Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Bettina Ehrlich, an Author/Illustrator in Exile: Not to Be Forgotten

In my line of work, I come across children’s books by authors and/or illustrators whose books are long out of print.  Oftentimes, the reason is clear; their books are either no good and weren’t even popular when they were published, or are just horribly dated.  Then there are those books I come across that are really good, but for some reason failed to see further printings.
         The latter is the case for a few books that I read recently by Bettina [Ehrlich].  I could find no reason why her books were not reprinted.  It may have to do with rights issues, which can sometimes be the case.  Her style could have just gone out of fashion for awhile and then just forgotten.  Another possibility is that her most popular books were large (think Babar-Sized, or the original Little Tim books by Ardizzone) and therefore too expensive to reproduce.  Honestly, shrinking them down to quarto size would be an injustice.
       Bettina Ehrlich was an artist and textile designer living in Vienna, Austria.  In 1938, she and her husband, sculptor Georg Ehrlich, fled Vienna for fear of racial persecution.  They settled in London and not long after arriving, Bettina’s first English language children’s book, a paint-book titled Show Me Yours, was picked up by Chatto and Windus in 1943. 
         In 1945 her first commercially successful book, Cocolo, was published.  It is a giant of a book, beautifully illustrated and printed, and what’s more, it is a beautiful story.  Like all of her books, the writing is straightforward, direct and tight.  This provides a nice contrast to her artwork which is wonderfully sketch-like and loose. 
        Cocolo is a little donkey who belongs to a boy named Lucio.  They live together on a small island off the coast of Italy.  One day, their little island is visited by a rich man and his daughter, Fatimus and Fussy Greedy.  (While her naming convention for the secondary characters is heavy-handed, it does not distract from the heart of the story.)  Fussy, the daughter is so taken with Cocolo that she begs her father to buy him from Lucio’s family and take him back to the mainland to live on their estate.  Poor Cocolo is sold off, thus his adventure begins.  Without making Cocolo humanized or overly cute, Bettina gives Cocolo thoughts and feelings, portrayed both in the writing and artwork, which endears him to the reader.  Being forced from the little island where he was so happy, Cocolo longs for nothing more than to get back home. 
         In Cocolo, we see many of the themes that will run through all of Bettina’s books: exile, social hierarchy and the clash of rich vs. poor.  Her books are all set in Italy, which for Bettina was her place of escape in real life.  I imagine that her creation of children’s books was also her means of escape.  The effects and emotions associated with exile ring most true in her books as it was something that she knew so intimately.  

Cocolo By Bettina [Ehrlich], Harper & Brothers, 1945

            In the same year, Bettina also published CarmelloCarmello is one of Bettina’s best constructed stories.  The first chapter tells of Carmello’s early years, how he became blind in one eye, but did not let that stand in his way of becoming a fisherman.  In fact because he only has one eye he was forced to see changes in the ocean unnoticed by other fishermen, which ultimately works to his advantage.  One day while out on his boat, he manages to rescue a prized piece of jewelry for a wealthy woman who lost it over the edge of the boat.  Years later, as a widow, the woman returns with her two granddaughters.  Without realizing who the little girls are—at first, anyway—Carmello befriends them.  In the end, Carmello is repaid for his act of bravery and kindness so long ago, bringing the tale full circle. 
          While Carmello is not of the large and impressive size as Cocolo and Bettina’s other books; it is as good and in some ways better, particularly in her writing.

Carmello by Bettina [Ehrlich], Chatto & Windus, 1945

          In the late 1940s, Bettina and George moved to New York for a year where Bettina prepared the next two Cocolo books.  Cocolo Comes to America and Cocolo’s Home.  Both of which are set in the United States.
      Cocolo Comes to America deals directly with the current events of the time; the fleeing of many Europeans to America at the end of WWII.  Lucio and Cocolo set sail for New York City to escape the poverty of war-ravaged Italy.  This book is filled with much more fun and wonderment than the previous volume.  We get to see such absurd things as Cocolo, the donkey, getting into a taxi and living in a New York City apartment.  The reader rejoices along with Cocolo as he experiences snow for the first time.  Cocolo also gains a bit of fame in this book after being hit by a car.  He ends up in an animal shelter and his story makes the evening news!  There is an outpouring of support for the little donkey from all across the country.

