As any parent, grandparent, teacher or librarian will tell you, helping a child to become a reader for life starts when they are young. But it’s not just about introducing books an adult thinks a child might like. It’s about following the child’s interests, because when a child discovers a book that speaks to them in the most intimate way, there will be no turning back. This article is dedicated to my friend, librarian J.D.
Shortly before I retired from education, my team and I travelled around the province of Quebec to offer seminars to practising teachers on a number of topics. Arguably one of our absolute favourite sessions was the one we animated on early literacy. The reason it was our favourite had a good deal to do with what happened as we began laying out our ideas for the session.
After a good deal of talking — always the beginning stage of any production process for us — we fell into a conversation about the books we had loved as children. As each of us shared our memories, we began to see that literacy is deeply embedded in an individual’s “reading landscape,” beginning with their earliest experiences with books. Anything, in fact, that an individual associates with discovering the pleasures of reading is part of an individual’s reading landscape, from best-loved books to bookmarks to places or events where books were borrowed, bought or received as gifts.
We each set out to uncover, and write about, our own reading landscapes. (The idea was to mount our stories on a blog that teachers we were meeting could access prior to the literacy seminar, which we actually did and the teachers just loved this. In fact, it sent many of them off in search of their own reading landscapes.)
Retrieving my own reading landscape was not unlike an archeological dig — there were layers and layers, going back through my life to some of my earliest memories. Which, in turn, led to the little library in Pointe Claire where I discovered C.W. Anderson for the very first time. I knew about Marguerite Henry and had read many of her books, beginning with Misty of Chincoteague. But these books had been gifts to a younger me, the one too small to ride her bicycle to our local library and choose books for herself.
I will always love Marguerite Henry and I own those books by her that I loved best. (Ditto for the work of Walter Farley, of Black Stallion fame, who also wrote a lovely book about Man O’ War.) But the author who set my heart on fire was C.W. Anderson. “CWA” met me where I lived — right at the corner of Horses + Art.
In his novel, States of Emergency, author Andre Brink writes “…love forces us to go down into our own archeology.” As I revisited the moment I had first discovered the books of Anderson, I just knew that I had to do what that little girl didn’t really have the skill to do: research everything there was to know about C.W. Anderson and get busy collecting a number of his books and portfolios of prints, using my child-memory as a guide.
An early discovery was that CWA wasn’t only an author-illustrator of books about horses and ponies. In fact, his earliest works were a bawdy set of cartoons, produced on a regular basis for the New Yorker and Ballyhoo magazines in the 1920’s and 30’s. In addition, his art appeared on the covers of the Saturday Evening Post and Youth’s Companion. This period culminated in 1935 in the publication of a distinctly adult book entitled, “And So To Bed.”
A graduate of the prestigious Chicago School of Art, CWA lived in Greenwich Village after the close of WW1. For a few years prior to his move to New York City, Anderson taught school in Chicago. But teaching was not his primary ambition. It was from Greenwich Village that he broke into publishing with his cartoons and art, both of which showed an artist with a sharp, spicy sense of humour. Other interests included music: CWA was a very good violinist but not good enough to make it a career.
Probably late in the 1930’s, CWA moved to Mason, New Hampshire, where he lived until his death in 1970. The permanent move to Mason from New York City happened very gradually, precipitated by CWA meeting Madeleine Paltenghi in the late 1920’s during his New York days. Madeleine was a poet and an aspiring author of children’s books, and it was with her that Anderson developed the Billy and Blaze series, she doing at least some of the writing or editing, and he concerning himself with the illustrations. The books themselves make no mention of Madeleine Paltenghi, which is rather curious. But it may also have been deliberate: CWA was an established name in publishing by this time whereas Madeleine was not. The first Billy and Blaze was published in 1936, gaining instant appeal. It was CWA’s first venture into the world of horses.
Shortly before or after the publication of the first Billy and Blaze book, CWA was living full-time in Mason, NH, first alone in a studio he had had built just down the road from the house where Madeleine lived with her young son, Charles Emil. The two married in 1944 and their collaboration as artist and writer continued until Madeleine’s death from mitral stenosis, a condition caused by the narrowing of the mitral valve of the heart. During the last days of her life, CWA wrote her a poem each morning that he would take up to Madeleine with her breakfast. These became known as the “Orange Juice poems,” according to his stepson, Charles Emil Ruckstuhl. There are forty-one of them, the last being written on the day Madeleine died.
Madeleine was not only CWA’s partner and best friend, she also shared with her husband a love of horses. During their marriage, the couple owned a number of horses: Peter, Wise Bug, Suzie, Howdy and Bobcat. The latter, a beautiful chestnut, became the subject of one of CWA’s books, published in 1965. Two later books, A Pony For Linda and Linda and The Indians were created for his granddaughter, Linda Ruckstahl.
Although it is unclear how CWA made his transition to equine art — and it may have been as simple as the huge success of Billy and Blaze –— one thing that is clear is that he followed the stories of great thoroughbreds through the press and was particularly passionate about Man O’ War and his progeny. His accounts re-fashion news-worthy prose from any number of sources into highly readable, entertaining narratives. The accuracy in CWA’s books about thoroughbreds is an absolute boon for a researcher today, since the “inside stories” of so many great thoroughbreds are all but lost. CWA may have thought he was giving his equine subjects the kind of immortality that print endows, but he was also writing himself into an invaluable source of thoroughbred racing history and culture. Too, there were clearly no severe copyright restrictions during the time that CWA was creating his beautiful and expressive illustrations: many can be traced right back to press photographs that appeared in newspapers and magazines of the day.
