The book was first published in 1911 in an elaborate folio format by the publishing house Alfred Tolmer in Paris in cooperation with the Parisian department store Le Printemps. In Le Printemps' christmas catalogue, it appeared under the title "L'Arche de Noé" and was offered together with a set of wooden animals with an ark as well as children's furniture designed by Hellé.
There is also a third edition entitled "Grosses Bêtes et Petites Bêtes", 1924, as well as a US-American edition published 1924 by Stokes entitled "Big beasts and little beasts" in landscape format. Hellé himself used the title "L'Arche de Noé" again in 1925 for a revised edition at the Garnier publishing house in the smaller, standard picture book format, for which he reworked the pictures in Art Déco style.
The publisher Alfred Tolmer (1876-1957) was instrumental to the lavish first edition of "Drôles de Bêtes", as he felt a special affinity for the artisanal printing techniques and an artistically informed layout. The book is the first in a series of books for children by well-known artists in his publishing house.
These "strange" beasts belong to both wild and domestic animals. A total of 20 animals are presented on the large double spreads. The right-hand page begins with a picture of the animals on coloured pasted-in paper. The different picture formats correspond to the respective rough outlines of the animals. Thus, the lying tiger takes only about the upper third of the page, and the cow or the lion need almost half, while the giraffe uses the full height and the elephant is even granted two thirds of the page. All figures come alive through abstract, simplified outlines and the turtle or the bear, for example, appear emblematic in their simplicity.
The name of the animal appears below or next to the colour picture, with strong strokes in decoratively designed capital letters. Below this is a text written in easily legible type with small, interspersed line drawings. The text and line-drawings echo the colour pictures with simple descriptions of their characteristics and appearance, but various details in the text and drawings often evoke amusing or subtle associations. Some of the colour pictures and line drawings show bipeds standing on a solid base, as in the toy ensemble of Noah's Ark. This ambivalence between the formal characterization of the animal and the simplified wooden figure invites the viewer to engage in a pleasurable game. The reader feels at home in both the book and the play world - a completely familiar experience for children.
The graphic design of this lavish, large-format picture book also serves to promote the artistically designed wooden toy set with which André Hellé had attracted great attention in France.
André Hellé (original family name: Laclôtre), was born in Paris in 1871 and died there in 1945. He was an illustrator for the press and comic books, and worked as a graphic artist, painter, designer of childrens furniture and toys. He became famous with his first picture book "Drôles de Bêtes", which was published at the same time as a set of wooden figures depicting Noah's Ark.
Since 1904, Hellé devoted himself particularly to simple forms and sought to give expression to the childlike gaze. His figures increasingly take on the character of toy figures. Besides contributions to various magazines, he is the author of over 60 picture books. His illustrations for Claude Debussy's "La boite à joujoux" (The Toy Box), published in 1913 as an illustrated score in Paris by Durand & Fils Editeur, are well known (re-published by Éditions Mémo in 2012). The ballet for children was first performed in 1919.
Gallica - Database of the French National Library in Paris, with digital editions of some of Hellé’s most famous children’s books: https://gallica.bnf.fr/conseils/content/andr%C3%A9-hell%C3%A9 (last access 16 January 2020)