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The Story of Lumber | drawn by Richard Floethe, written by Louise Lee Floethe

Updated: Apr 24, 2021

Another beautiful, but quite different, lumber book!

It is difficult to find a book more gorgeous and treasured in my home than this one. The Story of Lumber is exactly as it is titled: a walk-through, step-by-step teaching of how the lumber industry works. In this book, Louise Floethe writes in her straightforward, yet friendly manner, and each block of text sits as an island in roomy, negative space, centered on the page. The story is accompanied by flooded pages of her husband Richard's unmistakable color palette and wispy, feather-like strokes.

The Floethes were a force in the publishing world, both independently and in tandem, making 23 children's books as a writer-illustrator team. Richard, born in Germany, trained heavily in printmaking and painting at several institutions, including Munich State School of Art, Bauhaus in Weimar and Dortmund Art School. The Bauhaus perhaps had the most significant influence on Richard, where he studied color theory with Wassily Kandinsky and design with Paul Klee.

Aside from his striking, unusual use of color, there is so much fluidity and character in his illustrations. They are in no way dated, other than the model of trucks and vehicles portrayed, and could easily be mistaken for modern works if they were to be printed on the standard coated, smooth paper of today.

(left) Richard in his early career. (right) Louise and Richard photographed in 1974.

The couple met in New York and married in 1937. They traveled far and frequently, and their experiences became rich subject matter for their books upon returning. Looking at some of their other collaborations, it appears their handling of cultural education was done with greater awareness and depth than was common at the time. Some subject matter was not typical, and I am struck by the efforts to give cultural accuracy while telling gently compelling stories.

Upon first glance, the title Jungle People may make one cautiously shudder given its publishing date of 1973. However, the subhead (which is not included on the cover) lends more contextJungle People: The Story of the Brave Blacks of Surinam. In summary, it is a story about "Africans who had been sold into slavery on the sugar plantations, escaped and made their way to Surinam, where they fought off soldiers sent to take them back, then tamed the jungle to make a new place to live." Other examples are The Indian and His Pueblo (1960) and The Islands of Hawaii (1964). I don't want to make more of it than what might be there, but the refreshing intention of sharing their cultural learnings without a hint of bias is something to note. In general, these stories are not flowery or softened. It feels as though they are showing children a very practical window onto real life in a candid, but enchanting and welcoming way.

In The Story of Lumber, they include the bit that other similar books have emphasized about the seeding of trees after the matures ones are cut. This is done via helicopter and naturally through the neighboring trees left behind. But, I like that Louise mentions children's involvement in replanting the trees in the line "groups of children often help with this." It's a purely factual statement, but also an invitation for the child to picture themselves in a role to help. A subtle shout-out to the reader.

I sincerely consider framing almost every one of the scenes from this book. It speaks to me particularly because it is showcasing my favorite landscape of the Pacific Northwest. Richard and Louise traveled to Oregon and Washington to absorb all they could prior to making this book. I would love to see the sketches and notes they made. The University of Oregon Archives house correspondence between them on this very book. The authenticity of their research translates through the pages in a pure and lucid way, transporting us to faraway places as our personal tour guides.

Other collaborative works by the Floethes:

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