- Paul Goble, Storyteller by Gregory Bryan
In Paul Goble, Storyteller, Gregory Bryan investigates something of a mystery: How did a boy of white, middle-class British background come to write over forty children’s books on American Indian themes? While in recent years Goble has been charged with cultural appropriation, Bryan makes no attempt to hide the fact that this biography pays tribute to a man for whom he maintains a deep admiration. The consequent laudatory tone comes to represent both a strength and a limitation of his project. Written with the assistance of Goble himself, this biography achieves an intimate perspective on the work of a major figure in children’s literature. However, some readers may find [End Page 115] Bryan’s treatment of the controversies surrounding Goble’s books insufficiently critical or even problematically apologetic.
This is the first biography of its kind. No other book-length study of Goble’s life has yet been published, aside from his thirty-two-page children’s autobiography Hau Kola: Hello Friend (1994). Richly illustrated and concisely written, Paul Goble, Storyteller should be of interest to specialists and nonspecialists alike. In fifteen short, digestible chapters, Bryan explores the influences that contributed to Goble’s singular aesthetic and to his lifelong preoccupation with Native American cultures.
Born in 1933, Goble grew up in an artistic family that nurtured his creativity and his love for nature and adventure. Childhood reading likewise played a role in his early fascination with indigenous ways of life. As a young boy, he enjoyed Golden Age children’s classics such as Treasure Island, The Jungle Book, and Two Little Savages, in addition to nonfiction settler narratives such as the writings of George Catlin. By quoting from these works in epigraphs that frame each chapter, Bryan emphasizes their formative role in shaping Goble’s imagination. What results is a palimpsestic effect, revealing the traces of a Victorian colonialist imaginary underlying Goble’s contemporary picture books. Bryan observes that these favorite childhood texts “mirror experiences and attitudes from [Goble’s] life, proving the power of books to inform and shape us.” He then adds, “Goble’s own books have been informing and positively shaping readers for decades” (x). It is this second claim to which Goble’s critics may object.
After publishing several books on Native American themes while still residing in England, Goble relocated to South Dakota in the late 1970s. Bryan reports that Goble developed a close relationship with individuals from nearby tribal nations, including Edgar Red Cloud of the Oglala Lakota, who had adopted him on an earlier visit. As Bryan stresses, Goble hoped that his children’s books would honor, preserve, and transmit the traditional Plains Indian stories that he gleaned from storytellers such as Red Cloud. He approached this task not only by retelling these narratives, but also by attempting to translate their oral form to the printed page.
However, the biography also demonstrates the ways in which Goble’s books depart from a strict adherence to the traditions of the Plains Indians, embracing a far more eclectic aesthetic. In The Girl Who Loved Wild Horses, a winner of the Caldecott Medal in 1979, we can find horses inspired by the ledger art of the Plains Indians galloping alongside billowing black clouds inspired by traditional Chinese paintings. Before devoting himself to creating picture books full-time, Goble worked as a furniture designer, and his illustrations also evince a graphic sensibility influenced by midcentury modern design. Across his oeuvre, he sustains a thoughtful use of line, shape, and white space that recalls his design training. A significant contribution of this book is therefore its illuminating close readings of Goble’s art in collaboration [End Page 116] with biographical research.
As Bryan notes, Goble’s trademark precision emerges most notably in his intricate handling of natural landscapes. While perhaps best known for his red sun motif, he devotes equal, if not greater, care to the world beneath our feet, meticulously rendering rocks, grass, foliage, flowers, and even litter. Across this lush topography, Goble playfully hides small animals—snails, lizards...