From a More Innocent Time: The Little Black Boy of Our Childhood Books

Mariam Bartov adapted the Bauhaus ethic to illustrating kiddie books: "It would be superficial to call it racism"

A little black boy in a white turban, his arms outstretched is probably one of the most memorable images in local children's literature. That is of course "Little Alikama" by illustrator Mariam Bartov. The rhymes of this 1948 children's book, published by Sinai, have long ago sunk into oblivion, but the image lives on.

There is no question that Bartov, the veteran illustrator who passed away recently at the age of 97, deciphered the secret of the art of illustration. Apparently her ability to create such an eternal image, which attracts the eye especially of a very young person, is also what turned the book into a work that has been on the shelves for over 60 years. This is so even though, with the passage of time, the book itself became controversial because of its content, in particular, the use of the politically incorrect word kushon ("nigger boy" ).

But even before we discuss the choice of a story about a black boy, it's fair to assume that the image was apparently created first and foremost because of its visual power. Bartov confirmed this in an interview with illustrator Michal Bonano in 2005 in which she said that "the only reason why Alikama is a black boy is a matter of style. It was an opportunity to present a strong illustration of the character, and it suited the nature of the black-white prints." (The interview was published in "The Big Book of Illustrators" in Hebrew by the Israel Museum in Jerusalem ).

All the illustrators of the period had to deal with this constraint, but it seems that in Bartov's case this limitation suited her style. "There's something very modern and graphic in the black, white and red cutouts," says Orna Granot, associate curator of illustrated children's books at the Israel Museum. "There's something very fresh about that look, something that attracts children to this day. There's great expressiveness along with clean lines when you work with paper cuts and charcoal."

Granot says that Bartov adapted modernism and the International (Bauhaus ) style that dominated art, which she absorbed during her youth in Germany, to the world of children's books. "Most children's books suffer from a surplus of detail. In her work neutralism prevails. The paper cuts lead to simplification and clean lines, and still her work is very connected to the child," says Grant. "The starting point here is visual. First of all she made the pictures, which are suited to the world of the child. Only afterwards did she think about the story. A paper cut is a very playful thing. It invites you to play, to move things. Picasso knew that, and so did Mariam Bartov." "There's no question that it's tempting when you work in black and white to create a figure like Alikama," agrees Dr. Yael Dar, a scholar of children's literature. "But you can't say that Bartov isn't obsessed with blacks. At the same time, she really handles the characters well, and it would be superficial to call it racism."

A great book for toddlers

Dar believes that Alikama is "one of the best books in Hebrew for toddlers, which manages to tell a minimalistic story to very young children. On every page of the book there is amazing coordination between the short and lilting text, which is beautifully rhymed, and the effective drawing on the opposite page. There's no question that the overuse of the words kushon and sheharhar ("blackie" ) is somewhat suspicious, but I'm not in favor of erasing them."

Dar says that Bartov's book "Where is Ruti?" is about a child in a Yemenite family, even though this is not stated outright. The book mentions the name Yefet, a typical Yemenite name, and the illustrated images are reminiscent of Yemenites: the children in sidecurls, the mother in a characteristic turban. Dar says that it is actually the fact that the Yemenite aspect is implied that makes the book universal. "In the 1950s, at the height of immigration, when racism is rampant, this is actually a step of accepting the other."

And in fact, according to Bartov's daughter, Hannah Katz, "Mother was very interested in the Yemenites. There was a teacher of Yemenite descent who worked on the kibbutz, with whom Mother became friendly. I remember that two of us went to her and she taught us Yemenite embroidery stitches." Dar says that fascination with the exotic and the other was typical of German Jews, "with an entirely colonialist attitude."

Bartov published about 20 books, and in 1986 received the Israel Museum Ben-Yitzhak Award for Illustration, for Lifetime Achievement, the most important illustration prize in Israel.

