A Conversation with Giles Laroche

Kid Lit Vulture was able to squeeze in an impromptu interview with Giles Laroche when he visited a local elementary school. Amidst the dismissal-time din at the end of a day of building buildings with kids, Laroche opened a window on his early Northern New Hampshire encounters with books. His most recent work is If You Lived Here: Houses of The World (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011).
Laroche’s rendering of the Connected Barn House in If You Lived Here.
Here’s Kid Lit Vulture’s elevator pitch—Laroche’s multilayered scenes rival the best fictive text in engaging the reader with a really nuanced sense of place. I won’t use the C-word but certain others in the children’s book world had this on their shortlist for a round, gold thingamajig.

I’ve seen a photo of your studio. It looks almost like a tree house. How did you come by that space?

The studio is connected to a 1780 house that I purchased in 1980. It was filled with debris left by the previous tenant. I emptied it gradually, put down a floor, and put in a glass panel, so it looks out over trees. The beams sort of mimic the branches of a tree. It wasn’t until I cleared it out and put in the floor that I realized, “That’s where I’m going to create my artwork.” It’s in New Hampshire. However, I do the vast majority of my work in Salem (Mass.) My studio there is on the top floor of an old Victorian house. It’s a very simple space, a large space. It has great light and quiet and sits above the trees.

Do you listen to anything while you work?

I do! I listen to a wide selection of music, I particularly like music from the 1920s and 1930s and medieval Spanish music.

Hoagy Carmichael, perhaps?

Yes! He was a great songwriter.
illustration from Maria Chapdelaine

What books do you remember reading as a child?

Well, I grew up in a somewhat different culture—French Canadian culture. We didn’t have the same books. For example, I didn’t become aware of Harold and the Purple Crayon until I was twelve or so. My mother read Maria Chapdelaine to me as a child, perhaps because it was her favorite book. It takes place well north of Quebec City near to where we have relatives.

I read newspapers and magazines ,which we had in abundance in a waiting room in my mom’s business. I discovered children’s picture books when I became an uncle at age 9 and read to nephews books like the Provensens’ Big Book of Color, the Richard Scarry books, and Barbara Cooney’s The Little Juggler.

Was Québécois your first language, then?

Yes.

I’m wondering about your exposure to certain other illustrators and authors, like Leo Lionni.

I didn’t read him as a child. I did read his books—Swimmy and Frederic, for example—to my niece and nephew when they were growing up. I’ve always liked Richard Scarry’s work. You know, when I was young, at home we had a dictionary on a pedestal. Well, we got a new one and I was given the old one. It was huge and richly illustrated. I used to draw in it. I feel like I read the whole thing,

Can you tell me about any artists who have inspired you, or whom you like?

So many! I really love Sienese artists from thirteenth century. I love that school of painting because they were illustrators.
Giles Laroche with child-made “city,” June 2012.

The Bowdlerization of Busytown

The candidate is a travesty. To begin with, her eyelashes are the same length as her eyebrows.

She panders to her constituency by handing out free food embossed with her image.  Aside from this flagrant violation of campaign finance laws, she’s got other problems, among them a dalliance with a Marie Antoinette wig that ends up televised. The Ides of March transposed with Sarah Palin’s uncola uncandidacy? Nope. It’s Richard Scarry‘s Hilda Hippo’s Favorite Stories.

Let me digress right away (I wouldn’t be Kid Lit Vulture if I didn’t). Have you ever read your kid one of the first two Arthur stories on the same day as any of the later books in the series? Did anything catch your eye?

The face of the protagonist, Arthur, aka Arthur Read, is all aardvark. Therein lies the charm, in my view. Marc Brown‘s got that ugly thing going with the earliest incarnation of Arthur and his family (Arthur’s Nose, 1976), best embodied in the  pockmarks that spit and churn up the illustrations. Some editor, or maybe Marc Brown’s “people” convinced him to give Arthur a makeover between book two and book three. Facelift, botox, ear reshaping, nose reduction—probably tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of cosmetic surgery. Where did it get Arthur? Did Brown really have to cleanse him of his essential aardvarkness to orchestrate the skyrocketing celebrity he later enjoyed? Would it really be going too far to suggest that the airbrushing of Arthur parallels the compression of childhood that media literacy maven Diane Levin, among others, pinpoints?

Arthur's  Eyes
Only first editions of Arthur's Eyes, the second in the series, depict an animalistic Arthur.

Postscript to above digression: after writing this, I found Marc Brown on the record, in response to a question from some Connecticut first-graders, saying “Arthur looks like a real aardvark in the first book. But the more I drew Arthur, the shorter his nose became. I guess I just wanted to make him friendlier looking. My friend Steven Krensky, who’s also a writer, said that Arthur is starting to look human and it’s scaring him.”

I find Brown’s “accidental” anthropomorphism story disingenuous. Yes, it’s all relative; our libraries are littered with animals in sweaters. Yes, it’s harmless. But I don’t have to like it. I’m loyal to the Arthur of the Nose and the Eyes.

Eyelashes a bit long, cheeks a pinker shade of pink? Hilda gets coy in the era of Nick Jr.

Hilda hasn’t gone through the same kind of transformation between her younger incarnation in the original Richard Scarry books and the Hilda who is the frontman for the Richard Scarry Corporation in Richard Scarry’s Hilda Hippo’s Favorite Stories. But doesn’t that double possessive tip us off that something is not right with this picture?

