PETUNIA The Silly Goose Stories Written and illustrated by Roger Duvoisin Knopf. 145 pp. $15.95
WHEN ROGER DUVOISIN died in 1980 at age 79, few noted the loss of a modern master of the picture book. Yet this author-artist almost single-handedly brought American children's book illustration up to date. Beginning with A Little Boy Was Drawing (1932), Duvoisin was the first in the United States to adopt the innovations of the School of Paris to books for young readers. Born in Geneva, he studied in Switzerland and France (one of his classmates was Alberto Giacometti) before moving to New York to work for a textile firm. His master was always Henri Matisse whose admiration for children's artistic sensibilities guided much of Duvoisin's work for boys and girls.
Duvoisin was that rarity in the juvenile book market -- an intellectual. He read extensively in child psychology and quietly incorporated Jean Piaget's discoveries into his picture books. He was fascinated by how the young view their world through spontaneous, quick impressions. He also found boys and girls more sophisticated than their elders, less sentimental, less conventional, far more imaginative, and certainly more humorous.
Although one of the most honored of all children's book illustrators, Duvoisin never produced one masterpiece, no Millions of Cats, no Madeline, no Where the Wild Things Are. The book for which he received the Newbery Medal, White Snow, Bright Snow by Alvin Tresselt (1947), is a relatively minor effort. One must consider his entire body of work to fully appreciate his extraordinary contribution to the form. Perhaps his most enduring character is Petunia the goose, heroine of several delightful picture books which Duvoisin both wrote and illustrated and which have just been collected in a single volume. Petunia: The Silly Goose Stories is Duvoisin at his best.
Duvoisin was one of only a few illustrators as adroit with words as with drawing. A shrewd fabulist, he wrote in a clear, rhythmic, stately style. Petunia and her barnyard companions suffer human passions -- pride, greed, vanity, selfishness. In the first of these five tales, Petunia fools herself into believing that by possessing a book she has acquired wisdom. In "Petunia, Beware!" (reminiscent of Beatrix Potter's The Tale of Jemima Puddleduck and perhaps the best in the collection), the silly goose narrowly escapes with her life to learn that the grass is not greener on the other side. The treasure of "Petunia's Treasure" proves to be only fool's gold. The weakest of the stories, but no less charming than the others, is "Petunia Takes a Trip," a simple introduction to the wonders of the big city. "Petunia's Christmas," which describes the goose's devotion to Charles the gander, is one of the tenderest love stories in all of juvenile literature.
THE SAME gentle wit and wisdom is evident everywhere in the lively pictures. Like all great masters of the picture book, Duvoisin says as much with his illustrations as with his words. Experienced as a textile, ceramic, and poster designer, Duvoisin brought to his children's work a sophisticated understanding of what could and could not be done with the limitations of color separation. He beautifully juggled various screens and overprintings to produce an impressive range of texture and hue. He was a master in the use of the white of the page.
Fortunately he was never clever for its own sake. His visual virtuosity never distracts the young reader from the enjoyment of the story. He once admitted that it was not easy to be simple. Yet his picture books seem so effortless. He could define character or landscape with only a few deft strokes of the pen and some swatches of overlapping primary colors. In the present edition, some of the black-and-white pictures have been newly color separated by another artist, but happily none of these changes clashes with Duvoisin's original intentions. Perhaps there can be no better way to introduce young readers to Roger Duvoisin's legacy than through these stories of Petunia the silly goose.
Michael Patrick Hearn is the author of "The Porcelain Cat," to be published this fall. He is at work on a biography of L. Frank Baum.