The Canterbury Tales for Toddlers

It seems whenever I find myself struck by a children’s book, I do a little internet digging about the author and lo and behold, the entire world has heard of this person and I am just an idiot. And I’m not talking about a couple of rabid fans and a Wikipedia page. I’m talking about translated-into-10-languages-double-Caldecott-Medal-winner-world-renown here.

Such has been my most recent discovery, the author Barbara Cooney.

Author photo from her book "Chanticleer and The Fox" (1958)

I admit that it wasn’t Nate who found the book. Trolling along the stacks with one eye on him as he runs around and ultimately ends up playing with the portable children’s grill in the library’s playhouse, I have basically the same reaction to the children’s books as I do in when I’m in the adult library: “Oooh, I want to take this home! Oh, I’d love to read that. Wow, that is a great cover!” The latter exclamation was my reaction when I came across Cooney’s book “Chanticleer and The Fox:”

The photo doesn’t do it justice. The detail is astonishing, and throughout the book the art is just stunning. Plus, right there on the cover it says “adapted from The Canterbury Tales” — seriously? A kid’s picture book adapted from The Canterbury Tales? I had to have it. I mean, Nate had to have it. So I checked it out for him.

I’m not going to go on and on with my “books were so much better back then, where are the books like this now?” rant — but I will say that I do feel that way about this book (and many others) and it is something I would be happy to overcome as soon as someone points out some modern day books for children that are of this caliber.

But instead I will share part of the author’s acceptance speech from winning the Caldecot Honors Medal for “Chanticleer and the Fox” (from 1959): “I believe that children in this country need a more robust literary diet than they are getting…. It does not hurt them to read about good and evil, love and hate, life and death. Nor do I think they should read only about things that they understand…. a man’s reach should exceed his grasp. So should a child’s. For myself, I will never talk down to—or draw down to—children.”

Those sentiments are so obvious in this book. First, the language. I did mention it’s a kid’s book adapted from The Canterbury Tales, right? The same one we all read in ninth grade and can’t remember a darned thing from? Reading this book actually made me curious about The Canterbury Tales again. Here’s a description of Chanticleer, the fabulous rooster:

“His comb was redder than fine coral and turreted like a castle wall, his bill was black and shone like jet, and his legs and toes were like azure. His nails were whiter than the lily, and his feathers were like burnished gold.” Say it out loud when you look at this picture and see if it’s not incredibly fun:

Not to mention that the subject here is pretty dark in parts. The fox grabs the rooster by the throat and carries him off — all the animals are in an uproar, and the language and illustrations spare none of this. They are dark, they are foreboding in parts, and they are scary. To be honest, it’s a little too old for Nate and he won’t sit through most of it. But he will look at most of the pictures. That’s fine with me because wowza, what pictures!

This book has that great color printing that is characteristic of mid-century children’s books.  Maybe this is spot-color? I’m no production expert, but there is something off with the registration of the yellow/brown hair and cows’ hides in the photo above, leading me to believe one of the plates that prints that color was incorrectly aligned. This must have been a crazy expensive printing technique — the colors are so vibrant and beautiful, and obviously, this book still saw the light of day with the registration slightly off throughout the book!

Cooney’s life as an illustrator sounds like it was very interesting. Here’s what she says about finally being asked to illustrate a book in color after begging to do so for years: “One day my editor surprisingly said to me: ‘How would you like to illustrate a Mother Goose in French — and in full color?’ And I was off to France with five children the following summer.” Sigh.

In reading more about her, I stumbled across this fascinating account of how she came to illustrate children’s books, her approach as an artist and etcher, and — most interesting to me — the laborious process by which she created her illustrations so that they could be scanned to be printed. This was only 10 years ago, but it sounds so archaic: “My present system is as follows: (1) On a piece of matte plastic (mylar or similar film), mount very fine white silk with a mixture of water and acrylic matte medium. (2) When this is dry, apply with a roller a layer of somewhat diluted acrylic gesso. (3) When that is dry, sand the surface with very fine garnet paper. (4) Then repeat steps two and three until there are two to four layers of gesso. The result is a flexible sheet with a lovely egg-shell texture. Its color is titanium white, the same white I use in my acrylic paintings. That’s it.

P.S.: It takes forever.

P.P.S. It’s worth it.”

in her studio

A real artist speaking to children? I’ll certainly be looking for more of her books.

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Filed under kids' books, The Little Bookshelf

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