Thursday, October 17, 2013

A Dozen Scary Children's-Book Illustrations for October

I love autumn. I love the crisp air and the fiery foliage and even the ridiculousness of all the Halloween decor, the black arched-back cats and hollow-eyed pumpkins and beady-eyed bats. The images got me to thinking about children's-book illustrations that scared me when I was a kid, the kind of illustrations that forced me to look at them again and again, to revisit the scenes that gave me chills.

Of course, what's scary to one person is pablum to another. The Resident Teen, for example, is completely unafraid of the 1,100-pound, unpredictable beast that she rides, yet is terrified of bees. My husband will stride fearlessly through a field with a bull in it, but puppets give him the creeps. My dad was a soldier and the bravest man in the world, but he couldn't look at a diagram of an eyeball without fainting.

So Beware! Full disclosure is that my one dozen selected Scary Children's-Book Illustrations are exceedingly tame and are probably pretty unlikely to raise a single hair on your neck. But they gave me the shivers when I was little. Here they are, in no particular order:

1. The Giant Golden Book of Dinosaurs was my all-time favorite book between the ages of 3 and 7. I pored over the stunning images by illustrator Rudolph F. Zallinger. This scene, in which Allosaurus attacks my then-favorite dinosaur Brontosaurus, absolutely terrified me. This blurry reproduction of the painting spares you the sharp rawness of the wound and the blood flowing from it, but the poor Brontosaurus's grimace is evidence enough of its suffering. 

Whenever I read this book, I alternated between staring at this page in fascinated horror and skipping past it with my eyes shut. The obliviousness of the other dinosaurs in the background disturbed me, too: Why didn't they step in to help? (Clearly I hadn't yet understood that that was Not the Dinosaur Way.) There was another picture at the end of the book, of a small, grinning ratlike critter that was about to gnaw on some dinosaur eggs, juxtaposed with some text pondering the possibility that dinosaurs' extinction was hastened by hungry mammals. I wanted to yell at that little beast and tell it, "Stop! You have no idea what you're doing! You're going to make the dinosaurs extinct! Don't eat that!!"

2. The Cat in the Hat by Dr. Seuss was chock-full of images designed to turn a child prone to anxiety into a cyclone of worry. The Cat was messing up the house! Anarchy ruled! Everything was out of control! And look--here comes Mom!!

Her foot got closer and closer on each of the last few pages...there would never be enough time to put things back in order before she burst through the door, and then there'd be heck to pay. Tick, tock, tick, tock. 

The anxiety was fanned to fever pitch by the rattled, panicky fish who chastised the cat and urged the children to hurry and clean up before their misdeeds were discouraged. Nowadays I realize that I have always had a lot in common with that fish, who would have nibbled his fingernails to the quick if he'd had fingers or nails.

3. Pinocchio by Carlo Collodi, published by Caxton House, Inc., in 1939. This edition was owned by my mother and my uncle as children growing up in Queens, New York, and passed along to us when we were little. It's cram-packed with illustrations to give a kid the heebie-jeebies. 

They're starkly black and white, with a spidery, spindly, stiff quality to the lines that gave me the same uneasy feeling that was spiked by the jagged theme music of "The Twilight Zone." Most of the characters Pinocchio meets are also rogues and ruffians, so most of the figures in the scenes are likewise indifferent to his plight, adding the chill of emotional coldness to the pictures.

The fact that the text attending the illustration was alarming no doubt added to my morbid fascination with it: "The Serpent...laughed, and laughed, and laughed, until from the violence of his laughter he broke a blood-vessel in this chest and died."

4. This picture of a spoiled picnic is from Summer by Alice Low, illustrated by the wonderful Roy McKie. I loved this book as a kid and still love it, as it captures the essence of the timeless, hot, humid days of a Long Island summer back in a time when you were told to go play outside, unfettered by small hand-held electronic devices. 

The ants on this spread, however, made me squirm, probably because in proportion to the kids, they're really quite alarmingly large. Whenever I got to this page, I was always exceedingly careful not to touch any part of the paper other than the large white space on the lower right, where the "47" is. I see that nowadays this book is still published, though it's been cut to bits to shorten it and to take out anything that could possibly make even a child with the most delicate of nerves feel the slightest twinge of discomfort. 

5. Two carriages hurtle toward each other and an inevitable collision on a narrow road in the Whitman edition of Black Beauty by Anna Sewell, published in 1965. Black Beauty survives unharmed, but Rory, the horse he's teamed up with, suffers a ghastly chest wound. 

The imminent-catastrophe aspect of the picture combined with the gaping mouths and the lack of eyes on the horses, due to the blinkers, made this image a veritable Guernica to me as a kid. This impression was surely enhanced because the text notes that poor Rory, once healed, was sent off to a miserable life as a coal-carter's horse afterward. Everything about this scene from the story injected a little bit of dread about the random unfairness of life, something that I'd had the good fortune not to experience in my secure, predictable 1960s suburban childhood.

