Know what makes this picture book nerd, Yours Truly, happy to see? Houghton Mifflin Harcourt rereleased four of Paul Galdone's folk tale picture book adaptations this spring in a line of books called Folk Tale Classics.

Read more about Seven Impossible Things' favorite picture books without, or nearly without, words.  

In small, square editions, complete with gold foil accents on the covers (no worries, these are tastefully done and not obnoxious and blinding as, tragically, gold foil accents on covers can sometimes be), readers are treated to Three Little Kittens, The Three Little Pigs, The Little Red Hen and The Three Bears. This fall, we'll see The Three Billy Goats Gruff and The Gingerbread Boy

This makes me happy in the same way it pleases me to see more attention given these days to the work of illustrator Richard Scarry. In the case of Scarry, I've sometimes detected a mild to moderate snobbery from fellow children’s lit aficionados—that, since his books were so very mass-market during the height of his career, he was considered a sellout. That’s codswallop and flapdoodle is what I say, but I’ll save it for another column. 

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Hungarian-born Paul Galdone, who died in 1986, earned two Caldecott Honors. It's not as if he didn't earn the critical respect he deserved in his mighty prolific (over 300 books!) career. But even his entry in one of children’s literature’s most indispensable reference titles, Children's Books and Their Creators, edited by Anita Silvey in 1995, ends with a note about how his books lacked some of the wit and sophistication seen in the work of folk tale illustrators who followed him, though it acknowledges Galdone’s versatility and staying power in folk literature. 

I understand what this contributor (of Galdone’s biographical entry) meant. When one compares Galdone’s work to the illustrations of more recent folk tale illustrators—those whose spreads are exquisite in detail, lavish, highly stylized, fanciful—his composition choices seem simple. But there is, indeed, an artfulness in Galdone’s carefully arranged work, not to mention a subtle and mischievous wit, which is too-easily overlooked. Simple doesn’t always mean simplistic. It’s worth taking a deeper look at what is underneath those choices Galdone made as a picture book artist.

In 2001, someone did that for us. In Nursery Classics: A Paul Galdone Treasury (Clarion), children’s literature historian and critic Leonard Marcus, by way of the book’s introduction, came along to shine the spotlight on Galdone’s talents and look closely at the level of sophistication inherent in his work, discussing the “strenuous effort by which he achieved his picture books’ signature illusion of carefree amiability.” Galdone’s intentionally uncluttered style imbued his works with a winning accessibility, wrote Marcus, adding that Galdone (in what is, by far, my favorite line in his tribute), “planned his illustrations with the child in the last row at story hour in mind.” Marcus goes on to say that Galdone filled his “tender but tough-minded” folk tale adaptations with carefully placed details for observant children and that he slyly acknowledged via his anthropomorphic picture book protagonists the contradictions and foibles of humans. He gave great consideration to the settings—particularly, the homes—of his characters. His bold images and clean compositions also drew in the youngest of readers, Marcus even noted that Galdone once said that he felt a particular responsibility to child readers.

Galdone believed that picture books can go a long way in elevating children’s tastes, and good picture book illustrations can inspire them to create their own art. To Galdone’s point about elevating the artistic tastes of children via picture book illustrations, a friend of mine, Jessica Young, who is a soon-to-be-published picture book author, once described picture books as “affordable limited edition prints,” to which I believe I screamed “brilliant!” and “hallelujah!” or something exuberant along those lines.

Take Three Little Kittens. If the opening spread doesn’t make you smile with both its pathos and humor (I’ll have spreads to share at 7-Imp next week), it will likely make the nearest child to you crack right up. The kittens, mouths wide open, look as if they could actually be crying so hard they’re laughing. The rat, hanging off the “T” in “Three,” is rigid with fear. The mother’s kitchen includes a catnip cabinet on the wall, a drawer for chopped, minced, blended, ground, etc. The moment they find their mittens is laid out in a spread with bold, buttery yellow to accentuate their unbridled joy. The moment they reveal their soiled mittens to their mother is a moment to which any child guilty of the tiniest of crimes or misdemeanors can relate, the kittens’ heads hanging in shame. So much comedy, emotion and energy—all laid out in seemingly breezy spreads, devoid of any extraneous goings-on and all completely accessible to the youngest of readers.

I call that sophisticated in its own right.  

Julie Danielson (Jules) has, in her own words, conducted approximately eleventy billion interviews and features of authors and illustrators at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, a children's literature blog focused primarily on illustration and picture books. When forced to count, she thinks it's more like between 400 to 500 features of book creators over the past five years. Julie received her Master's in Information Sciences at UT, with a focus on children's librarianship. She is currently writing about the untold tales of children's literature, along with Elizabeth Bird and Peter D. Sieruta. Tentatively titled Wild Things!: The True, Untold Stories Behind the Most Beloved Children’s Books and Their Creators, it will be published by Candlewick Press in 2012.