About Paul O. Zelinsky
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Paul O. Zelinsky

About Paul O. Zelinsky

An Interview with Paul O. Zelinsky

More About Paul O. Zelinsky

"It's a little surprising to me, when I think back over my childhood in suburban Chicago, and recall the things I liked and the things I did, that I never considered the possibility of becoming a book illustrator. During my elementary school years I was always collaborating with classmates to create imaginary worlds and the stories to take place in them and putting it all down in pictures.

"In the third grade I drew bestiaries of ridiculous animals, their habits and habitats; in fifth grade my best friend and I, working through the mail, developed an island world of two competing countries. I think they were called Igglebeania and Squigglebeania (I know we never did agree about the spelling), and they teemed with colorful characters and important incidents. They now, like Atlantis, are lost to the world. At fourteen we wrote a novel about a monkey astronaut who saves the world from encroaching gorillas. Of course I made the pictures, and my friend's father took it on himself to send our opus out to real publishers for their consideration. It was with no small shock that several years ago, as I was leafing through my friend's scrapbook, I lit on a polite rejection letter from a publisher who was now a friend and with whom I had just published two books!

"The earliest books that were important to me were, as far as I was concerned, not written or illustrated by anybody -- they just appeared in the library or in my room. The Color Kittens and The Tawny Scrawny Lion and many others that I can and can't remember filled my young childhood. It's the pictures that I remember, for the most part.

"Some years later I had book heroes: William Pene du Bois and Robert Lawson were the most lasting. I especially loved The Twenty-One Balloons and The Fantastic Flight. It didn't occur to me that these writers were real people living in houses somewhere and doing real things.

"Then a few years ago when I was driving in Connecticut with some friends they happened to mention that Robert Lawson had lived nearby. Inside my head, I jumped. Robert Lawson lived in a real place? In this world? Not having thought about it since my childhood, it seems I still harbored the notion that the man was just a paragraph on a book jacket flap. Now I guess that I, too, am taking a place on the back flap of book jackets. What the children reading my books will make me out to be, if anything, I can't guess. But it really doesn't matter: it's not the authors they should remember, it's the books. (Or maybe, for the most part the pictures!)"

Known for his versatility, Mr. Zelinsky does not feel his work represents a specific style. "I want the pictures to speak in the same voice as the words. This desire has led me to try various kinds of drawings in different books. I have used quite a wide stretch of styles, and I'm fortunate to have been asked to illustrate such a range of stories."

Paul Zelinsky was born in Evanston, Illinois. He attended Yale University, where he took a course with Maurice Sendak, which later inspired him to pursue a career in children's books. Afterwards he received a graduate degree in painting from Tyler School of Art, in Philadelphia and Rome. Paul Zelinsky lives in New York with his wife, Deborah, and the younger of their two daughters.

copyright © 2000 by Penguin Putnam Books for Young Readers. All rights reserved. Artist's Notes on the Creation of RAPUNZEL

by Paul Zelinsky

The Text

Rapunzel has a rich history. Although Wilhelm and Jacob Grimm included it as a German folktale in their renowned collection Children's and Household Tales(1812), it actually derives from a German translation of a French literary fairy tale. This tale drew heavily on a published Neapolitan story, which presumably had a folk tale as its source.

Il Pentamerone, printed in 1637, was a collection of stories from Naples fitted together within a framing plot in the manner of "The Thousand and One Nights." Written in the Neapolitan language by G. Basile, it quickly became known throughout Europe. One of its stories was "Petrosinella" (the girl's name formed from petrosine, --parsley), which presented roughly the same story as "Rapunzel" up through the girl's visits with the prince; the final portion of the plot is different: the prince and Petrosinella successfully elope.

Toward the end of the 17th century, a vogue for fairy tales among the French literary upper classes provoked the writing of many new and retold fairy tales, Charles Perrault's famous stories among them. Perrault's tales remain well-known even today. Less renowned, but still successful in her day, was Charlotte Rose de Caumont la Force, a free-living aristocrat who scandalized the nobility in the court of Louis XIV, and, while living out her later life in a nunnery, published her own Tale of Tales, exactly sixty years after Basile's.

This collection of rather flowery and clever tales included "Persinette" (persil is French for parsley) which was clearly based on "Petrosinella." Here the plot of "Rapunzel" is present in its entirety, and more: the prince and Persinette, after finding each other in the wilderness, undergo some terrible ordeals brought on by the angry fairy who eventually takes pity and saves them.

La Force's tales were widely translated. One very free translation of Persinette, published in 1790 by J.C.F. Schulz, became the source of the Grimms' "Rapunzel." Numerous details of motif and language reveal this connection; the clearest evidence for it is Schultz's decision to change "persille" to "rapunzel," an entirely different vegetable. When the Grimms included "Rapunzel" in Volume 1 of their collection, they claim to have been unaware of the Schulz/La Force precursor, noting that the story was "doubtlessly oral" in origin. However, Schulz' book was known to the brothers, and some scholars hold that they knowingly rewrote, without giving credit, a literary fairy tale from France in their own more rustic style. The Grimms' "Rapunzel" paraphrases Schulz/LaForce in simpler language, the plots diverging only in a few points, but chops off La Force's elaborate ending: once the prince's sight is restored in the widerness the tale abruptly stops --"....and he could see as before." In later editions the Grimms made various adjustments to arrive at the story as it is best known today.

