Even as a child, Paul Galdone knew he would be an artist: Drawing was his life. But it wasn't until he was in his mid-40s that Mr. Galdone illustrated his first children's book and launched a career that would ensure his artistic legacy.
From 1951 until his death in 1986 at age 79, the prolific Mr. Galdone illustrated and/or wrote more than 300 children's books, many of them classics that have become favorites for several generations of young readers. Two books that he illustrated, "Anatole" and "Anatole and the Cat" -- both written by Eve Titus -- won Caldecott Honors, given to the best illustrated children's books in a particular year.
But Mr. Galdone may be best remembered for his versions of traditional folk tales aimed at the picture-book crowd. Most of these books have never gone out of print, and now four of them have just been beautifully republished by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in a new "Folk Tale Classics" line: "The Three Bears," "The Three Little Pigs," "Three Little Kittens" and "The Little Red Hen."
Each book costs $8.99 -- a bargain considering how nicely they are presented (with gold-foil accents on the covers) and what classics they are. The stories are ones that every child should know, and Mr. Galdone's versions add energy and comedy to these traditional tales.
Just look at the wonderful contrast he creates between the busy Red Hen, sporting a starched apron and cap, and her utterly lazy housemates. And check out the way that he shows the nonchalance of the third pig (the one with the brick house) when he sees the hugely fierce face of the wolf filling his window.
Working mostly in pen-and-ink washes, Mr. Galdone used "bold, posterlike images and layouts" and an "unfussy, deliberately accessible style," children's book historian Leonard S. Marcus writes in an introduction to "Nursery Classics: A Galdone Treasury," published in 2001 by Clarion Books.
"Knowing that copies of his books were bound for use in preschool and elementary school classrooms and public libraries, he planned his illustrations with the child in the last row at story hour in mind," Mr. Marcus writes.
But Mr. Galdone also loved to include small details that displayed his impish sense of humor -- and assumed that young readers also would want to spend time looking for these special touches. For example, the Little Wee Bear in "The Three Bears" carries a teddy bear, adding a fourth bear "to allow the third bear (and readers) to feel a little less small," Mr. Marcus writes.
The art in the house occupied by the felines in "Three Little Kittens," meanwhile, includes a portrait of "Puss in Boots" as well as a painting showing "Whistler's Mother" as a cat. In another example of Mr. Galdone's genius for details, he shows just what the indolent members of "The Little Red Hen" household are dreaming of as they lie about all day: An opened can of sardines for the cat; a bone (with a fly on it -- an extra wry touch) for the dog; and a piece of Swiss cheese for the mouse.
In that book, Mr. Galdone also chose to set his story in a rather rundown farmhouse, telling his editor that he was "tired of cutesie-pie houses" and that animal characters "can feel very cozy in dilapidated surroundings."
This decision, Mr. Marcus writes, "was a characteristically subtle choice that highlights Galdone's affinity for animal tales with mordant comments to make on human nature." By setting "The Little Red Hen" in such a ramshackle house, readers are invited to think why the cottage is such a mess.
"Is it simply because the hen's housemates never help out with the chores? Or might it also be that the brooder herself is really not quite the stiff-necked perfectionist she at first seems?" Mr. Marcus asks.
Another hallmark of Mr. Galdone's work -- as seen in these new editions and, indeed, in all of his books -- is his love of nature. His books are filled with flowers, leaves, trees, insects and other creatures. Even the Little Wee Bear's bedspread shows this love of nature: It's a quilt in which each patch shows something related to the great outdoors.
As Mr. Galdone once told an interviewer: "I like to keep contact with nature in my art whenever and wherever possible."
Two other Galdone books -- "The Three Billy Goats Gruff" and "The Gingerbread Boy" -- will be added to the "Folk Tale Classics" in September, and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt officials say they are considering expanding the series to include books by other writer/illustrators.
But Mr. Galdone's work will continue to occupy a special niche for young readers. As he once wrote, it is "so satisfying if into this applied art form one can sneak in some things that will strike a chord."
Karen MacPherson, the children's/teen librarian at the Takoma Park, Md., Library, can be reached at Kam.Macpherson@gmail.com .