The Graphic Canon of Children’s Literature: Comic Artists Reimagine Beloved Childhood Classics, from Tolstoy’s Fairy Tales to Harry PotterBy: Maria Popova
“One sign of a great work of literature or art is that it can be interpreted multiple ways, that it remains ambiguous, refusing to provide clear-cut answers.”
“Tales are powerful instruments and should be wielded skillfully,” artist Andrea Dezsö told me in our conversation about her striking black-and-white illustrations for the little-known original edition of the Brothers Grimm fairy tales. Some of history’s most skillful wielding of tales has refused to bend to the false divide between “children’s” and “adult” storytelling — there are the Grimms themselves, of course, but also Tolkien, who vehemently believed that there is no such thing as writing “for children”; Maurice Sendak, who in his final interview scoffed that he has never written for children; Neil Gaiman, who opposes the idea of protecting children from the dark; Madeleine L’Engle, who believed that the best children’s books ask questions that “disturb someone’s universe”; and most of all C.S. Lewis, who elegantly eviscerated the notion that literature should treat children as a special species.
On the heels of the year’s best children’s books comes a magnificent embodiment of that ethos in The Graphic Canon of Children’s Literature: The World’s Greatest Kids’ Lit as Comics and Visuals (public library | IndieBound) — the latest installment in an ongoing series of comic adaptations of beloved works of literature.
In this volume, fifty contemporary graphic artists reimagine such classics as The Little Prince, Alice in Wonderland, The Wizard of Oz, Aesop’s fables, Russian fairy tales, Harry Potter, and even The Diary of Anne Frank.
Series editor Russ Kick writes in the introduction:
Part of the appeal is my belief that “children’s literature” can be great literature, period. Works meant primarily for children or teens are usually ghettoized, considered unworthy of serious treatment and study. But the best of it achieves a greatness through heightened use of language, through examination of universal themes and human dilemmas, and through nuance and layers of meaning. One sign of a great work of literature or art is that it can be interpreted multiple ways, that it remains ambiguous, refusing to provide clear-cut answers.
Children’s literature is wild. It’s often bizarre, grotesque, dark, and violent. It seems odd that many of these works are considered children’s literature… Danger everywhere! Wolves, dogs, tigers, condors, thieves, wicked stepmothers, witches, giants, pirates, disease, Nazis… There’s something about seeing a children’s work fully illustrated sequentially to make the terror and weirdness that much more visceral, that undeniable.
We ended up with over forty adaptations and over sixty stand-alone illustrations that treat children’s literature with the respect, daring, and verve it deserves. In a strange twist, we created a book that many people may think isn’t suitable for children… They might be right. The book has obvious appeal for teens and adults, and maybe they’re the only audience for a work that shows so many bizarre, upsetting, and nightmarish images. Or perhaps we should keep in mind something Sendak said in one of his final interviews: “I refuse to lie to children. I refuse to cater to the bullshit of innocence.”
Here are a few of my favorites, beginning with British illustrator and Penguin book-cover designer Lesley Barnes’s breathtaking illustrations for the Russian fairy tale “Ivan Tsarevich, the Firebird, and the Gray Wolf,” which my grandmother used to read to me when I was little and which graces the book’s cover:
American comic artist Lucy Knisley, who read Harry Potter when she was fourteen, reimagines the famed J.K. Rowling series:
Artist Dasha Tolstikova — the illustrator behind the heartwarming bibliophile tale The Jacket — takes on At the Back of the North Wind by Victorian preacher and unsung fantasy pioneer George MacDonald, who influenced such storytelling icons as J.R.R. Tolkien, Madeleine L’Engle, C.S. Lewis, and more:
Children’s book author and illustrator Karen Katz does a lyrical adaptation of Tolstoy’s little-known tales for young readers:
Comic artist and illustrator Isabel Greenberg presents an appropriately gory take on Hans Christian Andersen’s The Tinderbox:
Chicago-based artist and writer Caroline Picard adapts the tales from Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book in an unusual visual sequence, where each story moves forward from left to right along a single arrow-line across multiple pages:
Illustrator Matthew Houston applies his singular style of visual psychedelia to H.G. Wells’s The Time Machine:
Swedish cartoonist Emelie Östergren presents a wonderfully twisted take on Astrid Lindgren’s Pippi Longstockings:
The Graphic Canon of Children’s Literature contains many more treasures at the intersection of literature and graphic art. Complement it with the previous volumes of the series, then treat yourself to the year’s most intelligent and imaginative children’s books.
Images courtesy of Russ Kick