The Dark & the Dreary: Illustrations by Carll Cneut

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Remember how I said I was going to feature a new illustrator each week in the run-up to the Hans Christian Andersen Award announcement in March? Well, I sort of lost track over the holidays. But I still have tons of gorgeous illustrations saved on my computer that are aching to be shared with a small slice of the Internet.

This week, I’m focusing on the work of Belgian illustrator Carll Cneut. Like many of the well-regarded illustrators in the world of children’s literature, Cneut received formal artistic training at the Institute of Fine Arts of St. Luke in Ghent. Also like many illustrators, Cneut worked in a different field–in his case, advertising–before he was able to devote himself full-time to children’s literature. But we–and children–are very lucky that he eventually did!

Heksenfee ("Witchfairy") 1999. By Brigitte Minne
Heksenfee (“Witchfairy”) by Brigitte Minne

Many of Cneut’s illustrations feature lonely characters staring forlornly at a full moon, such as in Heksenfee (“Witchfairy”), above. The fairy in question, Rosemary, is tired of being good and instead dreams of becoming a witch. When she starts behaving badly, however, her mother disowns her. Suffice it to say that it’s a tale of independence with lots of parental troubles thrown in.

Het geheim van de keel van de nachtegaal ("The secret of the nightingale's throat"). Original story originally by H.C. Andersen; adapted by Peter Verhelst.
Het geheim van de keel van de nachtegaal (“The secret of the nightingale’s throat”).                Original story by H.C. Andersen; adapted by Peter Verhelst.

The cover of Het geheim van de keel van de nachtegaal (“The secret of the nightingale’s throat”) is similar in style and setting. A young boy’s sad silhouette is etched against a gleaming moon and silky blue-black darkness. There’s a prevalent sentiment that children in their natural state are happy, but Cneut’s illustrations give children credit for being multidimensional, capable not only of naive jubilance, but also detachment and melancholy. (You can read the original story by Hans Christian Andersen here).

De blauwe vogel ("The Blue Bird") by Do Van Ranst.
De blauwe vogel (“The Blue Bird”) by Do Van Ranst.

Even more disturbing are the illustrations in De blauwe vogel (“The Blue Bird”).  I remember reading a version of this story as a kid–it’s a classic French (or Russian?) fairy tale full of romance and deception. In this version, a desperate mother has to travel to the Land of Memories in an attempt to save her daughter. I can’t read Dutch, but the Land of Memories is, I presume, the setting of the image above. Ghosts, black cats, fire spirits, walking teacups, wolves, and mobile bags of sugar–De blauwe vogel has all manner of bizarre creatures.

Nachten vol angstaanjagende schoonheid: gruwelverhalen van Edgar Allan Poe (Nights of terrifying beauty: horror stories by Edgar Allan Poe)
Nachten vol angstaanjagende schoonheid: gruwelverhalen van Edgar Allan Poe

My favorite of Cneut’s drawings come from an illustrated anthology of Edgar Allan Poe stories. What can I say apart from the fact that they are marvelous? The decaying man on the cover is certainly frightening, as is the hazy castle with its crooked black trees and dreamlike, amnesiatic atmosphere.

“Nights of terrifying beauty: horror stories by Edgar Allan Poe”

Last is the blurry gathering of a skeleton, a pumpkin-head, ghouls and goblins and other chimerical creations in a darkened room with falling light, as though Cneut discovered a photographic negative and decided to fill it in with blues and grays, keeping the original fully & fantastically intact.


To view the work of the other artists in this series, just click the “Children’s Literature” link in the right sidebar.

The International Youth Library

The International Youth Library in Munich, Germany
The International Youth Library in Munich, Germany

For the vast majority of you who’ve probably never heard of the Internationale Jugendbibliothek (International Youth Library), here’s a quick introduction. Built in 1439, the castle, whose proper German name is Schloss Blutenburg (Blood Castle), was once a fully-functioning hunting lodge and mini-fortress complete with a moat. Several decades ago, in 1983 to be exact, the long-dormant castle was re-imagined as an international haven for children’s literature. Today, it boasts the largest and arguably the finest collection of children’s books in the world and is filled with scholars who are incredibly knowledgeable about different aspects of the still-burgeoning field.

About a year and a half ago, I was lucky enough to actually get to go to this marvelous castle-turned-library. My research in children’s literature thus far has focused on the lovely María Elena Walsh, a beloved Argentine children’s book author and subversive political figure in her home country. But she deserves a post of her own.

To cut to the chase: I was recently asked to contribute a blog post about my research experience to the International Youth Library blog, which you can read here. And while I was in Germany, I did make a quick expedition to Salzburg – more on that here (bottom of page).

Children’s literature is a fascinating and somewhat under-recognized subject & academic field. I’ll be talking about it quite a bit more on this blog, but in a critical way – no oh-my-god-my-favorite-book-when-I-was-five-was-the-hungry-caterpillar types of posts, I promise.

Thanks to the lovely Petra for asking me to contribute to the IYL blog!