Inspiring Young Readers
Garth Williams may not be a name that readily springs into your mind when it comes to naming the great children’s book illustrators. However, if you’re a fan of classic American children’s literature you will almost certainly have seen – and probably admired - his work because he is the man who drew Stuart Little, illustrated Charlotte’s Web and brought us The Little House On The Prairie. He is one of that rare set of illustrators whose drawings have come to so define the way fictional characters look that it’s almost impossible to imagine alternative depictions.
Born in 1912 in New York, his mother was a landscape painter and he and the family moved to England in 1922 and he studied art at the Westminster College of Art and the Royal College. At the outbreak of the Second World War he joined the Red Cross but the trauma of the Blitz led him to send his wife and daughter to Canada and he then moved back to the States to reunite with them in 1942.
Williams’s big break came in 1945 when his drawings caught the eye of E.B. White who was preparing the manuscript of Stuart Little for publication. Williams’ approach to his drawings for White’s book was immediately reminiscent of Shepard’s work on Wind In The Willows – and it’s a style that he stayed with and developed throughout his career. Importantly, I think, Williams doesn’t do cartoons – his animals have real life in an anthropomorphised way - and the mood of his drawings match the playful but quite serious way White approached his text.
Although the partnership between Williams and White was a very successful one, by all accounts it wasn’t always too genial and there were plenty of disagreements over the way characters should look. Williams was not one to give in easily though and, despite contemporary criticism of his drawings ( too human/not human enough) his vision was the one the publisher went with and this now looks like an excellent decision.
Over his career Williams illustrated some 80 books including Russell Hoban’s Bedtime For Francis and Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House series. These latter illustrations were a reimagining of the Little House replacing those originally drawn by Helen Sewell. Typical of the way Williams liked to work, he first visited the location and setting for the books, met the author’s daughter and the people who lived on the Prairie and let this inform his style and approach to the subsequent illustrations – which retain a strong realist feel.
In 1958 Williams found himself embroiled in a strange political row over his illustrations for The Rabbit’s Wedding, a book aimed at 7-9 year olds and in which he drew the marriage of a black and a white rabbit. In the segregated South this was like a red rag to a bull and a legal battle ensued over attempts to have it banned from Alabama libraries. Williams was largely enigmatic on the subject of whether he was making some kind of political point and, as a result, arguments still linger on over the incident.
Williams died in 1996 but despite his relative anonymity in the UK, his drawings remain the gold standard for the books he illustrated and new editions that have tried to bring in new illustrators with a different approach have largely failed to find favour.
I love his colour and black and white work equally and although I’m not a huge fan of E.B. White’s creations, I’m still always delighted by Garth Williams’ drawings and for me they make the books worthwhile.