A Discussion of a Few of Illustrator Trina Schart Hyman’s Books

Trina Schart Hyman is a wonderful illustrator with an extremely prolific career. Her work spans a wide range of subjects, as well as styles; however, each book is undeniably recognizable as belonging to her cannon. Her color palate is generally earthy, though she never neglects bold colors, giving each illustration a warm and inviting feeling. Her lines are generally rounded, which reflects warmth and tends to make the characters and their surroundings feel friendly. Rounded lines also beautifully communicate graceful and lyrical movement, which she always expresses so eloquently in her work. She draws heavily on nature, reflecting the mood and the action, of the text through natural surroundings, time of day and weather conditions. Another, and perhaps the most charming, device she uses to pull in the reader is displaying a character that is looking directly at the reader. The character always has either a mischievous or joyful expression that makes the reader want to jump right into the illustration. Three books best exemplify the range and breadth of her work: Why don’t you get a horse, Sam Adams? by Jean Fritz, (1), Saint George and the Dragon retold by Margaret Hodges, (2), and King Stork by Howard Pyle, (3).
The first book, Why don’t you get a horse, Sam Adams? by Jean Fritz, (1), is a story about Sam Adams and his involvement in the American Revolution. Fritz filters the biography of Adams through his refusal and eventual embrace of horseback riding. Hyman marvelously illustrates the action in black, white and sepia, lending it an attractive old-fashioned quality. Vacillating between blacks and browns also adds visual suspense, as the reader is waiting for Sam to mount a brown horse, compelling the reader to turn the page. She accurately represents the period’s style of dress and style of everyday objects, not just in the illustrations depicting action, but she also provides detailed studies of these objects in border illustrations surrounding the text, allowing the reader to absorb more historical detail about the time period. A small boy is depicted in many of the illustrations, as either part of of the background milieu or actively observing the action in the scene. This character represents the reader, and through his presence, the reader feels more involved in the action. In the text, Fritz emphasizes Sam Adams’ tenacity for convincing the American public to rebel against the British. In this vein, a good follow up activity might be to form a small debate. The teacher asks the class to pick a topic and discusses how one should structure a sound argument with the class. S/he will then divide the class into two sides of the argument and usher them through constructing each side. The side of the class that scores the most points, or provides the better argument receives incentives. The topic should be simple as well as relatable, for example: cats vs. dogs, or peanut butter vs. jelly.
Margaret Hodges’ retelling of Saint George and the Dragon, (2), is a dry and impersonal version of the story of England’s patron Saint. The characters are superficial and poorly developed, isolating the reader from the plot. The language is cold and impersonal, referring to the characters as their title: “the Red Cross Knight” instead of George, or “the king and queen”, (2). The exception is Una, who is referred to by name, but should have been referred to by title, “princess”, to indicate her stake in the slaying of another nameless character, the dragon. Fortunately, the violence is described well and interestingly, however cased in antiquated verbiage such as, “couched his spear”, (2). Though not inaccessible to children, the text falls far short of being able to capture their attention. Hyman’s work, on the other hand, is remarkable. The vibrant color palate echoes the rich saturated inks of medieval illuminated manuscripts. Each page containing text is surrounded by a beautifully illuminated frame that either illustrates the action, or communicates the mood in various floral filigrees accented by medieval symbols, emblems, pastoral scenes, and mythological creatures. One good example of this is St. George’s famous motto: “Honi soit qui mal y pense” or “Let he who thinks ill there be shamed”, which is written around George’s crusader shield in the frame on the last page, (4). Each illustration, not only beautifully and accurately depicts the costume and implements of the period, but also strongly echos artwork of Europe’s medieval and renaissance periods, in both composition and tone, (although modern devices of perspective are employed to remain accessible to the reader and further engross them in the artwork). Scenes of the dragon are made more ferocious by its placement, always looming above the tiny figure of St. George, which emphasizes his heroic quality when he eventually defeats it. Also, her passion for nature is not lost, as each scene’s mood is tonally communicated in the weather and time of day. As a companion activity for this book, the teacher should show examples of illuminated manuscripts, emphasizing the types of patterns and symbols commonly employed in these sources. The teacher should then distribute pages, each with a few sentences of a similar medieval story and have the children create their own illuminated frames. These pages can then be combined into the class’ own illuminated book and be set on display.

Although set in a similar time frame as St. George, Hyman’s illustrations for Howard Pyle’s King Stork, (3), are markedly different. Here her illustrations consume the pages, making her landscapes feel boundless and the reader feel as if the natural settings extend off the page. Her color palate is earthy and washed out, which reflects the simpler and humbler nature of this story’s main character, a common drummer. His rough and earthy perspective is reflected in the sketchy and imperfect lines of the illustrations. The drummer helps the enchanted King of the Storks return to normal, who then helps him to capture and tame the most beautiful princess to be his wife. Artistic detail is abundant, yet less defined, giving the reader a sense of freedom, whimsicality and wildness: themes that are communicated throughout the narrative style as well as the story itself. These themes are also reflected by Hyman’s depiction of the main characters as either bare footed or in sandals.The text reflects a delightful roguish sensibility, which is as clever as it is charming. The story is streamlined and well told, albeit misogynistic. To supply a more feminist perspective, the teacher can elaborate on the powerless position of medieval princesses and arranged marriages. The teacher can then guide the class through rewriting the story through the princess’ perspective, imagining why the princess would want to put her suitors through those challenges.

Trina Schart Hyman’s unique and beautiful style of illustration is timeless. Every artistic element is used to its fullest extent to draw the reader into the narrative. Characters are depicted as friendly, warm and inviting, through the use of round lines, warm color palates, and engaging and emotive facial expressions. Wonderful landscapes reflect setting and mood, as well as entice the reader. Hyman is a true master, her work is as exciting as it is enthralling.


1. Fritz, Jean. Illus. Hyman, Trina Schart. Why don’t you get a horse, Sam Adams?. Penguin Putnam Books for Young Readers. 1974.

2. Hodges, Margaret. Illus. Hyman, Trina Schart. Saint George and the Dragon. Little Brown and Company. 1984.

3. Pyle, Howard. Illus. Hyman, Trina Schart. King Stork. Morrow Junior Books. 1973.

4. “Honi soit qui mal y pense”. Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. Dec. 2010. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Honi_soit_qui_mal_y_pense

5. Hodges, Margaret. Illus. Hyman, Trina Schart. Merlin and the Making of the King. Holiday House. 2004.

6. Hyman, Trina Schart. Sleeping Beauty. Little Brown and Company. 1977.

7. Updike, John. Illus. Hyman, Trina Schart. A Child’s Calendar. Holiday House. 1999.

8. Kimmel, Eric. Illus. Hyman, Trina Schart. Herschel and the Hanukkah Goblins. Holiday House. 1989.



Filed under Books

2 responses to “A Discussion of a Few of Illustrator Trina Schart Hyman’s Books

  1. Ah. Now can you find the thing in the witch’s table in “King Stork” that got Ms. Hyman in a heckuva lot of trouble? It takes some looking but it’s worth it.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s