About A Bird

There’s a shop in my neighborhood specializing in a kind of book I love. These books take full advantage of the fact they are published independently. By that I mean this: just as the store is a world unto itself (with a different horn-rimmed employee shyly greeting me upon each visit); each book, too, is a world unto itself — a sort-of art object, with its formatting, color, and typography lovingly chosen by the author. The entire floor space of the shop speaks to the idea that the beauty of a book can stretch far beyond its text. It’s a cabinet of wonders, this bookstore. Not to mention a demographic mystery in this age of daily op-eds eulogizing the death of print.

On a recent trip to the shop, I connected to one book in particular among the hundreds on the shelves. It was an adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Wild Swans, published last month by Simply Read Books out of Vancouver, B.C.

Actually, this edition of The Wild Swans is two books: one, a supplementary booklet containing the text of the famous fairy tale; the other, a completely different way of telling the same story, with ethereal graphite illustrations stretching across a single panel that, at full length, folds out to over 60 feet. Look at the cover and you’ll see a wedge of eleven swans flocking east, the fairy tale’s title, and the author’s name: Thomas Aquinas Maguire.

Yes. That’s Thomas Aquinas Maguire. As in the 13th century theologian and saint (plus, well, “Maguire”). I reached out to Mr. Maguire to find out how he constructed this beguiling world of his. But before doing so, I google-stalked him. Because we no longer live in the Middle Ages.

What came back as I searched his name was not a stained glass portrait of a man wearing the once-fashionable combo hood-and-halo. Instead, I discovered a boyish-looking designer with an impossibly long list of credits in the toy industry and a habit for giving exceedingly thoughtful interviews about his illustrated books.

A thorough look at Maguire’s CV shows a background rooted in Industrial Design. But a quick glance at his portfolio cuts closer to the truth. Maguire is one of those designers for whom problem-solving is play and play is poetry. Among his design work, he’s made concept drawings for something called a “Dino-Ride” and a “Guitarstring Spider Puppet.” But the LEGO products featured in Maguire’s portfolio are the assignments most relevant to The Wild Swans. It was an open position at the famous toy company that brought him to Denmark — Hans Christian Andersen’s birthplace — in 2002.

Near the end of his three-year stay in Billund, where LEGO’s headquarters are located, Maguire traveled east of Denmark’s main peninsula to Odense, where Andersen’s boyhood home still stands.

The Andersen house is modest, almost fantastically so. From the outside it looks like a structure designed for little besides the boiling of broth. Had Andersen lived long enough to see what this little cobbler’s shoe has become, it would have no doubt upset his acute shyness. Today, the home is a tourist attraction, with crowds shepherded hourly through the house’s only room, dozens of tourists at a time.

“The house is usually full of people,” Maguire says. “When I visited, I took a moment of reprieve in the back yard of the house, and to my surprise I found I was the only tourist in the yard. As I was enjoying the quiet, I had a look around and saw a single white feather. I felt very excited by this. So I picked up that feather and kept it. I knew then I’d someday have to illustrate a Hans Christian Andersen story. And I’d make it about a bird, probably.”

How Maguire decided upon the 60-foot fold-out panel that comprises The Wild Swan says a lot about Maguire’s understanding of the way a book’s shape can endow its story with extra meaning. This is his industrial designer’s brain at work.

“The potential to see every event of a classic fairy tale existing as a single image was a big motivation for me,” Maguire says. “If you unfold the story completely, you will see the elapsed time as a single moment. I love that idea of a singular time, and that is where I think the format becomes something unique and important in media.”

The illustration style Maguire chose was far more intuitive and personal, blending a biographer’s attention to Andersen’s environment with Maguire’s own longing for Denmark.

“I wanted to draw the images as if Andersen himself may have drawn them,” Maguire says. “At one point I considered making them all by the light of two candles, as Andersen would have in that tiny house in Odense. But when I realized the number of illustrations required to do the story, I decided to not put myself through that! Instead, I decided to abandon precision — I let myself lose control of the pencils, and that was a great feeling. I wanted to envelop people in a fuzzy, grainy, plain kind of place, where the moments and the people are far more important than the ‘things’ in the picture. That’s how I remember Denmark, and that’s what I miss about it, too.”  END

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