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Re-issued from the May/June 1999 issue of The Horn Book Magazine

Politi for Christmas


n her first visit to California in January 1947, Bertha Mahony Miller spent a productive evening with the rising illustrator Leo Politi. From the evidence, it was a thoroughly congenial evening too.

Bertha Miller was rounding out thirty busy years as editor of the Horn Book and director of its progenitor, The Bookshop for Boys and Girls, and she was easing into retirement. But far from regarding the Horn Book as cast in bronze, she had recently taken to publishing original material — poems, an occasional article or story — in the manner more of a literary magazine than a straight professional journal. Probably she enjoyed being a player, for a change, after decades in the cheering section. Now, she was thinking ahead to the Christmas issue.

Leo Politi’s life was the stuff that picture books are made of. Born into an Italian family in Fresno in 1908, he was transported to Italy at the age of seven — in an “Indian Chief suit,” via transcontinental railroad and ocean liner — and grew up, constantly drawing, in his mother’s native village near Milan. After art school, and some designing and illustrating, he returned to the States — via the Panama Canal, with its Latino color — and settled on Los Angeles’s quaintly Mexican Olvera Street, where he sketched tourists and sold drawings alongside potters, weavers, and other artisans-in-residence. Whatever the authenticity of Olvera Street, Politi’s affection for the Mexican-Americans and their folkways was genuine; an affinity. Most especially, as a devout Catholic at home with Italian saints, he responded to Mexican ritual. Children — natural, spontaneous children — he loved without reserve or distinction. Drawing Mexican children, for magazines and books, gave him an American career and a professional identity.

Pedro, the Angel of Olvera Street, the first book Politi wrote as well as illustrated, grew out of a Christmas card he sent to children’s book editors of his acquaintance, showing a little boy with red wings in the annual Christmas procession, the Posada. Scribner’s Alice Dalgliesh, a folkways enthusiast, asked for a book, a whole book. It appeared to hosannas in the fall of 1946, brought Bertha Miller to his doorstep in January, and won Caldecott honors in March. The book is small and dear, joyous and reverent and expertly done.

Would he do something for the Horn Book’s Christmas 1947 issue, Miller asked him, something special to be printed separately and carried as an insert? They didn’t settle on a subject, they didn’t set a price. And Politi didn’t come up with a Christmas story. Instead, he wrote “Young Giotto,” “a sort of fantasy,” as he calls it, about the great painter’s breakthrough from Byzantine formalism to Renaissance naturalism, in order to convey the humanity of St. Francis. “Though it is a fantasy,” he adds in his letter to Miller, “I believe it is factual enough to not be misleading in any way.” The breakthrough did occur, in any case, and St. Francis is beloved for his humanity.

Politi fretted over the writing, relying on Miller to polish up his prose. His only concern about the three-color, pre-separated illustrations was the paper they would be printed on. Three of the pictures are small but frame-filling; monumental compositions in miniature. For an artist whose work was gentle, or just plain sweet, his execution was forceful: each tiny form is distinct. There is also a characteristic bird’s-eye view of the village — sheep, oxen, artisans, musicians, church, priest, dogs, cats, children, children, children — in a modestly scaled, full-page illustration. Printed on fine cream paper, in a muted reddish brown and a muted blue-green evocative of Tuscan tiles and verdure, the pictures nestle companionably into the page of type, not an easy trick. Politi became a polished performer — Marcia Brown compared him to Nicolas Mordvinoff and Roger Duvoisin — without compromising his simplicity or directness.

Besides appearing in the Horn Book, “Young Giotto” was offered as a “keepsake booklet” that Christmas, for fifty cents (“40 cents in lots of ten or more”). The next year, 1948, Politi did Juanita, about a little girl’s role in the annual Easter celebration on Olvera Street, another Caldecott runner-up. And that Christmas he sent Bertha Miller and her husband a drawing of a little girl with a jump rope who might be Juanita three years on, the drawing on the cover.

The figure is childlike, demure, penny-plain: typical Politi. But the artist turns his signature, with swirls and slashes and radical restructuring, into a bold sign or logo, the emblem of a graphic designer. The true Politi was modest, but not too modest.