Cocolo Comes to America by Bettina [Ehrlich], Harper & Brothers, 1949.

After Cocolo’s Home, Bettina’s books fell somewhat out of popularity.  Pantaloni, published in 1957 is a good story about a little boy and his dog.  While well-told and illustrated, in some ways it is a reworking of Cocolo, just replace the donkey with a dog.

Pantaloni by Bettina [Ehrlich], Harper & Brothers, 1957.

           For the Leg of a Chicken is about a poor Italian boy, Roberto, who strives to work hard so that he can eat chicken every day, instead of maize pudding and sardines, which is all his poor mother can afford to feed him and his siblings.  Roberto strikes off on his own to find work in far off towns and cities.  He is sometimes tempted by others to get what he wants through mischief.  Fortunately Roberto has a conscience.  He meets a colorful cast of characters and the story moves along at a lively clip.  Bettina’s artwork in this book is truly wonderful, depicting both urban and bucolic scenes with aplomb. 

For the Leg of a Chicken by Bettina [Ehrlich], Franklin & Watts, 1957.

           Paolo and Panetto is my least favorite book that she did.  Unlike characters in her other books, which were told from the point of view of an economically challenged character struggling to make his way in the world, Paolo is a spoiled young boy.  I felt no empathy whatsoever for the character, the only problem he seems to have is that he doesn’t like going to bed.  It is not enough to engage the reader.  The story stumbles along, Paolo meets a poor girl, chases off a bully and then for no other reason than that he doesn’t want to climb twelve flights of stairs to go home, he sleeps in a garden.  While in the garden he encounters the god, Pan.  It’s quite ridiculous and Pan’s dialog is so unbecoming I almost didn’t finish the book.  Paolo is eventually returned home, but he has barely learned any sort of lesson.  There was no change in character to make his journey worthwhile, except that he is no longer afraid to go to bed.  My last sore point with the book is that the artwork did not redeem the story in any way; there were no large spreads, or even full-page drawings to get lost in.  It is her only book that I would be happy to forget.

Paolo and Panetto by Bettina [Ehrlich] Franklin & Watts, 1960.

Some information about Bettina Ehrlich and her books was taken from:
German Children’s and Youth Literature in Exile 1933-1950 by K G. Saur, 2001.


mafreely said...

Thank you for a great post. I have owned one of Bettina’s books, “A Day in Venice” since 1993 or so. We purchased it for our oldest daughter in a second hand bookshop, after a family visit to Venice. It has delighted all our children and it was one of the favourite bedtime readings for many years. My second daughter is about to leave for a short trip to Venice and Verona and she took the book from the shelves this morning. It is the usual Bettina story of a poor boy, Lucio, who is taken to Venice for the day by his rich uncle. Bella, Lucio’s pet goose, smuggles herself in the car and creates mayhem in St Mark’s Square chasing the pigeons. I think there is even a cameo appearance of Bettina herself, as a lady drawing a statue where Bella has settled for an afternoon sleep.

Timothy Forry said...

"A Day in Venice" sounds like a wonderful book, it is one that I've never had the pleasure owning. Thank you for sharing your story! I love hearing how books can have such a memorable impact. While on my book-buying jaunts I will be sure to keep an eye out for this title.

Susan Gibbs said...

I have loved Bettina's books since I was a child. My grandmother gave me Trovato, when I was 6 years old and visiting her in Iran, of all places. It is the story of a young Italian boy found after an earthquake and adopted by Miss Paterson, an elderly Englishwoman. He goes on to be a famous opera star. Her illustrations have such innocence and remind me of Edward Ardizzone. I especially also like For the Leg of a Chicken. I, too, wish they would be republished!

Anonymous said...

What a fascinating experience it is to work on your family history! I burrowed down a rabbit hole and ended up here. I had never heard of Bettina before I began chasing leads on one of my mother's distant relatives. I have really enjoyed reading about her books and other people's experiences with them. Thank you all for sharing.