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Inside Spencer: The KSRL Blog

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Welcome to the Kenneth Spencer Research Library blog! As the special collections and archives library at the University of Kansas, Spencer is home to remarkable and diverse collections of rare and unique items. Explore the blog to learn about the work we do and the materials we collect.

That’s Distinctive!: Kay Nielsen Illustrations

July 7th, 2023

Check the blog each Friday for a new “That’s Distinctive!” post. I created the series because I genuinely believe there is something in our collections for everyone, whether you’re writing a paper or just want to have a look. “That’s Distinctive!” will provide a more lighthearted glimpse into the diverse and unique materials at Spencer – including items that many people may not realize the library holds. If you have suggested topics for a future item feature or questions about the collections, feel free to leave a comment at the bottom of this page.

This week on That’s Distinctive! we share a book from Spencer’s Children’s Book Collection, which is housed within Special Collections. The book, East of the Sun and West of the Moon: Old Tales from the North, was published in 1914. The book shares folklore from Norway and is illustrated by Kay Nielsen. Nielsen contributed twenty-five color and monotone plates to the book along with other printed images.

According to Wikipedia, Kay Nielsen (1886-1957) was a popular Danish illustrator in the early twentieth century. Nielsen illustrated works such as Fairy Tales by Hans Christian Andersen, Other Stories by the Brothers Grimm, and Red Magic. In addition to these works, Nielsen contributed his artwork to Disney in works such as Fantasia. Unfortunately, Nielsen spent his final years in poverty. His last works were for local schools and churches in Los Angeles, California.

More of Nielsen’s work can be found on the Art Passions website, and more information on his background can be found on the website of the Society of Illustrators. A slightly different version of East of the Sun and West of the Moon, with the illustrations, is available online via Project Gutenberg.

Why this item? It gives a unique look into a children’s book with more than simple illustrations. The detail in the artwork alone is enough to draw a reader in. I recently brought my family in to Spencer for a tour and to show them several items from the collections. This book was one of those items and it really drew their attention.

Gold text on a navy blue background.
The front cover of East of the Sun and West of the Moon: Old Tales from the North, illustrated by Kay Nielsen, 1914. Call Number: Children D230. Click image to enlarge.
Strips of horizontal black and white illustrations. There is a pattern border - plus clouds, moons, and stars in the middle - all in gold.
An endpaper in East of the Sun and West of the Moon. Call Number: Children D230. Click image to enlarge.
Color illustration of a woman riding a white bear.
Color illustration of a woman with her head in her hands, kneeling in a field of flowers and surrounded by the trunks of tall trees.
Color illustration of a prince and princess riding a horse down an arc, over an island with a tree surrounded by waves.
Selected illustrations from the folktale “East of the Sun and West of the Moon,” the first one in the book of the same name. Call Number: Children D230. Click images to enlarge.

Tiffany McIntosh
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