A childhood in Germany

Bartov was born in 1914 in Hamburg, Germany. Her mother died when she was four years old. In an interview for "The Big Book of Illustrators" she said that in her childhood she was greatly influenced by the book "Max and Moritz" by Wilhelm Busch, and by Heinrich Hoffmann's "Der Struwwelpeter" ("Slovenly Peter" ). And in fact, in the book collection that she donated to the Israel Museum about a decade ago there were many editions of the book, some of them rare. "There was a picture I tore out of "Struwwelpeter" - the tailor with the scissors - because it gave me nightmares," she said. "One could say that these were not pedagogical books, but artistically they are outstanding."

One could probably say that about some of her books too.

In the same interview she also spoke about her artistic sources of inspiration during her adulthood in Hamburg. She says that there was a lively art scene in the city. Among the artists who influenced her she mentioned Kathe Kollwitz, Emil Nolde and Franz Mazarel, "a political graphic designer and artist who created lovely woodcuts," she said. When she was 16 she registered for the Academy of Fine Arts and specialized in graphics. In 1933, with the rise of the Nazis, she was expelled from the academy before completing her studies. As a result she developed a Zionist awareness, and when her entire family fled to Argentina she immigrated by herself to Palestine.

An artist in a laundromat

She settled on Kibbutz Gvaram near Ashkelon. "They didn't particularly appreciate artists on the kibbutz," says her daughter, "so she worked in the laundry and ironed. After the day's work she would draw until nighttime. They called her lazy. Drawing wasn't considered important. But eventually they gave her one day a week to draw."

During her years on Gvaram, Bartov prepared posters and decorations for the kibbutz and illustrated Haggadahs. Her daughter says that she also drew caricatures of kibbutz life, but they were not published. Katz says that she also continued to engage in the plastic arts and displayed her paintings at exhibitions on the kibbutz. Together with her partner and the father of her three children Bartov left the kibbutz in 1961 and moved to Be'er Sheva and later to Omer and then Netanya.

From Ali Baba to Baba Kama

Hannah Katz says that because her mother felt that her Hebrew wasn't good enough she always let others write the rhymes. But they were always based on an idea of hers. The rhymes of "Little Alikama," her first book, were written by Haohel Theater actor Yehuda Gabay. The book was published by Sinai. Katz says that the son of the owner of the publishing company claims that the name Alikama is a combination of Ali from Ali Baba (and the 40 Thieves ) and Kama from the Talmud tractate Baba Kama.

Sinai also published Bartov's other early books, including "Where is Ruti?" in 1956. In an interview with her in "The Big Book of Illustrators" Bartov said that Sinai published mainly sacred Judaic texts, but the kibbutz treasurer knew the owner and that's how they came to publish her books.

Dar wonders why Bartov didn't publish with Sifriat Poalim, which was the publisher for the kibbutzim. Her guess is that "there is no collective in Bartov's books." She always presents a single character. She says that there may have been opposition to such literature, which is more universal and does not take place on a kibbutz.

Bartov was not indifferent to the complaints about Alikama. "It hurt her when a few years ago, when the Ethiopians arrived, a complaint arose about the fact that the book is not politically correct," says her daughter. "But we used to sing 'Once I was a little Negro.' Mother was the least racist person I know. She was simply interested in people from such countries."

Sinai decided to address the complaints, and a comment was added to a luxury edition of the book on its 50th anniversary: "Remember that 50 years ago, when Alikama was 'born,' the word kushon was not considered an insult; it was a term used for a person who was born in Kush (Ethiopia )."

Granot believes that under the cloak of political correctness "they are attacking the book," as she puts it. "It's easier for people to attack words, because a critical attitude toward an illustration is not self evident. Meanwhile I don't see that the many books being published about Ethiopians, or dark-skinned people, sell as well and are as beloved as "Alikama." A children's book reflects the concept of childhood of its time. I believe that this childhood as reflected in Alikama is playful and mischievous, somewhat naive. I believe that innocence."