Leonard Weisgard’s Secret River Illustrations

I’m fortunate enough to have a daughter who’s really interested in books. As a result, I’ve become immersed in the world of children’s book authors and illustrators over the last few years.  She’s a fan of the old standbys–Dr. Seuss, Maurice Sendak–and I’ve subjected her to my childhood favorites, particularly the wonderful Tomi Ungerer, but I’m also being exposed to writers and illustrators who’d previously been unfamiliar to me. One such discovery is illustrator Leonard Weisgard.

Leonard Weisgard isn’t a household name of Seuss or Sendak renown, but he’s illustrated over 200 books in his long career. His best-known book is his 1947 collaboration with Margaret Wise Brown (of Goodnight, Moon fame) The Little Island, which won the Caldecott Medal for best-illustrated children’s book. The Little Island is an offbeat, almost koan-like story with beautiful full-color painted illustrations from Weisgard:

The Weisgard-illustrated book, though, that really grabbed me was The Secret River by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, a copy of which came my daughter’s way via my father-in-law. The book has been out of print for a while but appears to be slated for reissue this coming January. This new edition, though, has replaced the original Weisgard illustrations with new ones by Leo and Dianne Dillon (and curiously seems to have changed the main character, Calpurnia’s, ethnicity–not that that has any real bearing on the story). The Secret River was published  posthumously in 1955, two years after the author’s death, and this is the edition we have. The book doesn’t appear to have been a major work for either author or illustrator: It’s mentioned only in the bibliography section of  the official Leonard Weisgard site, and is noted only briefly in Rawlings’ Wikipedia entry. I find the illustrations quite beautiful, though:

I love the textures he’s using here.  Is this conte crayon? Litho crayon?

Sorry about the sub-par images. I had to take these with a digital camera; if I tried to flatten the book on my scanner, it’d likely just disintegrate. One of my favorite things about these illustrations is the (rarely used) technique of printing on a neutral-colored page with one darker color and one lighter printed on top. I guess you don’t see this these days since pretty much everything’s printed as four-color process.  Damn, but, spot colors look so much better…

Here’s an example showing an illustration integrating with the text. It’s nice that the illustration actually accommodates the text by leaving an open space for it. I much prefer that to the technique used most frequently these days: using Photoshop to lighten the behind-the-text area of a full-page illustration.

What beautiful composition.

Right now I just own the two Leonard Weisgard books but I’ll for sure be on the lookout for more.


  1. andrewwales says:

    Interesting! Banner and characters look great.

    One children’s book author/illustrator I like a lot is Tomie de Paola. His book “Tom” is hilarious.

  2. Joanna says:

    check out BEN’S TRUMPET by Rachel Isadora—-by far one of my favorites for the music classroom; I always thought the illustrations were neat. The story is great—and I guess the title fits here.

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