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Leonard Weisgard Transcript
Leonard Weisgard died this past January, at the age of 83. He was one of the central figures in modern American children’s books, a gifted, prolific artist of dozens and dozens of picture books. He won the Caldecott award in 1947 for his illustrations for Margaret Wise Brown’s The Little Island, that watercolor rhapsody of life along the coast of Maine, a serenely gentle book, respectful of its text and its young audience; a book that might just be too quiet to get noticed today in the currently over-heated world of high-production children’s book publishing.
But Weisgard could not be accused of being too quiet in some of the visual experiments that he created with Brown, beginning in the late 1930s–like their famous Noisy Book, in which Weisgard tried to find the visual equivalents of sounds–through jazzy color, unusual typography, and abstract, cubist shapes imported directly from Europe–all this, in a book about a little dog named Muffin whose eyes are bandaged after a visit to the doctor to have a cinder removed so that he can only hear the world around him.
One of my personal favorites of Weisgard’s extraordinary work are his illustrations for Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’ book for younger children, The Secret River, which is set a few miles south of Gainesville, where we record these programs, on those quiet, meandering rivers that fade into reedy estuaries or open into lakes. It’s the story of Calpurnia, a little girl who tries to help her family, which has fallen on hard times (her father is a fisherman, and the fish aren’t biting). She goes in search of the fabled Secret River, where fish are as plentiful as the leaves on the trees. Rawlings had overheard a version of this story being told by an older African American woman to her granddaughter as the two were fishing together, unaware of Rawlings’ presence on a portion of the river screened from them. Rawlings wished to stay true to her original source and have her central characters remain African American, but at the time she was drafting the book (the early 1950s), her publisher was hesitant about such a risky venture: African American children just weren’t the heroes or heroines of children’s books. Rawlings, Weisgard, and Rawlings’ editor, the famed Maxwell Perkins, came up with their own solution: they printed the book on brown paper and let that rich color wash through Weisgard’s open, pen and ink drawings and onto Calpurnia and the other characters of the book. Whether he was on the Maine coast, or in a city, or in the Florida woods,–quitely, loudly, or subtley–Weisgard always got it right.