I’ve wanted occasionally to present some authors and illustrators who have left us a particularly valuable storehouse of children’s literature, and I am finally ready with my first survey. I don’t pretend to be a children’s literature historian, but there is a lot of information here and there on the Web which has helped me piece together this thin sketch of Esphyr Slobodkina.
Esphyr Slobodkina was born in Siberia in 1908 but moved with her family to China as a young girl. There she studied art and architecture before immigrating to the United States as a young woman.
From the beginning, she was a groundbreaking abstract artist. She painted and made collage sculptures from all sorts of unusual and everyday objects.
Mural Sketch No. 1 by Esphyr Slobodkina
Cornelia Street Bedroom by Esphyr Slobodkina
In 1937, she met Margaret Wise Brown, who was just beginning to write for children. These two talented women, both in their twenties, collaborated on what was Slobodkina’s first children’s book, The Little Fireman.
According to the National Endowment for the Humanities, it was “the first American picture book done in cut-paper collage.” Esphyr’s modern sense of shape and color and design are as appealing now as they were revolutionary in the 30s.
Margaret Wise Brown’s ability to reach into a small child’s world and affirm his big dreams runs through this story of a little fireman with his little Dalmatian who saves “fifteen little fat ladies” and enjoys “a very little dish of pink ice cream.” Now that’s a good day!
Slobodkina’s brilliant colors and simplified, geometric shapes and patterns are bold as brass. Exactly right for such a brave, exciting tale.
Brown and Slobodkina created many books together, including Sleepy ABC, a wonderful, poetic alphabet book full of drowsy sheep, rabbits and children. Slobodkina’s collage work here, with a bit more pattern to it, is clearly a forerunner to Ezra Jack Keats.
Sleepy ABC by Esphyr Slobodkina
Peter’s Chair by Ezra Jack Keats
Esphyr wrote many books of her own, as well. By far her best-known, best-loved work is Caps for Sale. Millions of copies of this book have sold in at least a dozen languages. Such a classic book. In 2010, when I started this blog, I put Caps for Sale in my very first post. It’s simply one of the first titles that pops into my head when I think “classic picture books.”
There are a couple of sequels to this story, which are far less familiar.
In Circus Caps for Sale our trusty peddler, Pezzo, happens upon a county fair. This seems like a marvelous place to sell those 50-cent caps. Pezzo watches a circus parade pass by, with booming drums and fierce lions and dancing dogs, and one mischievous elephant who likes to play tricks on the crowd. Tricks such as snatching hats from men’s heads! Oh dear! How will Pezzo ever recover them this time!
It’s a delightful sequel to the original.
Pezzo the Peddler and the Thirteen Silly Thieves features the same, beloved stack of caps and the same, familiar call of “50 cents a cap!” As the peddler walks past the local jail, however, a band of thieves stations themselves by the windows, and each of them steals a cap from our peddler’s head. Very upsetting! Just as he had to outsmart those monkeys, Pezzo must figure out a clever way to get his caps back from all those jailbirds.
Both of these sequels are worth searching out, for those who love the original Caps for Sale.
In all, Esphyr wrote a couple dozen books. My library, even with its extensive stacks of out-of-print material, has only seven of them.
One, The Little Dinghy was new to me, and I very much enjoyed it with its coastal Maine setting.
“Way up North where the green pines grow tall, and where the chilly morning fogs roll in heavily from the open sea, is the land of boats and fishermen.” Captain Praffett is one of those boatmen. He uses Big Prue to carry messages and supplies and summer visitors from mainland to the picturesque islands. One day his spiffy dinghy, Little Prue, breaks loose in a storm and washes up on the pebbly beach where a little boy named Paul is vacationing – just the thing he had wished for!
Slobodkina’s collages are much more complex at this point, yet it’s easy to see some of the same, satisfying human shapes in these illustrations as she first used in The Little Fireman. I see these same shapes in the current work of French illustrator Blexbolex. Don’t you agree?
The Little Dinghy by Esphyr Slobodkina
from People by Blexbolex
Esphyr Slobodkina died at age 93. She has left us many wonderful stories that have stood the test of time, and introduced forms which paved the way for future outstanding illustrators. I hope you’ve enjoyed learning along with me, just a little more about her.