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Zelinsky didn't set out to illustrate children's books


Guest Columnist

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 readily admits.

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 reproduction.

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 folk tale.

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 Thursday.


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