Book Launch at Jill Newhouse Gallery

MANHATTAN, Friday January 18 —

Last night, despite the plummeting temperatures, I attended a launch for a book of poetry called The Living and the Dead, written by Mario Luzi. Dana Gioia, himself a poet and former chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, translated this edition. The line drawings were rendered by internationally acclaimed artist Fulvio Testa. Both men were there to discuss the book, their inspiration, and even read a poem to the crowd. Also present was Michael Peich, founder of the Aralia Press, which published the book.  Two editions were available for purchase, one regular edition bound in red cloth boards and printed on Zerkall paper, and another deluxe edition on handmade Tovil paper, with hand-colored drawings by Testa and quarter-bound in leather. The Jill Newhouse Gallery was a warm venue, and many thanks to Gallery Director Christa Savino who explained to me the gallery’s display of Master Drawings. Beautiful books, art, and lively company were a wonderful remedy to melt away winter’s icy grip. 

Midweek gem

“Unspoken; A Story from the Underground Railroad,” by Henry Cole, Scholastic Press, 40 pages, $16.99 ages 4 and up.


Sometimes the most profound stories are wordless. Here, author-illustrator (and former schoolteacher) Henry Cole renders a tense and moving tale of the Underground Railroad with full-page graphite on charcoal paper illustrations. The weighty, sepia toned palette indicate that this story will challenge young readers’ understanding of right and wrong.  In a barn on her family farm, a young girl discovers a runaway slave.  Despite the presence of bounty hunters, she chooses to help this person find freedom.  The reader never sees the runaway; rather we see the slave as the girl does – as a wary eye peering out of a bushel of corn.  (There are hints in the images that the stranger may be a child.) In the end notes, we learn that the inspiration for this tale came from family members who told Civil War stories around the dinner table at the Cole dairy farm in Purcellville, Virginia. Unspoken will generate valuable discussion and interest about compassion under pressure while showing that courage is never limited by age, gender or race.


Why Write

imageI struggled this week to find purpose to what I do – how do I continue writing children’s book reviews in the wake of last Friday’s unspeakable tragedy? I couldn’t sit at my desk and find anything relevant, soothing, even angry, to write.  So I called my parents. My mother, after reflecting awhile, had the answer. We face a new world. Children will now likely grow up where no location can offer complete sanctuary.  Yet, there is one place, my mother reasoned, where children will still be able to escape, and that is in the world of books.  Fortified with this sound logic I share with you those books that I hope will bring joy and happiness to those who need them the most. 

“Picturing the ABC’s at the Norton Simon Museum,” created by the Norton Simon Education Department; 108 pages, Norton Simon Museum, $15.00, ages 3-5.



imageThe first book developed by the Education Department at the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena, California is a striking alphabet hardback that will make a sophisticated holiday gift for any art aficionado. Twenty-six die-cut images were selected from over 4,000 objects housed in the Norton Simon Museum. The museum was originally part of the private collection of business mogul Norton Simon, founder of the eponymous corporation whose holdings include Hunt, Max Factor cosmetics and Avis Car Rental. Images in the book include masterpieces by artists such as Degas, Cézanne, Rembrandt and Manet. Children will enjoy the peek-a-boo cutouts (“H is for/ Hat”) then turning the page to reveal the entire image. 

“The Nutcracker; A Magic Theater Book,” by Geraldine McCaughreaen, illustrated by Kristina Swarner; 24 pages, Chronicle Books, $19.99, ages 5-7.


This is the time of year when visions of sugarplums dance in the minds of young and old alike. This inspired rendering of Tchaikovsky’s ballet captures the whimsy and charm of the spectacle. Carnegie medal winner Geraldine McCaughrean condenses the story into 24 exciting pages. The story almost takes a back seat to the outstanding and glowing three-dimensional mixed-media illustrations rendered by Kristina Swarner. Paper engineering allows Marie and the Nutcracker to skip and leap off of the pages, which will no doubt charm young and old alike.

“Charley’s First Night,” by Amy Hest, illustrated by Helen Oxenbury; Candlewick Press, 32 pages, $15.99, ages 4-6.


Harry carries cuddly Charley home on a cold winter day, and so begins a lifelong love between a boy and his faithful pooch.  Charley is only a puppy, but Henry is gentle and cares for his charge like any doting parent would.  Amy Hest’s story flows beautifully, making the tale a joy to read aloud.  As always, warm and inviting illustrations by Helen Oxenbury invite the reader into this wintry wonderland. 



