Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Archive for December 9th, 2014

The Muppets according to Mathieu

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The Sesame Street Dictionary

Over the last few days, my daughter and I have been reading what I’m tempted to nominate as the children’s book of the century: The Sesame Street Dictionary. I picked up our current copy of the classic first edition at a thrift store for a dollar before she was even born, and it’s been waiting on our bookshelf ever since. It sat there unopened for a long time, mostly because Beatrix was more interested in eating paper books than in reading them, but I grabbed it over the weekend on an impulse, mostly out of the need to head off a looming temper tantrum—hers, not mine. Now it’s rarely out of her hands. More surprisingly, I’ve found myself browsing through it for hours on end, newly delighted by how good it is. And while it’s a book that inspires universal affection in all those who remember it, I think it’s time to properly acknowledge it as one of the masterpieces of the form, and particularly to single out the accomplishment of illustrator and designer Joe Mathieu, who singlehandedly drew and laid out every astonishing page.

What strikes me the most about the dictionary now is how endlessly right it is. For page after page, over 1,300 entries, the illustrations are accurate, charming, and unfailingly on model. This last point may seem trivial, but a moment’s reflection reveals how extraordinary it is. Try to draw Ernie or Big Bird even once, and you’re immediately hit by how subtle their proportions really are: get the eyes or the nose just a bit off, and you’re deep in the Muppet version of the uncanny valley. For one man to hit the mark so consistently across more than a thousand different situations requires not just exceptional draftsmanship, but a deep understanding of character, form, and expression. Not surprisingly, Matheiu’s work quickly became a standard reference: according to the Muppet Wiki, copies of the dictionary are handed out to all writers and editors at the Sesame Workshop as a kind of universal model sheet. It’s hard to imagine a better resource, not just for the characters themselves, but for everything in the entire world. The next time my daughter asks me to draw her anything, I’ll be turning to this book first.

The Sesame Street Dictionary

So who is Joe Mathieu, anyway? He was born in 1949, graduated from the Rhode Island School of Design, and worked as a freelance artist before falling in with Random House and the Sesame Workshop. Aside from the dictionary itself, which took more than two and a half years to complete, he illustrated dozens of books and stories featuring the Muppet characters, as well his own works and those by other authors, and he’s still active today. (Interestingly, his other illustrations—including the ones for books I remember fondly from my own childhood, like Ernie’s Little Lie—tend to be looser and wilder than those in the dictionary, while still honoring each character’s underlying personality.) To some extent, he’s less visible to a wider audience because of his association with the Sesame Street brand. If The Sesame Street Dictionary, or something like it, had been released independently, without its imprimatur, we’d mention him in the same breath as Richard Scarry. As it stands, he’s a bit like Sesame Street itself: ubiquitous, beloved, and taken just a little for granted.

Of course, it’s impossible to separate Mathieu’s achievement from the larger enterprise that he served so admirably. In a nifty piece on the dictionary’s origins on the Sesame Workshop blog, Mathieu notes that he was given full access to the Muppet workshop by Jim Henson, and spent days sketching, photographing, and interacting with the physical puppets. The dictionary itself was drawn and written in alphabetical order, one page at a time, with the text, illustration, and layout all evolving in tandem, a process that took months of twelve-hour days. And much of its charm, humor, and attention to detail are rooted in the fact that it was drawn by hand, inch by inch, by one man. (Full credit must be given, of course, to writer Linda Hayward and editor Sharon Lerner, although it’s clear that many of the gags, vignettes, and ingenious connections between words on a single page are due to Mathieu himself.) It’s the kind of crazy, ambitious project that seems hard to imagine today, and it clearly couldn’t have existed without the institutional support it received. And the result is bliss between two covers—the one children’s book I’d want to own if I had to give up all the rest.

Written by nevalalee

December 9, 2014 at 10:26 am

Quote of the Day

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Written by nevalalee

December 9, 2014 at 7:30 am

Posted in Quote of the Day

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