Noah’s Ark, though mainly wordless, is prefaced by a seventeenth century poem called ‘The Flood’ by Jacobus Revius (1586-1658). This poem was translated from the Dutch by Peter Spier himself. In 60 three-syllable lines, it tells the biblical story of Noah’s Ark.
The illustrations are amazingly rich. Many have so much detail that it requires considerable concentration to ‘read’ them carefully to absorb each element of the picture, and there are often many hidden jokes to spot.
The story begins with Noah and his wife overseeing the animals being loaded onto the ark. All sizes of creature are covered, from the largest, such as elephants and giraffes, to the smallest, such as snails and worms. Each is given distinctive characteristics and behaves in a manner true to its nature.
Plenty of humour is packed into each image. For instance Noah’s wife is so scared of the mice she has to jump up onto a basket, while Noah has trouble fending off the crows and yanking a reluctant donkey on board.
The pacing of the illustrations is varied, with the occasional large image filling a whole spread. This provides a refreshing ‘breathing space’ in-between the more complex panels on the other pages. These larger, often more simple, images can also help to emphasise the magnitude of the events being shown, such as the relentless rain teeming from the sky into the ocean.
Noah takes trouble to care for each individual creature, talking to the tigers, admiring the birds’ chicks and feeding the hippos and seals fresh fish. The animals in turn play their part, with the hens providing fresh eggs for the sailors.
A sense of time passing is conveyed by the switches between day and night. In one image we see a tired Noah slumped at a candle-lit table, surrounded by animals, untidy stores and row upon row of wet washing. There is an overwhelming feeling of ennui and weariness. On the facing page we see the owls waking from their daytime sleep as the moon rises over the ark.
A sense of hope is beautifully suggested when Noah leans over the bow of the ark to receive the leaf brought by the dove. Where there’s one leaf, there must be more – meaning there’s land ahead. The emotional release that results is conveyed in the hug between Noah and his wife, and by the animals’ delight at seeing the fresh greenery.
And once solid land is reached, there is the tricky business of unloading…
Peter Spier (1927-2017) was a Dutch-American illustrator who began his career as a commercial artist working for advertising agencies. He later created more than 30 books for children, using mainly pen, ink and watercolour on paper.
Noah’s Ark won both Lewis Carroll Shelf Award in 1977 and the Caldecott Medal in 1978, the latter an award that is granted to ‘the artist of the most distinguished American picture book for children’.