There are good and bad illustrators and there are good and bad artists. Paul O. Zelinsky (see booklist) is one of those rare instances of a magnificently talented artist whose calling happens to be illustrating children's books. Beyond the story told by your eyes, the further testimony of his talent is the quality of the authors with whom he has worked which include Avi, Beverly Cleary, and Jack Prelutsky among contemporaries and Carl Sandburg and E. Nesbit among the older classics.
Born in 1953 in Evanston, Illinois, Zelinsky's father was a university professor. He grew up in the Chicago area but with frequent moves. As he indicated in his Junior Authors & Illustrators biographical essay,
I was born in one suburb of Chicago and grew up mostly in the next one over. But my father, who was a college professor, would often take a year off to teach somewhere else, so my family moved quite a bit. I was regularly the new kid in a strange class, making a few friends and losing them again at the end of the year. My drawing, though, was a constant; it could never be left behind, and it needed no one but me. And I drew easily, and always. So I was usually the class artist, wherever the class happened to be.
Despite frequent trips to the Chicago Art Institute as a child, Zelinsky did not have a well formulated career path when he went off to Yale University in 1970.
Before I was grown up, what I wanted the most was to be grown up. Still, one of the nicer things of not being was the luxury of changing my mind about what I would become when I finally got to be grown up.
I had lots of ideas, and making children's books wasn't among them. I was going to be a ventriloquist or an astronomer or an architect, and design houses growing out of mountainsides or arching over waterfalls. I would be a painter, write musical comedies, learn all there was to know about every animal on earth. I would work in natural history museums making dioramas where elk and lemmings graze on the arctic tundra, bathed in a pink twilight glow. I would make the elk, and the lemmings, I would make the tundra, I would set up the pink lights. It strikes me that most of my plans involved being someone who makes things. To this day making things remains one of the greatest pleasures I know.
At Yale University, Zelinsky took a class under the great children's book illustrator, Maurice Sendak. This inspired him to finally settle on a specific degree and for that to be in Art, graduating in 1974. He went on to obtain a Masters degree in Fine Art from the Tyler School of Art in Philadelphia in 1976. Perseverance paid off with the first book which he illustrated, and one by Avi no less, coming out in 1978, Emily Upham's Revenge.
Since that initial book he has produced roughly a book a year for the past three decades, sometimes with a couple of years lapsing between titles, while he worked on particularly complicated stories.
One of the notable attributes of Zelinsky (he has won virtually all the major children's illustration prizes including three Caldecott Honors as well as the Caldecott medal for Rapunzel) is that he never rests on his laurels - he adapts his full scope of talents to each story to find the style of illustration best for that particular story.
I want the pictures to speak in the same voice as the words. This desire has led me to try various kinds of drawings in different books. I have used quite a wide stretch of styles, and I'm fortunate to have been asked to illustrate such a range of stories.
It is this matching of artistic style to story for which Zelinsky is most noted in addition to his technical prowess and depth of research. He has observed that he likes to work with a finished text so that he can map out the whole pictorial story in advance but then he works on the individual paintings and illustrations out of order. Because his style so often varies between stories, he has found that he learns a great deal as he progresses through the work. By doing the paintings out of order, he makes sure that this stylistic refinement does not intrude on the story.
Zelinsky has considered deeply the role of seeing and art and children. In an article in Horn Book Magazine Vol.79, Issue 5, he discusses Beauty and the Brain.
When I went to graduate art school in Rome, I hung out a bit with a family, friends of my own family. They had a strong science orientation. The older daughter, a high school senior and very bright, remarked to me that she would kind of like to become an artist like me but she didn't really want to because she wouldn't want her brain to atrophy from not thinking.
That was twenty-eight years ago. Now I'm ready with my comeback.
It's not a snappy comeback, like "how about thinking before you speak?"; it's my theory. My theory is that seeing is a form of thinking. There is better seeing and worse seeing, and I think it's likely that better seeing and better thinking--general, critical thinking--go together. Drawing fits in here, too. Drawing demands access to brain activities that are designed to be overlooked, the parts of seeing that most of us don't need to notice. Finding that access is brain exercise at a basic level, and it leads to better seeing. I suspect the three activities--drawing, thinking, and seeing--have more in common than commonly thought.
