Friday, March 25, 2011

Ellen Raskin's Legacy at the Milwaukee Public Library

We braved the rain and 34 degree temperature to walk around downtown Milwaukee. Our destination point was the Milwaukee Public Library, which we had visited briefly once before. There wasn't any particular reason to go there -- I just like libraries, and have found that visiting the main library while on vacation often results in interesting finds, like J.R.R. Tolkien's Father Christmas book in Iowa City.

The Milwaukee library held an even greater treat for an Ellen Raskin-lover like me. I knew, of course, that Raskin was born and raised in Milwaukee, but I didn't know the children's room has a whole wall of books by Milwaukee authors, including Raskin. And not only that, but most of her books are signed, with an author's illustration on the title page.

Title page of Nothing Ever Happens on My Block with artist signature and art
I know Raskin's four novels well, but I've never seen her picture books.

Cover of Nothing Ever Happens on My Block
After illustrating over a thousand books in 15 years, she published her first book in 1966: Nothing Ever Happens on My Block (1966).

Yellow cover with blue printed illustrations of a girl in a bathtub and a dog
Her second book is called Spectacles (1968), and it tells the story of a little girl named Iris who needs glasses. Before she gets them, she misperceives much of what she sees -- a concept alluded to in the illustration stamped into the cloth binding. (She would see it as a dog, but it's actually a girl in a bathtub.)

Title page of Spectacles, red background and fuzzy lettering, with artist signature
This book has just a simple dedication and signature. The fuzzy type is in the style of some of the inside illustrations simulating how Iris sees the world.

Page from Spectacles with illustration of the girl Iris
Raskin's drawings are super fun.

Page from Spectacles with six illustrations of Iris trying on different glasses
Here, Iris tries on different glasses.

Cover of A & THE
Her next book, A & THE (1970), highlights Raskin's delight in typographic jokes.

Title page of A & THE with artist signature and art
And it also has a nice illustration on the title page.

It was just after this that Raskin published her first novel, The Mysterious Disappearance of Leon (I Mean Noel) (1971), so I would assume she was working on it at the same time.

The next picture book was also published in 1971.

Cover of The World's Greatest Freak Show
The World's Greatest Freak Show is, in my opinion, the meatiest of Raskin's picture books.

Title page of The World's Greatest Freak Show with artist signature and art
With a four-footed author illo on the title page!

Two pages showing Allistair in multiple colors
The story tells of Alastair, a good-looking young man who recruits a group of "freaks" (two-headed man, etc.) to appear in a show in a nearby country.

Spread showing all of the freaks in the audience
Little does Alastair suspect, but the country's entire population is made up of people who would usually be considered freaks, and he's the one who is considered to be a freak.

Spread showing two-headed freaks, happy, sitting on a couch
The freaks he had recruited for the show all live happily ever after.

I have my theories about how Freak Show's story would have resonated for Raskin, as a Jew from German Milwaukee, an art geek, and a woman with a chronic, disabling illness.

Cover of Franklin Stein
Franklin Stein (1972) was published next.

Title page of Franklin Stein with artist signature and art
The characters in this book resemble those in Leon (I Mean Noel) the most.

Cover of Who, Said Sue, Said Whoo?
1973's Who, Said Sue, Said Whoo? returns to a lighter story.

Title page of Who, Said Sue, Said Whoo? with artist signature and art
And features an owlish author illustration on the title page.

Cover of Moose, Goose and Little Nobody
Moose, Goose and Little Nobody (1976) feels stylistically very similar to Who, Said Sue.

Title page of Moose, Goose and Little Nobody with signature and art
This is one of the few books where Raskin's signature is on a blank page.

Spread from Moose, Goose with many detailed buildings each in a bright color
The building drawings recall the details of Nothing Ever Happens on My Block. The use of solid ink colors is stunning.

Cover of Twenty-Two, Twenty-Three
Raskin's final picture book (1976) is tremendous fun, full of details and visual jokes. The lettering is excellent, too.

Opening page with signature and illustration
A curly-haired pig adorns the opening page, along with her signature.

Title pages
The title page has little signs in the corners that say "Welcome to Title Page" and "You are now leaving Title Page."

Page illustration with Christmas tree made of many other objects and an ape in a Santa suit
The book is full of amazing pen and ink drawings, colored in bright ink, but this page near the end combines so many details, along with this bizarre Santa-clad ape, that I had to include it here.

Raskin would have been working on her Newbery-winning The Westing Game (1978) as these last two books were printed. Looking at the library's collection of books made me think about Raskin's exacting standards for the printing of her books. The color on the pages is perfectly printed -- there's not a registration error to be seen, and there's a lot of tight registration required.

Ellen Raskin's books are an inspiration for many reasons -- craftsmanship, humor, and most of all, creativity. It's always good to be reminded of the beauty and grace that people are capable of.

I'm so glad I didn't let the rain keep me from visiting the Milwaukee Public Library.


Blissed-Out Grandma said...

Interesting stuff; I agree that the colors and drawings and typography are all wonderful. I wasn't familiar with her work at all.

Emily Lauer said...

These are lovely! Thanks for sharing them - I only knew about a few of them.

Susanna Pitzer said...

Great Article!
I linked to it in my blog:

Thank you!