It’s quite easy to tell if an illustrator has read the story he has set out to draw, and woe betide those artists who think they can ignore the author’s statement that the cow smiled or the princess is wearing a green dress with yellow trimmings. Illustrating a book is like a dance between the author and the artist, a delicate balance that must be maintained, the integrity of words and images kept whole.
P. J. Lynch (Patrick James Lynch, if we’re being formal) has read the stories he illustrates, and his love for those stories shows. Though he’s perhaps not as prolific as, say, Tomie dePaola, his existing body of work contains gems worthy of consideration and admiration.
Take his depiction of E. Nesbit’s Melisande. Originally published by Nesbit in 1901, Melisande tells the story of a princess (named Melisande) who is cursed at birth to be bald. In wry fairytale fashion, the princess is perfectly happy with her state in life, but her mother is distraught. When she is of age, the King remembers a wish he was given by his fairy godmother (this is a fairytale, after all — everyone has a fairy godmother) that he has “never had occasion to use.” He gives it to his daughter, who in turn asks her mother what she should wish for. The Queen has spent years considering this, and before the King can blink, has Melisande wishing for “golden hair a yard long, and that it would grow an inch every day, and grow twice as fast every time it was cut, and . . . .” The King stopped her after that, which was a blessing (she was going to add “and twice as thick”). Well, chaos ensues, miles of golden hair are tripped over, and a handsome prince eventually (though not without a serious mishap) saves the day.
Nesbit is an amusing writer, and this absurd and delightful tale demands a careful eye. Lynch captures it superbly in watercolors, keeping them light and bright to best showcase the humorous tone of the book. While he never lacks detail in his work, it is the expressions that truly give life to the tale. A crowd of angry fairies, each with a different discontented frown, congregate at the christening. A grinning mail-delivering butterfly is sent off with an urgent message. Prince Florizel’s starstruck gaze when he first sees Melisande is endearing. There are many other character expressions, each more entertaining than the last.
Lynch’s books are done, as far as I can tell, primarily in watercolors, and the skills he showcases in this medium are outstanding. This is especially true in pictures that are done completely in different shades of black, white, and grey. Some wonderful examples are in his illustrations of East O’ the Sun and West O’ the Moon where the prince sheds his bear skin after the lights turn out, and a scene of early 1900s New York City apartments — bleak and snow covered — in his depiction of The Gift of the Magi. At first glance, these scenes seem bland compared to the exuberant wedding of Melisande and Florizel or the joyful reunion of the Prince and the Lass. But closer inspection is demanded, rewarding the reader with surprising contrasts and delicate elements. The breathtaking two-page spread in East O’ the Sun and West O’ the Moon showing the North Wind sweeping across the sea is done mostly in blues and greys. But look closely: You can see the Lass, brilliant red and ragged skirt flying, a tiny dot clinging for dear life to the North Wind’s robes. Though still, his pictures seem to tremble with motion and urgency, as he uses perspective to draw our eye and plunge us into the moment.
Lynch chooses timeless stories, and they respond most beautifully to his touch. Drawing on his Irish heritage, Lynch illustrated a collection of old Irish folktales titles Names Upon The Harp. One of his more serious works, When Jessie Came Across the Sea by Amy Hest, depicts a young girl immigrating to America, following the joys and struggles she encounters. He also captures other fairytales — Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen and The Steadfast Tin Soldier among them — bringing even more life to these enduring tales.
If you have a moment, find a Lynch-illustrated copy of The Bee-man of Orn or The Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey, turn on a soft light, and find yourself enveloped in the richly colored world of talking bears, historical portraits, princesses grown miles high, and tender gifts given with sincere love.