Monday, March 16, 2015

The Perfect Match of Author and Illustrator: John Bellairs and Edward Gorey

The Curse of the Blue Figurine

Some authors and illustrators are so inexorably linked that it is almost impossible to think of the one without the other.  The author/illustrator pairings of Roald Dahl with Quentin Blake and  Alvin Schwartz with Steven Gammell are just two of many examples.  We all have our favorites, based on our individual preferences in story and style.

A match that I believe was made in literary heaven is John Bellairs and Edward Gorey.  John Bellairs (1938 - 1991) was an incredibly intelligent man who wrote for both children and adults.  On the adult side, his fantasy novel The Face in the Frost (1969) is considered a classic of the genre. Bellairs started writing gothic mystery novels for younger readers in the 1970s, three different series featuring Louis Barnavelt, Anthony Monday, and Johnny Dixon.  In this post, the focus is on the first of the Johnny Dixon series, The Curse of the Blue Figurine.

Book #3:  The Curse of the Blue Figurine (1983) by John Bellairs; ill. by Edward Gorey. 167 pages.

The year is 1951.  Johnny Dixon is a shy, bespectacled seventh-grader from Long Island whose mother has recently died of cancer.  Johnny's father has elected to resume his career as a jet pilot in Korea and has shipped Johnny off to his elderly grandparents who live in the town of Duston Heights, Massachusetts.  Johnny attends St. Michael's, a Catholic grade school, run by the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary.

Johnny finds a kindred soul in his grandfather's long time friend and neighbor Professor Roderick Childermass.  Johnny has an active imagination, a passion for archeology and scary radio programs and chess.  The two bond over the professor's homemade desserts and chess games.

The trouble starts after the professor tells Johnny a story about a former town priest who was suspected of murdering two citizens of Duston Heights through paranormal means.  The rumor was that the priest dealt in black magic. The priest vanished one day, and is said to haunt St. Michaels' church.  Shortly after hearing the story, Johnny, fleeing to the church basement to avoid a schoolyard bully, finds an old box that contains a blue figurine and a note.  The note warns anyone from taking the items from the church, saying that to do so would endanger their immortal soul.  Johnny, or course, brings the box home, and as a result, dark forces are unleashed that, save for the Professor's intervention, would have led to his death.  Instead, the mystery of the blue figurine is solved, the evil spirit of the priest is destroyed, and Johnny and the Professor live on to solve the next paranormal mystery.  Bellairs wrote a total of eight Johnny Dixon books, all with excellent titles, my favorite title being The Eyes of the Killer Robot (1986).  Killer robot?  You just can't top that.

The Curse of the Blue Figurine at

This is a plot driven novel, with action taking precedence over character development.  Johnny has suffered a tremendous loss, of his mother to cancer and his father's abandonment to the military.  The author drops an occasional reference to Johnny's being sad, but delves no further.  Many references are made to the practice of the Catholic religion, archeology, and classic texts.  Smoking and drinking are portrayed as accepted behaviors, which they certainly were in 1951.  Psychiatry is viewed with distrust and a certain mockery, and people, particularly adults, express themselves bluntly. Very bluntly. The book was considered YA at the time of its release, but today's YA readers would probably find Johnny a little too young as a protagonist.

Edward Gorey was born in 1925 and died in the year 2000.  For some, he is an acquired taste, but he is one of my personal favorites.  The reason I first read Bellairs' books was Gorey's deliciously creepy cover art.  No other artist does gothic like Gorey, and in his long career his artwork can be found in nearly every medium from books -(Amphigorey (1972) is a great place to start), television (PBS Mystery series), and stage (Dracula stage sets for the Broadway production).

Examples of Gorey's artwork

Question #3:

An old man who is an inventor creates a one-of-a-kind magical umbrella.  The umbrella is stolen, and two children and their dog help him find it again.  Late 1950s, early sixties, maybe.  Three color illustrations.

Anyone recognize this one?

It's not magical- it's musical!  The book is Mystery of the Musical Umbrella by Friedrick Feld, illustrated by Doris Jackson.  Published originlly in German in 1958, it was translated into English in 1962.  Mr.  Adelmar invented the musical umbrella, lost it, and then found it again with the help of Martin, Helen, and their dog Brownie.

Cover art for The Mystery of the Musical Umbrella at Amazon

Plus - Any thoughts on your own favorite author/illustrator teams?  Who are your personal favorites?

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