As I went through closets and cleaned a bit this summer, I came across some funny little finds — old children’s books that I’d forgotten I owned, a baby cap and some little dishes that may have been for me, and (most interestingly, I think) two rolled-up prints of illustrations from children’s books. I’ve had those prints in a box somewhere for most of my life, although I know very little about them (hey, family — y’all know where these things came from?). In the spirit of celebrating the find of something precious and unique-looking, I decided to have them framed, and then set about the business of doing a little basic research about them to satisfy my curiosity.
The first print is a piece of Giulio Maestro’s art from Mirra Ginsburg’s 1973 book What Kind of Bird Is That?, a funny little story about a silly goose so dissatisfied with itself that it starts acquiring the traits of other critters in order to become something else entirely. The results (as you might imagine) are absurd, and I’m sure you can imagine what the moral of the story must be. I gather the book is out of print now, although several copies seem to be available through used book sellers.
According to her encyclopedia entry at the Jewish Women’s Archive, Mirra Ginsburg was a “translator, editor, storyteller, linguist and prolific author of books for children” who initially made her living as a well-respected translator of Russian literature. Her very popular children’s books were largely drawn from and inspired by folklore. The artist, Giulio Maestro, is an equally prolific illustrator and author of books for children (with his wife, Betsy, and their son, Marco). While What Kind of Bird Is That? isn’t a particularly notable piece for either Ginsburg or Maestro, there’s an undeniable charm about the print — I want to giggle a bit just looking at it.
The second print, signed by the artist herself in June of 1972 (lower left-hand side — I asked the framer to make sure it wasn’t covered up by the mat), is an image from Janina Domanska’s I Saw A Ship A-Sailing, a picture-book treatment of a Mother Goose rhyme:
I saw a ship a-sailing,
A-sailing on the sea;
And oh, it was all laden
With pretty things for thee!
There were comfits in the cabin,
And apples in the hold;
The sails were made of silk,
And the masts were made of gold.
The four and twenty sailors,
That stood between the decks,
Were four and twenty white mice,
With chains about their necks.
The captain was a duck,
With a packet on his back;
And when the ship began to move,
The captain said, “Quack, Quack!”
Janina Domanska was a Polish artist and author of children’s books. Like Ginsburg, she wrote stories that were often adapted from the folklore and tales of her childhood, and there’s a kind of whimsy in her style that’s entirely appropriate for something like a Mother Goose rhyme. This book also appears to be out of print and easily found on the used book circuit; its immediate predecessor (in a similar vein and style), the Caldicott Honor-ed If All The Seas Were One Sea, was in print until at least 1996.
Interestingly, the main complaint at Goodreads about If All The Seas Were One Sea is that it seems a bit off-putting as a children’s book, both visually and textually. Some reviewers wonder why Domanska bothered with that particular rhyme; it’s not an especially cheery thing to read, which defies our usual expectation of books meant for smaller children in either home or classroom settings. I think they miss (or just don’t like) the thoughtful little irony of it:
If all the seas were one sea,
What a great sea that would be!
If all the trees were one tree,
What a great tree that would be!
If all the axes were one axe,
What a great axe that would be!
If all the men were one man,
What a great man he would be!
And if the great man took the great axe,
And cut down the great tree,
And let it fall into the great sea,
What a great splash-splash that would be!
Suddenly I want to set Mother Goose songs to dark and complicated chords, and maybe capture some of the slightly off-putting whimsy of Domanska’s deceptively simple geometric designs.