CWA’s stories of great thoroughbreds of the past were supplemented by illustrations as magnificent as any photograph. The book illustrations were actually produced using a traditional lithograph process and it was a slow, painstaking process. The word lithograph comes from the Ancient Greek, litho meaning “stone” and graphein meaning “to write.” The traditional process uses an image drawn with oil, fat, or wax onto the surface of a smooth, level lithographic limestone plate. The stone was treated with a mixture of acid and gum arabic, etching the portions of the stone that were not protected by the grease-based image. When the stone was subsequently moistened, these etched areas retained water; an oil-based ink could then be applied and would be repelled by the water, sticking only to the original drawing. The ink would finally be transferred to a blank paper sheet, producing a printed page.
This traditional technique is still used in some fine art printmaking applications today, but the more popular process is to capture the original in a photograph and then use the photo-image to print. Many of the prints of the late Richard Stone Reeves were produced from photographs of his original oil paintings, as is the case with the work of the majority of contemporary equine artists. In the case of CWA, his illustrations began life as original drawings, often done in pen and ink, that were then copied by hand to become lithographs. In his portfolios of lithographs, the process is laid out in detail. The portfolios were published beginning in 1952 and the last one appeared in 1968. Each portfolio contained about 8-12 single lithographs. Today, C.W. Anderson single lithographs can be found on sites like Ebay or Etsy, but, sadly, whole portfolios are becoming increasingly scarce.
CWA actually studied the anatomy of the horse (as did the great George Stubbs before him) and some of his anatomical sketches can be found in a few of his books, notably “Sketchbook” and “Thoroughbred.” The illustrations pre- and post these anatomy lessons are very different: specifically, they show a smooth transition from cartoonist to representational equine artist. During his career, CWA published over thirty-five books about horses, six or seven portfolios of equine art and also accepted an unrecorded number of private commissions. He taught school in Mason off and on and was a judge, certified by the American Horse Show Association, of hunters and jumpers. And, in at least one source consulted in the writing of this article for THE VAULT, CWA is depicted as “a beloved citizen of Mason.”
A youth theatre in Wilton, NH called “Andy’s Summer Playhouse” was founded in 1971, a year after the death of Mason’s beloved “Andy” as family and friends called him. First located in the Mason Town Hall, “Andy’s” relocated to Wilton about a decade later.
From their website (http://www.andyssummerplayhouse.org/history/) :
...Named for CW Anderson, our namesake, and the inspiration his artwork gave to our original 10 seasons at Mason Town Hall. Anderson’s framed artwork surrounded the room where kids fostered the initial legacy of Andy’s, which continues in 2016. ...Andy’s Summer Playhouse grew out of the dream of two teachers in the Mascenic Regional School, Margaret Sawyer and William Williams, to keep alive, during the summer of 1971, a theater experience that had occurred at their high school that spring. The Playhouse found its first home in Mason, New Hampshire. Here the enthusiasm of its founders drew the support of several arearesidents who offered not only financial assistance, but the generous gift of their talent. Most notable among these is Elizabeth Orton Jones, illustrator, author and playwright, whose contribution through the years has been of vital importance to the artistic growth of the playhouse. “Andy” was a beloved summer resident of Mason, internationally known as C.W. Anderson., a jovial outreaching man who loved young people. He wrote and illustrated stories about horses and children, many of which have a Mason background with pictures of local boys and girls. In the world of art, he was known for his meticulously beautiful renderings of animals and people, and in the world of youth, for his untiring interest and faith in new generations. “I know well that only the rarest kind of best in anything can be good enough for the young,” said the poet Walter del a Mare. Andy believed that implicitly, and lived it too. Thus it was only fitting that the new venture should strive to honor his memory. And so it does today.
When I want to revisit the day that I first discovered him at our local library, I take one of CWA’s books down from the bookcase in my bedroom, settle into a comfy spot, and slowly open the cover. Sometimes I read the narratives, other times I lose myself in the illustrations. A Filly For Joan, the book I received for Christmas when I was about ten and still have, as well as books I have collected that I remember bringing home from the library all those years ago, cast a kind of spell over me. It’s rather hard to explain, but it feels as though the younger me is completely present and actively reading the book to me. Things like finding a favourite illustration almost unconsciously and then being flooded with liquid sunshine all over, or hearing myself recite a sentence or a phrase before I’ve even read it, happen regularly. It’s a “back-in-time” experience unlike any other I’ve known. Perhaps, I often think, this is what Albert Einstein’s curve of time-space feels like. (Members of my team who, like me, were also digging into their reading landscapes and went on to hunt down the books of their childhood reported similar phenomena when they held a book they had cherished in their hands and opened its pages.)
If I go to my CWA library for research, none of younger me tags along. She probably finds it too tedious. Researching isn’t really about imagining, or the delicious discovery that a book can really speak to you, even though it sparks ideas and draws connections between apparently disparate information. Research is more like a treasure hunt, in that sense. Ridiculously exciting but not the same genre of discovery as a little girl lying in bed at night and imagining herself right in a story.
However, younger me and adult me treasure this: we both know the way to the corner of Horses + Art.
Ruckstuhl, Charles Emil. Andy As I Knew Him. Published by AuthorHouse: 2004. (ISBN 1-4184-2670-9)
Some Mason Biographies. http://home.earthlink.net/~georgeo/mason_biographies.htm
Andy’s Summer Playhouse website: http://www.andyssummerplayhouse.org/info
Smith Center For The Arts website: http://thesmith.org/support-us/lights-camera-auction/fair-play/