While there are many husband and wife teams who create wonderful picture books, I have decided to first highlight the D’Aulaires. My reason for doing so is multi-faceted; personal affection for their work, their extreme importance to the world of modern children’s books and the undeniable mastery of their craft.
Neither of the D’Aulaires is a native of the United States. Edgar Parin D’Aulaire was the son of a respected French-Italian painter and was raised in the artistic centers of Europe. Initially he was given a conventional education and was expected to choose a different career path than his father. This was not to be. Edgar chose a nomadic artists life, finally ending up in school in Paris where he met the woman who was to become his wife.
Ingri Mortenson grew up in the countryside of Norway. At the age of fifteen, her talent for painting was recognized by the foremost female artist of Norway at that time. With the permission of her father, Ingri would go on to study her craft in Oslo, Munich, and then eventually Paris.
While Edgar had developed a name for himself in Europe, recognized for his work in deluxe edition books, as well as a muralist, he set off for the promises of America, portfolio in tow. His plan was to find illustration work in America in order to save money for his wife to join him. Edgar did, obviously, find work and Ingri was able to come to Brooklyn to live with him. Almost immediately, they decided they wanted to do a picture book about Africa. With the help and faith of William C. D. Glaser, the first of D’Aulaire’s magnificent picture books was born, The Magic Rug.
The significance of this book in the world of picture books was the method by which it was produced. The artists wanted the book to be printed in color, so to offset the cost of producing the book, the D’Aulaires set to work drawing the pictures directly on stone in order to cut out the costly procedure of photographing the work for color separations (I’m simplifying, here, but it’s a complex process).
Shortly following The Magic Rug was Ola. Arguably, Ola is the D’Aulaire’s most important and aesthetically successful books, even more so than their Caldecott Award winning Abraham Lincoln, which came a bit later, in 1939. Drawing from her idyllic childhood in the countryside of Norway, Ingri brings to the reader a completely engaging story as well as a most beautiful book of pictures. As Barbara Bader says in her book, “Ola can’t be told, it has to be experienced…” (pg. 43). There were a number of books dedicated to the Lapp children following Ola, the most notable of which was the 1935 Children of the Northlights.
In 1936 the D’Aulaires hit upon a new topic for their books, figures in American history, fittingly beginning with George Washington. I personally feel that part of the success of their historical books was because these figures were less familiar to them as foreigners. In some way they could approach the characters with a fresher eye, a more eager eye, akin to the knowledge-hungry eye of a child. This certainly came across in both the story and artistic portrayal of the characters. It is no small wonder that parents at the time took to the books with some trepidation, whereas children were unquestioningly drawn in by them.
It is funny to me that only their early career is so well documented. Truthfully, I can see why. Their importance was solidified by their technical ingenuity early on and they continued to create successful books until their final book, but their later books were of little note. Not to say they aren’t enjoyable, because I’m quite fond of their book, The Two Cars (1955) and their two mythology titles, Book of Greek Myths (1962) and Norse Gods and Giants (1967).
I am curious about their artistic process as a couple, not their technical process because that is well documented, but how they inspired one another. How did they live their daily lives? I can imagine that they were adventurous because there is great photo of them on the back of a dog sled on the dust jacket flap of one book and another of them on a boat with their young child. Until I find a source that will be more enlightening, I’m happy to let my imagination invent their day-to-day life. They are one team that I would have loved to have been able to meet.