Friday, February 12, 2010

Cars and Trucks

The semester is under way, with force. I'm enjoying the material I'm teaching a great deal. Much to report on each front, though I always think I'll post more than I actually do. We're having a big time in Postwar American Visual Culture, which I hope to discuss in the next several days for the benefit of next week's session, on Thursday.

But in the meantime, I'm enjoying the (quite deceptively) straightforward problem of illustrated nonfiction. I said I'd put up a few examples from the bibilography, and tonight I'm adding another from the Informational category. Above and below, Richard Scarry's Cars and Trucks, a Golden Book from 1951 that I picked up at a used book store. Not in great condition.

Here's what I love about this book (one of 300 or so that Scarry illustrated, most of which he also wrote): the directness with which he engages his problem, and the secondary stories he fits in around the vehicles themselves.

Specifically, this representation of a bus with workers and embarking passengers. How simple is that, right? A picture of a bus–big deal. But the picture has eighteen distinct characters in it, including a family outside the bus: befeathered mom in sporty yellow coat, green-fedoraed dad, and two boys with mid-century goofy getups, including woolen beanie hats and green cardigans.

There's a time capsule quality to these illustrations. Despite the fact that the flattening of form, simplification of the figure and general graphic selectivity point to a modern sensibility, the content feels ancient in spots. Costume, for sure. Gender stuff, of course, and the invisibility of non-whites. The material culture captured by the pictures is really striking, at least to me, in part because I recall some of it. The knobby–crenellated?–tires you see on trucks from that era. (Which I remember from the Oberlin Dairy milk truck that showed up in the still-dark morning, bearing glass bottles in wire baskets, as late as the 1960s.) Not to mention the coal truck! When I painted houses between college terms, circa 1981 and 82, I worked in and on houses with coal chutes. These chutes had been obsolete for decades by then. At the time they felt like something out of the 19th century. Although I remember fresh milk on the porch, I never lived in a house heated by coal.

Richard Scarry, who died in the mid-1990s, sold something like 300 million books, many of them Golden Books like this one. Who could begrude him his success? He makes pictures like this! How about that kid up in the left hand corner, playing fireman (accompanied–arf!–by his dog) just across the fold from the fire chief, whose "car speeds along."

Bibliographical data: Cars and Trucks. A Little Golden Book, Illustrated by Richard Scarry. Golden Press, New York. 1951. Golden Books were jointly produced by Simon & Shuster, New York, and Western Publishing Company, Inc., Racine, Wisconsin.

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