One of the perks of reading and reviewing books from a list of great children’s novels is that, unlike most of the books on the Time Magazine list of great 20th century reads – most of our books have pictures.
I’m all for young readers learning to use the author’s words and their own imaginations to conjure up the images described in the books they read, but I have to admit, I like to look at great pictures as much as the next kid. And great pictures are exactly what are provided by the illustrator of the Little House books, Garth Williams. I consider the time I have spent – as a child and as an adult – poring over the details in his drawings, in many different books, to be time that was indeed well spent. His illustrations are among the most memorable among the picture books from my childhood. Every drawing is rich with intricate detail, so there’s always lots to look at. Just seeing his name, I think of furry animals with sincere, serene expressions. Nobody does furry like Garth Williams.
In addition to several of the good old Golden Books (Sailor Dog, The Friendly Book, Baby Animals, etc.) Garth Williams illustrated some truly wonderful children’s novels – Charlotte’s Web, Stuart Little, The Cricket in Times Square. Granted, these stories are fabulous in and of themselves and didn’t really need the addition of illustrations to become the enduring classics that they are – but Williams’ drawings add a weight, a substance, that helps hold these stories securely on the bookshelf of memory, and guides us through the pages as we search for favorite passages.
Mr. Williams was born in NYC in 1912, the son of a cartoonist and a landscape painter. He grew up on a farm in New Jersey where he roamed around barefoot and watched farmers milk cows by hand. He reported that “everybody in my family was always either painting or drawing.” The Williams family eventually moved to England and Garth graduated from the Royal Academy of Art. After serving briefly as headmaster of Luton Art School outside of London, he resigned when he won a British Prix de Rome (a scholarship for art students) as a sculptor. So, he traveled to Italy, where he immersed himself in art – with the outbreak of WWII, he returned to England and served as a Red Cross ambulance dispatcher and was wounded during a London air raid.
When he returned to the US, he tried to become a cartoonist for the New Yorker – but his style was initially considered “too wild and European.” He did publish some small drawings in the magazine, and eventually had seven cartoons published (thanks to Michael Maslin’s comment for that info). Then the editor of children’s books at Harper and Row told him that she was expecting a manuscript that he might be able to illustrate – and when that manuscript came from author E. B. White – it had a note attached to it, saying “Try Garth Williams.” It was the manuscript for Stuart Little. And with the enormous success of this book about a boy who looks extraordinarily like a mouse, Williams decided – to the eventual delight of generations of children – to become a full-time illustrator of children’s books.
Garth Williams also wrote the text for seven children’s books, but we know him and love him for his drawings. Reviewers typically didn’t mention him as they praised the books he illustrated – maybe they thought that wasn’t their job – but maybe it was because his detailed aids to our imaginings are so deftly entwined with the words of the story, that a reader simply can’t separate them, and it is assumed that praise for the story includes praise for the pictures.
In 1947, Mr. Williams visited with Almanzo and Laura Wilder to discuss illustrations for the Little House series. He then spent years retracing the steps of the Ingalls family to get a feel for the places Laura talks about in the books. Laura said about the illustrations, “Mary, Laura and the folks live again in these illustrations.”
And just to remind us that even a man who spends his days drawing pictures of warm and fuzzy worlds can be controversial, in 1958, Williams’ book The Rabbits’ Wedding, caused a ruckus because it dealt with a marriage between a white rabbit and a black rabbit. The story riled up the White Citizens Council in Alabama and it was charged with promoting racial integration and was removed from general circulation by the Alabama Public Library Service Division. Williams’ own comments on the controversy – “I was completely unaware that animals with white fur, such as white polar bears and white dogs and white rabbits, were considered blood relations of white beings. I was only aware that a white horse next to a black horse looks very picturesque.” Williams said his story was not written for adults, who “will not understand it, because it is only about a soft furry love and has no hidden message of hate.”
Williams drew with charcoal, graphite pencils, pen and ink, water colors, pastels. In a 1980 interview, he described how he went about illustrating books: His initial reading of the material usually would suggest thirty or forty potential pictures. “To compose the pictures is very hard…I look for all the action in the story; then I arrange forms and color. I always try to imagine what the author is seeing. Of course, I have to narrow down my ideas to the number of drawings I’m allowed, which might be as few as ten per book. I make a list of illustrations. When I see a picture, I write down the idea and a page number while I read the manuscript.” And his inspiration for drawings might come from the things and people around him – his own daughter Fiona was the model for Fern in Charlotte’s Web.
Garth Williams believed that books “given, or read, to children can have a profound influence.” For that reason, he said, he used his illustrations to try to “awaken something of importance . . . humor, responsibility, respect for others, interest in the world at large.”
Having admired these fuzzy, friendly Williams worlds for decades, all I can say to this is, “Job well done, Garth.”
Information sources: NY Times obituary, May 1996; Wikipedia article “Garth Williams”