Egielski’s illustrations for The Letter, the Witch, and the Ring (1976) were only his second published bookwork and are a marked departure from the widely-known pen-and-ink work of Gorey that has come to define most of Bellairs’ novels. Such was the difference that one reviewer took to call the gray-washed images “dark Americana" – something that immediately brought to our mind Grant Wood’s classic, American Gothic. Maybe it’s the way the perfectly round frames of Rose Rita’s glasses reminded us of the circular trees in his Wood’s paintings? Anyway, Regionalism as an art form may not have been on the forefront in the 1970s when Letter was published, but the illustrations work to describe a story that originates in the American heartland and takes us into a nightmarish world of witches and magic.
We won’t hazard a guess as to why Dial switched out artists, but it sort-of seems to have set a precedence that Italy’s Happy Planet Books has undertaken for their recent translations of the series as well.
Angelo Cristaldi, Happy Planet’s editor, was recently interviewed at Letteratura-per-ragazzi.it where he discussed the woman behind La lettera la strega e l'anello, Sonia Maria Luce Possentini:
...an illustrator of tremendous talent and charming personality. I was surprised right away for her irreverent realism but even more for...not leaving empty spaces that incredibly unfinished, but the perception of fullness involving a special skill that demonstrates fully and unabashedly in both its strong and solid colors that soft and transparent. Sonia has a rare sensitivity and it’s accurately noted throughout the production. Working with her is amazing.
Some of our favorite images include a pastoral scene of rural Michigan – we can imagine Florence Zimmermann and Rose Rita Pottinger cruising in Bessie (Mrs. Z's Plymouth Cranbrook) past miles of empty fields with only distant barns and silos on the horizon. The road winds past a small town and on its outskirts we see a weather-worn sign and an unoccupied building – the only scant sign of civilization before the roads falls behind the hills and continues into the unknown.
Mordecai Hunks was the boy that both Florence and local-girl-goes-very-bad Gert Bigger pined for during the summers of their youth. While we never meet Hunks directly, after Zimmermann casually mentions their shared past, a decades-old photo of the two surfaces in the back corner of a junk shop in a random town that she just happens to be passing through. It’s an obvious shock, not just to Zimmermann but the reader as well. It’s so vivid a scene to us that we sometimes think we remember Egielski illustrating Florence and Mordy’s photograph. Not so – it’s just our imagination filling in the blanks.
Finally, the delightfully-named Gert Bigger looms large (heh-heh) in the tale but nothing can hold a candle to that dog. Innocently irrelevant when we first see it lying around outside Gertie’s roadside store, the black mutt goes on to steal a scene in one of the last chapters that still sends shivers down our spine. Possentini’s dog reminds us of a Doberman but no matter the breed, the creature is going to make you sweat, going to make you move.
These illustrations (and many more!) make La lettera a visually striking book and we can only hope that Italian readers not only discover these stories to be as exciting and memorable as other readers around the world have found them to be, but that Happy Planet Books is able to continue the adventures of Lewis and Rose Rita. Evviva!