Zelinsky didn't set out to illustrate children's
By MICHAEL PATRICK HEARN
Paul Oser Zelinsky had not really thought about illustrating
children's books until he took Maurice Sendak's seminar as an
undergraduate at Yale University. He was a painting major, and
his knowledge of picture books up to then consisted of little
more than Little Golden Books and The Story of Ferdinand when
he was a boy.
Born in 1953 in Evanston, Ill., Zelinsky was the son of a mathematics
professor and a medical illustrator. He was drawing by the age
of 2, when the family lived in Japan for a year while his father
was on a Fulbright scholarship. His early sketches were of maiko,
the little girls in training to be geishas. Back in America, he
drew geishas on tractors!
From elementary school on he worked on several projects that
involved illustrating books. But he never thought he could make
a living doing it until he met Sendak.
What particularly impressed the young man about the course
at Yale was Sendak's insistence on the rhythm of the picture book.
"He got me charged up about children's books," Zelinsky
Sendak talked not only about his own work, but also introduced
his students (including Eve Rice and Sandra Boynton) to the vast,
rich history of illustrated children's books.
Zelinsky works firmly within that tradition. He now lives in
Brooklyn Heights with his wife, Deborah, a musician, and their
daughters, Anna and Rachel.
Zelinsky brings a painter's precision to his book illustrations
and has worked with many techniques. He hates to do, as he was
taught in art school, the same thing over and over again until
coming up with a distinguishing manner.
"Different books offer different things," he says.
"I have a lot of loyalty to the text."
He therefore has successfully avoided developing an easily
recognized "Zelinsky style."
"I try to bend it to the text," he explains. "I
try to imagine from the text what the style should be." From
that evolves the particular medium he chooses for a project.
"Instead of a style," he explains, "I have a
chain, a continuous chain, of ways that I work."
His early mastery of pen and ink is evident in the pictures
for Boris Zhitkov's How I Hunted the Little Fellows (1979). He
relied on color separations for the ebullient The Maid and the
Mouse and the Odd-Shaped House (1981).
His preferred technique for the fairy tales Hansel and Gretel
(1984), Rumpelstiltskin (1986) and Rapunzel (1997) has been oil
over water color underpainting on paper. For Swamp Angel (1994)
he painted on various wood veneer papers.
He fills his books with sly references to the world's masterpieces,
embracing everything from American folk art to Dutch genre painting
and Renaissance frescoes.
He got all charged up about illustrating Rapunzel when he went
to Italy to study firsthand the paintings he had only known in
Zelinsky also does not offer the usually glib retelling of
a fairy tale but makes a detailed study of the story's origins.
He cast Rapunzel in an Italian setting rather than the Black Forest
of the Grimm Brothers when he learned that they probably got the
story from a German translation of French rendering of a Neapolitan
This gentle soul will only take on a book if he feels there
is a real need for it, that the world might be better for it.
The world of children's books is all the better for Paul Zelinsky's
having entered the field.
Michael Patrick Hearn is a New York critic and reviewer. Caldecott
Award winner Paul O. Zelinsky has been visiting in Abilene this
weekend and is scheduled to participate in Artwalk activities
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