Painter Wildsmith hides lessons in vibrant pictures

Page after page of explosive color. Dialogue that teems with rousing words like "Schazzzaam!," and "Ooomph," and Kkaaarunchh." What youngster could resist?

And that, maintains Brian Wildsmith, a British children's illustrator and author, is precisely why many children enjoy his "comic book" genre of reading material. "Wavelength is the key," he says.

Although Wildsmith believes children can appreciate good craftmanship, he feels that "well intentioned" books for children too often fail to reach their audience, to "get in on their wavelength," while so many "comic books," no matter how crudely rendered, do appeal to a child's love of drama and vibrancy.

Interviewed while on tour in the United States recently to promote his latest set of books, the author-painter spoke with the authority of experience. His award-winning books (more than 30 in print) have been translated into 14 languages. Their pages absolutely dance, clap, and sing with color and movement. Often directed toward very young children, their texts are clear and straightforward, yet without being trite or simplistic. Wildsmith manages to rivet a child's attention and then to teach basic lessons about such values as kindness, compassion, honesty, and the "beauty of the human spirit."

"You're forming -- in the child's subconscios mind -- values, quality," he comments.

"Professor Noah's Spaceship," Wildsmith's newest book (to be released this month by Oxford University Press), is just such a catalyst for thought. It deals with the environmental nightmare of wide-scale pollution.

Professor Noah, a sort of updated biblical Buck Rogers, is dutifully outfitting and filling his spaceship-art with the assorted flora and fauna that have been victimized by a negligent 20th-century preoccupation with technology. The plan is to whisk the ark off to a safer (and greener) part of the galaxy, to escape smog and contamination. But, because of a miscalculation, the ark-ship hurls insterad back through time to earth's past -- the period before its devastation. And thism time, everyone vows to respect the planet and not repeat past mistakes.

"Professor Noah is based on something fundamental in our society," Wildsmith comments, "which is the caring for it. . . . The very thing we owe our existence to we're destroying. Now, as adults we know it, but as children, well -- perhaps later they become aware of it. It's the difference between knowingm something and understandingm it."

And what does Wildsmith see as the link between knowing and understanding?

"It's usually some kind of personal experience, or a point really well made," he says, hastening to add that this usually can't be accomplished by "preaching." Then "you're defeating at the very start the purpose of what you're trying to do; who wants to hear you preaching? So you do it in a different way; you do it through beauty -- color and shape and form."

For Wildsmith this doesn't mean mere sugar coating, either; he believes the unpopular topic of evil should be dealt with in children's books. He mentions his "Python's Party" as an example of how he treated the theme of trickery so that children could grasp its subtlety.

The book tells about a sly, scheming serpent named Python, who has a dangerous appetite for the local cuisine, i.e., his fellow forest mates. He cunningly devises a plan that leads the unsuspecting animals to trip merrily down his tubular torso as if to a Sunday social. (Don't worry, they do eventually see daylight again.)

Wildsmith also sees a need for addressing the problem of drug abuse, even with very young children. "I think these are grave human problems. . . . It's our place to deal with them."

He says he also hopes his books will inspire the child to some kind of creative activity and perhaps sow an artistic seed that one day will bear fruit.

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