I don’t usually advertise my age, so let’s just say it’s a decade past the halfway mark in double digits. The reason I mention this is because I love children’s books.
What could be more magical than getting under the covers and reading to eager listeners about fantastic foxes, curious monkeys, three little bears sitting in chairs, and a quiet old lady whispering hush?
My greatest thrills come from reading to my grandson. When we are lucky enough to sleep under the same roof, I tuck him in and give explicit instructions for the morning after: let his parents sleep but bring a pile of books into my room. Wake me if sleeping. He loves this part, entering the room with giggles.
Other times we read over Skype, and I hold up the pictures to the screen, peering over the top to watch his curious face. The books are created to bring joy to all generations of readers. If the adult did not love reading it, it would not be as enjoyable for the young listener. We take the visual voyage together.
Happily, the gallery at the College of New Jersey is exhibiting “A Visual Voyage: Exploring the Media and Styles of Award Winning Children’s Book Illustrators” through Sunday, December 14. Some of my favorites — William Steig, Faith Ringgold, and Chris Van Allsburg — are among the author/illustrators featured.
There are more than 50 works of art by 20 artists. They are winners of Caldecott Medals; Coretta Scott King Medals; Pura Belpre Medals; and more.
In order to win the Caldecott, the top prize for an American illustrator, the art must work with the text, complementing the story, not fighting or overwhelming it. In a picture for “Sylvester and the Magic Pebble,” Steig painted a father donkey in a pin-striped suit bowing his violin behind a music stand, a mother donkey in a yellow and turquoise polka-dotted dress in a blue toile chair knitting red yarn — her donkey tail gently laps over the armrest — and young Sylvester, an unclothed donkey, sits on the floor playing with toy trucks and car. The entire family unit is contained within a blue square rug, giving so much more dimension to the words “Sylvester Duncan lived with his mother and father.”
“A Visual Voyage” features illustrations that are realistic, surrealistic, impressionistic, expressionistic, and naive. Watercolors, oils, acrylics, collages, prints, drawings, and photographs are among the means through which the illustrators tell stories.
“Pictures should convey, enhance and extend the meaning behind the words,” writes Barbara Kiefer, professor of children’s literature at Ohio State University, in the introduction to the exhibition catalog. “Authors use elements of literature to craft a story; likewise, artists make use of the elements and principles of design, particularly line, shape, color, and value, as they decide what to illustrate and how best to do it.”
The exhibit was proposed and curated by Dr. Deborah Thompson, associate professor of elementary and early childhood education. “We though it was a great idea to collaborate with another department, broadening our reach by including both education and art students to understand the collaborative process,” says gallery director Emily Croll, who traveled around the Northeast to gather the works from the various artists.
Thompson started by generating a list of 50 to 60 award-winning artists. “Then we went through to see who we could get,” she says. “We made sure we had a balance of gender and ethnicity.”
Thompson grew up surrounded by books — both her parents were teachers in Dyersburg, Tennessee, during the 1960s, when libraries were segregated. “My parents bought lots of books — Dickens, Shakespeare, and coffee table books with masterpieces of art. My siblings and I grew up listing to classical music. I didn’t know you could major in children’s literature.” As an undergraduate at Tennessee State University she studied language development and literacy strategies, then earned a master’s degree and Ph.D. at Ohio State University, with her research interests in cultural variations of folk and fairy tales, and multicultural children’s literature.
“Although a picture book contains a reproduction of the artist’s finished work,” writes Kiefer, “the quality of the original media often enhances visual meaning.” Here we see the cut paper collage of David Wisnewski, which fools the eye in seeming to be three dimensional. Wisnewski, who died in 2002 at age 49 — five years after winning the Caldecott — graduated from Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Clown College and worked as a puppeteer. It was after having children that he began to write and illustrate books, and considered himself a self-taught artist. David’s illustrations are created using an X-Acto knife and thousands of strokes and blades on paper. His intricate, multi-layered illustrations begin with sketches that he traces one element at a time onto colored paper, eventually piecing everything together with photo mounts and foam tape.
Many of the artists are multi-talented. Faith Ringgold is a painter, sculptor, performance artist, and writer. The Caldecott Award-winning “Tar Beach” comes from her story quilt that combines autobiography, fictional narrative, painting, and quilt making. It is based on memories of her parents and neighbors playing cards on the rooftop, under the twinkling stars and the lights of the George Washington Bridge.
Did you know that “Polar Express” author/illustrator Van Allsburg was a successful sculptor, exhibiting at the Whitney Museum and elsewhere before he made picture books? His wife, an elementary education teacher, encouraged him to illustrate works for children.
An artist’s life influences the type of illustrations. Mary Azarian, whose woodcuts have illustrated such books as “Snowflake Bentley,” was a student of 20th-century printmaker Leonard Baskin while at Smith College. After college she moved to a small hilltop farm in Vermont. There she and her family farmed with horses and oxen, kept chickens, sheep, a Jersey milk cow ,and a goat, and ran a maple syrup operation. Her life on the farm became the inspiration for many of her prints.
Croll got a glimpse of that world when she drove up to Plainfield, Vermont, to pick up the prints from Azarian, and also to Stowe for the work of Jan Reynolds, who illustrates the books she writes about vanishing cultures with photographs.
Sometimes the technique employed is as intriguing at the subject. Coretta Scott King Award-winner and “Max and the Tag-Along Moon” author Floyd Cooper uses a subtractive method, erasing paint to produce images. Brian Pinkney creates his images using scratchboard.
Illustrators are often influenced by other artists. Van Allsburg admires German symbolist Max Klinger, Maxfield Parrish, and Grant Wood, Steig was looking at Picasso, and E. B. Lewis was examining the work of Winslow Homer, said Dr. Nicholas Clark, founding director and chief curator of the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art, during a recent visit to the gallery. The museum is a lender to the exhibition.
A picture book is very much like a play, says author/illustrator Emily Arnold McCully, who won a Caldecott for “Mirette on the High Wire.” “You select a cast, create costumes and set, then arrange the scenes, building to a climax.”
To prepare for “Mirette,” she relied on 1890s paintings of Paris as well as photographs of the city. Her illustrations show the influence of French Impressionism.
Brooklyn-born and Bronx-raised Steig didn’t start writing and illustrating children’s books until he was 61, following a long career as a New Yorker cartoonist. The Caldecott winner’s more than 30 children’s books include “Shrek.”
While it’s wonderful to see the original “Polar Express” illustration of Santa, with white-gloved arms held high in the air, greeting his minions as elves work the sleigh and red brick factory buildings are lit with gold from inside, the illustrations make one hunger for the story. It’s like looking at chocolates in a display case that you can’t eat.
Thankfully, Croll has arranged shelves of the books of each of these illustrators, so visitors can satisfy their desire. Not only is it a visual voyage, but an introduction to new books worth checking out of the library — and the urge to go to the library is what this reviewer left with. The exhibit is also perfectly timed with the holiday shopping season, and parents and grandparents will find inspiration for books that make wonderful gifts.
Visual Voyage: Exploring the Media and Styles of Award Winning Children’s Book Illustrators, TCNJ Art Gallery, Arts and Interactive Multimedia Building, 2000 Pennington Road, Ewing, through Sunday, December 14, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday, noon to 7 p.m., Sunday 1 to 3 p.m., free. For more details, visit tcnj.edu/artgallery.