It’s a long way from the cheery family scenes on the pages of “Fun with Dick and Jane” to the images in a new exhibition of original art for children’s books, “How We Live Now: Picturing Everyday Life in Children’s Book Illustration,” on view through May 30 at the Jane Voorhees Zimmerli Art Museum in New Brunswick. The idealized family portrait that was once the standard for books for kids has given way to the sometimes chilly realities of modern-day life.

The assembled images serve up a graphic reflection of social change, beginning in the late 1960s, that gave rise to children’s books that more accurately reflect diversity of our society. Original watercolors, photographs, pastels, ink drawings, and mixed media illustrations document the evolution of content in recent years. The inclusion of several books, for which these images were created, helps the viewer make the transition from original work of art to bound volume.

In contrast with earlier books for kids, 35 works, drawn from the museum’s landmark holdings in original art for children’s book illustration, offer a child’s-eye view of issues and situations that would have been unthinkable not too long ago. Pictures addressing such concerns as teenage pregnancy, family stress, the household logistics of working mothers, the excitement of becoming an American citizen, and racial diversity are among the hot(ter) topics that have been made into reading material for the younger set.

The introduction of real life into kid’s books is a positive change for the young reader, according to Gail Aaron, assistant curator, Original Illustrations for Children’s Books, at the Zimmerli’s Morse Research Center for Graphic Arts. Aaron, who organized the exhibition, says, “I think it does have an effect. They have needed to see everyday life, regular kids. They are enthusiastic when they can see children like themselves and adults that resemble their family. They get very excited. They really appreciate these kinds of books.”

“It’s affirming for children to be able to see themselves in books,” says Lucia Costa, youth services librarian at Princeton Public Library. “I think children want to see themselves and lives reflected.”

Despite the positive affect, Aaron notes that from time to time real-life content can generate controversy. “There’s always someone who wishes to have certain things not spoken about. Some people have objected strongly to books about blended families and same sex couples.”

Costa says, “Books in general that touch upon sex in different ways will always generate a controversy” and adds that it is children’s books that take the heat. “Every year when we look at books that have been suppressed they’re always children’s books.” She says, however, that such problems are rare at the Princeton Public Library. “We seem to have an open minded community.”

The featured artists in the Zimmerli exhibit deftly translate complex, sometimes difficult situations into narrative imagery. John Thompson’s ink drawing for “The Liquid Trap” by Mildred P. Walter reflects contemporary efforts by authors, illustrators, and publishers to depict people of diverse ethnicities and races accurately and with empathy. In an illustration for “Creativity” by John Steptoe, E.B. Lewis graphically addresses the need to find creative solutions to social problems, capturing rather than idealizing the behavior of children in groups. In another work, “The Magic Moonberry Jump Rope” by Dakari Rhu, Lewis portrays a moment of anxious uncertainty in which a boy and a girl, new to an urban neighborhood, look on as movers unload their treasured possessions from a truck. What also counts as change here is that most of the people in these pictures look like you and me and the people we see on the street, rather than the near perfect folks that used to live in children’s books.

Despite the weight of the subject matter, however, there is no question that these works were created with a young audience in mind. Although many of the themes are weighty, technique and media are deftly employed to lighten the emotional load — no easy task for the illustrator, who must strike a balance between the need to deal with issues authentically and the equally important need to make the imagery appealing to a younger reader. In each of the featured illustrations the artist has employed line, composition, and/or color to create an engaging image and frequently soften the impact of the content. In some, luminous watercolor tones lend an upbeat feeling with washes of warm light suggesting safety and protection. Line, too, becomes eloquent with expressive strokes of pastel and vigorous yet delicate black outlines, to capture movement and energy and to create tension, where needed.

In an illustration by Catherine Stock for “By the Dawn’s Early Light” by Karen Ackerman, the artist has used clear warm watercolor hues and a lively interplay of pattern to lighten an undercurrent of sadness in a scene in which a working mother, dressed to leave for the evening shift, looks back toward her children. In another illustration from the same book, rich watercolor tones lend warmth and an positive feeling to parallel images showing the grandmother watching over the children while the mother takes her lunch break at the factory cafeteria.

In some illustrations, however, technique is used to add somber weight. Catherine Stock’s watercolor illustrations for “Doll Baby,” a story about a teenage pregnancy, build an aura of family tension and distress, such as in one image in which the mother hides her face and the parents appear to put distance between themselves and their daughter. Here the mood is reinforced with a blue watercolor wash that encloses the group. As the story unfolds, however, more upbeat color and brighter technique are introduced to lighten the load of a difficult subject.

Princeton Public Library’s Costa points out that in recent years artistic quality as well as content has evolved. “Illustrations are getting more and more beautiful. When you think of Dick and Jane that was really basic. Now illustrations are central to the books, even for older children. And non-fiction has fabulous illustrations. Today it’s an honor to be a children’s book illustrator. At one time it was not something you talked about.”

To get to the beginning of things, when it comes to children’s books, a trip to the Cotsen Children’s Library in the Department of Rare Books and Special Collections at Princeton University’s Firestone Library, is in order. The Cotsen holds a major historical collection, in over 30 languages, that includes rare illustrated children’s books, manuscripts, original artwork, prints, and educational toys from the 15th century to the present day. Among the collection’s treasures are scrapbooks assembled by Hans Christian Andersen, drawings by Edward Lear, and many of Beatrix Potter’s famous picture letters.

While the Cotsen ranks importantly as a scholarly resource, there is no doubt that it is also meant as a literary haven for a young audience. Faux topiary animals greet visitors at the entry “garden.” Interior spaces include a life-sized tree house with room to read inside the trunk, couches that invite a quiet sit-down with a good book, and countless cozy corners in which a child can curl up and read. There are also exhibition cases, currently featuring a sampling of rare children’s books that offer a variety of connections with music.

The Cotsen also has an impressive schedule of year-round story programs and an ongoing series of Saturday book-related events for kids. All are free and open to the public with no reservations necessary. The high spot an the library’s annual calendar is an annual full-day book event, Princyclopedia, held at Dillon Gym on the Princeton campus, in which a much-loved book is brought to life in a convention-style event with games, projects, and entertainment. The 2010 Princyclopedia, on Saturday, March 27, will look at pirates and adventure in Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Treasure Island.” The program will also include an exploration of the history of the Spanish Main and take a close look at ocean life.

“How We Live Now,” Zimmerli Art Museum, George and Hamilton streets, New Brunswick. On view to Sunday, May 23. Picturing everyday life in children’s book illustrations. 732-932-7237 or www.zimmerlimuseum.rutgers.edu.

Cotsen Children’s Library, in Firestone Library, Princeton University. Check the website for activities including Princyclopedia, story times, and arts and crafts activities. 609-258-2697 or www.princeton.edu.

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