Interview with Fulvio Testa

Interview on November 11 2012 at the Waldorf Astoria NYC

Introduction to “Pinocchio” by Umberto Eco, “…it’s not even a fairy tale, since it lacks the fairy tale’s indifference to everyday reality and doesn’t limit itself to one simple basic moral, but rather deals with many.” 


       On Veteran’s Day a couple weeks ago, the internationally acclaimed children’s book illustrator Fulvio Testa sat down with me over tea in the Peacock Bar at the Waldorf Astoria to talk about his ground-breaking work for Geoffrey Bock’s new translation of Carlo Collodi’s Pinocchio.  The wide-ranging conversation inevitably led to a discussion of his artistic philosophy regarding children’s book illustration in general, and how he can’t get New York out of his mind.  

Focus and Rhythm

         For this project, Testa told me how he created a special storyboard that allowed him to keep constant track of the visual and literary levels he was trying to maintain. During the process, he constantly asked himself, “How can I get readers to understand the story simply by creating an image? There are two ways that I might create an image, either one image with two stories, or one large edited image.” To choose the right scenes for Pinocchio, Testa outlined places where he felt the images would best compliment the text, and read the book repeatedly in order to completely grasp the flow of action.  Perhaps equally important to the actual artwork itself, he added, is the pacing and the precise location of where an image is placed in a printed book. “There are fifty-two images in this book, and they are relatively close together. I try to create a rhythm to the illustrations,” meaning that each picture represents a pivotal moment in the story, and in Pinocchio most chapters either end or begin with an illustration. The flowing imagery allows the reader to maintain a steady pace, while creating pauses in the storyline and breaking the text into manageable parts. 

Action and movement

         At first glance the art for Pinocchio appears lighthearted and buoyant, however Testa’s work is in reality quite dynamic.  To show where the action lies in what appears to be a passive image, Testa pointed to an illustration in the book. In it, Pinocchio stands at Geppetto’s worktable and argues with the Cricket. “Some images are deceptive. They look approachable and friendly, but an older reader will see some of the darker aspects at work here. Look at the table. Pinocchio’s hand is very close to the mallet, which he will pick up shortly and throw at the Cricket, killing him. This is a triangle of violence here.”  This  is not simply a picture of a quarrel, but a violent avant scène, and yet is still an image that is appropriate for children.  “Children need action to convey a story of experience through repetition,” which may be why, in Pinocchio,Testa has filled the pages with the scurrilous puppet in all manner of situations, from skipping school to facing a fearsome serpent. Testa also believes that in order to be successful at his craft, a part of him must retain a childlike understanding and appreciation for the world.  “To illustrate, an illustrator needs to have a part of himself that hasn’t grown up yet,” Testa explained. “I have to be willing to re-experience pain, rejection, joy, and other emotions, as if for the first time.”


         Just as parents once used Pinocchio as a way to teach social and moral values, fables are equally important today in constructing a moral compass for children. Testa illustrated an edition of Aesop’s Fables, and finds their universal qualities a captivating way to educate young minds. “Through these stories there is a possibility to acquire a social sensibility.” He views his illustrations as an educational tool because they show how to deal with society from a children’s point of view, which is often more effective than an adult telling a child what is right and what is wrong. There is historical precedent to this approach going back to the nineteenth century, when < em>Pinocchio was first published.  Before there was mandatory schooling, children’s books were crucial teaching tools. Carlo Collodi originally published Pinocchio in installments and he initially intended to end the book with the death of the unfortunate puppet.  Indeed, the illustration that closes chapter fifteen shows Pinocchio strung up and hanging from a large oak tree.  The puppet survives the hanging, and continues on his adventures. 


Early Biography

         Born in 1947 in Verona, Italy, Fulvio Testa grew up believing he would become  an architect.  In 1968 he went to Florence, where he enrolled as an architecture student. Testa began traveling extensively throughout Europe in 1970.

