Bring back the joy: the illustrations we remember

My brain is distracted, as much as I want to get on with writing something significant. (But what…my distracted brain asks….is significant?) During my non-work hours and between checking email or worrying about my adult kid making it through COVID-19 or thinking about an elderly mom I can’t visit – I have moments of concentration, but not hours. And I know I am one of the fortunate ones.

Last week I made a short video about a book from my childhood. I had selected it from my book shelf, a favorite I hadn’t looked at since my own kids were young, as I attempted to find something joyous to share with Mom on FaceTime, knowing she wouldn’t be able to see the illustrations clearly. It was then that I remembered this most famous illustrator, Garth Williams. Among the books that he illustrated are many widely known: Charlotte’s Web, Stuart Little, Pat the Bunny, Bedtime for Frances, The Little House collection, and most of the “fuzzy characters” in many Golden Book stories. Oh, to remember this man who left many of us with forever images, even if we no longer remember details of the accompanying story.

Garth Williams lived between 1912 and 1996 and is most notable for his classic children’s book illustrations, illustrating more than eighty books. He received formal training at the Westminster School of Art and the Royal Academy in London, and both his parents were artists. His illustration of Stuart Little was described in the New Yorker by Sarah Larson as showing this character to be both mouselike and dapper, and “expressing both the dignity and absurdity of the human condition and the animal condition alike.”

Williams was not devoid of controversy. His illustrations in 1958 of The Rabbits’ Wedding depicted the wedding of a white rabbit to a black rabbit: creating contention between Alabama Senator Edward Oswell Eddins and Alabama State Library Agency director Emily Wheelock Reed. Eddins, with support from segregationists, demanded the book be removed from Alabama libraries. Reed, after reviewing the book, determined it to be her ethical duty to defend such a ban. Williams later, after explaining his intentions, stated that the story was written for children, not adults, who “will not understand it, because it is only about a soft furry love and has no hidden message of hate.”

The Rabbits’ Wedding by Garth Williams, copyright 1958.

It is fair to say, however, that as we view these illustrations of the past, the ones I know reflect only white children: far from showing the diversity we want and need today. The Little House Books were perhaps most criticized as racist through both the author’s portrayal of Native Americans in the stories, coupled with how the few Native Americans illustrated by Williams were depicted. While most libraries continue to carry this popular series – and some of our memories may make them dear to us, some librarians do not actively promote them. Others suggest the inclusion of the racist content to be an important teaching lesson for children of today.

The remaining illustrations by Williams found within the Laura Ingalls Wilder series have been said to successfully draw life as it was with beauty and realism together. And while many original children’s books have been retold with new illustrations and animations updated from those originally published, we are fortunate that Williams’ images are today considered classics and have endured.

So now, finally, for this moment. Remembering some of my most favorite images of books important enough to me to still garner shelf space in my bedroom.

So now, take a few minutes and track down that most special book you remember from childhood. If you’re lucky you have it somewhere within reach. If not, search for it online (or await the reopening of libraries) and remember the simple pleasures of curling up in a safe spot or a favorite library, and enjoy a few moments of refuge and joy. Better yet, read it aloud to yourself, a friend, a loved one, or special pet.

In case you missed this video last week that got me thinking about Garth Williams, you can watch it here.

4 thoughts on “Bring back the joy: the illustrations we remember

    • Me too, Amy. Thanks for sharing. I began reading The Little House in the Big Woods to my mom by phone the other day (since I can’t visit – I was outside her window, but she couldn’t see the illustrations.)


  1. Oh the Little House books were MY favorite, too! I remember saving allowance in order to own my own complete set (in paperback) which I lent to my niece when SHE need to read them over and over …that was at least 35 years ago. I got them back in well-loved condition.
    Another favorite illustrator of mine is Eloise Wilkin, who illustrated all those Little Golden Books. I don’t have one handy, but I bet you know her work. A favorite line from one of the books “It is busy being a mother.” The chicken noodle soup and crackers looked good enough to eat.


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