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Mitsumasa Anno Transcript
Tomorrow is the birthday of one of the most innovative creators of picture books for young people, the Japanese artist, Mitsumasa Anno. Born in 1926, in the small town of Tsuwana, Japan, he was trained as a teacher, and he taught elementary school for years before devoting himself full time to his art. His first book to appear in the United States, Topsy-Turvies, he called “Pictures to Stretch the Imagination.” In these pages, each one an optical illusion, Anno introduced the little pointed-capped man who would become one of his signature presences, inhabiting many of his books. This little character, making his way through the world, provided the prototype for other hide and seek books, like Where’s Waldo, in which the reader is asked to find one tiny person in the midst of a frenetic crowd. But there is an elegant calm to Anno’s art that is missing in those many other books that have been so influenced by him. In Anno’s Journey, still one of his most popular books, we follow the little man through a version of Europe that is a mixture of fact and the imagination, the past and the present, all recorded with a loving attention to detail. Every leaf on every tree is here; and each page is full of subtle surprises — scenes from great paintings appear in a field our intrepid traveler just happens to be passing through. Big Bird unexpectedly turns up in a city festival; and Don Quixote is busy jousting windmills outside of town. For fantasy to be successful, it must be convincing. We have to suspend our disbelief and go, unquestioningly, with the artist’s vision; and Anno has such creative gifts. We are immediately persuaded, for example, in Anno’s Alphabet, that the elaborate letters which he has drawn and painted to look like they have been expertly shaped from wood, actually exist, along with the objects that illustrate the letters — like the wooden French Horn, for “H,” that seems as real as anything made out of brass. Anno’s Counting Book is an equally clever take on numbers that begins with a “zero” – scape that fills up, over the course of the book, with a small town, buildings, and people — twelve of everything by the time we are done. Numbers become, in this way, a vital part of life and not merely an abstraction. That’s the power of the imagination, of course — to help us find concrete ways to perceive even the most complex things. And with a master dreamer like Anno, we are always in capable hands.