January 12, 2006


Eloise Wilkin Stories. Stories and poems illustrated by Eloise Wilkin. Golden Books. $10.95.

     Eloise Wilkin (1904-1987) was a children’s book illustrator, doll designer, and homemaker and mother of four.  Most of her illustration work was for Little Golden Books, originally published by Simon and Schuster.  Random House, which now handles the line, has combined a number of works written between 1948 and 1962 for this treasury collection, and added an introduction, remembrance of Wilkin, and illustration from a posthumously published book of poems.  The result is a lovely tribute – but, it must be said, not necessarily a book that modern-day parents and children will find attractive.

     Wilkin’s strength in a certain illustrative style may be her undoing for 21st-century readers, because that style is one that seems at least quaint, at most old-fashioned and out-of-date today.  In the end-of-book “Remembrance of Eloise Wilkin,” written in 1987 after Wilkin’s death, Jane Werner Watson says “she has left us, only slightly idealized, rich reminders of a lovely time not very long ago.”  In the ensuing two decades, though, that “lovely time” has come to seem very, very long ago indeed.

     Some children will no doubt still find these mid-20th-century books charming.  The oldest, Busy Timmy by Kathryn and Byron Jackson, is simply a series of pictures of a charming towheaded toddler going through everyday play.  Guess Who Lives Here (1949) by Louise Woodcock has a cute premise: showing objects associated with a home’s residents and asking young children to guess whose things they are.  But the apron-wearing housewife (not “homemaker,” which is a modern term) and trench-coated, briefcase-toting father seem like relics of olden times.  My Little Golden Book about God (1956) by Jane Werner Watson offers some unusually interesting illustrations – a two-page extreme closeup of a child bending over to look at an insect on a flower is exceptional – and will likely please traditionalists who want their children to see the hand of a Western, paternalistic deity in everything.  But it may make many families uncomfortable with its simplistic approach and implication that everyone sees God the same way (would a book like this even be published today by a mainstream company?).  And so it goes: lovely pictures of idealized children living an idealized life in idealized settings, no matter what the subject matter. Even Wilkin’s illustrations of nursery rhymes and Robert Louis Stevenson poems have the same slight otherworldly flavor.

     From a certain angle, there is tremendous charm here, and parents who themselves grew up with Little Golden Books may want this treasury as a keepsake as well as something to share with their own children.  From another point of view, Wilkin’s pictures sugarcoat a world that never really existed – and now, decades after she made them, contain more of curiosity than of easily accepted beauty.  Wilkin was a talented artist, and her work is certainly heartfelt.  But it may be harder for her pictures to touch 21st-century hearts than the hearts of those for whom it was originally intended.

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