The work of children’s author-illustrator Helen Borten, whose books were published starting in the 1950s, is returning to print via Flying Eye Books, the children’s imprint of Nobrow Press, beginning with the first two concept books in a series, Do You See What I See? and Do You Hear What I Hear?, releasing this month.
Borten, a Philadelphia native, launched her career with the 1956 publication of Little-Big Feather, written by Joseph Longstreth and illustrated by Borten. The New York Times chose it as a Best Illustrated Book for that year. Do You Hear What I Hear?, which Borten both wrote and illustrated, was published in 1959, followed by Do You See What I See? the following year.
Sam Arthur, co-founder of Flying Eye, explained the impetus behind reprinting the Helen Borten collection. He has been collecting vintage children’s book art for many years and, after Flying Eye reprinted Dahlov Ipcar’s series of books, which were first published in the 1960s, that allowed the publisher to “develop some expert in-house skills to recreate original color separations from old first editions and library editions,” Arthur explained. “We also began to discover a wealth of children’s books that have been hiding on shelves and in attics all over the world. It became a mission of ours to republish another series of vintage books in their originally intended appearance – using the original colors and the artist’s original artwork where possible rather than simply scanning the printed art and printing it.”
Borten’s name kept popping up in searches and Flying Eye’s archival retouch artist, James Jessiman, began in earnest to research her work. When he discovered the Do You Hear What I Hear series, “we were bowled over,” Arthur said. “Helen Borten was making work very representative of the changing time in the 1960s. It was very groundbreaking then, so much so that it has influenced many of today’s illustrators – and certainly us as publishers.”
From there, Arthur and the Flying Eye staff began scouring eBay for copies of her titles in good condition and set about locating the rights holder for the books – not to mention Borten herself. After a bit of research, they got in touch with Borten in Manhattan, who lives in the same Upper West Side apartment she’s had for 40 years. The rights to her work had reverted back to Borten and her son, and she was very enthusiastic to have the Do You Hear What I Hear? series return to print.
Some of the artwork was held in the archives at the University of Minnesota library; with the help of librarians and archivists, Flying Eye was able to scan the art. Some of the books were no longer available anywhere Arthur looked. For these, Flying Eye staff “painstakingly worked from the original books” to create an authentic reproduction of the colors, Arthur explained. Borten’s technique for the original books was monotype, which involves using oil paint on glass and creating a transfer print.
In all, Flying Eye will publish five of Borten’s books; next up in the series are Do You Go Where I Go?, Do You Know What I Know?, and Do You Move As I Do?, all scheduled for spring 2017. Flying Eye intends on making only small changes to the book designs to provide a sense of cohesion across the series, and making even fewer alterations to the texts. Arthur believes that Borten’s design aesthetic will resonate with today’s readers, saying, “The spontaneity of Borten’s text and image is something that still jumps off the page. Her tone and choice of subject matter is as relevant to children, caregivers and educators today as it was when it hit the stores in the 1950’s and ’60’s,” he said.
Another publisher has sought out Borten’s work of late: in spring 2017 Enchanted Lion will be publishing The Jungle, which publisher Claudia Bedrick calls “an exceptional book” that was inspired by Borten’s 1967 trip to Guatemala. Enchanted Lion is also in discussion about whether it will publish additional Borten books in the future.
A Storied Career
Writing and illustrating children’s books was only one of Borten’s professional pursuits; in the 1980s she launched a second career as a documentarian and radio journalist. Her work with National Public Radio included And Justice for All, about tenant evictions, and The Case Against Women: Sexism in the Courts. From 1994 to 2004, Borten created a 43-part documentary series called A Sense of Place, which included episodes about circus sideshow performers and homelessness, among many other topics.
Borten, now in her mid-80’s, is still actively writing; her latest project is a nonfiction book called Dark Victories: A Murder Case, the Terrorist Scare and Lies in the Name of Justice. She spoke with PW about having her books back in print after all these years, describing the era in her life when she was writing and illustrating her picture books as “dreamlike.” But, now in 2016, with new generations of young readers soon to be reaching for those books, it makes the dream feel more real. Borton said, “It brings to mind a two-year-old crawling through the wet paint on my drawing table in order to reach something he fancies on the wall... the son who has a daughter entering high school now.”