Author-illustrator Helen Borten, born in Philadelphia in 1930, describes the release of two of her books, which will arrive on bookshelves next month, as “an eerie kind of rebirth.” That’s not only because they are reprints of books she originally published over 55 years ago, but also because, after working in the field in the 1960s (even after a book she illustrated in 1956 won a New York Times Best Illustrated Children’s Book), she set aside writing and illustrating for children with the publication of Do You Go Where I Go? (1972) to launch an award-winning career in broadcast journalism and producing.
Do You See What I See?, originally published in 1959, and Do You Hear What I Hear?, published the following year, are the two titles that Flying Eye Books have lovingly reprinted for release in May. The former explores the relationship between the design elements of line, shape, and color and how they make readers feel, making it a great primer of sorts for children or even adults studying picture books. The great Martin Salisbury writes that “its integration of word and image to explain the power of design was way ahead of its time.” Do You Hear What I Hear? invites children to explore the world of sound and its effect on moods.
“My interests shifted to writing,” Borten explains when I asked her via email about her departure from children’s literature and transition to journalism. By 1989, she was a broadcast journalist, winning awards for investigative reporting, including a Peabody Award in 1991 for her NPR documentary The Case Against Women: Sexism in the Courts. “Throughout the ‘90s and until 2006,” she notes, “my initial work for NPR and then my own documentary series, A Sense of Place, absorbed all my energies. I traveled the country interviewing people and discovering fascinating corners of life, then edited, scripted, narrated, and produced the programs which were distributed nationally and spanned three seasons—43 documentaries in all!”
The renewed interest in her books now is “both wonderful and disconcerting,” she says. “It brings back a different person, a young artist juggling a career and motherhood, as passionately immersed in visual expression as I later became in sound production. The texts, especially, surprise me, as if someone else wrote them.”
And those texts are good. They are direct and straightforward, speaking to child readers in accessible ways, never letting overreaching word acrobatics get in the way of the connections she makes between sights, sounds, and feelings. “Low sounds…pull me down, down with them until I feel as squat as a bullfrog,” she writes in Do You Hear What I Hear? (I must note too that, as someone who once worked as a librarian with deaf children, even they, despite hearing losses of various intensities, would understand that vivid comparison and find much to like in this book.) In Do You See What I See?, she imaginatively conveys children’s abilities to capture the details of their worlds and the ways in which the arrangements of artistic elements make them feel: “I see the world as a great big painting, full of lines and shapes and colors, to look at and enjoy. Do you see what I see?”
Both of the Flying Eye reprints were made with just four spot colors, a process that mixes pantone inks to create a color palette printed via layers. “The entire series,” Borten explains, “was done in a technique called monotype: a single print method in which I painted in oil on glass and took a transfer print.…At the time, it was necessary to create a separate print for each color—a rather grueling process! I was inspired by a children’s book done in woodcuts by a respected figure in fine art, Antonio Frasconi—his only children’s book, I believe. To get around the limitations of the four-color process—as opposed to full-color reproduction—I invented a method of overlapping and tinting colors so as to approximate or mimic a full palette.”
The publications of Do You See What I See? and Do You Hear What I Hear? mark the first in a series of brand-new editions from Flying Eye. And while Borten watches these titles from her past meet new audiences, she’s hard at work, never slowing down. “ ‘Taking it easy’ is not in my vocabulary. Sometimes I wish it were!” she tells me. Having spent the last decade writing, which includes work on a memoir, a nonfiction book she’s penned, Dark Victories: A Murder Case, the Terrorist Scare and Lies in the Name of Justice, is now in the hands of an agent.
There may not be new children’s books on her plate now, but in the meantime we readers, especially fans of classic children’s literature, can read and enjoy her words and artwork as they were originally brought to readers over five decades ago. A happy rebirth, indeed.
Julie Danielson (Jules) conducts interviews and features of authors and illustrators at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, a children's literature blog primarily focused on illustration and picture books.