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  • The Artist's Other Eye:The Picture Books of Mitsumasa Anno
  • Leonard S. Marcus (bio)

When I was a child I pictured the world-is-round concept as a rubber ball turned inside out with the people of the different continents living inside the ball. Of course it was a boy's way of imagining, but this kind of imagination, I believe, is another sort of eye for perceiving what things really are.

—Mitsumasa Anno, in Fourth Book of Junior Authors and Illustrators

Among the more adventurous picture books to appear in the United States in the last dozen years have been those of the Japanese illustrator, painter, and teacher Mitsumasa Anno. Few artists, past or contemporary, have presented so fully realized a vision of the picture book as a distinctive form, or approached their work with so spirited a taste for experiment as has Anno. His books are on themes as various, and one might at times have thought unlikely, as anamorphic illusion, the mathematical concept of factorials and the Ptolemaic world view, as well as on such more conventional picture book themes as the alphabet and first numbers. Perhaps the most characteristic quality of Anno's illustrations, whatever his subject happens to be, is the open-endedness of their imaginative forms; Anno's knack, that is, for making books that readers must complete with their own understandings, fantasies, words. All art of substance remains open-ended to some degree, subject to interpretation. But Anno's books engage different readers in distinctly different levels of mental activity; they arise out of a deep knowledge of the stages of children's mental development, and more generally, of the types and habits of human perception, from simple recognition and naming to the poetic ranges of metaphor-making. A child who returns to Anno's best books at intervals of a year or more is apt to find that they correspond to changes in his or her own interests and awareness.

Even the Alphabet1 and Counting Book2, which have as their starting points basic grade school lessons, are not only concerned with sets of facts to be memorized once and for all, but with relationships between facts, with orders and classes of facts and experience. Thus from the latter book one not only learns to count in whole numbers, but realizes that counting, [End Page 34] quantifying, and measuring are activities useful all one's life—for playing jumprope and for earning one's living. The Counting Book's clever plan, according to which illustration details (trees, houses, fish in the stream) always occur in multiples equal to the number being presented transforms a rote lesson into a whimsical game of hunting for additional examples of the number within each picture. The Counting Book follows the pattern of a cumulative counting song like "The Twelve Days of Christmas." By this device, Anno indirectly introduces the concept of addition. He continues the book through the number twelve instead of the more usual counting book limit of ten; in addition, the double page illustrations turn out also to represent the months of the year, a calendar. Learning from such a densely constructed, suggestive book as this becomes a process of gradual recognition, of not-having-to-be-told.

To speak of "readers" of Anno's wordless picture books is appropriate because his pictures are of a kind that tend toward language. The Alphabet and Counting Book, among others, directly concern the basic signs of written language, but this is only their most obvious link to the language realm. Much that at first glance seems merely decorative in the illustrations turns out to have a specific verbal reference or association. A reader of the Alphabet, for instance, mentally draws up a list of the plants and animals pictured in the ornamental border for the letter P and recites: "parrot, pea, pumpkin, poppy"—a tongue-twister stumbled upon, decoded. To discover the tongue-twisters, visual puns, and other plays-on-wordlessness half-hidden in the books, one must first have begun to think in terms of names and naming, as young children learning to talk do, pointing incessantly to nearby objects and announcing their...


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