Friday, November 06, 2009

Back from Madison, and, Sewell Illustrations in LITTLE HOUSE ON THE PRAIRIE

Yesterday afternoon I was at the University of Wisconsin-Madison with Janice Rice. We were there at the invitation of Ryan Comfort of the American Indian Curriculum Services office in the School of Education.

Working with the theme "Expanding the Narrative," I talked about problems with "the Narrative" as exemplified by Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House on the Prairie, and, uncritical observance and activities about Thanksgiving. Janice highlighted books that have been selected for the American Indian Library Association's Youth Literature Award. We also talked about Best Practice, Censorship and Selection. 

Time sped by! The turnout was terrific, and it was wonderful to spend time with people in the Native community there---Janice, Ryan, JP, Adrienne, Crystal (I hope I've spelled your name right!)---and, friends at CCBC---KT, Janice, Megan, and Amanda.

In the CCBC, I had a few minutes to myself and realized they probably had a copy of the 1935 edition of Little House on the Prairie---the version I wrote about last week. I asked Amanda, and she got it out for me. Hurray! I started paging through it, and realized (in hindsight, I'm doing a "doh!") that Helen Sewell and Garth Williams illustrated different stories in the book. Page through your copy of the Williams-illustrated-edition and note how many times his illustrations are of Indians. Sewell, on the other hand, has a single illustration of Indians. Hers is in the chapter, "Indians Ride Away." She shows a naked Indian riding a horse. The caption reads "The little Indians did not have to wear clothes."

When I got home from Madison late this afternoon, my mail included that 1935 copy I ordered last week. Again, hurray!  I can now do a close comparison of the 1935/Sewell with the 1953/Williams editions of Little House on the Prairie, looking at text and illustration. Questions! Williams did a lot of Indian illustrations. Was this his choice? Was he cued by Nordstrom? Wilder? What prompted Williams to do so many Indians?

Thanks, Ryan, for inviting me, and thanks, Janice! I think we did a good job with our presentation. Thanks, too, to all of you who came to hear what we shared.


Wendy said...

That's an interesting question, who chose what scenes Williams illustrated (and why they chose them). Probably one of the LIW scholars knows more about this, but my guess is that Wilder had little or no input. I'm sure Nordstrom had plenty, but I wouldn't be surprised if an illustrator of Williams's stature, especially since he threw himself into the project so deeply, got to make most of the decisions. And he probably chose the scenes he felt had the most visual interest. His illustrations consistently show more action than Sewell's.

I haven't read Sewell's Caldecott Honor book, The Thanksgiving Story, but it would be interesting to see what she does with illustrating American Indians there (I assume it's the traditional Pilgrim legend). My first thought was that Sewell might not have felt her style was suited to drawing American Indians.

While I don't have strong memories of those illustrations of Williams's in LHOP (I'm purposely not looking at my copy), still, I wonder how the reading experience might have been different for people who knew Sewell's edition first. I don't think it would necessarily be a positive difference--perhaps having only one illustration of an American Indian de-emphasized their part of the story and put the emphasis on the "nice pioneer family", even though Williams's pictures are stereotypical.

It might interest you to know, if you didn't already, that the most recent paperback editions of the Little House books eliminate the interior illustrations. (There might be a few left, I'm not sure--I haven't looked at them. I think it's a great travesty.)

Debbie Reese said...

Yes, Wendy, I agree. Williams chose the illustrations that had the most visual interest. I wonder WHY Indians had so much visual interest to him?

Some time ago, I was making notes on his illustrations for LITTLE GOLDEN BOOKS. Those notes are at my office on campus (I'm home today). I'm guessing I would not have been making those notes unless the illustrations had something to do with Indians.

Thanks for pointing out that Sewell did illustrations for Dalgliesh's THE THANKSGIVING STORY. It came out in 1954. I think that was just after LHOP moved from Sewell to Williams.

What would you say is Sewell's style---and why would a style not be suited to drawing Indians?

Recent paperback editions of LHOP don't have illustrations inside? Why? Any ideas?

I do know they're not there, by the way. It is interesting.... the anniversary editions colorized the Williams illustrations, and now, there are NONE? Interesting. I'd like to know why.

Wendy said...

It's part of a move on the publisher's part to modernize the books' appearance and make them more appealing to kids today. I do agree (unlike many of my friends) that the photo covers were a good move and are going to appeal to kids more than the old-fashioned drawn covers, although a couple of the photos are kind of weird. But I've never known a kid to be turned off by interior illustrations--at least, not if they're good. I do think leaving the illustrations out probably makes the books look shorter, which can be a point in favor for selling a book.

Sewell's style? It's sort of... rounded, domestic, placid. Her figures are doll-like. Williams' style of illustration is dynamic and his figures and faces are realistic. I don't mean that to necessarily be a value judgment, though I do prefer Williams's work on a personal taste level. Williams's style lent itself well to the stereotyped image people had of American Indians at that time (and that many do now)--all the active, "wild" characteristics described by LIW. Sewell's, not so much. It's interesting to look at Williams's closeups of his American Indian figures; I think it's clear that when he drew the faces, he had studied pictures and/or American Indian models, but I also get the sense that he didn't feel the same easy comfort in drawing them that he does in drawing white characters or animals, since he didn't draw them as often. They look far more studied to me.