IN THE LAST 13 years, M. B. Goffstein has written and illustrated 14 picture books and written two novels for young adults. Her more recent picture books, as well as several of her early ones, capture moments in time with such clarity that Goffstein's memories become the reader's own.
Using poetic tellings accompanied by whimsical pictures, Goffstein reveals basic truths. In Goldie the Dollmaker (1969) she explores the solitude of an ageless little artist. Through art Goldie comes to realize that loneliness can be eased, true friends made and boundaries of time and culture broken.Inanimate objects are magically brought to life in Me and My Captain (1974), and in Fish for Supper (1976), Goffstein reveals the simple joys of an old woman who fishes every day. My Noah's Ark, published last year, is about the love and memories held for three generations in a cherished, hand-carved wooden ark.
Each Goffstein book is small and fits comfortably in the hand. On nearly every page there is a delicate drawing, often set within a square frame, under which are one or two sentences. The format and design of the books are simple, as are the pictures and texts: Their simplicity is their strength.
With most of Goffstein's titles, the reader feels wonderfully invisible, peering through drawn curtains, watching an unobtrusive artist/writer make hard work seem effortless. Of the two picture books published this summer, Neighbors sustains this effect; Natural History falls short.
"The first time I saw my new neighbor, she was waving good-bye to her moving van. I ducked back inside my house to take a sponge bath and change my kerchief, before going over there." Thus begins the enchanting story of Neighbors. Throughout autumn, winter and spring, two timid, lonely neighbors reach out to each other.
First one brings the other homemade pie ("I'd never baked before . . . And following the directions, I rolled out the dough. I rolled out the dough, I rolled out the dough.") Then, in spring the other brings over a handful of lilacs. What they really want is to be friends, but it is not until summer the friendship truly flowers.
Loneliness, as well as the memory of making a new friend, is crystallized in both pictures and text. Like all Goffstein's ink drawings, these are representational. There is no cross-hatching, shadowing or modeling. And as always they have surprising emotional weight. On one page, a neighbor is standing alone, show-shovel in hand. She is amidst a sea of white space, looking tiny and vulnerable. Each nuance is of crucial importance. Beneath the illustration the text reads, "She had gone in. I wanted to quit then, I felt so alone." The compositional balance is perfect.
In Natural History, however, there is a disparity between art and text. It is Goffstein's first book using color, and the subtle, rainbowlike tints embellish the unadorned line drawings, almost as if she has taken one of her previously published picture books and illuminated it. These pictures, as do her black-and-white ones, create a childlike world which the reader can easily enter.
She is taking a broad look at "our planet . . . a lively ball in the universe." She examines the "tiny grains of sand [that] keep the powerful waters from flooding lands where trees grow skyward," and the "waves of wheat and corn [that] shimmer in the sun." With the intrusion of humankind, however ("Little puffs of smoke erupt where men are fighting"), the reader feels Goffstein's intrusion. Here her own voice, quiet though it is, whispers beyond the pictures. For the first time, she seems conscious of her audience, and we become awkward and conscious of ourselves.
Still, M. B. Goffstein is one of the finest illustrator/writers of our time. Like porcelain, there is more to her work than meets the eye. Beneath the delicacy and fragility is a core of astounding strength.