Modernist at Story Hour: Esphyr Slobodkina’s Picture Books

by Leonard S. Marcus, American author and expert on English language children's literature

Esphyr Slobodkina turned her hand to the picture book for the most pragmatic of reasons, as a means of paying the rent, but quickly embraced the genre for the opportunities it held in store to combine her central creative passion for abstraction with her natural delight in storytelling.

In 1937, in hopes of bolstering her income and on a tip from a New York society friend, Slobodkina presented her portfolio to Margaret Wise Brown, a glamorous young editor known for her iconoclastic approach to book making. Brown, who was also a gifted writer, worked for William R. Scott & Company, a fledging publishing firm with a small office located within the Greenwich Village headquarters of one of America’s centers of progressive education, the Bank Street School. Dedicated to publishing distinctively modern, Bank Street-inspired picture books that challenged children to think and see for themselves, the Scott staff was just then planning its first list.

The strongly patterned semi-abstract collages of the book dummy Slobodkina had prepared for the occasion seemed ideally matched to the publisher’s purposes. Ideally, that is, in all key respects but one. As a tale about a small child’s adventures with her elfin magical friends, Mary and the Poodies fell unmistakably within the genre of literary fantasy.

As such, it was at odds with the Bank Street precept (derived from decades of empirical research with nursery school children and early grade schoolers) that youngsters under the age of seven cared little for fantasy, living as they did in an all-absorbing “here and now” world of immediate sensory experience and modern day wonders (Skyscrapers! Telephones! Trolleys!) Such children, Bank Street founder Lucy Sprague Mitchell believed, wanted nothing so much as playful, rhythmically patterned stories about the world they knew.

Brown, who as a maverick poet for preschoolers would herself go on to challenge Bank Street orthodoxy, declined the book but in short order produced a more suitable manuscript of her own for Slobodkina to illustrate.

The first American picture book to be rendered in cut-paper collage, The Little Fireman appeared in Scott’s fall 1938 inaugural seasonand remains a touchstone work of picture-book art and design. Joining Slobodkina on that first roster of artists was Clement Hurd, an American painter and decorative artist who had studied with Fernand Léger in Paris. Subsequent Scott lists would feature Cubist-inflected graphics by Leonard Weisgard and by Slobodkina’s friend and fellow charter member of the American Abstract Artists group, Charles G. Shaw.

Slobodkina later explained her choice of collage by recalling that in her determined effort to cobble together a convincing presentation for her potential employer she had fallen back on her childhood love of paper-doll making. In doing so, her instincts had proven sound indeed. Reflecting on the purely aesthetic qualities of collage as an illustration medium, she would later observe that cutouts “enforce” a “simplicity of line that cannot be achieved by pen.”[i]

For Slobodkina, simplicity of composition and design was a priority because her ultimate goal was the creation of a kind of non-prescriptive art that left children with points of entry for their own imaginative participation. For this reason, she chose not to indicate the eyes or other distinguishing features of her brightly hued fireman-cutouts, the better for children to project themselves into the scene.

As a technique with which preschoolers often had some experience, collage was immediately recognized by Brown and her colleagues as serving the goals of progressive education in another, related way: by providing children with engaging models for their own art making.

Brown continued as both a writer and editor to collaborate with Slobodkina on picture books. She advised her in business matters and urged her to keep writing despite her self-doubt. “You write like a painter,” Brown assured her, “creating vivid pictures with very few words.”[ii] In 1940, Scott published Slobodkina’s first solo effort, Caps for Sale: A Tale of a Peddler, Some Monkeys & Their Monkey Business. As befit a streamlined retelling of a traditional folk tale—Scott by then had grown a bit less hide-bound about stories involving make-believe–Slobodkina adjusted her illustration style in the direction of a deliberately naïve type of representation reminiscent of Le Douanier Rousseau.

Commenting on the rationale for the change, she recalled: “This [hapless peddler] being a very specific individual, there was no question of dropping details of his face. He wasn’t just any Little Fireman, a symbolic figure with which any child was expected to identify. My peddler was to be a person, a character, and any child dramatizing the story would, I felt, naturally play him as an actor plays a part.”[iii]

 Published in the fall of 1940, Caps for Sale was a critical success, with the New York Times Book Review praising Slobodkina’s “brilliant pictures in which the design is as pleasantly repetitious and balanced as the text.”[iv]

The book enjoyed a respectable initial sale notwithstanding what the author considered the highly unsatisfactory reproduction of her artwork. William Scott must have agreed with her on the latter point, as half a dozen years later (Brown by then had left the firm to pursue her writing career full-time) he invited the artist to re-illustrate the book, offering guarantees that he had learned his lesson about false economies.

