Her style charmed like Edmund Dulac‘s, mythicized like Howard Pyle‘s, and ornamented like Arthur Rackham‘s. Looking at Baylay’s Russian fairy tale illustrations threw me right back into the hours I spent sprawled on the carpet in my good grandmother’s house with a heap of dusty books rescued from the library sale — books with dozens of glorious color plates barely held together by mouse-nibbled cloth covers and high-acid endpapers. I had other hours as happy, but none happier. There was something in this artist’s style, too, that had not come from the world of children’s books. The more satirical figures swirled mockery together with beauty like something out of Aubrey Beardsley, or menaced and contorted like the monstrous beings in Djuna Barnes‘s Book of Repulsive Women. Baylay knows well the wolf who lurks under the surface of all the old stories.
“I should have heard of you,” I said to my computer screen. “How have I not heard of you?” Because I was sure I was looking at something out of that particular golden age of illustration, and surely this was the work of a master practitioner. I actually tried to look Kate Baylay up in my copy of Women of the Left Bank, just in case she’d been among the supremely networked women artists and writers in Paris from 1900 to 1940.
Actually, she only finished her art degree four years ago. She’s just that good, that young.
You see why I can barely believe my good fortune that she’s agreed to do the cover art for my novella, “The Imlen Bastard.” If the Kickstarter campaign goes well and we beat the minimum fundraising goal that makes it possible to get cover art and some basic book design, we can start aiming for stretch goals like interior illustrations. The kid I was when I sprawled in that sunbeam with a stack of classic illustrated fairy tale editions has been spinning pirouettes for joy in my head all week. It seems possible that I might pull together a book that produces that effect for my readers, too.
I wrote “The Imlen Bastard” from the viewpoint of a seven-year old, but it is not a story for children. (My boys hadn’t been born yet when I finished writing it, so I have no idea how I did so well at capturing that age. The story knew what it needed, and it ran miles ahead of me.) Young Stisele has no idea how close she is to the wolf under the surface of the story. She can name the tragedies in her bejeweled world, but not really grasp them.
The moment I discovered Kate Baylay was alive and open to commissions, she zoomed ahead of every other illustrator on my lists. The tension she keeps between wonder and menace was exactly what I wanted for Stisele’s story, and I hadn’t known it until just then.