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  • Idea to Image:The Journey of a Picture Book
  • Elizabeth Cleaver (bio)

When Nanabozo grew older, he often changed himself into other things. Once, to trick a friend who was looking for him, he raised his arms, closed his eyes, and thought hard about becoming a tree.

Soon roots grew out of his feet and burrowed into the ground. Then leaves sprang out of his hands. His body turned into white bark, his arms into branches that sprouted more leaves. Nanabozo had turned into a slender birch.1

The imagination is a tree. It has the integrative virtues of a tree. It is root and boughs. It lives between earth and sky. It lives in the earth and the wind. The imagined tree becomes imperceptibly the cosmological tree, the tree which epitomizes a universe, which makes a universe. . .2

As a picture book artist, I find it exciting to go over my work and discover how imagery unfolds within it. When I began searching for themes to work with, I found that I was attracted to the legends of the North American Indian, to the folklore of French Canada, where I grew up and continue to live, to legends of Hungary, the country of my family's origin, and to puppetry and dance.

I shall always remember the excitement I felt when my father and I read together before I went to sleep. My first book, a picture alphabet, had shadow figure illustrations, and to make them come alive he would cast shadow images of rabbits, dogs, and birds on my wall, all with his two hands. The magical attraction that shadows and shadow puppets possessed for me remains strong now. A related childhood influence was paper cutout books, with which I spent whole afternoons playing alone, and which I still associate with happiness and play. These influences and others somehow form the core from which my work has emerged.

The poet and novelist Margaret Atwood has observed that "Indian legends and mythological materials function for Canadian writers as the Greek myths and the Bible long functioned for Europeans. The Indians and Eskimos are seen as our true ancestors, so it is to their legends we should turn for source material."3 As a child I was fascinated by Indian legends and went on outings with my parents to the Caughnawaga Indian Reservation outside [End Page 156] of Montreal. Some of my schooling was received in Europe where I was asked about Indians and Eskimos and became more aware of their presence in Canadian culture.

In the late 1960s, I discovered that there were no colorful picture books published on the Indian legends of Canada and I drew this to the attention of William Toye, my editor at Oxford University Press in Canada. He agreed, and eventually decided to produce two, thirty-two-page picture books simultaneously, choosing two Indian legends with strong pictorial qualities. One of the stories, The Mountain Goats of Temlaham, a Tsimshian legend, had been suggested to him by Professor Shelia Egoff of the University of British Columbia.4 The other was How Summer Came to Canada, Mr. Toye's adaptation of a Micmac legend that was first retold by Cyrus Macmillan in the 1920s.5

What truths, I wondered, might be explored in a picture book, especially one dealing with mythological material? What role might mythology have in our lives as children and adults? The distinguished mythologist Joseph Campbell talks about the human child as being born prematurely and needing protective nurturing in order to develop further. This is where myths can fulfill a vital need in human development. On the psychological level, myths focus on integration of the psyche and guide the individual stage by stage, as Campbell eloquently says, "through the whole foreseeable course of a useful life."6

When I am attracted to a particular myth or legend it is because of the verbal or visual images, the symbols, in it. For each of us, some symbols are more powerful than others. As Heinrich Zimmer said: "When dealing with symbols and myths from far away, we are really conversing with ourselves. . . . Hence the mythical tradition provides us with a sort of map...


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