Children’s Books: Fairy Tales and Classics From a Perfect Pair

What a delicious jolt nostalgia can deliver! There are moments in adulthood when we catch sight of something we’d forgotten we loved as children, and it feels as though a gong has been struck in our hearts. I don’t suppose I’d seen “The Provensen Book of Fairy Tales” since elementary school—it came out in 1971—and might never have recollected my girlhood affection for it had the book not recently come back into print. As it is, “The Provensen Book of Fairy Tales” has been striking the old internal gong, leaving a reverberating sense of both gratitude and delight.

The Provensen Book of Fairy Tales

By Alice and Martin Provensen

NYR Children’s Collection

136 pages

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This wonderful book comprises a dozen classic literary fairy tales, all but one ornamented by the midcentury illustrations of Alice and Martin Provensen. The exception is a story from Hans Christian Andersen, “The Nightingale.” NYRB editor Susan Barba felt that the two Provensen pictures of Chinese courtiers originally accompanying the story might now be “considered a caricature and not historically accurate.”

There’s such goofy splendor in the Provensen’s work here: a playful perspective that piles one thing on another; faces with toothy grins and bared nostrils; thickly painted peasants and maidens and fairy godmothers all possessing an earthy, humorous quality. For A.A. Milne’s story “Prince Rabbit,” the Provensens create a distempered scene of gormless medievals watching an enchanter gleefully transform a rabbit into a prince. Their illustrations for Barbara Leonie Picard’s “The Three Wishes” include the image of a virtuous young man freeing a fox from a snare, his body curving in sympathetic counterpoint to the bent shape of the suffering animal. It’s a book well worth the return for those who remember it from childhood and well worth the discovery for new family read-alouds.

A Closer Look

Selections from ‘The Provensen Book of Fairy Tales’ by Alice & Martin Provensen

New York Review Children’s Collection

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It’s interesting, though, that what feels like the ur-Provensen style of the fairy tales is but one expression of the couple’s creative range. As we see in a heavy monograph, “The Art of Alice & Martin Provensen,” Alice (1918-2018) and Martin (1916-87) pursued other styles in their four decades of making pictures together.

The Art of Alice and Martin Provensen

By Alice and Martin Provensen

Chronicle Chroma

240 pages

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Husband and wife were raised in Chicago, but they didn’t meet until 1943, when they were both working as film animators in Los Angeles. They married the next year and by 1947 had left the movies and moved east to work as illustrators for the Little Golden Books imprint. If you’ve read Margaret Wise Brown’s perennially popular Golden Book “The Color Kittens” (1949), you’ll have seen their playful and beguiling early work. The couple settled at Maple Hill Farm in Dutchess County, N.Y., where they turned the barn into an art studio and in time made a home for their adopted daughter, Karen. In the early 1950s, they took a freelance gig for a Kellogg’s ad campaign, creating the first images of Tony the Tiger. As their daughter recalls in “The Art of Alice & Martin Provensen”: “The joke throughout my childhood was that we’d be rich if only they were paid one cent for every box of Frosted Flakes ever sold.”

A Closer Look

Selections from ‘The Art of Alice & Martin Provensen’ by Alice & Martin Provensen, Leonard Marcus, Robert Gottlieb, and Karen Provensen Mitchell

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Through the late ’50s and into the ’60s the Provensens turned their efforts toward illustrating works of classic and foundational literature, including the New Testament, Shakespeare’s plays, Aesop’s Fables, Tennyson’s “The Charge of the Light Brigade,” and the “Iliad” and “Odyssey.” Their tableaux for the Homeric epics, featured in the monograph, have an arresting duality, with elongated figures of gods and humans that seem at once light on dainty feet yet also weighty in posture and import.

By the 1970s, the couple was writing and illustrating children’s books about their daughter’s pets and other barnyard “animal friends,” as a 1974 title had it. This coming fall, the publisher Enchanted Lion will be bringing out a hitherto unpublished picture book from this time that tells of a shrewd and mischievous farm cat. In “The Truth About Max,” the Provensens use ink and watercolor to depict the tigerish animal beaming out at the reader as a dismayed little girl, presumably Karen, stands nearby holding two forlorn objects in her hands. “Max has his own room and bed,” we read in handwritten cursive. “It is full of squirrels tails.”

A Closer Look

Selections from ‘The Truth about Max’ by Alice & Martin Provensen

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From all accounts, including that of their close friend Robert Gottlieb, who has contributed an essay to “The Art of Alice & Martin Provensen,” the Provensens had an enviable marriage marked by rare creative synergy. They would retreat to their “private and magical studio,” as their daughter describes it, and when they emerged they never discussed where the pen (or brush) of one had left off and the pen (or brush) of the other had begun. “There is a great sense of support in having someone beside you whose skill and judgement you trust,” Alice Provensen noted. “We thought of ourselves as one artist illustrating.”

They were also, we might say, one artist traveling. The Provensens loved to go abroad, where in lieu of taking photographs they kept sketchbooks full of little paintings and drawings. Excerpts from these informal diaries appear in “The Art of Alice & Martin Provensen,” showing slim women in Madras with water jugs balanced on their heads, passers-by crowding a street artist in Venice, the blue water and sooty banks of the Seine in Paris. Through their sketchbooks and their illustrations, we get to see the world as the Provensens saw it, and what an enchanting place it was.

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