Happily, the new edition, which appeared in 1947, came “a great deal closer to my original concept,” she wrote in her memoir.[v] Sales spiraled upward as affection for the book grew throughout the post-war baby boom years and beyond.

Decades later, Caps for Sale still easily holds its own beside such other classic mid-century American tales of mischief and monkeyshines as Ludwig Bemelmans’s Madeline and the Reys’ Curious George, books whose arrival together signaled a deepening acceptance by the American cultural mainstream of the progressive educators’ and modern psychologists’ view that children’s playfulness was not a harmful tendency to be suppressed, but rather a natural asset to be trusted and nurtured. In translation, Caps has gone on reach readers of French, Hebrew, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Xhosa, and Afrikaans as well.

Two more Scott picture books written by Brown followed in 1948: The Little Farmer, which the author called Slobodkina’s “masterpiece . . . in humor and design and color,”[vi] and The Little Cowboy.

By then, Slobodkina had gained a good enough grasp of the offset process to be able to respond to its limitations as a challenge to her ingenuity. In a concerted effort to help limit Scott’s costs while also safeguarding the integrity of her work, she devised the rigorous plan for the illustrations for The Little Cowboy of restricting herself to a mere two colors (as opposed to the three colors Scott had granted her for The Little Farmer, or the four that larger publishers considered standard.)

While the results of this experiment proved a disappointment to her, with the “special charm of the true raised effect of the original collage” having “completely flattened out” in reproduction[vii], she still managed to capture the essence not only of Brown’s quicksilver text but also of the participatory style of learning that had inspired it. “The pictures,” the New York Herald-Tribune observed, “should be stimulating to younger children who might love to try to draw or to cut out big and little piebald ponies just like [those depicted in the illustrations].”[viii]

Brown’s untimely death in 1952 at the age of forty-two, of an embolism following routine surgery, suddenly left Slobodkina without her principal champion in the children’s-book world. Her selection to illustrate one of the many manuscripts left behind by Brown, Sleepy ABC (1953), helped ease the transition, and marked the start of her relationship with one of her two major publishers from then onward, Lothrop, Lee, and Shepard.

In keeping with the bedtime theme of Brown’s rhyming text, Slobodkina developed a patchwork quilt motif that unified the narrative content and design elements of her illustrations, and deftly harmonized with her signature collage technique. Two years later, Lothrop published her next solo effort, The Wonderful Feast, a simple yet beguiling tale drawn from Russian folklore about a barnyard at mealtime.

Given a freer hand with color than she had had in her last outings with Scott, Slobodkina had a field day, composing graphically bold collage spreads in which, as one admiring reviewer noted, “soft blues jostle sharp ones, plums, browns and greens give strength, orange touches pink judiciously and there is always enough white for drama. . . . The whole picture book is an aesthetic education for our youngest as well as a book they will surely love.”[ix]

For once setting aside her hard-bitten skepticism, Slobodkina took unalloyed pleasure in the reviewer’s praise. “For the first time in my life I was thrilled with a criticism. For the first time in my life the critic had really read, looked, and understood the thought behind my work.”[x]

For the next decade and a half, picture-book making had a regular spot in Slobodkina’s creative routine, with the artist producing one or sometimes two new books in nearly every year from the mid-1950s through 1970. She drew her inspiration from a wide range of sources: the places she happened to be living at the time (suburban New York for The Long Island Ducklings, 1961; Hallandale, Florida for Billy, The Condominium Cat, 1980); the perennially popular Caps for Sale (from which she elaborated two sequels: Pezzo the Peddler and the Circus Elephant, 1967, and Pezzo the Peddler and the Thirteen Silly Thieves, 1970); her Russian heritage (as for example Boris and His Balalaika, 1964, one of two picture books she wrote but did not illustrate herself); and, in one notable instance, her warm memories of growing up in Harbin, Manchuria.

