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  • Randolph Caldecott: His Books and Illustrations for Young Readers
  • Leslie Mcgrath
Robert J. Desmarais . Randolph Caldecott: His Books and Illustrations for Young Readers. University of Alberta Libraries / University of Alberta Press. xviii, 118. $24.95

This book is the catalogue of an exhibit at the Bruce Peel Special Collections Library, at the University of Alberta, of materials from the personal collection of its rare books librarian Robert Desmarais, supplemented with a few items from the Bruce Peel Special Collection. It is well illustrated with clear images from the twenty-six books represented in the show. Desmarais's intent is to show that 'Caldecott was a pioneer in the way he beckoned his young readers with an innovative and engaging aesthetic approach to the picture book genre.' Although this is ambitious for the scope of the publication, Desmarais does provide some background in his twelve pages of introductory text, in which he describes the early life and artistic education and development of Caldecott, and his works for the young compared with those of his contemporaries, notably Walter Crane and Kate Greenaway. Desmarais criticizes Crane's book illustrations for their formality and [End Page 306] Greenaway's for their unrelieved prettiness, but fails to acknowledge their popularity. He states his opinions unsupported by evidence of children's preferences. His judgments are sometimes very broad: Desmarais may be correct to say that Caldecott 'achieved something unique by persuading young readers to identify with the non-human characters in his books,' but others had successfully made this attempt before him. Caldecott's achievements require a more detailed historical background to support Desmarais's claim.

In the catalogue entries, Desmarais introduces Caldecott's works for the young with short descriptions of the texts, artistic techniques, and technologies. There is necessarily some repetition of technical detail in the entries. The notes about the texts are interesting but uneven in their treatment of historical background and literary content. The origin of some stories, like The Diverting History of John Gilpin, is described in detail, while that of others is not. For example, The Babes in the Wood is based upon a well-known and loved sixteenth-century ballad, but it is deemed here an odd selection for Caldecott to have illustrated, with hundreds of other nursery rhymes from which to choose. He makes no reference to the history of The Queen of Hearts. The description of the illustrations of Jackanapes does not do them justice: Desmarais writes that a 'child is seen riding a pony while his family looks on encouragingly. In a very explicit manner, Caldecott's illustrations give resounding encouragement to young readers to go out and have fun ... Caldecott is at his best with these lighthearted illustrations that speak directly to the innocent yearning of children to break free of the burdens connected with growing up.' This is, in fact, the story of Theodore, a boy of striking beauty who wants only to be a soldier like his deceased father, and who follows his fated inclinations to a youthful, heroic death in battle. He is eventually shot while riding his beloved pony, the one mentioned above. Caldecott's fine emblematic treatment of the theme lends a special poignancy to the tale, and it is the reason behind its unusually formal cover illustration.

Desmarais gives only an outline of Caldecott's life and omits much of his legacy. Although he mentions a number of Caldecott's artistic colleagues and admirers, there is no discussion of his strong influence on Beatrix Potter, whose father bought Caldecott's drawings for her to study. No comment is made about the eponymous Caldecott Medal, established by the American Library Association in 1938, awarded annually in the United States for the year's most distinguished children's picture book. Desmarais provides notes and a list of works cited. He does not discuss the problems of identifying editions and bibliographic details of Caldecott's books, and provides only basic descriptions, without pagination or measurements. This is an attractive exhibit catalogue, containing useful information about the production of [End Page 307] Caldecott's books, but many of Desmarais's statements and generalizations about children are based upon opinion rather than...


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