November 30, 2007

Toni Frissell's Photographic Children's Books


One of my ongoing complaints with the Children's Book Industrial Complex is how few titles are illustrated with photographs instead of painting or drawing. Though there are some sweet exceptions, it feels like the whole modern photography world just checked out of the kid's business for most of the 20th century.

Toni Frissell was a photographer and socialite who worked with Cecil Beaton and Edward Steichen, and who shot for Vogue before WWII [when she was a war photographer for the Women's Air Corps] and Harper's Bazaar afterward. She also illustrated two children's books after her father suggested she might try taking care of her own children [with the nannies and nurses, of course].

In 1944, Harper & Brothers published an edition of Robert Louis Stevenson's slightly sappy A Child's Garden of Verses. The image above is from "My Shadow," ["The funniest thing about him is the way he likes to grow-"]. If I read my George Plimpton correctly, the kids in the photos included Frissell's own.

In 1957, she published Toni Frissell's Mother Goose, which had this entirely different image on the cover:


She actually much more range than that, as the 300,000-plus images in her archive at the Library of Congress demonstrates. Both of her titles are out of print, but available on Amazon and Abebooks for prices ranging from reasonable to ridiculous.

Meanwhile, on pure concept alone, my favorite might have to be another book she illustrated, The Happy Island; which consists of 1950 Kodachromes of her happy, shiny wealthy family's vacation to Bermuda. Nice work if you can get it.

image: "The funniest thing about him is the way he likes to grow-", from A Child's Garden of Verses by Robert Louis Stevenson, photo-illustrations by Toni Frissell. []


At the thrift store I pick up a lot of 60s and 70s kids books illustrated with photographs. I have a few by someone named "tana hoban" that are all about patterns, shapes, and colors. we have a bunch of photo books about puppies and stuff, and then I have this whole series published by the "danbury press" about all these morbid topics like how to deal with someone dying or why the neighbor kid has crooked legs. I like them because all the kids look like danny from The Shining. but my favorite is this book called "danny and ben together" about this mother who goes away for work and the dad has to take care of the son for a few days and all their mishaps and hi-jinks. hilarious!

[clearly, we need to find more discerning classes of thrift shop. I found a 1st ed Richard Scarry dictionary with the black cats pushing brooms, and the daddy cats in the office, but that's it so far. As for Tana Hoban, I know her black & white books of silhouettes, but didn't realize she was so huge. She was in Steichen's "Family of Man" exhibit at MoMA, and was variously credited with "inventing" the photo children's book in the 70's. -ed.]

I like the idea of publishing books with photgraphs instead of illustrations. But I think children probably like the illustrations better in most cases. Some exceptions might be nature books, astromony books, etc.

[how would anyone know? I think adults assume kids book=illustration, it's just a convention. -ed.]

I remember there was some study published when I worked for blogging baby that said kids learn better from illustrations than photographs, but (1) I think those studies were performed solely to provide fodder for people like me to write 2-minute, $10 blog posts; and (2) it said nothing about what kids prefer, and judging by the number of times I've had to read this crappy "my puppy" book with photos of a puppy growing up, the kid likes photo books just fine.

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