Author:  Lawrence Webster

Publisher: WoodstockArts

ISBN-10: 0967926866

ISBN-13: 978-0967926865

To the lay person, the names of Maud and Miska Petersham may seem unfamiliar. Their art, however, will not. As illustrators (and, later, authors) of innumerable  books now considered classics, the Petershams  were iconic figures in  American children’s publishing.   Through the course of a career spanning some four decades, the prolific husband-and-wife team made invaluable contributions to the genre of illustration, children’s literature as well as printing . Yet their legacy, author Lawrence Webster suggests in his elegant  biography of the couple, might just as well be the fruitful lives they led.

Given the nature of their work, it seems only fitting that the Petershams’ own life have a touch of the fairy tale about it. Hailing from  widely different backgrounds –she, a Baptist minister’s daughter; he, a Hungarian immigrant of modest circumstances  - the two met as employees of a design studio in New York in 1914. Miska Petersham (born Petrezselyem Mihály ) was clearly the more skilled artist, and his mentoring of Maud’s art soon blossomed into a courtship that led to a long and happy marriage,  and a remarkably successful professional collaboration. 

They were lucky in other ways too . At the onset of her professional career, Maud’s  artistic talent was average at best; her employment at the studio where  she would soon meet Miska, seems to owe less to  her skills than the sheer force of her  character.  Miska’s  managed to  get to  America just ahead of legislation that would restrict the inflow of foreign immigrants onto its shores . He also successfully avoided getting drafted into the army on two different continents, and his first years in America , though hard, seem to have been enriched by the presence of good friends and well wishers. The  couple could not have chosen a better time to begin working as artists – the Golden Age of children’s publishing in America had dawned, and commercial artists (till then considered somewhat lower  in stature to ‘real’ artists) were much sought after as illustrators.  The Petershams’  move from advertising to  children’s illustration was equally serendipitous -  they took on a project that a close friend was unable to complete. Their distinctive style, sense of design, meticulous attention to detail and professionalism quickly caught the eye of publishers, ensuring they were never out of many of which would go on to win both commercial success and critical acclaim. 

Author Lawrence Webster chronicles the trajectory of the couple’s life with affection and admiration. This is a book the meticulous Petershams would have approved of – much like their life’s work, it speaks of rigorous research, a great attention to detail and a  genuine interest in sharing his sense of wonder at the  remarkable lives his subjects led. The book is also a visual delight, brimming with richly coloured reproductions of the Petershams’ drawings, sketches , letters and even journal jottings.  Given that we live in a day and age when  it seems almost de rigeur for biographers to unearth the most intimate details of their subjects’ lives for public consumption, ‘Under the North Light’  is refreshing   in the respectful distance it keeps from the Petershams’ private life. 

Under the North Light is a book aspiring writers and illustrators of children’s books should read, not just  for its insights into the minds of two iconic figures of the genre, but also its warm portrait of a life successfully built around a shared love of the craft .

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