Wednesday, February 29, 2012

The Park Book - Part Three

The Park Book by Charlotte Zolowtow,
illus. by H. A. Rey (Harper Brothers, 1944)
Did you notice Hans Rey sitting on the park bench by the fountain reading his paper in The Park Book – Part Two? Look for a bald-headed man in a brown suit.  There is another reason to look closely at this image. What else might you notice that would be out-of-the-ordinary in picture books published by the trade houses in 1944?  If you spotted the singular African American child at the fountain you would be on to something. 
Few illustrators in 1944 included African American children in their books; fewer still drew them without prejudice, in non-stereotypical fashion. Erick Berry and Ellis Credle come to mind as illustrators who represented African American children realistically, and not as “clowns or darky types” as Charlemae Hill Rollins noted in her book “We Build Together.”  As head of the children’s room at the South Side Branch of the Chicago Public Library, Rollins was concerned because most children’s books written in the 1940s featured “only the lower class and plantation Negro.” Too few, in her opinion, featured African Americans as the cultured professionals, educators, and artists she knew.
The Park Book by Charlotte Zolowtow,
illus. by H. A. Rey (Harper Brothers, 1944)
Making Rollins' point, Barbara Bader notes in "Negro Identification, Black Identity” (American Picture Books from Noah’s Ark to the Beast Within, Macmillan, 1976), that “If a single Negro child appeared in a picturebook—the little girl twice seen in The Park Book—it was cause for favorable comment” (p. 379).

Saturday, February 18, 2012

The Park Book - Part Two

Perhaps the best known feature of Washington Square is its marble arch, modeled after the Arc de Triomphe in Paris and erected in 1892 to honor our first president. However, if you were to ask the children of Greenwich Village which feature of the park they liked the best, most would probably say the fountain. The year 1852 marked the first fountain in the park, preceding the original wooden arch by 37 years. Today the fountain sits directly in front of the arch, in the middle of a plaza that is encircled by shade trees and benches. The scene looks very much much like it appears in The Park Book.
The Park Book by Charlotte Zolotow, illus. by Hans Rey
New York: Harper & Brothers, 1944

Ironically, that was not how the park was configured in 1944, when Hans Rey sat making his sketches. Unlike today, Fifth Avenue dissected the park, curving around the fountain on its eastern side. An aerial photograph taken in 1947, four years after The Park Book was published, illustrates the way the park was configured. Traffic through the park stopped in 1964 when Fifth Avenue was closed at Waverley Place (Washington Square North). Later, in 1995, the New York Landmarks Preservation Commission and the Washington Square Association voted to “shift the fountain into precise alignment with the arch as seen from Fifth Avenue.”
A 1995 New York Times article said the park’s redesign was needed to “level off the park’s quirky changes in elevation, replace a large plaza with lawn, and fix the fountain’s leaks.” That’s one explanation. I happen to think the members of the Landmark Preservation Commission and the Washington Square Association had read The Park Book as children and grew up picturing the park as Hans did in his imagination. Instead of drawing the park as it was in the 19th century, perhaps Hans Rey was creating a plan for what it could become in the 21st. What do you think? Visit the Washington Square Park blog to see aerial photographs of the park reconfigured according to Rey's design.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

The Park Book - Part One

The Park Book by Charlotte Zolotow, illus. by H. A. Rey,
Harper & Brothers, 1944

The Park Book, published in 1944, was a collaboration between neighbors. Charlotte Zolotow and her husband Maurice lived just a few blocks from Hans and Margret Rey’s Washington Square South apartment at 15 Washington Place. At the time Zolotow was employed as Ursula Nordstrom’s editorial assistant in the Department of Books for Boys and Girls at Harper & Brothers.
42 Washington Sq. South is depicted by the blue marker on the left.
Charlotte Zolotow's apartment was located at 15 Washington Place.
The red marker notes Ursula Nordstrom's apartment at 44 W. 10th.

1945 New York City Directory
     One day Zolotow wrote a memo to her boss, proposing an idea for a book about the park, and suggested that, perhaps, they could get Margaret Wise Brown to write it. Nordstrom’s reaction was less than favorable. As Leonard Marcus writes in Dear Genius, the legendary editor was known to use a variety of means “to coax authors toward perfection” (xxviii). In this case, she used a dare. According to Zolotow’s account, “After what seemed to be great irritation, Ursula asked her to expand on the memo. ‘Just what,’ she asked Charlotte, slightly combatively, ‘do you think is so special about the park?’ Charlotte elaborated on the memo, in writing... and was totally unprepared for Ursula's sudden appearance at her desk. 'Congratulations,' said Ursula to Charlotte. 'You've just sold your first children's book.'"
            Nordstrom paired Zolotow’s prose with Hans Rey’s art, himself a park devotee. Using a four-color palette, Rey’s illustrations captured Zolotow’s “observations of a bustling Washington Square and the changing activities and moods of the park from early morning until late at night” (Something About the Author, Vol. 138, p. 233). Saturday Review of Literature described their collaboration as “A gay picture book with a friendly rhythmic text that tells of a day in a city park that looks very much like Washington Square.”
            Part of the action includes Rey sketching by the fountain, as seen on the end pages, and in the playground with a young admirer looking on. A more formal Rey, dressed in a brown suit, sits reading his afternoon paper by the fountain. Not to be forgotten are Charcoal and Margret. I’ll leave it to you to spy them. Hint: Look on the end pages.