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Children's Literature @ NYPL

Children's Literary Salon in Retrospect: Maud and Miska Petersham on September 7, 2013


We were lucky enough to have Lawrence Webster, author of Under the North Light: the Life and Work of Maud and Miska Petersham, give a Power Point presentation about the lives, picture books and illustrations of Maud and Miska Petersham in the South Court Auditorium of the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building. I took a slight hiatus from attending the Children's Literary Salons, but I felt a dearth of professional development in the realm of kid lit, so I was delighted to return to the program. I was not disappointed by the program. Betsy Bird, Youth Materials Specialist at NYPL, hosted the Lit Salon, and Lawrence Webster's presentation was scintillating. Incidentally, Lawrence Webster used to be a librarian at the Mid-Manhattan Library of NYPL.

A Personal Look at Maud and Miska Petersham

Lawrence Webster grew up knowing the Petershams. She would play with Maud and Miska Petersham's granddaughter Mary. Later Mary proved to be a godsend when Webster informed her that she was writing a book about her grandparents. She found a cache of letters and original paintings that Webster turned into a traveling exhibit. Other research that Webster did for the book including staying in graduate housing at Vassar College, which Maud graduated from. The genesis of the book was at a dinner between Webster and her publishers. Webster commented that no one had written a book about Maud and Miska Petersham. Her publishers said, "You write it; we'll publish it." Maud and Miska Petersham were well-known  among their contemporaries in the 1910s, 1920s and 1930s; however, somehow they were lost in perpetuity. Webster wanted to let everyone know about the synergistic creative collaboration between the very talented couple. The book is a combination biography and work on children's literature in the early twentieth century.

Maud Petersham's (1890-1971) parents highly valued education. Maud attended Vassar College. Her father was a very engaging pastor. Miska Petersham (1888-1960) grew up in a small town. Miska was always captivated by art; he won a scholarship to attend the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Budapest, Hungary, where he received a superb, comprehensive education about the world of decorative art. He spent summers in Italy painting all of the treasures that he found there. Miska then moved to London for a short time before he relocated to New York City.Art Students League - Students paint mural, Digital ID 1664579, New York Public Library

Magic in New York

In New York Miska met Maud, where they both worked at the International Art Service in Manhattan. They were married in 1917. The art scene in New York was exploding at the time, and the energy of that movement swept through the city. Willy Pogany, a Hungarian illustrator of kid lit, had too much work at the time, and he was glad to pass some of that on to the Petershams. They were incredibly competent and on-time, so they never had problems obtaining work. They were famous for their decorative initial capitals, which were reminiscent of calligraphy. They include interesting hidden figures in their pictures, which are fun to study for some time to notice all of the intricacies. In one illustration, a luscious bed used a panoply of pillows as a canopy. Everyone certainly wants to dive into that bed. Maud believed that they must produce fantastic pictures in order to justify the many trees that perished for the sake of the paper that the illustrations were printed on. Miska helped pioneer the use of color printing in picture books by developing cost-effective methods of production. Maud and Miska created quite a few classic tales together.

The Petershams bought a beautiful house, and Miska built some of the furniture in their house. Maud had one son, Miki, who supposedly weighed 12 pounds at birth. He was mainly cared for by Auntie, who lived until she was 99 years old. The Petershams worked much of the time, and they  traveled in the course of their authoring and illustrating work.

Pioneers in the Field of Children's Literature

The couple produced some children's books which Webster considered to be somewhat autobiographical: Miki, Auntie and Celia Jane and Miki, which focuses on Maud's life, and Get-a-Way and Hary Janos. Get-a-Way and Hary Janos is a story of two old toys who have great adventures, including toy horse races, etc. The illustrations open up the world for kids and show them the endless possibilities that await them. The couple received a Caldecott Medal for The Rooster Crows, which is not their best work, according to Webster and others in the kid lit world. However, since it won the prestigious award, it continues to get the most attention.

In the 1930s, Miska Petersham set the stage for the development of nonfiction children's books and encyclopedias by publishing a variety of informative books for children on a single subject, such as The Story Book of Coal, The Story Book of Oil, The Story Book of Rice, etc. Maud's father believed that research was a God-given talent, and she loved pursuing that end.  The couple produced quite a few Bible stories, such as The Ark of Father Noah and Mother Noah, which was about how boring and dirty life was on the ark, and The Christ Child, as Told by Matthew and Luke. The illustrations make the books more intriguing to kids. 

Hudson Park, Miss Cutler teaching children how to look at picture books, Digital ID 100799, New York Public LibraryIn 1946, Maud and Miska became grandparents; their grandchildren were named Mary and Michael. Thus began their quest to write picture books for kids much younger than they were accustomed to writing for. They wrote The Box With Red Wheels. Unfortunately, Miska died in 1960; thereafter, Maud had trouble finishing books without him. She did publish one book after his death, however: The Shepherd Psalm in 1962.

Maud and Miska perfectly complemented each other. The couple described their relationship in this manner: Maud drew on the left page, and Miska drew on the right page. What Maud started, Miska finished. Maud did the research, and Miska took care of all of the criticism. Together, the pair had an exceptionally creative collaborative dynamic. 

After Webster's presentation, Betsy Bird inquired as to whether audience members had any questions.

Audience Questions

I asked if Webster had plans to write another book. She replied that she might; she was really hooked on the creative collaboration between married people that the Petershams displayed.

Someone asked what became of Miki, the Petershams' son. Webster told the audience that he became the head of an art department. He turned out to be a big guy, and he was always ready to play.  

Another audience member thanked Webster for the presentation. She wondered why the couple went underground and are not as popular today as we might think that they would be. Webster did not know; she surmised that possibly it was the luck of the draw, depending on which editors took over in the publishing houses. Some of the couple's Bible stories still live on. 

I have been watching Book TV lately, which features interviews of adult nonfiction authors. I always find it interesting to discover how authors get the ideas for their books, how they conduct research for the books and how they conceptualize their work. I loved the fact that Lawrence Webster knew the Petershams personally and even played with their granddaughter. It gives the work a personal touch that not all career biographies have. It was another terrific Children's Literary Salon at the "library with the lions." Thanks to Betsy Bird for organizing and hosting this program. 

Upcoming Kid Lit Salons


Saturday, October 12 @ 2pm: Leonard Marcus, Curator of The ABC of It: Why Children's Books Matter exhibit in Conversation


Saturday, November 2 @ 2pm: The Art of the Great Picture Book Read-Aloud


Wednesday, November 13 @ 6:30: Leonard Marcus and Patrick Kiley in Conversation With Jenny Brown from the Bank Street College of Education's Library


Saturday, December 7 @ 2pm: Dolls: Inseparable Companions and Their Role in Children's Literature


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