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  • Why the Books of Harlin Quist Disappeared—Or Did They?
  • Nicholas Paley (bio)

It has now been more than twenty years since Harlin Quist published his first, curious books for children. Since 1966, over one hundred children's books issued from his publishing houses in New York and Paris, casting a kind of eerie, haunting shadow over the otherwise sunlit world of children's literature and the children's book publishing industry. Until their appearance, few books published for children had collectively raised such consistent debate and discussion, applause and criticism.

Quist's initial involvement with children's book publishing began in the early 1960s with editorial positions at Crowell-Collier and Dell after a brief, but successful career as an off-Broadway actor and producer (his 1958 production of a Chekhov play won four Obie awards). At Crowell-Collier and Dell, Quist was instrumental in the publication of a series of boldly reillustrated children's classics, most of which were in the public domain. At Dell, a disagreement with a colleague resulted in his leaving; as Quist puts it, "The man I worked with didn't know books from cornflakes, and I said so. I was overheard" (in Glueck 39). In 1965, Quist struck out on his own, borrowing $100 to begin his own company with the expressed intent to publish an artistically valuable, intelligent, progressive—even aggressive—literature for children.

In 1967, Quist caught the attention of the children's book industry when he published Eugene Ionesco's Story Number 1, an account in which a father deliberately instructs his three-year-old daughter in linguistic anarchy, directing her to speak total nonsense. Publication of three other absurdist children's texts by the Theatre of the Absurd's premier playwright soon followed: Story Number 2, Story Number 3, and Story Number 4. Each of these texts was marked by similar celebration of textual absurdity, and each was notable for its innovative artwork. In 1968, Quist began publishing on the continent, establishing a publishing house in Paris, in collaboration with François Ruy-Vidal. A direct result of this collaborative activity was the publication of a number of books under the Quist imprint which were designed "for children of the future" by young, innovative European artists and writers (deBure 1974).

By the early 1970s, Harlin Quist had published over seventy books for children. In addition to the books by Ionesco, some of the better-known Quist books included Richard Hughes's Gertrude's Child, Guy Billout's Number 24, Crazy Cowboy by Guillermo Mordillo, The Kidnapping of the Coffee Pot by Kaye Saari, and Patrick Couratin's Shhh!. These and other Quist books provoked a lively debate during the 1960s and 70s regarding their suitability for young readers. Invariably, this debate reflected two opposing viewpoints: Quist books tended to be either highly acclaimed or unequivocally censured.

The books that Harlin Quist published won praise for a variety of reasons. In the first place, they were admired (especially in the art and graphic arts communities) for their exceptional beauty. Elegant design, superb craftwork, and exquisite production were hallmarks of Quist books for children. Their impressive physical presence reflected Quist's unique concern with the children's book as art object, not just as a medium for instruction or entertainment (Marantz 1975; Quist 1967). Not surprisingly, Quist books were repeatedly nominated to numerous national and international book award and best-illustrated book lists. From 1967 to 1975, for example, seven Quist books were selected to The New York Times Best Illustrated Children's Book list; four to the American Institute of Graphic Artists (AIGA) Book Awards; one to the Children's Book Showcase Award list; one to the American Library Association Notable Award list; and two to the International Youth Library Best of the Best Awards (See Appendix for listing).

As their nomination to a number of best-illustrated book lists suggests, Quist books were equally celebrated for their pictorial qualities. Visually innovative, often enigmatic and surreal, intensely colored illustrations were also characteristics associated with Quist books. Until their publication, few books for young readers had been presented with such a deliberate effort to introduce the aesthetics of the avant-garde...


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