My vintage-book collection expanded this summer with two picture books published within two years of each other. One is fiction, the other nonfiction, and both have beautifully rendered color illustrations from a time before color separation was the norm. Both also contain content that wouldn’t raise an eyebrow in the late 1940s, but might keep them from being published today.
TOPSY is a simple story about a girl dog and her animal friends.
Not much happens plot-wise until the center spread, when Topsy meets Bingo, a boy dog who is “the very finest dog she had ever seen.” They gallop off into the hills together.
Has one of your friends ever “gone missing” after starting a new romantic relationship? That happens to Topsy’s friends, so they go looking for her. The last page shows what they discover.
In 1947, when TOPSY was published, the arrival of a litter of kittens or puppies was a prime opportunity to discuss the “facts of life” with children. A book featuring a litter of puppies conceived by unneutered, free-range pets, wouldn’t raise an eyebrow. Today, the irresponsible behavior of Topsy’s owners would keep the manuscript from ever leaving the slush pile. (I also wonder about the offspring of Spitfire the cat and Old Red Hen—how is it that the kittens and chicks stay perpetually young, while Topsy grows up and has puppies?)
But set the plot aside and look at the amazing art! It’s the reason I bought the book. The originals would have been black and white, with instructions to the printer for placing each block of color. This book was printed with three inks: black, a red-brown, and a dark yellow. The book predates Pantone by fifteen years, so I don’t know how the ink colors were specified, but the overall effect is an impressive example of an artist using a particular process to good advantage.
I’ll show you how it happens
by Marie Neurath
1949 Chanticleer Press Inc., New York, NY, 32 pages
Printed by Jarrold & Sons LTD, Norwich, England, in Four-Color Offest-Litho
This science picture book does a great job explaining 14 topics, each in well-illustrated two-page spreads. My day job is writing and editing science educational materials for classroom use, so I was pleased to see the range of topics and the accuracy of both art and text. The examples below illustrate how two kinds of seeds scatter in the wind, and how canal locks are engineered to let boats travel uphill.
But the two-page spread that wouldn’t make it past today’s editorial boards is this one, about hot-air balloons.
If this were a commercially-produced hot-air balloon, it would be okay. But no: This is the kind of do-it-yourself paper-bag open-flame hot-air balloon that my husband and his brother floated out of their college dorm window one dull winter evening. (“Really! We were just doing a physics experiment!”) Clearly the two children in this picture book also chose winter for their balloon launch, because there are no leaves on the trees. Or maybe the leaves were burned off by previous experiments. Either way, it looks like these two picture-book kids survived their risky childhood, and went on to achieve lasting fame as the universal symbols for restrooms.
But joking aside, both of these are beautiful examples of picture books from a time when producing color illustrations meant working within limitations. I hope you enjoyed this quick look! Both Beatty and Neurath had careers outside of writing and illustrating children’s books. You can learn more about them at the links below.
Can you think of examples of children’s books that might not be published today? Any classics that are still in print, that make you wonder? Share them in the comments.