books provided my only source of visual art," but as she grew her influences became much broader. She majored in art at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, and completed a masters on a George S. Kaufman fellowship for female graduate students. During that time she studied the old masters and came to admire the Flemish masters of the 15th and 16th centuries in particular. It was her discovery of Eastern art that was most revelatory, however. "I discovered my affinity with Asian art, especially early Chinese painting. My preference is for linearity, which can express for me grace, rhythm and harmony...the Spirit I feel in everything."

Above: From Hans Christian Andersen's The Nightingale

When she speaks of linearity, she means actual line work, a focus on meticulous detail developed line by line. Click on the below image to examine the corduroy hat in this portrait of her daughter.

Burkert received the commission for her first illustrated children's book, James and the Giant Peach, after a picture book she had written and illustrated was accepted at Knopf. The book was in rhyme and detailed the story of an "aerial lady" and "what happens when kites break their strings and disappear; sort of a great lost-and-found in the sky." Like the book written in high school, the story of the aerial lady never saw publication.

To achieve the level of detail Burkert demands, the artist does exhaustive research both in the field "on location" and in books and museums. She often spends as much time on research as creating the pictures. Snow-White took her three years to complete, and her labor of love Valentine & Orson required seven years.

Above: Images from Meindert De Jong's The Big Goose and the Little White Duck, researched in the Wisconsin countryside.

Such rigorous and time consuming practices has resulted in a relatively small output of only ten books and a scattering of magazine illustrations.

Above: Endpapers from Edward Lear's The Scroobious Pip completed by Ogden Nash

In addition to her work as an illustrator, Burkert has curated museum exhibitions such as Drawing: The Fundamental Art at the Milwaukee Art Museum in 1981 and an exhibition on representations of peace in children's books, which showed in New York as well as Milwaukee. In the 1990s, she founded a program called Bread and Books that brought books to needy children and their families in Milwaukee soup kitchens.

Above: From Acts of Light, selected poems of Emily Dickinson

Amazingly, all of Burkert's books save Snow-White and the Seven Dwarfs are out of print. I have posted additional samples of her work on my Flickr account. Follow the links to see more art from Meindert De Jong's The Big Goose and the Little White Duck and from the selected poems of Emily Dickinson Acts of Light. And in case you missed it, all of the art from Updike's A Child's Calendar. I hope that Ms. Burkert would consider this renewed exposure a belated birthday gift; she turned seventy-seven yesterday.

My primary sources for Nancy Ekholm Burkert's biography were Michael Danoff's introduction to the 1977 monograph The Art of Nancy Ekholm Burkert and Burkert's own "letter" in the book Artist to Artist: 23 Major Illustrators Talk to Children About Their Art. I also consulted the Wisconsin Library Association's Notable Wisconsin Authors website, an honor Burkert received in 1995.

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

Wednesday, February 9, 2011


JOHN UPDIKE was one of the most decorated American authors of the second half of the twentieth century. He won two National Book Awards, two Pulitzer Prizes, three National Book Critic Circle Awards, two O. Henry awards, the PEN/Faulkner, the PEN/Malamud, the William Dean Howells Medal, and others. He published, depending on how you count, seventy books in his lifetime, comprised of novels, short stories, poetry, criticism, drama, and non-fiction. But most important to We Too Were Children, Mr. Barrie, he also published five children's books. The first of those books to be wholly of original material (the others are adaptations and will be discussed in a future post) is A Child's Calendar (1965).

A CHILD'S CALENDAR is a collection of twelve simple poems, one for each month. They attempt to be distillations of those months, ostensibly from a child's point of view. However, they seem more concerned with the sun, sky, and earth than most children probably are ("hot dogs, fries, / And Coke" yes; "The blushing, girlish / World unfolds" less so). As James Dickey wrote in his New York Times review "there is too much sense of clever over-simplification about [Updike's] verse; one is aware of the adult straining for the child's approval, and I should think that the child would also sense it."

Dickey did note that "A Child's Calendar is an attractive little book," which is something of an understatement, illustrated as it was in 1965 by Nancy Ekholm Burkert, Caldecott honor recipient and original illustrator of James and the Giant Peach. And Burkert was only the first Caldecott artist to illustrate the book, which was reissued in 1999 with illustrations by Trina Schart Hyman whose edition was itself a Caldecott Honor book.

