Whenever a vintage kid book is brought back into print, my mouth breaks into a grin. Anyone who has ever set foot in a thrift store or library knows that kid books in particular tend to get battered, folded, spindled, mutilated and affixed with random PB&J sandwich stains over time. With especially rare child-oriented books, the chance of finding a still-pristine copy of an obscure treasure becomes almost nil. That’s why it’s heartening to see Princeton Architectural Press bring back two ’70s kiddie books done by a pair of design/illustration legends, Paula Scher and Seymour Chwast, reproduced as they were when originally printed. Both The Brownstone (1973) and The Pancake King (1971) deliver ’70s-funky yet timeless messages for kids and adults in colorful, large-format editions.
A gentle “be kind to those different from you” theme runs through The Brownstone, which follows a family of bears as they attempt to hibernate in their big city apartment. The Bears merely want to settle in for the winter, only they’re interrupted by a piano-playing cat, dancing kangaroos, a timid mouse family, and a gourmet pig family. Mr. Bear calls on the landlord, Mr. Owl, to help them out of their predicament, resulting in a game of musical chairs where the tenants all change places. It ends harmoniously, of course. Paula Scher was a young designer at CBS Records when she wrote this book, enlisting the help of cartoonist Stan Mack (of Stan Mack’s Real Life Funnies). Mack’s pen-and-ink illustrations are lively and detailed. I also enjoyed the way Scher laid the book out (I’m assuming she designed as well as wrote) with spreads that show a cross-section of the brownstone on the right, while other spreads have chaotic vignettes from the story on the left-facing page. Kids will love studying the characters’ expressions and seeing how they react to being moved from floor to floor in the building. It’s a fun story with a solid, subtle message.
Illustrator Seymour Chwast was already well-established with the legendary Push Pin Studios when he decided to lend his art to a whimsical Phyllis La Farge story about a boy who loves making delicious pancakes. The Pancake King also has a timely message which will resonate with today’s kids about the satisfaction of loving what you do, regardless of what will come of it. The story follows a boy named Henry Edgewood, who attracts attention from his family and neighbors for his great homemade pancakes. Henry’s notoriety also draws in a shady businessman, Arthur J. Jinker, who makes Henry famous by taking him on a glitzy pancake-selling tour. Henry soon realizes that making pancakes for fame and riches isn’t fulfilling, however, so he returns to being a happy, humble Pancake King for his parents and his faithful dog, Ezra. Chwast’s funky, organic style of art is all over this book, printed in a color-drenched wide format. To adults, Chwast’s art has a vaguely nostalgic look reminiscent of Sesame Street and The Electric Company, although kids will find appeal in his curvy, colorful style as well. As a bonus, the book contains a recipe for Henry’s pancakes – yum!