The Flame, the Breeze, and the Shadow (1969), an energetic retelling of a traditional Chinese tale about the triumph of good-heartedness and quick thinking over snobbery and envy, gave Slobodkina the chance to explore her life-long love of Chinese art and material culture. In drawings behind which doubtless lay a substantial investment of time devoted to historical research, she produced some of her narratively most complex illustrations, for a book that in later years she would refer to as her personal favorite.

In all, Slobodkina had a hand in the creation of 22 picture books (not counting various re-illustrated editions), seven of them in collaboration with others. Her contributions to the genre, and in particular to the cause of elevating the status and expanding the potential of the picture book as an art form, were many and varied.

These may be limned in the enduring popularity of Caps for Sale; in the graphic dash and daring of two picture books that in recent years have enjoyed renewed life in reissued editions, The Wonderful Feast and Margaret Wise Brown’s Sleepy ABC; and in the singular example of Brown’s The Little Fireman in its original five-color Scott edition, a book that historian Barbara Bader has called “perhaps the apogee of modernism in the picture book.”[xi]

As the first American picture-book artist to experiment with collage and to grasp (however intuitively at first) the heuristic value of collage for illustration in books for children of the youngest ages, Slobodkina pointed the way for many later artists. Directly or indirectly, the example of her work set the stage for the distinctive contributions to the picture book of Leo Lionni, Ezra Jack Keats, Eric Carle, Ed Young, Lois Ehlert, Ellen Stoll Walsh, and others.

 At a time when the gallery world to which she also belonged paid scant attention to children’s-book illustration, Slobodkina seems never to have doubted the aesthetic worth of picture-book art in the larger scheme of artistic creation. Underpinning her minority view was the knowledge that the great nineteenth-century Russian poet and novelist Alexander Pushkin, who “almost single-handedly,” as she liked to remind American audiences, “brought about a metamorphosis in the Russian language,” had been moved to do so in large measure by the “lovely folk tales his nurse [had] told him” as a child.[xii]

Slobodkina concluded from this example that the cultural influences to which children were exposed could be of the greatest possible consequence.

She put the matter still more plainly when she wrote: “The parents, the teachers, the librarians, and yes, the writers and illustrators of children’s books must take their responsibility seriously, for the images, the verbal patterns, and the patterns of behavior they present to children in these lighthearted confections are likely to influence them for the rest of their lives. These esthetic impressions, just like the moral teachings of early childhood, remain indelible.”[xiii]

About the Author

Leonard S. Marcus
American author and expert on English language children's literature

Leonard S. Marcus is an American critic and scholar of children’s literature. His pathfinding writings and exhibitions have earned him acclaim as one of the world’s preeminent authorities on children’s books and the people who create them. He is the author of more than 25 award-winning biographies, histories, interview collections, and inside looks at the making of children’s literature’s enduring classics. His reviews and commentary have been featured in the New York Times Book Review, Washington Post, The Horn Book, and on numerous radio and television programs including Good Morning America, All Things Considered, PBS NewsHour, BBC Radio 4, CBC As It Happens, Beijing Television, and Radio New Zealand, among others.

Marcus received a bachelor’s degree in history from Yale University in 1972, a master’s degree in fine arts from the University of Iowa Graduate Writers Workshop in Poetry in 1974, and an honorary doctorate of human letters from Bank Street College of Education in 2007.


1 Esphyr Slobodkina, Notes for A Biographer, vol. 2 (Great Neck, NY: Urquhart-Slobodkina, 1980): 501. Slobodkina quotes an article by Helen G. Trager in which she herself is quoted. Slobodkina does not provide the source of this quote.

2 Ibid., 503.

3 Ibid., 479.

4 Ellen Lewis Buell, “Band of Monkeys,” New York Times Book Review, November 10, 1940, 118.

5 Slobodkina, 482.

6 Ibid., 488.

7 Ibid., 494.

8 Ibid.

9 Margaret Sherwood Libby, review of “The Wonderful Feast,” New York Herald-Tribune Book Review, May 15, 1955, 16.

10 Slobodkina, 455.

11 Barbara Bader, “A Lien on the World.” New York Times Book Review, November 9, 1980, 50, 66-7.

12 Slobodkina Foundation Archives, Glen Head, New York.

13 “Esphyr’s Edited Autobiography with Ending,” p. 31, Slobodkina Foundation Archives, Glen Head, New York.