Like most avid readers I suspect, I have a long list of writers that I would like to meet. At the top of my list, at the moment, is the writer/illustrator Willi Baum. I would like to say to him – `Mr Baum, thank you for the pleasure I’ve had from your books. Thank you for the conversations and stories your books have provoked amongst the many children (and adults) with whom I’ve shared them. But, tell me, Mr Baum. Why can’t we get hold of your books? Why is only one of them, Stagecoach to Town, in print?’
Willi Baum’s books (so far as I can tell – I’ve never seen a complete list) fall into two categories: non-text picture books – The Expedition (published in the mid-seventies by Blackie), Sense and Nonsense (Dent), and illustrated stories – Angelito and the Jack and Pete cowboy series of which Stagecoach to Town is one (all Dent again). As far as I know, none of them has ever gone into paperback nor has his work attracted a great deal of attention. The Dent catalogue quotes a review from the Primary Education Review for Stagecoach to Town – a welcome addition to any library. The illustrations are clear and colourful, and the story precise and well written.’ Is it that kind of automatic reviewing which partly accounts for why books sink without trace? If I concentrate on Baum’s non-text picture books I think I may be able to suggest some other reasons.
Sense and Nonsense contains four picture stories in different styles or rather four pictorial fables. In one story, Two Flags, Baum takes sixteen frames to illustrate the follies and roots of conflict which lie in territorial obsessions, technological insanity and man’s urge for self-destruction. I should perhaps explain that the account I’ve just given is what a group of my students – all of them in their early twenties – thought it was about. The infant and junior pupils I show it to see it differently. One infant wrote – ‘At the end the two men are kneeling down together to pray to God to be friends.’
My students want to see the twenty frames of another story The Flower as representing the choice mankind has to make between a materialist technology and Nature. An infant pupil ends her story by saying -‘And the man went back to the flower‘ and to show that she understands she writes `flower’ three times as large as every other word in the story.
What unites these two apparently disparate groups is that these illustrated stories have prompted them into making up their own narratives and accounts. They have all been involved in acts of judgement, interpretation and criticism – seeking for significance in what they see. The lack of text is what creates the room for this kind of speculation. Isn’t what I’ve just described what we mean when we talk about ‘learning to read’? (In this respect many of my students have also still got a long way to go – they’re likely to exercise their intelligence more with Willi Baum than their normal diet of Jeffrey Archer and the Sun).
Rather to my surprise, neither of Baum’s non-text books are mentioned in Jill Bennett’s Learning to Read With Picture Books or Elaine Moss’ Picture Books for Young People 9-13. I’m surprised because Elaine Moss alerts us to one of the reasons why, I suspect, Baum’s books haven’t achieved greater currency -‘. . . there is a curious belief among many parents and teachers that … during the years of “serious education” the relevant picture books have no place.’ Certainly Baum’s books would meet her avowed aim of choosing picture books which ‘examine various aspects of life openly, controversially, often humorously’. Children recognise that this is what he is doing and they match the economy of his representations with the compactness of their own judgements. Here is a pupil of junior age writing about The Expedition – ‘The story represents greed and selfishness.
It is like people taking animals out of their natural habitat. There is lots of greed in this world and lots of arguments. The man in the story looked as though he thought he was very important and lots of people in the world are like that.’
The argument that Elaine Moss makes has still not gained general acceptance. It’s acceptable for children to paint and draw (within limits and less and less as they grow older) but we’ve yet to assert the need for an expansion of visual education – if we see the ‘visual’ (illustrations, paintings, photographs etc.) as educative at all. In the meantime, Willi Baum is unavailable and other obvious starting points like the work of Mitsumasa Anno remains available mainly only in expensive hardback. One might add to this list the work of fine artists like Peter Spier and Alice and Martin Provensen.
I suspect in the end that one of the problems with Willi Baum’s work is that it doesn’t fall easily into any of the categories through which books become packaged or noticed. His range of appeal is too wide and undefined. If he were to move to producing non-text material for toddlers there would be no problem – anything goes in that area. His picture stories are political and socially aware yet without becoming solemn or sentimental – so you don’t feel button-holed by the message and I’m afraid he doesn’t fit in easily to themes or topics. Perhaps his worst fault of all is that he keeps on changing his style to suit his subject-no one is going to say `Oh, it must be a Baum’ as they will for, say, Quentin Blake or John Burningham.
In fact, Baum displays a boldness of conception and design which ought never to be out of fashion. Look at Angelito with its vibrant colours, the sinuous lines of the vertiginous Peruvian landscape matched by the convolutions of the South American baroque church interiors – and I haven’t said anything about the story yet! But I forgot – you can’t look because it’s out of print.
Eric Hadley works in the Education Department of The South Glamorgan Institute of Higher Education.
Stagecoach to Town, Willi Baum, Dent, 0 460 06996 9, £5.50.