Par­rots, Pugs, and Pix­ie Dust: A Book About Fash­ion Design­er Judith Leiber

Deb­o­rah Blu­men­thal, Masha D’Yans (illus.)

  • Review
By – March 9, 2020

Par­rots, Pugs, and Pix­ie Dust is the sto­ry of design­er Judith Leiber’s life and her unique cre­ations. Born into a Jew­ish fam­i­ly in Hun­gary in 1921, Judith Peto sur­vived the Holo­caust mak­ing army uni­forms under harsh con­di­tions. After the war, she mar­ried Amer­i­can G.I. Ger­son Leiber; they died on the same day in 2018. Dur­ing their years togeth­er, the cou­ple estab­lished a com­pa­ny pro­duc­ing Leiber’s sought-after designs for pock­et­books in every form imag­in­able, includ­ing ani­mals, food, and works of archi­tec­ture. The author and illus­tra­tor have cre­at­ed a biog­ra­phy well-matched to Leiber’s per­son­al artis­tic vision, inte­grat­ing the events of her life and her deter­mi­na­tion to pur­sue beau­ty in spite of all she had suffered.

Deb­o­rah Blumenthal’s text avoids trite con­clu­sions about the sur­face ironies of Leiber’s style; a woman who had endured vio­lent anti­semitism and forced labor decid­ed to spe­cial­ize in glit­ter­ing objects priced for celebri­ties. The book’s lan­guage is both poet­ic and acces­si­ble; chil­dren will be fas­ci­nat­ed by Masha D’Yans’ pointil­list pas­tel images of preen­ing pea­cocks” and fan­ci­ful frogs don­ning gild­ed crowns, pan­das, poo­dles, par­rots, pugs.” Blu­men­thal acknowl­edges the reader’s expec­ta­tion that these must be the work of a Cin­derel­la or a queen, even if that queen is a gray-haired Jew­ish woman wear­ing over­sized glass­es. The ensu­ing descrip­tion of Leiber’s young life quick­ly trans­forms her into a real per­son. Read­ers learn that Leiber was high­ly imag­i­na­tive and artis­tic but her future was threat­ened by world events. There are no gen­er­al­i­ties here: She grew up in Budapest, at a time when Jew­ish fam­i­lies like hers were treat­ed cru­el­ly, just because they were Jewish.”

After safe­ly study­ing chem­istry in Lon­don, Leiber returns to her home just as World War II begins, a choice which could have end­ed her life as the per­se­cu­tion of Jews inten­si­fied. D’Yans’ ver­sa­til­i­ty as an illus­tra­tor shines as the pic­tures of glo­ri­ous minia­tures float­ing against a white page become dark scenes of oppres­sion. War planes cir­cle as Leiber sweeps floors in the hand­bag com­pa­ny where she is learn­ing her trade. As many Jews are deport­ed by the Nazis, Leiber and her fam­i­ly are spared because of their skills, but the pic­tures show increas­ing­ly dark and claus­tro­pho­bic scenes, end­ing in the base­ment where they are forced to hide. Leiber’s lib­er­a­tion returns the pic­tures to their ear­li­er del­i­cate col­ors as she meets her hus­band and begins to focus on the imag­i­na­tive acces­sories for which she became famous.

Although Blu­men­thal refrains from mak­ing Leiber’s life into an object les­son about opti­mism and per­se­ver­ance, she does refer to the designer’s aware­ness of the role of luck in her sur­vival and to her sub­se­quent cel­e­bra­tion of life and beau­ty. In a detailed Author’s Note,” Blu­men­thal pro­vides fur­ther infor­ma­tion, as well as inter­pre­ta­tion of Leiber’s sig­na­ture style: the high qual­i­ty she insist­ed on for her beau­ti­ful objects, her total immer­sion in work, and her cre­ativ­i­ty as a refuge from oppres­sion were all implic­it mes­sages in her hand­bags. This brief biog­ra­phy brings out those mes­sages in the con­text of her remark­able life.

This high­ly rec­om­mend­ed biog­ra­phy is suit­able for the old­er end of the rec­om­mend­ed range as well as for adults.

Emi­ly Schnei­der writes about lit­er­a­ture, fem­i­nism, and cul­ture for TabletThe For­wardThe Horn Book, and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions, and writes about chil­dren’s books on her blog. She has a Ph.D. in Romance Lan­guages and Literatures.

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