Born in Abilene, Texas, in 1943, Diane Stanley began her artistic career making books with her mother, author Fay Stanley. After receiving a master's degree in medical illustration from Johns Hopkins University in 1970, Stanley realized that there wasn't enough room for her own creative vision in that necessarily circumscribed field. She discovered children's book illustration while reading picture books to her own children, spent a year creating an appropriate portfolio, and the rest is, lucky for us, history. Her first book contract was with Little, Brown; her first book, Farmer in the Dell (1978), was illustrated under the name Diane Zuromskis. Other titles followed, including Half-A-Ball of-Kenki (1979); The Man Whose Name Was Not Thomas (1981); and Sleeping Ugly (1981). She also evidenced an affinity for the traditional tale, as seen in Petrosinella: A Neapolitan Rapunzel (1981); The Month Brothers (1983); and her own original tale in the folktale format, Fortune (1990).
It was with her collaboration with husband Peter Vennema, however, that Stanley found a creative niche for herself and filled a vacant niche for her audience. Her picture book biographies of famous men and women, with their carefully researched text and visuals, have garnered a number of critical and popular awards. Stanley's loving attention to detail came to the effective forefront in these biographies, as her meticulous research was reflected in the period and cultural specifics contained in her illustrations. Her open compositions invite the viewer in, and while the drafting of human figures and expressions is sometimes awkward, it suits the solid, historical inevitability of her subjects. But biography, as rewarding as it may be, is a form somewhat circumscribed as well, and in 1995, Stanley departed from this metier and tried something slightly different. She wrote and illustrated The True Adventure of Daniel Hall . Based in fact, this is the story of a fourteen-year-old boy and his life on a whaling ship in 1856. More an adventure story than a biography, Daniel Hall was critically well-received, and was followed by her award-winning Leonardo Da Vinci in 1996, for which she also wrote the text. It wouldn't take much to wax poetical about Stanley's illustrated biographies or storybooks, but the book that has inspired this focus piece is neither fact nor folktale. With an elaborate stretch of the imagination, one could call Rumpelstiltskin's Daughter (1997) a biography of sorts, but what it really is is a masterpiece of understated humor and subtle visual jokes.
Stanley parodies the Grimms' Rumpelstiltskin with this extrapolation of what happened after the miller's daughter and Rumpelstiltskin elope, making their daring escape from the king's hay-packed tower down a golden ladder woven by you-know-who. The happy couple have a daughter, who lands in the clutches of the (still) greedy king who wants her to spin him some (more) gold. While she cannot spin straw into gold, this young woman has some very valuable gifts, among them compassion and imagination. She gently leads the king into more generous ways, achieving a powerful position at court in the process. From the opening line ("Once there was a miller's daughter who got into a heap of trouble.") to the almost closing one ("And whenever the king started worrying about gold, she sent him on a goodwill tour of the countryside, which cheered him right up.") Stanley's original text deliberately plays against the flowery language of folk and fairy tale retellings with a common-sensical approach that adds to the inherent humor. But Stanley's parody doesn't end in her text. Each visually witty, double-page spread includes design elements (either understated or exaggerated) that gently poke fun at the ornately illustrated folk and fairy tale books so prevalent in this genre. (Art history buffs will laugh out loud at the portraits of the king as done by an "Old Master"- the king as DaVinci's Mona Lisa, Botticelli's Venus, Van Gogh's Self-Portrait, etc.)
The liner notes say that Stanley was always bothered by the ending of Rumpelstiltskin. She couldn't figure out why the miller's daughter would marry that avaricious king. Well, this is the most fun way of achieving closure that I've ever seen; a noteworthy book in which Stanley breaks out of the formality normally required for respectable biography. Here's hoping she does it again. --Janice Del Negro, Editor
* Unless otherwise noted all books were written by Diane Stanley and Peter Vennema
This page was last updated on June 1, 1997.