On the role of vision as a mental exercise, he offers this experience:
Quite a few years ago I had a more memorable experience of vision. Our daughter Anna was about a year old, and I was, not atypically, reading her a book. It was Babar and Zephir, a book I vaguely remembered from my own childhood, but the memory wasn't a visual one. We came to a lovely scene in the monkey's home village, all vines and tree houses, a terrific picture. I was reading the text and looking at the illustration and I began to feel a very strange sensation--deja-quasi-vu: not that I had seen this before, but something else uncannily like it. After a minute, the sensation solidified, and I saw in my memory the very same scene as it had looked to me at age ... two? five? I don't know. It was both the same as and unbelievably different from the one before my thirty-two-year-old eyes. Jean de Brunhoff's loose, abstract, and primitive watercolor drawing was overlaid in my mind with a vision of unparalleled tropical splendor. All the leaves that de Brunhoff had left out were there. Twisted ropes and tendrils by the thousands, bamboo huts, the dancing light on the forest floor, rich green and yellow hues, what a scene it was! A certain five-year-old awe came along with the memory. I felt a little like the archaeologists breaking into Tutankhamen's tomb that had lain untouched for--well, a little longer than in my case.
I was seeing the same thing in two ways at the same time. It was bizarre.
If seeing is not a registering of what is there, but a reaching for clues, a guessing, and a filling in, here I was, experiencing how my young vision had just done a much richer job of filling in! Is young vision always that much more exciting? No way to tell, but I presume that people who love children's literature know what it is to hold on to those early, remembered sensations, and probably have more of an interest than some in holding on to present ones, as well.
He has a number of very interesting things to observe about the theory and practice of art, particularly as he translates that theory into the practice of creating beautiful books with which children can engage. In particular, there is a great article and interview with him in the March 1999, Reading Teacher, Vol. 52, Issue 6.
Having emphasized the variety of techniques in which he is capable of working and the styles he adopts, there is a central body of his work that we highly recommend; Hansel and Gretel, Rumpelstilskin, and Rapunzel. All three are of course based on Grimm brother stories and therefore part of the wonderful tapestry of western folktales and it is great to have them in beautifully illustrated stand-alone versions. More than the text of the stories (and the latter two are retellings by Zelinsky himself) there is the sumptuous artistic style, particularly culminating in Rapunzel which was some years in the making.
In Rapunzel, Zelinsky chose to paint the story in the style of Renaissance Italian artists which required his study of their painting techniques and styles in great depth. In addition to the artistic aspect of the painting, he also invested large amounts of time in getting the details just right - What kinds of mirror did they have in that age?; What about the comb Rapunzel might have used for her hair? What kinds of clothes?, etc.
Other books illustrated by Zelinsky to consider include the highly recommended Five Children and It by E. Nesbit (though unfortunately this edition is currently out of print). There are a couple of recommended Beverly Cleary books illustrated by Zelinsky, Ralph S. Mouse and Dear Mr. Henshaw as well as Anne Isaacs' Swamp Angel, a kind of female version of Davy Crockett.
We hope you enjoy this wonderful artist's rich offerings.
