Barbara Helen Berger
In contrast to last week’s featured author/illustrator, Wanda Gag, who worked primarily in black and white, one of the more notable attributes of Barbara Helen Berger’s illustrated stories is just how lush the colors are.
Ms. Berger was born March 1st, 1945 in the Mojave Desert but was raised in Seattle, Washington. Her father was a medical doctor and artist who made his living as a medical illustrator, her mother a nurse with a great love of poetry. With the combined influences of full time immersion in art from her father and her mother’s storytelling and love of words, perhaps there is some element of inevitability in her becoming an author/illustrator though for many years that outcome was not an obvious one.
In one of her writing’s Ms Berger describes her early experience:
As a child, of course, any distinction between fine art and illustration was totally irrelevant. I simply loved looking at pictures. On walls, or in books. Especially in books. We didn’t have so many children’s picture books then, nothing like nowadays, but there were illustrated books. My mother, a poet, was great at reading out loud. With her voice providing the music of words, I would gaze at every part of every picture on every page. I did the same with my Dad’s big art books, which I pulled from the bottom shelf of the bookcase in the living room. No one was reading out loud to me then, and what child would enjoy all that dry art history anyway? None of that mattered to me. I simply loved sitting there on the sofa alone, legs sticking straight out, the heavy book open across my lap, losing myself in the pictures. Most of them had stories in them, I could tell from the faces and gestures of the people. I recognized some: David and Goliath, Mary and her baby, Venus stepping from her shell. But even when I didn’t know what the story was, I could still “read” the picture for itself. And that’s what I loved.
She took her degree in Fine Arts from the University of Washington which included a year of art study in Italy. For ten years after her studies, Ms. Berger pursued her avocation as an artist. In the late seventies, she took a course on writing with Jane Yolen (another wonderful writer whom we will be featuring down the road).
In 1980, Ms. Berger’s first children’s book appeared, as the illustrator of a story by Jane Yolen, “Brothers of the Wind”.
Her own first book as the author/illustrator, “Animalia”, was released in 1982. This book, a collection of thirteen retold folk tales, was heavily influenced by Ms. Berger’s studies in medieval illuminated manuscripts (please see her excerpt from a speech, Illustration: Shedding Light.)
This was followed in turn in 1984 by her book which I regard as one of the long-term classics, “Grandfather Twilight” to which I will return in a moment. Also in her oeuvre are “The Donkey’s Dream” (1985), ”When the Sun Rose” (1986), ”Gwinna” (1990), “The Jewel Heart” (1994), “A Lot of Otters” (1997), “Angels on a Pin” (2000), and “All the Way to Lhasa: A Tale from Tibet” (2002). She has had a new book out recently, “Thunder Bunny”.
Most of her work incorporates styles and themes from the modern era as well as the medieval Renaissance, from Christian and Eastern religious thought and always in rich colors. In her stories, Ms. Berger writes for the child but she incorporates many story and visual hooks that allow you to explore much deeper themes should you wish. Sometimes there is a little bit of a tug-of-war between the lusciousness of the pictures and the potential weightiness of the themes (for example with “Angels on a Pin”) which leaves some people with a sense of imbalance. But where the balance is well-struck, it can be simply wonderful and, at all times, for a child, the richness of her artistic style will over-ride any issues related to the story.
For my money, “Grandfather Twilight” is in a class of its own and destined to enter the canon of all-time favorite children’s stories. Please see the TTMD review for all the details but suffice to say that this was a favorite of all three of our children with their very different personalities. We used this primarily as a bedtime story, not only because of the story-line (Grandfather Twilight and his evening routine) but also because of the melodic, gently rippling cadence of the story. It is in this book where I think the gentle cadence of the story is most perfectly married with the enveloping comfort of the illustrations. It is a gift to send a child off to sleep with such wonderful images drifting into their unconsciousness.
Brothers of the Wind, by Jane Yolen; illustrated by Barbara Helen Berger, 1981.
Grandfather Twilight, 1984.
The Donkey’s Dream, 1985.
When the Sun Rose, 1986.
The Jewel Heart, 1994.
A Lot of Otters, 1997.
Angels on a Pin, 2000.
All the Way to Lhasa: A Tale from Tibet, 2002.
Thunder Bunny, 2007
“Barbara (Helen) Berger.” Contemporary Authors Online. Gale, 2005
“Barbara Helen Berger.” Penguin Books 2006
“Bio.” Barbara Helen Berger. 6 August, 2006.
Navasky, Bruno. “Children’s Books.” The New York Times. 19 January 2003. 6 August, 2006.
Seniuk, Jake. “The Bud of Wisdom.” On Center. Spring, 1997. 7 August, 2006.