Look inside Palazzo Inverso


The apprentice Mauk is an entirely fictional character who takes his nickname and his inspiration from the work of Dutch artist M. C. Escher (1898-1972). As the talented son of a civil engineer, he learned carpentry and developed his gift for drawing before the age of thirteen. As a young man he briefly studied architecture at the Haarlem School for Architecture and Decorative Arts, but with the encouragement of one of his teachers, he soon changed direction to study art and design.

The Master and Mistress confront the apprentice, Mauk.

Escher made the right choice. As an artist, he was then free to draw believable–looking buildings that could not be built. Escher’s skill at playing with perspective and tricking people into seeing his version of three–dimensional space made him world famous.

In a work called Ascending and Descending, Escher drew stairs that lead down and around a building’s inner courtyard, yet appear to go back and end where they began. These endless loops going nowhere became his trademark. He was fascinated by stairs and realized that with a few carefully drawn steps he could take a person out of the real world and into his world of the impossible.

"It is impossible for the inhabitants of different worlds to walk or sit or stand on the same floor, because they have differing conceptions of what is horizontal and what is vertical. Yet they may well share the use of the same staircase." M. C. Escher, 1953


Anyone who has read my five picture books about a bear named Henry, beginning with Henry Hikes to Fitchburg (Houghton Mifflin 2000), will appreciate how Palazzo Inverso fits perfectly with my desire to bring the ideas of great writers and artists to young children. Just as my bear reenacts Henry David Thoreau's quest to live a simple life, Mauk, as the Dutch artist M. C. Escher, creates an upside-down world full of surprising impossibilities. I want kids to feel the power and exhilaration of running on the ceiling, of knowing that everything for them is still possible.

Sketch of Mauk running across the bridge.

But Palazzo Inverso is more than a celebration of Escher’s work. Some readers may see its higher purpose: to celebrate the genius of the bound book in the face of the digital onslaught, to experience a book as an object in time and space, to hold it and see its back and its front, flip through its pages and know where you are relative to the beginning and the end. I created Palazzo Inverso to be read to the end then turned upside-down and read back to the beginning. On the last page Mauk's adventure turns upside down along with the book, as he races back to the beginning where “every day was the same.” Like the analog clock that shows time in all its roundness, Palazzo Inverso is circular, the sort of endless loop Escher would love.

I made a book-dummy complete with sketches inspired by Escher’s optical illusions and the intertwined images called tessellations. I tried to capture the magic of his stairs, at once ascending and descending, and the upside-down rooms in his Italian villas that can never be built. I reveled in the little deceptions necessary for the art to make sense when turned on its head, and I played with how different an image can look depending on whether you see its positive or negative space. Finally I decided to make it possible to turn each two-page spread as well, so that the last word on the bottom of the page would smoothly connect with the first word in the upside-down text at the top. I drove myself crazy for several weeks getting it all to work as imagined.

For the final art, I drew each image first right-side up, then turned it over and redrew it, adding Mauk's figure right-side up. Or I drew him from above so that he would look right no matter how the picture was turned. To re-create the warm tones of Escher’s lithographs, I made a sepia-colored underpainting on coquille board, my usual painting process. Coquille board has a “lithograph-like” texture that is my signature style. Finally I added an overlay of Prismacolor pencils in grays, browns and black...and Palazzo Inverso was finished.