Hansel and Gretel by Rika Lesser and illustrated by Paul O. Zelinsky Highly Recommended
Rumpelstiltskin by Paul O. Zelinsky Highly Recommended
Rapunzel by Paul O. Zelinsky Highly Recommended
Swamp Angel by Anne Isaacs and illustrated by Paul O. Zelinsky Recommended
The Wheels on the Bus by Paul O. Zelinsky Suggested
Awful Ogre's Awful Day by Jack Prelutsky and illustrated by Paul O. Zelinsky Suggested
Knick-Knack Paddywhack by Paul O. Zelinsky Suggested
Doodler Doodling by Rita Golden Gelman and illustrated by Paul O. Zelinsky Suggested
Shivers in the Fridge by Fran Manushkin and illustrated by Paul O. Zelinsky Suggested
Toys Go Out by Emily Jenkins and illustrated by Paul O. Zelinsky Suggested
Awful Ogre Running Wild by Jack Prelutsky and illustrated by Paul O. Zelinsky Suggested
Ralph S. Mouse by Beverly Cleary and illustrated by Paul O. Zelinsky Recommended
Dear Mr. Henshaw by Beverly Cleary and illustrated by Paul O. Zelinsky Recommended
The Enchanted Castle by Edith Nesbit and illustrated by Paul O. Zelinsky Recommended
The Story Of Mrs. Lovewright And Purrless Her Cat by Lore Groszmann Segal and illustrated by Paul O. Zelinsky Suggested
Strider by Beverly Cleary and illustrated by Paul O. Zelinsky Suggested
Paul O. Zelinsky's Bibliography
Emily Upham's Revenge by Avi and illustrated by Paul O. Zelinsky 1978
How I Hunted the Little Fellows by Zhitkov Boris and illustrated by Paul O. Zelinsky 1979
The History of Helpless Harry by Avi and illustrated by Paul O. Zelinsky 1980
The Maid and the Mouse and the Odd-Shaped House by Paul O. Zelinsky and illustrated by Paul O. Zelinsky 1981
Three Romances by Winifred Rosen and illustrated by Paul O. Zelinsky 1981
What Amanda Saw by Naomi Lazard and illustrated by Paul O. Zelinsky 1981
Ralph S. Mouse by Beverly Cleary and illustrated by Paul O. Zelinsky 1982
The Song in the Walnut Grove by David Kherdian and illustrated by Paul O. Zelinsky 1982
The Sun's Asleep Behind the Hill by Mirra Ginsburg and illustrated by Paul O. Zelinsky 1982
Zoo Doings by Jack Prelutsky and illustrated by Paul O. Zelinsky 1982
Dear Mr. Henshaw by Beverly Cleary and illustrated by Paul O. Zelinsky 1983
The Lion and the Stoat by Paul O. Zelinsky and illustrated by Paul O. Zelinsky 1984
Hansel and Gretel by Rika Lesser and illustrated by Paul O. Zelinsky 1984
The Story of Mrs. Lovewright and Purrless Her Cat by Lore Segal and illustrated by Paul O. Zelinsky 1985
Rumpelstiltskin by Paul O. Zelinsky and illustrated by Paul O. Zelinsky 1986
The Random House Book of Humor for Children by Pamela Pollack and illustrated by Paul O. Zelinsky 1988
The Wheels on the Bus by Paul O. Zelinsky and illustrated by Paul O. Zelinsky 1990
Strider by Beverly Cleary and illustrated by Paul O. Zelinsky 1991
The Enchanted Castle by E. Nesbit and illustrated by Paul O. Zelinsky 1992
More Rootabagas by Carl Sandburg and illustrated by Paul O. Zelinsky 1993
Swamp Angel by Anne Isaacs and illustrated by Paul O. Zelinsky 1994
Rapunzel by Paul O. Zelinsky and illustrated by Paul O. Zelinsky 1997
Five Children and It by E. Nesbit and illustrated by Paul O. Zelinsky 1999
Awful Ogre's Awful Day by Jack Prelutsky and illustrated by Paul O. Zelinsky 2000
Knick-Knack Paddywhack! by Paul O. Zelinsky and illustrated by Paul O. Zelinsky 2002
Doodler Doodling by Rita Golden Gelman and illustrated by Paul O. Zelinsky 2004
The Shivers in the Fridge by Fran Manushkin and illustrated by Paul O. Zelinsky 2006
Dust Devil by Anne Isaacs and illustrated by Paul O. Zelinsky 2006
Toys Go Out: Being the Adventures of a Knowledgeable Stingray, a Toughy Little Buffalo, and Someone Called Plastic by Emily Jenkins and illustrated by Paul O. Zelinsky 2006
Awful Ogre Running Wild by Jack Prelutsky and illustrated by Paul O. Zelinsky 2008