I am 8 years old, sitting in my 3rd grade class. Mrs. Cole has just finished reading a chapter from “The Little House in the Big Woods”. This is what she does every day after lunch…she reads from the Laura Ingalls Wilder series. I can’t remember how many books we got through that year but I do have some memories of “Little Town of the Prairie” (because I thought it was SO COOL when Laura got her inscribed calling cards). What I do remember, clearly, is that Mrs. Cole would always turn the book around to show the class any illustration she came to while reading. In that one, slow swivel of her hand, I was immediately transported to the great plains of Kansas, the pines of the Big Woods, the blizzards of the newly settled Dakota territories. It was Laura’s words that had the power to transport me back in time and it was Garth Williams’ illustrations that sealed the time machine’s door shut. Forget 1978…I was forever in 1878.
(the following photos I took from my collection of books. embrace the details.)
Garth Williams–illustrator extraordinaire (IMHO). In my child’s mind his name was synonymous with Laura Ingalls (yet, he was not the first artist to illustrate her books…he replaced Helen Sewell, also a prolific illustrator. And if you ever find “Little House” books with her illustrations, from the 1930s, you have hit the jackpot). Laura and Garth, Garth and Laura. I feel like I grew up with these names. After third grade, I know I read the series again, but it didn’t have the same impact as it did that first time through (a few years ago I read them as an adult which added an entirely different perspective–I would have loved to have been a pioneer child but not a pioneer wife). Mr. Williams was able to beautifully illustrate Laura’s life and times for a very notable reason: he spent about ten years in her world (and then illustrated it in Italy!-I love this man). Once he received his commission to do the work, he traveled West to visit all the places she and her family traveled/lived. He “pored through old newspaper files and spent many hours in museums studying household furnishings of the period”. He even found the depression on the banks of Plum Creek where the sod house “must have been”. All of his research gave way to the intricate and specific details that can’t be missed in his illustrations. And it explains why, after all these years, I can’t think about Laura’s stories without seeing Garth’s pictures in my mind. Laura and Garth. Garth and Laura.
(I think this next one was my favorite cover)
(because who wouldn’t want to run barefooted across the roof of their house? seriously.)
But he was not known just for the Little House books. Oh heavens no. This man was an artistic genius. He also illustrated such memorable books as “Charlotte’s Web” and “Stuart Little” by E.B. White and “Bedtime for Frances” by Russell Hoben–all of which were great favorites of mine. And remember the Golden Books? He is credited with illustrating about a dozen of those. Obviously, this man’s art was a major fixture in my formative years.
(fern and wilbur in that second picture is so me at age 8–not that I had a pet pig but I loved my doll babies)
So why, WHY??, am I sharing all of this? Well, my vintage soul was moved the other day when I was leafing through the “Signals” catalog and happened upon this item:
Described as: “‘Laura Ingalls Wilder: Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography’. Before writing ‘Little House in the Big Woods’ and ‘Little House on the Prairie’, Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote her autobiography. Hidden away since 1930, it reveals the true stories of her family’s pioneering life. Many are not suitable for children, including scenes of domestic abuse, love triangles gone awry, and a man who sets himself on fire while drunk…this is a rougher, grittier, and more realistic view of frontier life, full of fresh insights into a beloved author.'”
Whoa. Not a romanticized version of Laura’s life but the real deal. This “real deal” is probably more in line with what I was able to surmise from the books after reading them as an adult. Pioneer life was HARD. I am excited, beyond all these words, to read it. My copy has been pre-ordered though Amazon (thank you, Amazon for applying a 30% off Black Friday deal to an unpublished book; bah humbug and get a clue, to you, Barnes and Noble for not doing the same) and it will be here sometime in December…hopefully in time for my own “Long Winter”.
Anyhoo! Reading up on this new book about Laura of course made me think of her children’s books, which made me think of Garth Williams, which lead me to PInterest looking for his illustrations, which, in turn, had me Googling him online to learn more about this wonderful man (who had four wives–perhaps he was better with pen and colored pencil than he was with marriage) and the illustrative legacy he left for millions of children. Phew! And insight into the workings of my mind…
Do you have a favorite book illustrated by Garth Williams? Are you interested in reading Laura Ingalls Wilder’s autobiography?