The Courtis-Watters Illustrated Golden Dictionary for Young Readers – by Stuart A. Courtis and Garnette Watters, illustrated by Beth and Joe Krush
Golden Press, 1961, revised version of 1951 edition
Yes, Beth and Joe Krush illustrated a children’s dictionary! If you collect the nearly obsolete genre of children’s print dictionaries, or if you are Beth and Joe Krush fan, you will want to acquire this out-of-print book. If you are interested in midcentury education, or modern American history, or any other subject that appears within the pages of a dictionary, you might also want to see this book.
If you read my blog, you know about my enthusiasm for every book graced with pictures by the wonderful Krushes. In addition to the fact that they rarely worked in color, this book is unique since it falls outside all their other categories: fiction, non-fiction, anthologies. (Joe Krush also illustrated record album covers.) Opening to the endpapers, you are first immersed in a visual tribute to written language. A cave man paints a bison, a Chinese scribe creates a manuscript, an ancient Jew holds a Torah scroll, and Benjamin Franklin, or someone who looks just like him, stands in front of a printing press. Inside, the pictures become smaller and more detailed, accompanying and expanding on so many useful definitions.
Let’s look at the entry for “Inventions.” Admittedly, some of them may not seem useful today, but they are. A rotary phone, record player with amplifier, boxy television set, mechanical pencil sharpener and a bulky radio still appear in books, films, and other media. The zipper, and the delicate nylon stockings tucked behind a parachute of the same material, were once new, as was the Bessemer converter used in manufacturing steel. The smaller entries are just as valuable and revealing. We see an adorable set of quintuplets in pink playsuits, bookended by one holding a toy kitten and the other a dog. “Race” depicts two different definitions. Three boys and one equally fast girl compete for speed. A closer look shows an interesting artistic choice, with one guy in a suit and tie, another in a V-neck sweater and tie, a third in shorts and a tee shirt. The girl wears a pink dress with a slip showing under the hem. All four competitors seem happily engaged in running, regardless of how appropriate, or inappropriate, their attire is for the task. The second image illustrates “race” as “a large group of people who have the same skin color and kind of hair, and other common traits.”
Obviously, there are some potential challenges there, but the Krushes’ picture shows a Black, white, Asian, and American Indian example. The skin color on the face of the Chinese boy would no longer be depicted in that shade, which is almost fluorescent, but the other skin colors are also somewhat exaggerated. Aside from the fact that the point of the picture is comparison, the process used to produce color in the book emphasizes a certain range of bright tones, like a mid-twentieth century illuminated manuscript. The picture accompanying “blue” is square that matches the cobalt background of “skyrocket,” and the pink of a “melon” is nearly identical to that of a “reel” of film. Obviously, the illustrators did not control these limitations.
The joy of seeing the Krushes’ incredible eye for detail is one of best features of the dictionary. A fireman’s raincoat against a cloud of billowing black smoke, an oven range rendered in blue and white with a miniature red saucepan cooking, and a display of different clocks, from grandfather to mantel to cuckoo, all optimize their gift for capturing an object with both accuracy and imagination. (They are the illustrators of The Borrowers, the creators of the Clock family!)
There’s lots more to love in this book, including the introductory “Getting Acquainted with Your Dictionary,” as if it were a new friend. It includes helpful and openminded questions and advice, such as “Are both of these words spelled correctly: theater, theatre?” and “Pictures can help us understand what words mean… . “Find the word accordion…Notice the many full-page pictures and maps in this book.” That especially applies when the pictures are by Beth and Joe Krush.