Someone asked me a few days ago, why I read juvenile literature. The only answer I could think of is, “Why not?”
I did stop reading such books in my teens, but when I had kids, I started again. I was reminded of what great art is published in children’s picture books and what fine coming of age stories, historical novels, and great fiction are written for the juvenile market. There is always a bit of poetry, magic realism and hopefulness in the books I read – I’ve kind of skipped over the whole dystopian young adult phenomena, just as I’ve try to choose “adult” literature that doesn’t leave me feeling bereft about humanity.
Children’s books are written by adults and most are purchased by adults, so the writers and illustrators keep that in mind. These writers are adults who have kept their sense of play and wonder.
My latest favorite in juvenile literature is the picture book From the Good Mountain, How Gutenberg Changed the World by James Rumford, published recently by Roaring Brook Press.
It’s illustrated like an illuminated book from 1450. The book begins, “It was made of rags and bones, soot and seeds. It wore a dark brown coat and was filled with gold. It took lead and tin, strong oak and a mountain to make it. What was it?”
The whole process of the first book is then told, from how the paper was made, to how the printing press was constructed, and how the pages were sewn together. You really get a sense of the time and energy it took to make a book. Although it was not a simple process, it did make books easier to publish and eventually made reading a skill available to even the poorest of people.
Rumford is an award winning author who spent over 2 years writing and illustrating this book. He is also a papermaker, letterpress printer and binder. His love of the book form is evident on every page. But unlike many who fear the loss of the form, Rumford is excited about the way technology is leading to new kinds of books. I love how the golden flora in the borders of the illustrations transform at the end into the circuits of a computer chip.
Each two page spread is illuminated like a 15th century incunabula, the term for the first printed books, which means “cloth in which you wrap a newborn baby.” I found this out in the informative epilogue that gives a history of books, as well as some insight into why he chose to portray Gutenberg in an elegant red turban.
The book begins with a portrait of the city of Mainz, Germany, where the first book was printed, and ends with the same scene lit by a rosy dawn. The watercolor painting is gorgeous.
Much of the action takes place in margins. The characters are beautifully painted anonymous workers all contributing to the production of the mysterious book. On every page there is something surprising to learn about how a book is made.
People are busily boiling rags and bones, processing ink, pressing paper. Medieval times come to life with dirt and glory. Children work along side their mothers, ladies hold their noses against the smell of the tannery. There is a lovely vignette of an African boy panning for gold for the gilding process. Another scene shows children begging as workers troop by with printing supplies. The overall feel is active excitement as people work together to make this marvelous new thing.
The illustrations were done in pen and ink and painted with watercolor and gouache. On his website, Rumford says:
“I would make the look of the book as old-fashioned as it could be so that kids today could feel what it was like to hold a richly ornamented book in their hands. On each two-page spread I decided to show how each step in the bookmaking process was done—from paper making to gilding to typecasting and press-building. I would end the book by showing graphically how the old technology was being transformed into the new as I changed the gilded designs of the illuminated pages gradually into the circuits of a modern computer. To emphasize this, I painted a portrait of Gutenberg in the style of fifteenth-century illuminators on the front cover while on the back cover I digitally transformed the same picture into a portrait of a computerized man….Since the illustrations were to be like the miniatures done in medieval manuscripts, I decided from the start to rely heavily on the computer. This gave me the freedom to break up the image and work on each element separately….Thanks to the computer I was able to approximate the unique work of fifteenth-century illuminators.”
It’s an absolutely delightful book and a visual treat for anyone who loves art, books or a history. The writing is crisp and rhythmic, and is fun to read out loud. I enjoyed the way each new page spread answered a question from the previous page. It held the attention of my 5-8 year old audience, and the illustrations were great for prompting questions. But I think I liked it best.
James Rumford lives in Honolulu and runs Manoa Press, which makes handmade books. He is the author of the award winning Silent Music, and Tiger and Turtle, both of which I hope to read soon. James Rumford website is here:
And the website for his press is here:
As a side note, From the Good Mountain, reminded me of another children’s book that I love, Marguerite Makes a Book, by Bruce Robertson and illustrated by Kathryn Hewitt, published by J. Paul Getty Museum in 1999. This is also done in the illuminated style of the 1400s. A young girl helps her father make inks and illustrate prayer books for the nobility. She journeys all over Paris gathering supplies from goose eggs, to vellum, to the minerals needed to make paint. Kathryn Hewitt recreates the ornate luxury of a prayerbook. It was inspired by a book in the Getty collection. This book is still in print and widely available.
So, literature had it's beginning in conjunction with illustrations. So don’t limit yourself. Even if you are an adult with no kids in sight, let the magic of picture books back into your life.