         Eventually Testa met Štěpán Zavřel, a Czechoslovakian refugee and children’s book illustrator who in 1959 had escaped communism and fled to Italy.  Zavrel became Testa’s mentor and advised him to illustrate children’s books. Testa took his advice and discovered that he had a gift for creating images that speak directly to children. In 1971 Testa presented his first work, illustrations for H.C. Andersen’s The Nightingale to a Japanese publisher. The publisher rejected it only because the illustrations were in black ink. The book was published three years later – with colored illustrations. “I have cultivated my reputation [as a children’s book illustrator] since the beginning,” he said. In 1982 he began working with Dial Press, then branched out to other publishing houses. Since the 1970’s Testa has illustrated dozens of books and authored many of his own. 

New York

            Since 1981 Testa has divided his time between New York City and Verona in six-month intervals. The winter months are spent in his Uptown studio where he works on watercolors and etchings. His time in Italy is devoted to oil painting. “Watercolors require resolute design perspective,” he said, and like many artists, he finds the rhythm of the city to be an excellent inspiration no matter what the subject matter.  Oil paintings, like the suite of landscapes he showed recently at the Jill Newhouse Gallery in Manhattan, demand a distinctive focus.  “Oil is a different medium. It requires a longer drying process.” Sometimes Testa has ten oils in process simultaneously. Although he paints his dreamy abstract oils in Verona, Testa believes he would never be able to create them if he didn’t live in New York and absorb firsthand the vibrancy of the city that never sleeps. 


Odd Love

“Otter and Odder; A Love Story,” by James Howe, illustrated by Chris Raschka; Candlewick Press, $14.00, 40 pages, ages 5-7.

An otter falls in love with a fish that he might normally consider eating, and so begins this tale of discovering l’amour and the challenges of keeping an unlikely love alive.  Author James Howe’s hallmark read-aloud style (for which he won the E.B White Read Aloud award for 2007’s “Houndsley and Catina”) is in top form, with breezy, rolling, flowing lines of poetic prose: “But when Otter gazed into those eyes – those round, sweet, glistening eyes, he knew that he had found what he had not known he was looking for.”  Subtle humor throughout ensures that adults reading this will also smile during Otter’s journey to be with his beloved Myrtle.  Standout pencil on watercolor illustrations are by Caldecott Medal winner Chris Raschka (“A Ball for Daisy”). They are deceptively childlike, almost appearing to have been completed on a whim. Yet closer examination reveals a master at his craft, who brings together elements of fanciful expression in vibrant hues and layers of texture that will appeal to multigenerational readers. 

Thanksgiving Quick Pick

The holiday rush begins early, so here’s a bright book that will keep little ones entertained.  

“Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox: The Great Pancake Adventure,” by Matt Luckhurst; Abrams Books for Young Readers, $17.95, 48 pages ages 4-6. 

Matt Luckhurst’s debut children’s book spins a classic North American folktale about the giant man and his equally enormous blue ox by weaving joyful hand lettering with bright gouache illustrations.  The adventurous duo travels across the country on a gastro-quest that leads them to reshape the Rockies and carve the Grand Canyon. Luckhurst’s research, which the author discusses in a lovely end note, informs a story that stays true to to the myth of Paul and Blue.  The book is an ode to insatiable appetites and reminder of those early Americans whose pluck and ingenuity helped shape the country, two timely themes to consider as we celebrate Thanksgiving.  

Sometimes, a bowl of soup is perfect, except when it’s not.

“Happy Harry’s Café,” by Michael Rosen, illustrated by Richard Holland; Candlewick Press, $16.99 32 pages, ages 3-5. 


English poet Michael Rosen (“We’re going on a Bear Hunt”) takes a classic Jewish joke  and crafts a quirky rhyme around it in this warm and toasty picture book.  Harry, who appears to be a polar bear, makes the best soup in town. Ryan the Lion, Jo the Crow, even Matt the Cat rush in to taste this perfect potage.  “Take it easy!” Harry admonishes his hurried customers, but perhaps Harry has taken his own advice once too often. One day Matt the Cat says the soup is no good, and from there develops the gag to its quirky punchline. Rosen’s easy to follow rhymes are printed in large type which resemble woodblock cuttings. This allows budding readers to pick out words like “soup” and “spoon” on their own. Veteran illustrator Richard Holland’s mixed-media illustrations are whimsical and fill each page.  “Happy Harry’s Café” is great for reading aloud. This story, like a good bowl of lentil, chicken noodle, or matzo, will totally satisfy and warm the spirit on a cold winter day.