Many picture books currently available are mediocre, humdrum, and lifeless, with no real substance of text and with illustrations that are coy, contrived and otherwise poor. The literary text of a picture book should have enough literary quality to stand without illustrative support. Illustrations, on the other hand, should complement and elucidate or extend a well-written text, but remain subordinate to it. Although writing and graphic style varies greatly from individual to individual and from book to book, the best picture books result when there is a harmonious blending of text and illustration; which means that the style of the writer and that of the illustrator must be compatible. When author and illustrator are one and the same and when the writing and graphic talents are both exceptional, an exceptional book should result. Rain, Rain Rivers, written and illustrated by Uri Shulevitz, is one such book and so is The Magician. But Mr. Shulevitz also excels as an illustrator of books written by others. As proof of this, he was awarded the coveted Caldecott Medal in 1969 for his illustrations of The Fool of the World and the Flying Ship, a Russian tale retold by Arthur Ransome.
The late Mr. Ransome is one of the most admired and influential writers of works for children and The Fool of the World provides further evidence of the validity of our respect. During his stay in Russia as a foreign newspaperman during the Bolshevik Revolution, Mr. Ransome collected the Russian folktales which he retold and published in 1916 as Old Peter's Russian Tales. The Fool of the World and the Flying Ship is from the 1916 collection. It is a fascinating story, presented by Ransome with dignity and humor; while designed to delight and entertain the young, The Fool of the World, to use a Lockean expression, may also "afford useful reflection to a grown man." Be that as it may, Ransome's story furnished Uri Shulevitz with an excellent base for his illustrations. His line and wash drawings for The Fool are colorful, bold, spirited, and spontaneous. They command much of the space of each page or double page. Lively, dramatic, exaggerated, and vigorous, the Shulevitz illustrations never obscure or lessen the vitality of Ransome's text; on the contrary, they complement and enhance it. The author's text, the artist's illustrations, the end papers, page design, and book cover make The Fool of the World and the Flying Ship a near perfect example of the excellence which should characterize picture books for children.
The versatility of Uri Shulevitz as an illustrator and his own competence as a writer is amply apparent in his Rain, Rain Rivers. This book is as perfect an example of the harmonious blending of text, illustration, and design as is The Fool, but the poetic and wistful nature of the Shulevitz text requires less vigorous and bold illustrations than those of The Fool. Ostensibly designed for a very young audience, the text of Rain, Rain Rivers is brief and the illustrations absorb much space. The subdued blues, greens, and yellows of these illustrations are in perfect harmony with the textual tone of Rain, Rain Rivers. The alliterative language, the imagery, and the delicacy of color and illustration combine in a sensitive, nostalgic effect, suggesting the dreaminess experienced by children on a rainy day.
The Magician reveals yet another side of the artistic talent belonging to Uri Shulevitz. Here his black and white cross-hatch drawings anticipate a style of illustration which he later uses for Isaac Bashevis Singer's The Fools of Chelm. The Magician, adapted from the Yiddish of I.L. Peretz, is a very short tale of a travelling magician who comes on foot to a little village on the eve of Passover. After a final miracle the magician, who is really the Prophet Elijah, goes on his way—but not before being captured for earthly immortality by the magic pen of Uri Shulevitz. His illustrations, lively and humorous but innocent of ridicule, occupy the first half of each page of The Magician.
It is refreshing and reassuring to discover in one artist such great diversity and flexibility as is evident in...