6. Struwwelpeter ("Shock-headed Peter") by Heinrich Hoffman! The epitome of freak-you-out pictures!! The Scissor-man cutting off a thumbsucker's thumb! Girl Who Plays With Matches going up in flames! They were all scary, but the boy Kaspar who refuses to eat his dinner and wastes away into this stringy thing before finally starving to death scared the bejesus out of me. I've read that Hoffman wrote this book as a spoof of the moralistic, lecturing fare that was published for kids in his time (the mid-1800s), though many sources state he wrote it because he couldn't find any decent children's books for his kids. The stories are so over the top I tend to think the first reason is the real one.

7. Walter Crane's illustrations for Household Stories by the Brothers Grimm (Macmillan, 1927) are lavish, detailed, and often beautiful. Many of them also capture the cruelty inherent in the stories. This particular bit of spot art embellished the final page of the story "Prudent Hans," illustrating a section in which Hans is said to respond to his mother's instruction to "cast sheep's eyes" at the lovely Grethel by taking the eyes out of the sheep and throwing them in Grethel's face. Ugh! 

I vividly remember asking my mom why his mom would tell him to do something like that, and my mom informing me that to cast sheep's eyes meant to make flirtatious faces at someone--what you'd call "batting the eyes" or "making cow's eyes" at someone.

Not surprisingly, the text reports that Grethel "ran away and became the bride of another."

8. Anyone who accuses Beatrix Potter of being sentimental and twee has never really read Potter's stories.

Her animals, despite wearing frock coats and pantaloons, are animals through and through. Dim-witted geese have their eggs devoured by dogs; rabbits get put into pies; a bully bunny is shot by a hunter; and squirrels happily pay protection money to owls in the form of dead mice. 

This illustration from The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin was a real cliffhanger...Nutkin is absolutely powerless in the clenches of the owl, who bides his time deciding what do to with the impertinent squirrel who's been taunting him for pages (much to the growing alarm of the reader).



9. Another Potter illustration, this time from The Tale of Peter Rabbit. Peter has disobeyed his mother by larking about in the garden where his father was caught and later baked into a pie, stuffing himself with food and losing all his clothes and narrowly escaping capture himself. 

Now he's too plump to get out of the garden by slipping under the gate, and the mouse with the pea in her mouth is mute and unable to give him advice. 

This picture of Peter, totally lost, totally full of regret and fear, and surrounded by uncaring strangers is the essence of being a very young child who's lost Mom in a big department store.

Peter Rabbit, the Existentialist Lagomorph!




10. Hmm, I'm sensing a running theme of alienation and panic in my childhood fears here; perhaps the idea of anything happening to disrupt the loving security of my home and family was far more frightening to me than any monster, bogeyman, or zombie could ever be. Because if I ever wanted to feel desolate, all I had to do was turn to this page in Rich Cat, Poor Cat by Bernard Waber. 

This lovely book, which contrasts the life of poor, feral Scat with that of rich, pampered city kitties and winds up with the happiest of endings, has long been out of print and isn't easy to find in libraries--I have no idea why, as it's a wonderful story, simply told, with beautiful, vivid illustrations. Scat's lonely days, summed up in this image of her as an unwanted, sick kitty with nobody to say bless you when she sneezes in the midst of a crowded, noisy, unfeeling city, give the reader just enough of a shiver and feeling of desolation while knowing that soon Scat will find a loving home. The child's anxiety about nobody being in control and being unloved is nicely rounded by this touchdown in a comfortable, safe place. It's much like Max's safe-harbor experience in Where the Wild Things Are, when he wakes up to find a hot meal waiting for him.

11. I always loved the illustrations done by Louis Darling for Beverly Cleary's books, especially Ribsy. Darling's illustrations were anything but darling--Ribsy was a bony, ugly mutt, and Cleary's wonderful girl-terror Ramona was a skinny, scraped-knees, messy child. In Ribsy, the dog gets lost and there are multiple near-misses in which he's almost reunited with his owner, Henry Huggins. The suspense is unbearable for a kid and maintained right up to the last chapter. 

This little spot art of Ribsy is nothing more than an adornment for the end of a chapter, but it captures how forlorn Ribsy is. I guess I found it particularly evocative when I was a kid because of the text it related to: Ribsy, after behaving badly in an elementary school classroom, is evicted from his position as school mascot and told to "go home" by the principal.

"After one more sad backward glance Ribsy started walking. He wanted to obey the man. He wanted to go home, but he did not know where home was, and there was no way he could make the man understand."

12. The scary picture I just couldn't get enough of, however, was tucked away in a little paperback storybook purchased through one of those classroom book-ordering schemes. It was called Rabbit and Skunk and the Scary Rock by Carla Stevens, illustrated by Robert Kraus. Throughout the book, the animals shudder in fear because of horrible noises, such as "Gruummch!", coming from behind the big scary rock. 

I liked this illustration a lot even though Rabbit is clearly so very frightened partly because he was safe (I knew the thing behind the rock wasn't that scary, plus he was being tightly held by his protective friend Skunk, who wouldn't let anything bad happen), but mostly because whenever we got to this part of the story, my grandma would always pause at my request to give me a big, squashy hug just like the one Rabbit was getting, before we turned the page to confront what lurked behind the rock. And that, to me, is the whole point of scary images and scenes in picture books.