The Grimm brothers championed the idea that an oral tradition of storytelling offers a window into the prehistory of a culture. Their stated aim in collecting stories was to preserve what they saw as ancient relics untouched by literary invention. But their idea has lost currency as research shows the separation between literary and oral traditions to be an artificial one, routinely violated since literature began. Rapunzel is a prime example of this intermixture.

For my retelling of Rapunzel, I have taken the liberty of pulling together strands from the tellings described here in hopes of expressing the logical and emotional sense I prefer to see in the tale. The magical nature of Rapunzel's tower, with its many rooms, comes from Persinette, as does her marriage to the Prince. The fairy expels her from the tower because of her pregnancy in both La Force's and the Grimms' first edition, in which her tight dress betrays her. In the Grimms' second edition, Rapunzel impulsively mentions to the sorceress that she pulls up the prince as well, foolishly betraying her own secret. The prince's fall from the tower blinds him in all versions, but only in the Grimms' later editions are his eyes pierced by thorns .

I have chosen to set the story in Renaissance Italy, where it has some roots, largely on the basis of the architecture I could then paint. I also chose to use "rapunzel" as if it were an English word, to avoid the confusion of introducing and immediately dropping the obscure English word "rampion" --a member of the bluebell family, edible in its leaf and tuberous root. This plant (Campanula rapunculus) is not related to the wild onion known as rampion or ramp, which is a native dish in some parts of the United States. I would describe the Campanula rampion's flavor as a cross between watercress and arugula. It makes a very fine salad green, though it's hard to imagine craving it to the point of death.

The Pictures

The picture-making for this Rapunzel included a great deal of gazing at Italian Renaissance paintings (almost all, alas, in books) and trying to figure out "how did they do that," both technically and expressively. I also took many details of costume and architecture directly from these paintings by Giovanni Bellini, Vittore Carpaccio, Filippo Lippi, Domenico Ghirlandaio and others.

In a number of scenes I based my central figure or figures on rather well-known paintings. This sort of reuse of poses fits into the tradition of Renaissance art, where it was not considered plagiarism or failure of creativity, but was standard practice. Poses and compositions were the common currency of art, and they were used to add a layer of understanding, another level of meaning to a painting. So, when I was working out how to deploy my characters in a way that best expressed certain strong feelings, and I thought about some great paintings that gave form to these feelings in a powerful way, I decided to do what a painter might have done 500 years ago, and reuse these images. I hope that people who recognize my sources will see my use of them as meaningful too.

The couple in the book's first painting, for instance, comes from a painting by Rembrandt called The Bridal Couple. There could hardly be a finer, deeper portrayal of a couple's love and tender concern than in this painting. Sketching Rapunzel's parents, I tried many poses of my own invention before taking Rembrandt's, which was conveniently adaptable: the husband's right hand could be moved only slightly into a natural gesture of belly-patting, feeling for an unborn child.

One of my first inspirations for the character of Rapunzel --not her looks but her spirit --was a painting by Rembrandt: his commissioned portrait of Agatha Bas. I can't look at the painting without feeling the woman's vivid presence, and responding to the uncertain gesture of her hand, raised to the edge of the window that separates her from us. This sense of separation, and the woman's knowing, feeling gaze, are exactly what I would expect to see in Rapunzel, framed by the window of her tower, and separated from the world by an over-protective sorceress.

Another picture in the book called for the prince to stumble off into the woods, blind, but even worse, devastated at having lost Rapunzel. The image in my mind was a fresco by Masaccio, the intensely tragic figure of Adam in The Expulsion from the Garden of Eden (1427). Every part of this figure, from the covered eyes to the heavy footfall, shows what it is like for Adam to face the loss of his perfect life in Eden. So it is, too, with the prince; his life with Rapunzel, somehow artificial and untenable, seeming to be gone forever.

The last picture in the book may be the most likely to ring a bell with viewers; Raphael's "Madonna and Child with the Young St. John," also called La Belle Jardiniere, long one of his more popular paintings, was my source. It is a compelling expression of maternal love, and I felt a certain pleasure in adapting it to my own purposes; I was quite happy with the way my own prince fit right into the composition.

These and some other quotations from art history are now part of my Rapunzel. But I did not want to mention the fact in my note at the end of the book. Doing so, I thought, would have reduced the pictures in the book to some sort of hidden-art puzzle. I've had doubts about divulging the fact of these sources at all; I would not like this intermediary issue to get in the way of people's direct experience of my work. But in a presentation about Rapunzel at a library convention, I showed some slides of my sources anyway, and the ensuing discussion convinced me that it would be appropriate to reveal this information, though I still prefer it to be somewhere apart from the book.

I've come to believe that the connections between the pictures in my book and the art they descend from might be interesting to any children who come to know and like these illustrations--might, in fact, help to spark an interest in that art. So my scruples about publicizing my sources for Rapunzel at all have been outweighed by the prospect that my quotations could be used by parents or teachers to foster a feeling for the beauty of Renaissance art.

Information about the four paintings:

"Agatha Bas" by Rembrandt. 1641. Oil on canvas, 41 1/2" x 33". Royal Collection, London.

"The Bridal Couple" by Rembrandt. Afer 1665. Oil on canvas, 48" x 61 1/2". Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

"The Expulsion from the Garden of Eden" by Masaccio. Circa 1427. Fresco. Brancacci Chapel, Santa Maria del Carmine, Florence.

"Madonna and Child with the Young St. John," or "La Belle Jardiniere" by Raphael. Circa 1507. Oil on panel, 48" x 31 1/2". Louvre Museum, Paris.

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