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A Fuse #8 Production
Inside A Fuse #8 Production

When Illustrators Surprise You

Brinton Turkle: Purveyor of Terror.

For that statement to strike you funny you have to first be familiar with the collected works of a man that, I would argue, was the most successful Quaker author/illustrator in the business.

Today I want to tackle the phenomenon of what happens when you discover a new book from your favorite illustrator, only to discover that it’s surprising in some way.  This can happen with someone publishing today who, it turns out, has a long and storied backlist.  It can also happen with one of your favorite illustrators from the days of yore.  In fact, that’s what happened to author/illustrator Elizabeth Rose Stanton (of the delightful and weird Henny) when she reread one of her kids’ books.  And it was by Brinton Turkle.

A quick bit of background first.  For those of you unfamiliar with Turkle, you can find a nice biography of him here.  His most famous books are debatable.  Here in New York I often notice that The Boy Who Didn’t Believe in Spring by Lucille Clifton shows up on a lot of teachers’ reading lists.

Still, I think his Obadiah series (Caldecott Honor book Thy Friend, Obadiah is the only one still in print) remains best known around the country.  It was a historical series following a Quaker boy in Nantucket.

Lovely illustrations.  Sweet storylines.  You’d hardly think the man capable of Do Not Open.

Published in 1981, the innocuous description reads “Following a storm Miss Moody and her cat find an intriguing bottle washed up on the beach. Should they ignore its ‘Do not open’ warning?”

Not to spoil the surprise for you but, no.  No they should not ignore the warning.  Because the contents are, quite frankly, deliciously horrifying.

What interests me about this book isn’t so much the fact that it’s unafraid to get scary, though it is curious that no one minds.  In an age where Pinkerton covers get re-illustrated to remove firearms and Let’s Get a Dog, Said Kate is lambasted for an imagined cigarette, both the Amazon and the Goodreads reviews of this title are remarkably innocuous.  Still, more interesting to me is the phenomenon of trusting an artist to keep producing the same old, same old, only to have them launch in an entirely different direction.  This is particularly interesting when they have a commercially successful product on the one hand, and yet they yearn to get artistic and creative on the other.  Some, like Sendak, could afford to be both but I think we can agree that he’s the exception, not the rule.

Other examples of books that you might be surprised to stumble across, though these are just cases of artists getting silly more than anything else, are:

The Seven Lady Godivas by Dr. Seuss

I had a copy of this at a branch once, and though it was cataloged as adult the pages kept shelving it in the children’s room.  I could hardly blame them, though I did wonder if they ever glanced at the cover.

Uncle Shelby’s ABZs by Shel Silverstein

I like to think most folks already know this one, but there’s a possibility that they don’t.  My favorite section is still, “G is for Gigolo”.  Vintage Kids’ Books My Kid Loves summarizes the book nicely here.

There are others out there, of course.  These were just the first that came to my mind.

About Elizabeth Bird

Elizabeth Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.


  1. Paul Zelinsky is a master of getting artistic, and Marla Frazee’s recent Caldecott-miss is another perfect example of departure from same old. Some of Sendalk’s forays were far less successful, but I would commend any artist for defying the gravitational pull of the market. Thanks for turning me on to an illustrator not represented at my local library. Off to solve that mystery!

  2. Denis Markell says:

    Uncle Shelby’s ABZ book is one I first found in college and could NOT believe it. Recently, my ten-year-old son found it in our bookshelf and NOTHING is better than ten-year-old helpless laughter. I would say only Ook and Gluck have brought so much joy into his subversive little heart.

  3. Thanks for this post, Betsy! Looks like I have some Turkle to catch up on, although I’m glad we started with DO NOT OPEN. Incidentally, I checked in with my now-adult kids and, while there are bunches of pbs we had that they don’t recall, they all remember DNO quite clearly–and rather fondly. I’m happy to report that, to date, they have exhibited no evidence of any permanent trauma 😉 –ERS

  4. I knew Brinton Turkle in the sixties–we lived in the same Quaker boarding house, The Pennington, in N.Y. next to their meeting house on 15th Street. Brinton was a kind, sly, and gentle man–except that he loved a good stinky cheese. His best friend was Ezra Jack Keats, who often came for dinner. When Brinton loved to Santa Fe, we lost touch.

  5. Thanks for the reminder that the best illustrators are – first and foremost – artists, and therefore restlessly creative. One of the best examples is Tomi Ungerer, who was thrown out of the club for being an artist who had many legitimate ideas, only some of which were expressed with picture books.