Emily’s Runaway Imagination – Beverly Cleary and
Beth and Joe Krush, William Morrow and Company, 1961
On Saturday, May 18, the inimitable children’s book illustrator, Joe Krush, will turn one-hundred-and-one-years-old. I have tried my best before in this blog (here and here and here and here), and on The Horn Book, to write the kinds of tributes to him that convey, at least a bit, the glorious detail and expressive beauty of his line drawings. Since Beverly Cleary, with whom Mr. Krush collaborated on three teen novels, has just celebrated her one hundred and third birthday, I thought it would be a good opportunity to draw attention to a Cleary book for middle grade graders for which Joe and his wife Beth also drew wonderful pictures. Emily’s Runaway Imagination is an unusual Cleary work, partly based on her own life growing up in the nineteen twenties in rural Oregon. Not surprisingly, the Emily of the novel loves books, and the plot partly involves the efforts of her small town to establish its own library.
As always when the Krushes are part of a literary team, the illustrations are inseparable from the story; my childhood memories of first reading this book are illuminated, if that is an appropriate term for black and white images, by the scenes of Emily moving through her adventures and misadventures with cinematic swiftness. There is Emily opening the door of her family’s wood burning stove, her hand raised in dismay to her face. What happened to the flaky pie crust she had hoped to create? Her mother, in an elegant, if simple, shirtwaist dress and black t-strap pumps, the perfect attire for baking, looks on with patience and empathy. From the coffee grinder sitting on top of the stove, to the curly arabesques decorating the hood, every touch of the drawings immerses the reader in the story with unpretentious, invisible, skill.
A kind Chinese immigrant, Mr. Quock, is clearly isolated, but Emily becomes his friend, not before Emily learns to discard some foolish prejudices of her own. The picture of Emily leaving his house, presented as a smaller oval inset at the bottom of the page, shows the old man waving at Emily as she walks past his house, He is in the foreground, and a small Emily to the right of the picture raises a mittened hand, fully colored in black. In the background, a Victorian gingerbread-style house is filled with closely placed lines, with black areas within the windows matching Emily’s mittens and shoes. Mr. Quock, a figure drawn mainly in white, aside from a few lines on his cardigan’s cuffs, looks quiet and vulnerable. When a scene calls for action, the Krushes are equally ready, as when Emily and her cousin June are terrified by a thunderstorm and the expectation of seeing a ghost. Emily opens the door with determination and confronts the darkness with a flashlight, while June, her face turned towards us, looks completely disoriented as she clings to Emily’s nightgown. The Krushes have shown us who is the brave one here. Even the dog is cowering under the table.
Joe Krush’s contribution to children’s book illustration is difficult to describe but impossible to miss. I hope I have conveyed, on his birthday, some of the joy which his art has brought to readers.