I have mentioned the book Gnomes by Will Huygen and Rien Poortvliet once or twice before. Along with Where the Sidewalk Ends, this book was a huge part of my childhood. I remember saving my allowance and walking down to this little bookstore on Wilshire Blvd in Santa Monica and buying it when I was eleven or so. While flipping through my tattered, falling apart copy, I discovered a 5x7 note card that was a book report from 7th grade! It begins, "This book is a book on facts about 'Gnomes.' It could be fiction or non-ficiton. It's hard to say." Not a great writing sample, but a good example of one of the aspects of Gnomes that entranced and enthralled me as a child. Gnomes was written as a completely factual, scientific account of an imaginary creature and, I think, was the first of the kind. Common now, (think Dragonology and Professor Ari Berk's magnificent The Secret History of Giants and the magical The Secret History of Mermaids and Creatures of the Deep) reference books for magical creatures were cutting edge in 1976. To set this tone, Gnomes begins with this quote from Axel Munthe**, "To my amazement I have heard that there are people who have never seen a gnome. I can't help pitying these people. I am certain there must be something wrong with their eyesight."
As you can see by the back cover illustration, this book is as much a work of art as it is anthropology. As the New York Times Book Review describes the artwork, Gnomes is illustrated "with loving, Norman Rockwell-meets-JRR Tolkein watercolors." This description couldn't be more apt.
Everything from the height of the gnomes (15cm) and the average age at which the elderly female gnomes begin to grow a light beard (350 years) as well as the fact that gnomes always give birth to twins is covered in detail. How the gnomes use acupuncture to heal animals, how primitive gnomes made fires, language, tools and legends of the gnomes are also included in this expansive book.
Other magical creatures make an appearance in Gnomes as well. While the gnome doesn't have much to do with "elves, goblins, house ghosts, dwarfs, river, wood, or mountain nymphs, uldras, sorcerers, witches or werewolves, fire ghosts or fairies," gnomes have great difficulty with "trolls, however, especially in northern Europe, Russia, and Siberia." Fortunately, gnomes are almost always too clever to be caught by a troll but, "if a troll happens to catch a gnome, the most gruesome things happen," as seen below... This is about as gory as the book gets. However, being Europeans with a much healthier level of comfort with the human body, there are a few bare breasted gnomes and the occasional bare gnome bum to be seen in this book.
I have no doubt that children today will find this book as entertaining as I did almost thrity years ago. Even more so now with the plethora of books on magical creatures to be found on the shelves. Besides the addition of pages from Poortvliet's GNOME sketchbook and eight lovely frameable prints tucked into the back of the book, The Deluxe Collector's Edition of Gnomes has an introduction written by the inimitable Brian Froud (Labyrinth and The Dark Crystal movies, among many other magical things). Froud, along with Alan Lee, created the hugely popular book Faeries, which was first published in 1978, also by Abrams, original publisher of Gnomes. In his introduction, Froud mentions being shown an early copy of Gnomes by publisher Ian Ballantine, who suggested he and Lee create a similarly anthropological tome on faeries. As Froud says, "Gnomes is one is one of the most influential books of its kind. Its engaging vision opened the way for many to follow. Both its striking visuals and its heartfelt emotion remind us all that we share the world with other beings, normally unseen, that connect us to nature and to each other." In the end, I think that this connection with nature that Froud points out is what makes Gnomes feel so genuine and believable and, ultimately, timeless.
In happy coincidence, Brian Froud and John Matthews have recently teamed up to bring us the intriguing, How to See Faeries
How to See Faeries is a bit like an pop-up book for adults - and kids, of course. An instructional guide on how to find faeries in one's own backyard, meadow or forest, this interactive book opens the doors to an enchanted world. Insets, hidden messages, magical signs and special mirrors are part of the wonderful paper mechanics that make this book hard to put down.
***In a very, very interesting side note: While writing this review and rereading Gnomes, I decided to google the name Axel Munthe. Turns out that Munthe was a Swedish physician to the Royal Family of Sweden (who traveled to Naples in 1884 to help with a cholera epidemic) and writer who built the Villa San Michele atop the ruins of an ancient chapel dedicated to San Michele, which is also on top of the ruins of the Roman Emperor Tiberius' villa on the island of Capri in Italy. In 2008 I had the amazing opportunity to visit Capri. After a ferry ride to the island from Naples, a mini-van drove us up windy roads and over narrow bridges to the town of Anacapri. With an hour to wander around and not much to wander in - the town is this tiny little radius perched on top of a rocky plane - we discovered the Villa San Michele and learned a bit about the man who restored it before buying some of the local limoncello and having lunch. One thing that stuck me, besides the jaw dropping beauty of the location, was the evident love of modern art that Munthe had. Amazing coincidence! However, I did not see any gnomes on Capri...