Blazing a trail for picturebooks in Canada: the art of Elizabeth Cleaver.
The development of the Canadian picturebook for children did not really begin until the early 1970s. This article explores the strong influence of Elizabeth Cleaver, who blazed a trail for quality picturebooks in Canada:
Canadian picture books appeared sporadically from the 1930s on, and some major publishers, such as Oxford Canada, produced the occasional high quality picture book in the 1960s focusing on the Canadian experience, such as ... the first of William Toye's and Elizabeth Cleaver's collaborative series of single illustrated Indian legends, The Mountain Goats of Temleham (1969) and How Summer Came to Canada (1969). (Saltman, 1987, p. 19)
From 1975 to 1985, phenomenal progress was made in all aspects of Canadian children's literature, and especially in illustrated works. Several contributing factors facilitated the growth and recognition of children's literature in Canada post1975, a year regarded as a watershed for Canadian children's literature published in English. For example, the most influential factors impacting the tremendous growth in both international and domestic markets were increased translations into European languages and representation at book fairs worldwide; the success of Dennis Lee's book Alligator Pie (1975/2001), along with the growth of Canadian children's publishers; the introduction of the academic journal Canadian Children's Literature; and an increased interest in specialized book stores. All of these factors led to a more conducive climate for aspiring Canadian authors and illustrators.
Another significant factor in the increased availability of illustrated works for children was the use of a less expensive measure known as the Hong Kong color-printing technique. That said, the wealth of talent and diverse artistic styles of the time should not be overlooked: "Even an overview that merely skims the last decade's achievements in picture books must acknowledge the tremendous diversity of artistic styles and the proliferation of media generated by the illustrators" (Saltman, 1987, p. 28). Certainly, the work of Elizabeth Cleaver and her collaborator William Toye made significant contributions to children's literature and propelled the Canadian picturebook toward international prominence.
Elizabeth Cleaver's name was synonymous with the early development of the picturebook in Canada (along with the work of Ann Blades, Laszlo Gal, and Frank Newfeld). In recognition of her rich and influential body of work, the Elizabeth Mrazik-Cleaver Canadian Picture Book Award is presented annually (Saltman & Edwards, 2010). Cleaver's creative work on single, illustrated folktales and legends received generous accolades for "visual magic" in her portraits of indigenous Canadian stories. Her "sensitivity to, and understanding of, the psychological patterns and innate drama in native legend imbue her interpretations with an emotional resonance beyond the surface story" (Saltman, 1987, p. 48).
Cleaver illustrated a collection of poetry, The Wind Has Wings (Downie; first published in 1968), and, later, the New Wind Has Wings (Downie, 1984). Her wonderful sense of design, distinctive collage technique, and exhilarating use of blazing color and rich texture combined into the characteristic style for which she became famous:
Cleaver's fascination with the layered matter of mythology and archetypal imagery led her to illustrated legends of native peoples, a Magyar romance (The Miraculous Hind, 1973), anda Russian folk-tale like ballet (Petrouchka, 1980). Her use offolk motifs from each culture, often repeated in hypnotic stylized variations or friezes, add[s] cultural authenticity anda ritualistic formality to her pictures. (Saltman, 1987, p. 20)
Following The Wind Has Wings (1968), Elizabeth Cleaver achieved immediate success and acclaim and, in time, became a full-time illustrator. She thus was also able to pursue her own interests, combining the aforementioned ideal of pleasing both the children who read her books and herself. She once said, "I love fairy-tales, myths and legends; they are my 'inner world,' the world I love and want to re-create." One of her best-known works, The Loon's Necklace (1977), retold by William Toye and illustrated by Cleaver's collage art, presented a version of a well-loved West Coast aboriginal legend, and was heralded as a touchstone for picturebook art in Canada.
Two of Cleaver's best-known Canadian picturebooks from the First Nations' culture, also in collaboration with William Toye, were The Mountain Goats of Temleham (1969a) and How Summer Came to Canada (1969b). However, Canadian native tales were only one of her many interests. She had a great love for French-Canadian folklore as well (e.g., The Witch of the North, Downie, 1975). Hungary was her family's country of origin, contributing to her love of Hungarian tales and legends. Her passion for the ballet and stage design is clearly reflected in her rendition of Petrouchka (1980b), which won that year's Governor General's Award for Children's Literature. The book is a retelling of Stravinsky's ballet, one that highlights the complexities involved in the interaction of music and movement.
Yet another art form that fascinated this author/ illustrator was puppetry. The Enchanted Caribou (1985), her final work, is illustrated in striking black-and-white silhouettes, reminiscent of shadow puppetry. Cleaver once talked about how she believed shadow puppetry to be especially relevant to the kinds of myths and fairy tales she enjoyed, because "... it is ideal for presenting dreams, visions, and transformation scenes" (Cleaver, 1980a, p. 72). Always keeping her audience in mind, Cleaver added cover notes at the end of this story that encourage children to create their own shadow figures and shadow theatre.
Wolfenbarger and Sipe (2007) note, "Contemporary picturebooks are filled with new forms, images, and intersections, and are vital spaces for collaborative imagination and inquiry" (p. 280). Even today, Cleaver's illustrations convey multiple meanings in their own right while still possessing integral parts of the whole story within the traditional literature. In her artistic interpretations of legends and stories, she remained loyal to the original even as she conveyed her own visual imagination in forms that others will find appealing and meaningful.
More than 40 years after they were first published, Elizabeth Cleaver's timeless illustrations, in her medium of collage, continue to blaze a trail as they provide infinite new ways of "seeing" for the imaginative reader. Her unique and aesthetic qualities of the form now known for complexity as "picturebooks" (Wolfenbarger & Sipe, 2007) still offer the potential to launch imaginative readers on creative processes of their own as they explore, interpret, and extend these wonderful texts.
Cleaver, E. (1973). The miraculous hind: A Hungarian legend. Toronto, ON: Holt, Rinehart & Winston.
Cleaver, E. (1980a). Fantasy and transformation in shadow puppetry. CCL: Canadian Children's Literature, 15-18, 67-79.
Cleaver, E. (1980b). Petrouchka. Toronto, ON: Simon & Schuster Canada.
Cleaver, E. (1985). The enchanted caribou. Toronto, ON: Oxford University Press.
Downie, M.A. (1968). The wind has wings: Poems from Canada. Toronto, ON: Oxford University Press.
Downie, M.A. (1975). The witch of the North. Ottawa, ON: Oberon Press.
Downie, M.A. (1984). The new wind has wings: Poems from Canada. Toronto, ON: Oxford University Press.
Lee, D. (2001). Alligator pie. Toronto, ON: Key Porter Books. (Original work published 1975)
Saltman, J. (1987). Modern Canadian children's books. Toronto, ON: Oxford University Press.
Saltman, J., & Edwards, G. (2010). Picturing Canada: A history of Canadian children's illustrated books and publishing. Toronto, ON: University of Toronto Press.
Toye, W. (1969a). The mountain goats of Temleham. Toronto, ON: Oxford University Press.
Toye, W. (1969b). How summer came to Canada. Toronto, ON: Oxford University Press.
Toye, W. (1977). The loon's necklace. Toronto, ON: Oxford University Press.
Wolfenbarger, C. D., & Sipe, L. (2007). A unique and visual literary art form: Recent research on picturebooks. Language Arts, 84(3), 273-280.
Susan E. Elliott-Johns is Assistant Professor, Literacy Teacher Education, Schulich School of Education, Nipissing University, North Bay, Ontario, Canada.