In a self-portrait sketch, Maud and Miska Petersham sit facing each other at their drawing desks in their Woodstock home, leaning in over their sketchpads. The shape made by their rounded backs and outstretched legs resembles a heart—a fitting image for these partners in work and in life.
Publishing over 100 books, the Petershams were among the most prolific children’s book authors of the early 20th century. In 1946, they won the prestigious Caldecott Medal for their compilation of American rhymes and jingles, The Rooster Crows. Lawrence Webster offers a celebratory retrospective with 146 color illustrations in her first book, Under the North Light: The Life and Work of Maud and Miska Petersham (Woodstock Arts, 2012).
Miska brought to his work a rigorous technical training from the Royal National School for Applied Arts in Budapest. Maud brought to hers a whimsical humor. Miska was right-handed; Maud, left. Maud started drawings, Miska finished them. Despite their seeming contradictions, the Petershams were an interdependent duo, sharing credit for their entire body of work. When asked in an interview if they had ever worked on a book without each other’s help, they responded, “We couldn’t do that.”
The Petershams' work encompasses a wide variety of themes and styles. Illustrations of immigrants and travelers speak to their global worldview, while their “This Is America” series reveals national pride. The Story Book of Things We Use depicts elements of a burenoning technological world, but they also published five books illustrating biblical stories. Vivid fairytale atmospheres feel as fantastical and faraway as they do warm and inviting. “You feel like you could climb into one of those pictures and live there,” Webster says, as in the recognizable setting of the Woodstock village green with Overlook Mountain in the background, which is featured on the cover.
The pages of Maud and Miska's stories often spilled out into their lives. Webster, whose grandparents were close friends of the Petershams, recalls costume trunks and an unrivaled toy collection in their home studio. “On rainy days you could go in the attic and make up plays and stories,” she says. “It was kind of a story book place.”
An exhibit of Maud and Miska Petersham's work curated by Lawrence Webster, “Inspired by the Northlight,” will be at the Woodstock Artists Association and Museum through December 31. Woodstockart.org