What is perhaps the most interesting aspect of this book as an Updike text arises out of the existence of the two editions. It is hinted at in a note in fine print on the copyright page of the Hyman edition: "The text for this new edition incorporates a number of changes by the author." Those changes, for the most part, deal with updating the text for modern readers, eliminating references to burst milk bottles in January (replaced by parkas) or ashes spread on icy streets in February (replaced by salt). While these "corrections" have some nostalgic interest, an ah-how-the-world-has-changed, they also reveal something about how Updike specifically sees the world as having changed. A change of "ice-cream cones" to "hot dogs, fries," or "The playground calls," to "Little League" seems unnecessary (not counting edits made to retain a rhyme, of course) as the originals would still hold interest for children today. Those changes suggest, perhaps, new observations of grandchildren instead of observations of his own children. But the most important change appears in "April."

The original in 1965 reads:
Each flower, leaf
And blade of sod--
Small letters sent
To her from God.
In 1999:
Each flower, leaf,
And blade of turf--
Small love-notes sent
From air to earth.
Why the elimination of God? Especially when the next two lines in both versions are "The sky's a herd / of prancing sheep," which in the original reads like an allusion to God as shepherd and His faithful as a flock, but in the second is just a hackneyed metaphor for clouds. And even more odd is the choice in the final verse to retain the cultural aspect of religion, "At church, they bring / The lilies in," after having so deliberately removing the Deity in the first part of the poem. All of this is further complicated by the poem for November, which contains in both editions the lines "Tall God / Must see our souls." Why eliminate God in the first instance, while not casting Him out of the book as a whole? Unfortunately, the simple children's text does not offer a solution.

THE MOST DISTINCTIVE ASPECT OF BOTH EDITIONS OF A CHILD'S CALENDAR is the illustrations. Nancy Ekholm Burkert and Trina Schart Hyman are simply two of the best children's book illustrators, and both of their interpretations of Updike's text have much to recommend them. Hyman took her cue from Burkert with both editions featuring a spot illustration on the page with the poem and a full page illustration on the facing page. Beyond that, Hyman truly put her own stamp on the material, but not without inserting other quiet homages to Burkert. The upper image above is Burkert's spot illustration for "December." The lower is Hyman's spot illustration for the half title.

Below: Nancy Ekholm Burkert, April (l.), Trina Schart Hyman, March (r.)

Below: Nancy Ekholm Burkert, February (l.), Trina Schart Hyman, November (r.)

Below: Nancy Ekholm Burkert, July (l.), Trina Schart Hyman, July (r.)

HYMAN'S EDITION is still in print, and I encourage everyone to track down a copy. I have posted all of Burkert's illustrations on my Flickr set here, but for those of you who don't also have access to the Burkert text, I've included an appendix below of all of the textual changes between the editions (hopefully that will format properly in whatever reader you're using). Updike, while writing copiously on everything, has done frustratingly little writing on children's literature (as near as I can tell). If anyone knows of anything that he's written that might be relevant, please let me know.

Coming Soon: Nancy Ekholm Burkert

January: Milk bottles burst / outside the door.
                And parkas pile up / Near the door.
February: And ashes fly / From the old town truck.
                 Though road salt flies / From the old town truck.
April: Each flower, leaf / And blade of sod-- / Small letters sent / To her from God.
           Each flower, leaf, / And blade of turf-- / Small love-notes sent / From air to earth.
June: The playground calls, / The ice-cream man, / And, after supper, / Kick-the-Can.
          There's Little League, / Hopscotch, the creek, / And, after supper, / Hide-and-seek.
July: America: / It makes us think / Of ice-cream cones, / And Coke to drink.
         America: / It makes us think / Of hot dogs, fries, / And Coke to drink.
September: Burning brush, / New books, erasers, / Chalks, and such.
                    Drying grass, / New books and blackboard / Chalk in class.
                   (Also "And" to "While" in third stanza)
November: In its distress
December: Downtown, the stores
                   The toy-packed shops

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