of the Center for Children's Books:
Gone but Not Forgotten
|Each month we offer a
focus on a particular author or artist, sometimes we use this space
to discuss a rising new talent or an established star, but we also like
to celebrate those who now live on only in the rich legacy of their books.
See the archive for focus pieces from previous
Roy Gerrard (1934-1997)
It was nearly two decades ago that art professor Roy Gerrard abandoned academia to launch a new career in children's picture books. With the release of Matilda Jane, authored by Gerrard's wife, Jean his penchant for gentle visual parody was evident and his signature figure drawing--round, slightly squat, wide-eyed characters who exude well-being and propriety--was established. Gerrard coopted the author's role for his next work, The Favershams, and the driving music-hall style rhymes introduced by his wife grew in complexity. These initial forays were, however, essentially plotless Victorian albums of a little girls trip to the seaside and an old Indian campaigner's life of service to his queen; they awaited the addition of the melodrama in Sir Cedric to complete the elements of the playfully theatrical costume dramas that would define Gerrard's oeurve. From there it was "on with the show."
The Set. Just as a shallow stage presses the action close to the audience, Gerrard's foreshortened perspectives press the action close to the reader; marching crusaders, broadsiding galleons, and ambushing outlaws come just short of demanding audience participation. Against towering backdrops and flats of intricate and lush detail, large chunks of scenery seem to have been economically recycled among the productions. The craggy heights of the rockies crossed by Oregon settlers (Wagons West!), for example, are suspiciously sinilar to those that surround Abdul the Heavy's desert fortress (Sir Cedric Rides Again): given a coat of whitewash, they could be the same icebergs Sir Francis Drake sails past (Sir Francis Drake) And there's always a carpet of daisies at hand to meet more pastoral demands.
The Cast. With the notable exception of leggy aerialist actress Jocasta, who is relatively well-proportioned and possibly less fun, gerrard's rotund, large-headed, short-legged cadre of players seems as familiar and even interchangeable as the supporting casts in any dozen Masterpiece Theater airings. Add a beard here, some glasses there, a regimental uniform here, a doublet and a lace collar there, and any character could be that actor/actress whose unmistakable face and elusive name gnaw at the edge of memory. Each role is rigidly defined, with no ambiguity over good guys and bad guys, no subtleties of character motivation. Readers can breathe easy, certain of who to jeer and who to cheer.
The Plot. The setting may vary from the banks of the Nile to the Great Plains, but the story will hinge on good vs. evil. Period. Whether Drake is fighting the Amarda, Sir Cedric is fighting Black Ned, or the guys in the ten /(make that fifty?) gallon hats are fighting Greasy Ben (Rosie and the Rustlers), the showdown will be brief and bloodless. In a Gerrard world right inevitably prevails through virtue, cleverness, and courage, and villains are put in their places with a few smart smacks and are kept on the straight and narrow with sagacious and cunningly rhymed advice.
The Narration. "For out of their hiding fierce bandits came striding/ all hairy and lacking in charm,/ They looked evil and rough and exceedingly tough/ and would give a girl a cause for alarm." Only supply the tune, and the phrasing could leap from the pages of a Sir William Gilbert libretto. Tongue planted firmly in cheek, Gerrard dashes off a patter droll enough to captivate a readership well beyond the customary picture book years. Whatadukt, weary from reading aloud simpler sing-song offerings, wouldn't relish taking a crack at "The log cabin gave a lurch, then it toppled from its perch/ and landed with a satisfying splosh./ when the bandits crawled ashore, they were shocked and wet and sore/ But much cleabner from their unexpected."?
No doubt there are prissy purists who will object to caveboy Mik's (Mik's Mammoth) discovery of foraging after his clan was already adept at hunting, or the severe truncation of Sir Francis Drake's adventures. And the politically correct will certainly challenge the naivete with which Gerrard handles British/Indian relations, pioneer/Native American relations, and, heaven help us, Crusader/"infidel" relations. But recognizable stereotype is the stuff of parody, and readers who can't giggle at much. Now that the ink is dry on Gerrard's last juicy opus, the picture book milieu is a little more arid indeed.
This page was last updated on December 1, 1997.