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Pène du Bois, William

Entry updated 22 June 2020. Tagged: Artist, Author.

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(1916-1993) US illustrator, art editor and designer (for the Paris Review, of which he was a founding editor, between 1953 and 1960) and author; son of the painter Guy Pène du Bois (1884-1958), whose work had some influence on him. His own novels, which he illustrated himself (he also illustrated other writers' books), are usually juveniles, though the bold intricacy of his illustrations are of general interest, and are quite capable of conveying a Sense of Wonder to those open to their fascinated wit. He began publishing with stories for younger children like Elizabeth, the Cow Ghost (1936), Giant Otto (1936), and The Flying Locomotive (1941), and much of his work employs fantasy elements, like The Great Geppy (1940 chap), about a detective horse named Susagep (Pegasus in reverse).

Pène du Bois's later fiction includes titles of sf interest, and demonstrates en passant how difficult it can be to categorize tales, usually published before the second half of the twentieth century, that may seem unclear as to the market aimed at: very roughly, in this encyclopedia, they are referred to as Children's SF (though see that entry for some necessary dicing of this category). The best example in Pène du Bois's work is probably The Twenty-One Balloons (1947), which won a Newbery Award. A professor on sabbatical, travelling across the Pacific by Balloon in August 1883, is forced down on Krakatoa, where he finds a Lost World concealed by jungle from the ocean, within which flourishes a highly successful Utopia founded several years earlier by a shipwrecked gentleman from San Francisco and comprising twenty families who each spend a day feeding each other gourmet meals, a rota which gives each family nineteen days of leisure. This ideal world is financed by secret trips to civilization to sell diamonds, which proliferate on Krakatoa. The historical eruption of 26 August 1883 finishes the experiment, but everyone escapes in a great platform kept aloft by twenty balloons. As prefaced by an elaborate frame story, the Professor narrates his remarkable adventure, within this Club Story format, at the Western American Explorers' Club in San Francisco. The tale is told with a fascinated elatedness evocative of the younger Jules Verne, whose Around the World in Eighty Days (1873) is explicitly evoked.

The Antigravity device featured in the more straightforwardly episodic Peter Graves (1950) provides opportunities for adventure to the eponymous teenager who has been befriended by Professor Houghton, the amiable Mad Scientist responsible. The protagonist of The Giant (1954) attempts to hide an enormous child (see Great and Small) whom he has discovered next door to his Paris home. The Forbidden Forest (graph 1978) is a fantasy set in World War One, which a boxing champion and a kangaroo help terminate. These tales, like his early work for younger readers, are shaped throughout by the luminous conviction of Pène du Bois's illustrations. [JC]

William Sherman Pène du Bois

born Nutley, New Jersey: 9 May 1916

died Nice, France: 5 February 1993

works (selected)

  • The Great Geppy (New York: The Viking Press, 1940) [chap: illus/hb/William Pène du Bois]
  • The Twenty-One Balloons (New York: The Viking Press, 1947) [illus/hb/William Pène du Bois]
  • Peter Graves (New York: The Viking Press, 1950) [illus/hb/William Pène du Bois]
  • The Giant (New York: The Viking Press, 1954) [illus/hb/William Pène du Bois]
  • The Forbidden Forest (New York: Harper and Row Publishers, 1978) [graph: illus/hb/William Pène du Bois]


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