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Once an illustrator's book has appeared in the Caldecott Honor list, it's probably fair to consider the star pretty well risen, but Marjorie Priceman has managed this ascendance in a fairly short time and without apparently becoming the household word some other illustrators are. Therefore we'll call her "Rising" in anticipation of further heights to come.
Priceman's first book, Friend or Frog, demonstrated a congenial poker-faced whimsy in the text ("Kate's best friend was green and spotted, which is unusual in a friend but attractive in a frog"); though its casually energetic scribbly black linework presages the high action of her later artwork, the smoky-edged watercolors have a very different impact from her later saturated gouache. Though other competent volumes followed, it was really How to Make an Applie Pie and See the World that brought Priceman to our attention. The gravely imaginative text, which exhorted the reader to circumnavigate the globe in order to collect ingredients for the titular pie, was fresh and tasty; the illustrations, with their riotous colors and suave yet high-spirited international milieux, are joyously adventurous in their own right. The following year, 1995, saw Priceman illustrating the Caldecott Honor book Zin! Zin! Zin! a Violin, in which rose and magenta, orange and scarlet provide high-octane color while spiky dark figures punctuate the landscapes. She returned to the airier watercolor style in Cousin Ruth's Tooth, a followup to Rachel Pfister's Blister, but balanced that approach with more worlds of heightened, synesthetic color in Rael's What Zeesie Saw on Delancey Street and When Zaydeh Danced on Eldridge Street, Wendy Gelsanliter and Frank Christian's Dancin' in the Kitchen, and Mary Ann Hoberman's One of Each. Now she's produced Emeline at the Circus, in which carnivalesque visuals play against organized spot art and ironically didactic text that's oblivious of the drama in the pictures.
There's a delicious artistic gaiety to Priceman's art that's reminiscent of earlier styles; the result is not a retro effect, but a feeling that something that's been missing has been restored. In fine-art terms she's often like Raoul Dufy, with her fondness for deep Mediterranen blues, feeling of breezy life, and sharply contrasting inky line. Yet in children's book terms she hearkens back to the European influences of Ludwig Bemelmans (whose Madeline is clearly kin to Emeline) and Roger Duvoisin, with a her palette of saturated colors "released from real-world constraints," as Bulletin reviewer Elizabeth Bush put it in her review of One of Each; there's also a touch of the Provensens in her never-garish concordance of colors and her deceptively slapdash yet sturdy figures. Going back even further, William Feaver, in When We Were Young: Two Centuries of Children's Book Illustration, talks about an older tradition, a "wider popular culture" in which the illustrated figures "are not so much literary creatures as a troupe of performers" providing "story performances." It is this performative energy, with its own better-than-real colors and more-exciting-than-real action, that invigorates Priceman's art.
--Deborah Stevenson, Associate Editor
Books Written and/or Illustrated by Marjorie Priceman
This page was last updated on July 1, 1999.