This write-up is more personal than the other ones I’ve done so far, and I hope you will excuse me gushing for several minutes about some artists I love and admire.
Sofia Prokofievna (b. 1928) is a Russian illustrator, poet, playwright, and, most importantly to me, the author of many original “fairy tales” for children. She was one of my absolute favorite writers when I was a child; her clever, creative, magical stories of cursed princesses, kindly neighborhood wizards and the like captivated me. Looking back, she was probably the Russian storyteller whose work was most formative for my young mind and imagination, certainly as much as any English-language Diana Wynne Jones, Eva Ibbotson, or Terry Pratchett. Her stories are as brimming with fantasy as they are with kindness, humor, and sensitivity, and I wish they were easily available in English so that I could foist them upon every adult and child I come into contact with.
I was about five years old when my mother and I left Russia. Quite a lot of books came with us, including several of Sofia Prokofievna’s, all of them richly illustrated — most of them, like the book I am sharing today, by Gennady and Raisa Kalinovsky.
Gennady Kalinovsky (1929-2006) was a prolific illustrator of books for adults and children, with a distinctive style, both loose and lively and capable of spectacular detail and depth. There is less information available about his sometime-collaborator Raisa, but she appears to have been his wife, and to have had some solo illustration career as well. (Her part in their collaborative books is ignored or overlooked with distressing frequency both online and even in the introductions to the books themselves.) Their work on Prokofievna’s stories such as Piko – The Crystal Throat (1993), The Magician’s Student (1996), and this one, Raggedy and the Cloud (1994) is a perfect complement to the text, enriching nearly every other page with colorful, whimsical, and memorably weird drawings. They have a visceral, totally unaffected sense of fantasy that I struggle to compare to anything else I have seen.
Raggedy and the Cloud (Лоскутик и Облако), published by Tver in 1994, takes place in a land blighted by drought, with the greedy king claiming ownership of all water and selling it back to the citizens who can afford to pay him with gold coins, like a PG-rated, pantaloon-wearing Immortan Joe. “Raggedy,” so called because her clothing consists entirely of patches and spare scraps of cloth, is an archetypal kid urchin, who lives in the bare attic above the pin and needle shop whose proprietors are her uncaring guardians/employers. The story begins when she meets a young sentient rain cloud who (of course) is desperate for water to live. Raggedy sneaks it some water, and it frightens the callous shopkeepers with its shapeshifting ability — for the Cloud is an amorphous trickster that can take the shape of anything that suits its purpose, including a human boy or girl, a lion, a serpent, or a fancy gown. Together, these two go on an epic quest to overthrow the cruel monarchy and bring free water back to the land.
The illustrations by Gennady and Raisa Kalinovsky, done in various ratios of fine, scribbly pen and ink to floaty, vibrant watercolor, feature a combination of free-spirited spontaneity and intricate structure. My mind boggles at the effortless way that these disparate elements form a cohesive and logical visual whole. The style may shift from image to image, but these changes reflect the tone of the illustrated scenes, as though the artists are allowing themselves to be overcome with the mischievous, adventurous or frightening mood of a given moment in the fable. The characters and scenery are open enough to engage the imagination, yet rendered with the consistency to form a believable, immersive world… a little bit seventeenth century France, a little bit Wonderland, encompassing everything from dusty brown fields to luxurious palaces and bustling streets.
In all honesty, I had to fight the temptation to just scan the entire book and caption each image with intelligent commentary along the lines of “AAAAH! Look! Look!!” but I don’t think that would fit the parameters of this column. It is possible to track down some wonderful Russian websites that share full scans of these older children’s books that are very difficult to come by in the US. I recommend taking a look if you have any interest. These words and pictures are beloved classics for children in Russia and many other countries, and any illustrator could learn from the artwork, which imbues a bolt of lightning, a delicate lace cuff, a nighttime fountain or a weathervane on the horizon with equal personality, beauty, and life.