I love children’s books. The best of them are clever and funny, potentially didactic, and often profound or moving. But it isn’t just the story that makes a children’s book compelling, it is the art contained within the pages.
Recently I saw some of the original illustrations created for the Little Golden Books, that iconic publisher of children’s literature. The exhibit, Golden Legacy: Original Art from 65 Years of Golden Books, is currently showing at a small local library (Boerne Public Library for those of you nearby.) This exhibit is touring the U.S. through 2013. Here is a link to the touring schedule from The National Center for Children’s Illustrated Literature.
There are truly some superstar pieces represented in this show. On exhibit is the cover art for The Poky Little Puppy, illustrated by Gustav Tenggren. Also appearing is Cat in Snow from Green Eyes, illustrated by Abe Birnbaum. Additional works by Richard Scarry, Jan Pfloog, Gertrude Elliott, and almost 20 others, are among the 60 nostalgic and lovely masterpieces. Some of the illustrations include the original paste-up of the text block glued on by hand. (Nobody used a computer to do layout when these books were written.) The same is true for the cover art. The title lettering is drawn or painted as interpreted by the artist to suit the style of the book and story.
Experiencing the original work reveals the excellent craftsmanship, full concept, and impeccable design that appeals to children and the grown-ups who read to them. All of the subtleties of the hand and medium are visible in a way not always reproduced in the printing process.
My favorite Golden book is We Like Kindergarten illustrated by Eloise Wilkin and written by Clara Cassidy. The cover features a little girl holding a painting that is signed “Carol.” That’s me! Inside the front cover there is a girl painting at an easel. That’s me, too! One of my earliest memories is of standing in a busy classroom, intently painting at an easel while surrounded by the chaos of the other children playing around me. I have always loved school and art, so I really felt that book was written for me!
I think that once people learn to read they stop really noticing illustrations. The pictures are given a cursory glance as we stop decoding the images and start relying on the written word. The language of the visual is equally rich and communicative when done well. Good illustration is not just decoration that goes with a story, it enriches our interaction with it and understanding of it. The next time you encounter a children’s book, try looking at the illustrations first to see how it affects your interpretation of the story, and to appreciate the amazing skills of the artist who created it.