Marriage Of Talents For Children's Books Illustrators Beth And Joe Krush Have Colorfully Collaborated For Decades.

Posted: July 07, 1988

When Beth Krush drinks coffee, she sweetens her cup with half a packet of Sweet 'N Low; the other half is for Joe, her husband of 46 years, who patiently waits his turn.

When one talks, the other listens - head slightly cocked, totally engrossed - before swooping down, in midsentence, to carry on the tale of their lives together.

In this long, productive marriage, the meeting of like minds has spawned a single vision that extends far beyond the pleasures of home and family life on the Main Line. For decades, the Krushes have been illustrating children's books together, sharing a pen over the drafting board and fashioning homespun scenes that have won the hearts of millions of children.

"We didn't intend to work together," begins Beth. "I had my work, my clients, and Joe had his. He did album covers for RCA and I worked for children's magazines. And then we started to help each other, to get the work done . . ."

"To meet deadlines," explains Joe.

"And people liked what we did . . ." (Beth)

"And they started asking us to work together." (Joe)

Their most famous collaboration has been their illustrations for the American edition of The Borrowers, the classic series of children's novels that have been hailed by critics for their meticulous description of a life lived in miniature.

In the first of five novels - all so quintessentially English in tone and language - author Mary North set out to explain what happens to all those household items that seem to forever disappear without a trace:

"Safety pins, for example. Factories go on making safety pins and every day people go on buying safety pins and yet, somehow, there never is a safety pin just when you want one. Where are they all? Now, at this minute? Where do they go to?"

The answer, of course, is that they are "borrowed" by tiny people such as Pod, Homily and Arrietty, to help them in their survival in a harsh and sometimes overwhelming world of humans. The evanescent safety pins are traced to the gates of the "borrowers' " dwellings, where they serve as bars against any intrusion of their small world.

The Krushes chose to illustrate the story with dense, detailed drawings. A double-page illustration - the original of which is on a 99-year loan to the Free Library of Philadelphia - shows a living room whose walls are papered with scraps of old letters and hung with postage stamps of Queen Victoria.

Arrietty rests upon a chair that was - in human hands - a spool of thread. Pod works at a nice-sized table that was once a child's alphabet block. A chest of drawers made from matchboxes stands in the corner. But the final touch is a knight's head from a chess set. In Norton's words, it lends "that air to the room which only statuary can give."

"I think that the editor who got them (the Krushes and Norton) together was very wise, because they mesh very well," says Helen Mullen, coordinator of the Free Library's Office of Work With Children and a former member of the selection committee for both the Caldecott and Newbery medals, the two most prestigious American awards given to children's literature.

In 1980, the Krushes received the Drexel Citation, an annual award given to a Philadelphia-area children's book author or illustrator by Drexel University

College of Information Studies and the Free Library. Previous winners have included Marguerite DeAngeli, author of Door in the Wall, and Lloyd Alexander, author of The Black Cauldron.

The Krushes are working on another project, which they won't discuss, but The Borrowers series holds a special place in their hearts, and The Borrowers books are what they most likely will be remembered for.

Husband-and-wife teams are rare, but not unknown among children's book illustrators. In New York, there are Leo and Diane Dillon, illustrators of Why Mosquitoes Buzz In People's Ears, and Alice and Martin Provensen, who illustrated The Glorious Flight Across the Channel With Louis Bleriot.

The trick, say the Krushes, is to make the drawings appear as if they were done by only one artist.

"We both read the story separately and we both usually have our own ideas about the story," says Joe. "Then we sit down together and arrive at the better of the ideas and try to set up the characters. You cast your characters and you set your stage. It's like being a theater director; the only thing you can't do is give it sound and action."

Beth and Joe, both 70, who live in a converted Victorian summer house in Wayne, studied with Henry C. Pitz of the Brandywine School. They met on the first day of school at the Philadelphia College of Art, and have studied and worked together with few breaks ever since. For 15 years, Joe taught illustrating at PCA, and, until recently, Beth served as chair of the illustrating department at Moore College of Art.

"Their work is absolutely perfect," says Carolyn Field, Mullen's predecessor at the Free Library and a well-known authority on children's literature. "I think that the Krushes' illustrations for The Borrowers can be compared to Tenniel's illustrations for Alice in Wonderland."

While many of her peers fondly recall the Krushes' illustrations, few join in such extravagant praise. John Tenniel's name is more often linked with that of N.C. Wyeth, Howard Pyle and Beatrix Potter - three artists whose works over the last 100 years have bequeathed children's literature with its visual inheritance.

Many, however, credit the book's tremendous success in this country in part to the Krushes' illustrations.

"If the two don't come together, particularly for children, the book is not going to have lasting value," says Mullen. "Not only the illustrations, but the whole book, the design, the actual physical book, the paper used. And with children, whom you're trying to draw into reading and into books, these all have a very high priority."

When they are successful, book illustrators give the illusion of having worked simultaneously with the author. In fact, drawing rarely begins until the manuscript has been completed.

In the case of The Borrowers, the author and her American illustrators never met. During their nearly 30-year association - the first book appeared in the United States in 1953; the most recent, The Borrowers Avenged, in 1982 - the Krushes spoke with Norton just once by phone.

"We got a letter from her once in which she said that she liked our drawings but she thought they were really a little too fancy for what Homily would have had the facility or material to make," says Beth. "I wish she had told us that before. We would have been glad to change it."

While the Krushes chose to illustrate virtually all the same scenes as their English counterpart, Diana Stanley, the two styles are totally different. Margaret K. McElderry, their original editor at Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, describes the English drawings as "cozier, more traditionally English."

"The Krushes are very American, and some people, I'm sure, prefer the English," says McElderry, who now has her own imprint of children's books at McMillan Publishing.

"I think the English drawings are more sparse than ours," says Beth Krush. "And it's probably because the English readers understand or have a background in what Norton was talking about."

It isn't always easy for the American reader, and the Krushes devoted a great deal of time researching just what the author had in mind when she wrote about "lych-gates" and "rood screens."

In the interest of architectural accuracy, they visited every Episcopalian church on the Main Line, looking for a lych-gate (a roofed gate in an English churchyard) and a rood screen (the screen separating the chancel of a church

from the nave).

"And when we look at our drawings, we think we captured England pretty well," says Beth. "Even though we've never been there."

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