Mitsumasa Anno (1926-2020)

Anno’s Spain – Mitsumasa Anno
Philomel Books, Penguin Young Readers Group, 2003

The great Japanese artist and author of numerous books for children, Mitsumasa Anno, died this past December at the age of 94. Known for his wordless journeys around the world, his books about math concepts, and his many innovations in illustration, Anno was the recipient of the Hans Christian Andersen Award in 1984, as well as numerous other honors. Just one example of his lovely visual storytelling is Anno’s Spain, imbued with affection for a specific culture, in this case that of Spain. 

Each two-page spread features realistic detail combined with an implicit narrative.  Past meets present in the windmill scene, where Don Quixote himself can be found tilting at the monstrous structures. (He and Sancho Panza appear throughout the book.) At the same time, contemporary workers harvest olives, tiny block dots standing out in a lush field of green trees. Readers also get the opportunity to view the mechanical structure inside a windmill, where technology meets rural life.

One incredible picture shows, on the right-side page, a typical bullfight, a custom dating from pre-Roman Celtic times. On the left, there is a lively street market full of activity, including a thief snatching a woman’s purse. The side of a shop is decorated with azulejos, blue glazed ceramic tiles, each one with a different design. This craft has its origins in the Islamic art that is central to Spanish history and culture, but one is designed with a Star of David, an obvious allusion to the rich Jewish history of Spain.  There is a quite a lot of potential in this book, as in all of Anno’s work, for children to connect the elements in the pictures through building a story. 

Anno had so many artistic influences, some of them described in an afterword, “A Note About Mitsumasa Anno and His Journey,” which is, unfortunately, not credited.  The same scene described above includes an homage to the great Spanish painted Velázquez and his famous portrait of the royal family, Las meninas. As in the original painting, viewers observe the artist himself at work, painting the princess and her servants. Here, instead of being ensconced in a place, they share the outdoor space with ordinary people, also depicted intently watching the artist.

Illustrators today owe a debt to this marvelously gifted and humanistic Japanese artist.  His legacy on the world of children’s books is indelible.

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