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Bill Slavin (1959-) - Sidelights

review book adventures children

Bill Slavin, artist for numerous children's books and author of the award-winning The Stone Lion, had ambitions to be an artist, and specifically a book illustrator, at an early age. While in third grade, he produced an illustrated book, Zok the Caveman, which, he once told SATA, "was such a success that I promptly followed it up with a sequel, The Adventures of Black Cloud, Son of Zok." Also while in third grade, he had what he calls his first commercial success, a prize-winning poster aimed at discouraging smoking in bed. He took first place in the poster competition and won twenty-five dollars. He kept on writing and illustrating books and comics throughout elementary and secondary school and had a comic strip, "Rat Fink," published in a local newspaper while he was in high school. He then studied cartooning and graphic illustration for two years in college before going to work as a commercial artist. After several years of doing this work for publishing houses and educational software companies, he finally got a chance to fulfill his ambition of illustrating a children's book with Too Many Chickens, written by Paulette Bourgeois. Children's books have become his primary work. "It is work which I love, and I consider myself a most fortunate person to be working in this industry," he once told SATA.

He illustrated Too Many Chickens in pastel, but since then watercolor, pen and ink, and acrylic paints have become his preferred media. "I tend to work quickly and impetuously at my art, but am trying to learn to slow down," he once told SATA. While he enjoys fiction, nonfiction has come to dominate his body of work. "Although my first love is and always will be the story-book, nonfiction illustration poses its own challenges," he noted in a biographical sketch published on the Web site of the Canadian Society of Children's Authors, Illustrators, and Performers (CANSCAIP). "My real lack of interest in things scientific seems to have made me uniquely qualified to illustrate this genre. I believe it is the desire to make my work interesting to me that defines how I embrace these subjects, and the result is an approach to the illustrations that is not overly ponderous or didactic. Having said this, I have a real love for history, and am thrilled by books or the parts thereof that have a historical slant. And coming full circle, I believe my love for the narrative found in picture book illustration is reflected in my nonfiction illustration."

While Slavin has worked primarily as an illustrator, he received substantial acclaim for The Stone Lion, which he wrote as well as illustrated. The book is set in medieval Europe, and the lion in question graces a cathedral tower but dreams of becoming free to roam. It bonds with a young apprentice silversmith who misses both his home village, which is far from the cathedral town, and his grandmother, who is dying back there. The grandmother and the lion once knew each other, and when the young man reunites them, they are able to find peace and release. The book features "a gravely luminous story" about a youth learning to deal with death and loss and also encountering "the truth of dreams that are, like love, strong as death," remarked Linda E. Marshall in Canadian Children's Literature. With his imaginative text and subtle illustrations, Slavin has created "an ethereal, yet believable world of fairy-tale," added Julie Bergweff, writing in Books in Canada. A contributor to Resource Links deemed The Stone Lion "a touching and stirring story," "quiet" and "evocative." Further praise came from Kelly L. Green in Canadian Book Review Annual, who called the novel "wonderful" and pronounced it "highly recommended."

In his illustration-only assignments, Slavin has contributed to a wide variety of storybooks for children, usually without any restrictions dictated by the author, as he noted on the CANSCAIP Web site. The Cat Came Back is Kathleen Tucker's retelling of a traditional story in song about a cat who just would not stay away. The text and Slavin's watercolors are "well-married," noted Melody Collins Thomason in Canadian Children's Literature, with both having a lighthearted, humorous tone. A more serious tale is told in Tim Wynne-Jones's adaptation for middle graders of Victor Hugo's novel The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Some critics commented that the adaptation simplifies but does not sugarcoat the story of the cathedral bellringer Quasimodo's sufferings at the hands of people who see only his grotesque physical When his owners are away, Stanley the dog goes a little crazy in Linda Bailey's Stanley's Party, illustrated with textural acrylic paintings by Slavin. appearance, not his loving nature. Slavin's illustrations show his "mastery of detail" in portraying the story's setting, Paris in the Middle Ages, a Publishers Weekly reviewer observed. Back on the lighter side and aimed at younger readers is Linda Bailey's Stanley's Party, about a dog who, bored with being left alone, decides to indulge in all sorts of forbidden activities when his owners are out. Eventually, he hosts a large party for his canine friends, but his owners walk in on it—and they then conclude they should take Stanley with them more often when they go out. Slavin illustrates this story with a diverse assortment of dogs, and he displays "great skill and humour," according to Resource Links critic Isobel Lang. Booklist contributor Ilene Cooper found Slavin's artwork "bursting with life," while School Library Journal's Shawn Brommer reported that "Slavin captures the frivolity of Stanley's bash." A Kirkus Reviews writer summed up Bailey and Slavin's collaboration as "a triumphant cautionary tale that will leave both adults and kids laughing."

