The first thing we learn about the four siblings in The Boxcar Children is that “No one knew them. No one knew where they had come from.” So it seems completely appropriate that all of the illustrations in this first book of the series are done in a shadow/silhouette style.
Illustrator L. Kate Deal does a nice job with this format, providing just enough pictures to enhance the story, but not so many that it feels like a picture book. Young readers can readily see that this is a chapter book, one that they have to read to know what’s happening in the story. Ms Deal shows a nice level of detail in her black and white drawings so that we have a good idea of the children’s relative ages, how they dress, how they take care of themselves and each other. Though we see them only in the dark, it’s obvious that there is nothing shady about them.
I’m afraid I can’t say the same about L. Kate Deal. Not that I know anything to her detriment – it’s just that I can find little about her anywhere. And by “anywhere” I of course mean “online through my typical practice of googling everything I want to know about.”
I have become so accustomed to casually typing in key words and instantly finding multiple references to every little thing I have questions about, I’ve been a bit put out by my lack of success in finding out any personal information about this woman. The sum total of my findings about L. Kate Deal – she was an illustrator. Seems she mainly did children’s stories – but who knows?
What I do know is that besides The Boxcar Children, Deal provided illustrations for Child Library Readers, Book Two (1925) by William H. Elson, one of the authors of the “Dick and Jane” readers that helped so many of us in our early days of reading. I was so annoyed that I couldn’t find out anything online about L. Kate Deal that I bought a musty old copy of this reader, in which someone penciled in neat cursive “Lime Ridge Grade.” A quick search told me more about Lime Ridge than I found about our illustrator. There’s a Lime Ridge in Pennsylvania and one in Wisconsin, either of which might have had a grade school in the 20s – and then there’s an elementary school in New York state that is on Lime Ridge Road, which looks even more promising. Anyway, this little reader was helping young kids learn to read 90 years ago, which is nice no matter where it was doing its job.
The introduction to this reader assures us that “the stories have been selected for their child-interest and wholesome ethical content. Kindness, helpfulness, contentment, industry, promptness, gratitude, love of Mother, and obedience are attractively portrayed in interesting stories, yet without any of the atmosphere of preachiness.” (Perhaps the stories aren’t preachy, but there seems to be a bit of sermonizing in the introduction.)
We are told the illustrations by L. Kate Deal and others “are not mere decorations, but are so drawn as to present in visual form the unfolding of the narrative.” And here we see a couple of examples of her narrative-unfolding skills. A pleasant, old-school style.
One interesting aspect of these illustrations is that as far as I can tell, various illustrators worked on the Reader in a general way, because illustrations within a single story are sometimes from different artists. All of the drawings are stylistically similar, but there are a few distinctive signatures. For example, let’s look at two illustrations from “The Magic Ladder” by Jay T. Stocking – a title/author pairing that strikes me as funny – makes me think of British women complaining of damaged pantyhose.
But to get back on topic, here we have two very similar drawings from the story that have different artist signatures. Early in the story, we see Jack and “the funniest little man that you ever saw” who hopped out of a grandfather clock. And here’s a closeup of the signature:
Later on, Jack is in the same room talking to the same funny little man, and this picture shows the signature of our mysterious illustrator, L. Kate Deal.
You can clearly see that the pictures show the same room, same characters, but if you compare, you can see the differences in style.
I wondered if maybe publishing companies just commonly had – or still have – a sort of team of illustrators that pitch in wherever they’re needed. But in searching for publishing practices and illustrations for school readers in the 1920s, I got pretty much nowhere. If anyone knows about such things, I’d be happy to hear about it.
All in all, I didn’t find out much about our Boxcar Children illustrator – but I do think her style suits the story better than those of the illustrator of the first publication. Nearly 20 years after the original version, Gertrude Chandler Warner revised the book to make it more accessible to young readers – which evidently was the right thing to do, judging by the never-ending popularity of the series.
The earlier illustrations by Dorothy Lake Gregory are lovely, but this is a story about runaway orphans living rough – these kids look a bit too refined and elegant. I like the shadowy kids better in this context.
Another cool reason the simple black and white illustrations work for this book is that in her role as grade school teacher, Gertrude Chandler Warner used to draw silhouettes of all of her students, like this one:
I wonder if any of my elementary school teacher friends plan to add that activity to their busy school day….