The brawny wonder of Busytown (along with her sister in Scarryness, Miss Honey) actually smiles with her eyes closed in the title under discussion. This is a coyness we do not see in any early Richard Scarry books (I’ll get my fact checkers right on that). But wait a minute, Richard Scarry’s Hilda Hippo’s Favorite Stories, it turns out, is flagged “as seen on Nick Jr. and Showtime.” So, our Hilda of the Eyelashes is a mere stepchild of Richard Scarry. On the copyright page, we learn the product is “adapted from the animated television series The Busy World of Richard Scarry.”

Hilda
Even as late as 1975, Hilda appears without eyelashes.

What a small gaggle of ten and twelve–year-olds said, when I told them I was interested in comparing old Scarry and new Scarry, was that there isn’t as much drawing in the margins in the 21st-century books. In most vintage Scarry, we have the likes of Goldbug hiding in odd places, pencil cars, pickle cars, and various invertebrates driving other inventive vehicles, yakking with each other, and doing their union jobs with integrity and verve. Those kids were spot on. The television-sourced Scarry has been cleansed of marginalia—the very essence of Scarry in his heyday.

Did I whet your appetite for more Scarry stuff? Here’s a fascinating comparison of differences between old and new Scarry editions.

Exhuming the Good Humor Man

The Good Humor Man has accumulated a heap of social capital. After all, he gives children, mommies and daddies something that dare not speak its name, because it’s a ridiculous name—“ice cream novelties.”

Ting a Ling a Ling
Ting a Ling a Ling

What’s more, there are no purses, wallets, bills, coins, or credit cards visibly evident in The Good Humor Man’s transactions.

It would be ridiculous to assert the 2001 reissue of the 1964 “classic” Little Golden Book, The Good Humor Man, more than coincided with the uptick in  liar loans and the metastasizing of the shadow banking system.  Did getting something for nothing ever go out of fashion? Similarly, it would be unscientific to make anything of the fact that the wife of Michael Meehan—the first broker banned by the SEC for stock manipulation ,in 1937—owned the Good Humor company. So I won’t.

Besides, if I really wanted to make an analogy between predation in the U.S. economy and the messages relayed by LGBs, I would have to incorporate the other five “classics” Random House reissued in  2001, including The Little Red Hen. So let’s move on.

The Good Humor Man has several other interesting messages to its (dis)credit.

There’s the “different” kid. His nom de goldenbook is Little Johnny Slowpoke. If the name doesn’t knock you over the head with his particular kind of difference, his jowls and chubby elbows and knees will. Even his puppy is fat! This hapless, pal-less fellow is befriended by a peer only in the story’s denouement, and then only through an almost magical adult intercession. That intercessor is—yup, you guessed it—the Good Humor Man.

JohnnySlowpoke
Little Johnny Slowpoke sharing his pineapple pinnacle with his puppy

Who is the kid who befriends Little Johnny Slowpoke? Why, it’s Dick, the only other named kid in the story. He’s also “different”—he’s the only one who isn’t depicted gravitating to the Good Humor truck amongst a gaggle of mommies and daddies. He’s been farmed out to granny for the summer. Dick’s grandmother isn’t the boomer kind with running shoes who staffs Little Golden Books’ Pat the Puppy, a descendent of Pat the Bunny. Instead, Dick’s granny comes complete with rocking chair, bun and knitting. They live high up on a hill away from the others. “I want an extra-special treat for Dick,” says granny. “I don’t know any children, and I’m afraid he finds it a bit lonely up here.”

So not only does a high-fat, sugary ice cream bar compensate for a difficult social situation, but it’s delivered door to door.

As the insidious plot develops, the neighborhood kids and parents gather when they hear that siren song—“ting a ling a ling.” Again, Johnny Slowpoke comes only at the last minute. But this time he is crying. He has lost his puppy!

The Good Humor man shook his head sadly and handed Johnny a comforting coconut cone.

Well, The GHM is on task if nothing else. When he continues his route to Old Lady Griggs’ house , he spots the puppy, who’s wandered up there. He tells Dick and his granny whose it is. They descend their lonely hilltop, return Puppy to Little Johnny Slowpoke, and the two boys become (apparently) friends.

So, the takeaway? Feeling good—feeling better, that is— is indistinguishable from consuming something soft and sweet (and branded), even when your BMI is pushing the limit.  David Kessler’s The End of Overeating would be a great pairing with this book.  Kessler demonstrates the multiple and multifarious ways that the food industry has ramped up the comfort quotient in comfort food to ensnare us, like something out of the Little Shop of Horrors (or, in this case, Little Golden Books).
Little Johnny Slowpoke Has Lost His Puppy

And now, to flash forward a bit. From the publisher:

Little Golden Books have mirrored children’s popular culture over the years, having featured Lassie, Raggedy Ann, Uncle Wiggily, Roy Rogers and Dale Evans, Howdy Doody, Annie Oakley, Captain Kangaroo, Bozo the Clown, Gene Autrey, The Lone Ranger, Smokey Bear, Disney, Warner Brothers, Hanna Barbera, Sesame Street, Pokemon, and Between the Lions characters, Mister Rogers, Barney, Frosty the Snowman, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Underdog, Peter Cottontail, Barbie, and others. Dr. Ruth Westheimer has just penned a story about grandparents starring herself.

via Little Golden Books.

Wait a minute—Dr. Ruth? Yes, she’s Dr. Ruth Wordheimer on the PBS series Between the Lions, but if Dr. Ruth as a children’s author exemplifies the imprint’s accomplishment of “mirroring children’s popular culture,” then we’ll have to redefine “children’s popular culture.”  I’ll propose “media industry constructs of what will sell to children via their parents.” After all, you can’t get something for nothing.