I was saddened to read in The New York Times this morning that Alice Provensen had died. Along with her husband Martin (1916-1987), as well as in her independent career, Alice’s distinctive style found its subject in a wide range of subjects: history, poetry, and delightful original stories for children. They illustrated their own writing as well as the work of other authors.
The lush colors and fantastic swirling images of The Color Kittens, the information-packed parade of U.S. presidents in The Buck Stops Here, (updated in 2013 to include President Obama), and the Provensen original interpretation of both Robert Louis Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verses and traditional Mother Goose rhymes, are all unforgettable. Much of her work is still in print, including the recent A Day in the Life of Murphy and Murphy in the City¸ but some of the most outstanding of the Provensens’ work can only be purchased on the secondary market: The Golden Treasury of Myths and Legends Adapted from the World’s Great Classics by Anne Terry White, The Provensen Book of Fairy Tales, and Leonardo da Vinci. These are sophisticated works with high expectations of young readers. Why must they disappear?
The Provensens won a Caldecott for The Glorious Flight: Across the Channel with Louis Bleriot July 25, 1909, and a Caldecott Honor for A Visit to William Blake’s Inn: Poems for Innocent and Experienced Travelers, by the brilliantly inventive poet Nancy Willard (1936-2017). The latter is an incredible achievement, with Willard’s original poems and the Provensens’ artwork conjuring a fictional past rooted in Blake’s life. The Provensens include primitivism, medieval imagery, and the architecture of 18th and 19th century London, as ingredients in their indelible vision of the poet and his imagined guests. Tigers and cats sleep side by side, busy artisans work at their trades, and the Blake himself composes poetry undisturbed by all the activity. The subjects this book encourages for discussion with children, as well as adults, include the Romantic Age, Blake’s work, architecture and art, and the creative process itself. A related work also by Nancy Willard and the Provensens, The Voyage of the Ludgate Hill: Travels with Robert Louis Stevenson, also opens a window to the past, with the Provensens’ Stevenson holding to the ship’s mast, his tie fluttering in the wind, and a copy of Treasure Island in his hand.
The world of children’s literature has lost an artist who embodied all the best qualities of her profession: genius, originality, continuity, breadth and range of work, and respect for the intelligence and imagination of children.