Slavin and Bailey have also teamed up for a series of books that join fact and fiction to teach middle graders about history. In the "Good Times Travel Agency" series, three siblings journey through time to experience life in a variety of periods and cultures. Their adventures have much humor to appeal to children but also provide plenty of facts. Slavin's cartoonish artwork is "packed with details," commented Donna L. Scanlon in a School Library Journal review of Adventures in Ancient Egypt and Adventures in the Middle Ages. Critiquing the same books, Resource Links contributor Valerie Pollock noted that these details are "interesting and amusing." Francisca Goldsmith of Booklist, discussing Adventures in Ancient Greece, called Slavin's efforts for that book "handsomely painted" and "inviting."

Slavin's science-oriented books include Bleeps and Blips to Rocket Ships: Great Inventions in Communications Slavin's entertaining illustrations portray the three Binkerton children, who are transported to the intriguing medieval era, but find themselves toiling as peasants and frantically fighting for survival during a siege of the castle. (From Adventures in the Middle Ages, written by Linda Bailey.) by Alannah Hegedus and Kaitlin Rainey. Spanning such topics as paper manufacturing and fiber options, the book offers elementary and junior high school students a look at how communications technology has evolved over the past two centuries. Slavin's illustrations, reported Linda Wadleigh in School Library Journal, are "expertly done," frequently featuring extra information and "a touch of humor."


Slavin produces his work from a setting he calls "paradise," a farmhouse on the outskirts of Millbrook, Ontario. He and his wife, artist Esperança Melo, share a studio in the house. They work together on a variety of projects, including book formatting and design, and Slavin once described Melo to SATA as "an integral part of all I do." They also are members of the Millbrook Gallery, a collective of nineteen artists from the area.


Biographical and Critical Sources

PERIODICALS


Booklist, November 1, 2002, Francisca Goldsmith, review of Adventures in Ancient Greece, p. 486; July, 2003, Ilene Cooper, review of Stanley's Party, p. 1895.

Books in Canada, February, 1997, Julie Bergweff, review of The Stone Lion, pp. 33-34.

Canadian Book Review Annual, 1996, Kelly L. Green, review of The Stone Lion, pp. 6088-6089.

Canadian Children's Literature, spring, 1996, Melody Collins Thomason, "Of Didacticism, Nonsense, and Sea-Turtles," review of The Cat Came Back, pp. 39-42; fall, 1996, Linda E. Marshall, "Winged Words, Aerial Visions," review of The Stone Lion, p. 129.

Kirkus Reviews, February 15, 2003, review of Stanley's Party, p. 298.

Publishers Weekly, October 13, 1997, review of The Hunchback of Notre Dame, p. 75.

Resource Links, April, 1997, review of The Stone Lion, p. 162; April, 2001, Valerie Pollock, review of Adventures in Ancient Egypt and Adventures in the Middle Ages, p. 44; June, 2003, Isobel Lang, review of Stanley's Party, p. 1.

School Library Journal, December, 2000, Donna L. Scanlon, review of Adventures in Ancient Egypt and Adventures in the Middle Ages, p. 94; August, 2001, Linda Wadleigh, review of Bleeps and Blips to Rocket Ships: Great Inventions in Communications, p. 198; July, 2003, Shawn Brommer, review of Stanley's Party, p. 87.


ONLINE


Canadian Society of Children's Authors, Illustrators, and Performers Web Site, http://www.canscaip.org/ (January 29, 2004).

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