Discovering Michael Sowa
Children’s books with the surrealism of Magritte’s paintings, only funnier (from Parents’ Choice)
I am especially keen on the German artist Michael Sowa. I very much encourage you to look up his work. Maybe an American children’s book publisher will soon discover him and make his work more widely available. But that isn’t worth waiting for. He’s that good.
I first ran into Michael Sowa’s pictures at Crayon House, the famous children’s bookstore in Tokyo. Then it wasn’t his books I encountered but postcards made from his paintings. One showed a dozen potatoes strolling down a European street. Another featured an upright rabbit in oversized boxer shorts, examining himself in a mirror. They reminded me of the surrealism of Magritte’s paintings, only funnier.
The place to begin is with Sowa’s Ark which provides 55 samples from his paintings and illustrations. Like Chris Van Allsburg’s The Mysteries of Harris Burdick, these are great pictures to share with kids. They are a unique combination of high art and humor. But they’re difficult to describe.
I could give you their titles–“The Rooster Goes on a Trip,” for example, or “Sharks of Suburbia”–but that really doesn’t help. Or I could tell you about their subjects–“After the Bath” features a duck in a striped bathrobe near the beach at night and “Migrating Pigs Gathering” shows flying swine roosting on a utility line–but that doesn’t help either. You really only “get” Sowa by seeing his pictures–of, say, laptop sheep or a reckless highway pig.
He has the perfect skills for a children’s book illustrator and, I gather, has done a number of books in Germany. Unfortunately, only a few have reached these shores; I have seen only two American editions of his children’s books and others are out of print.
I really like his Little King December, a story by Axel Hacke (translated by Rosemary Davidson) and illustrated by Sowa. It’s a Gulliver’s-Travels-like tale relating conversations between our narrator and a three-inch-high monarch from another world. Essentially, the story contrasts their two lives, our culture and theirs. For instance, in our world, we grow larger as we grow older; in their world, they grow smaller as they mature. In ours, big people are privileged; in theirs, the opposite is the case and escalators routinely come with tiny steps and toilets are always what we would call child-sized.
Little King December’s upside-down-ness is fascinating, as if Kafka met the Borrowers. Let me give you two more examples. In our world, knowledge slowly replaces imagination so that a youngster’s wild daydreaming gives way to adult matter-of-factness; in their world, the opposite occurs and the imagination is unleashed, more and more. In our world, when we are young, we may wish to be anything (a fireman, a sailor, a princess, a cowgirl) but in the end have to settle on one life; in theirs, the opposite is the case and miniature senior citizens gain rather than lose flexibility. And Sowa is just the right artist to illustrate these stories, with pictures of dreamers in rowboats and of tiny monarchs carried around in jacket pockets.
The one children’s book that is readily available in the U.S. is Esterhazy: The Rabbit Prince by Irene Dische and Hans Magnus Enzenberger. Here is a story of a European family of rabbits (“Esterhazy” is a pun on the German word for Easter Bunny). They have become smaller over the years because of their preference for chocolates over vegetables. Worried about his hare heirs, the patriarch of the family sends his offspring abroad to marry conventional sized rabbits. In this way, the youngest, Esterhazy, is sent to Berlin–a place with a Wall separating the city, “a little bit like Kansas City, one part of which belongs to the state of Kansas, the other to the state of Missouri . . . only not so friendly.”
Berlin is Sowa’s hometown and the Wall eventually comes down in this book, as do other boundaries. Like Art Spiegelman’s Maus, though less a comic book and more high art, Sowa’s pictures show animals who are citizens too. Esterhazy falls in love with another rabbit, talks with humans and other animals, is treated sometimes as a pet but also gets taken as a guest to a restaurant, is homeless for awhile and lives in a van, and so forth.
So, my friends, Sowa’s work is worth going out of your way to find. And I wish you many happy discoveries.
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Originally appeared in Parents’ Choice (February 2008).