«Back to As a Matter of Art

Picture Book Art: Connecting Children to the World Around Them

Eric Carle, The Very Hungry Caterpillar, Philomel Books, Collection of The Eric & Barbara Carle Foundation


This fall, two Westchester museums celebrate picture book art and the artists who use stories to imagine new worlds for children. Rye Arts Center (RAC) and Katonah Museum of Art (KMA) elevate picture book art with their current exhibitions, delving into themes like folklore and justice.

For its The Magic of Storybook Animals exhibit, Rye Arts Center reprises its storybook art exhibition for the fourth time. Whereas the previous exhibitions in 1996 and 2003 concentrated more generally on picture book art, and one in 2007 focused on dance, this show explores the natural and animal world. The show, on view through November 12, includes more than 30 illustrators with a special tribute to Susan Jeffers, Ted Lewin and Jerry Pinkney, who have all died within the past two years. All three had also been in previous storybook exhibitions, developing a close relationship with RAC, and participating in many of its school and public programming events.

“It was very important to the Arts Center and to the community that we honor [them], and have a ‘Celebration of Life’ presentation for them,” said co-curator Gail Harrison Roman, Ph.D.

Beyond these three legendary illustrators, visitors transition through topics like “Sea & Shore,” “Animals Everywhere” and “Up a Tree.” A consciously lower hang of the works on display allows children of all ages to see 92 original watercolors, mixed media, digital and sculptural works reproduced in classics like The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle and Oscar the Octopus by Matthew Van Fleet. Attendees can study the storybook process, comparing drafts and sketches to their completed works for books like Mike Curato’s Little Elliot series and Pinkney’s Aesop’s Fables.

Speaking about the power of children seeing art in a gallery that they recognize from their books, co-curator Sarah Mackay said: “[Our intention was for] children to see [these works] in their realm, their perspective. Everything is hung a little bit lower. For them to see something that they would recognize from their book only lifts it up that much further.”

Further up-County in Katonah, KMA celebrates Jerry Pinkney, a longtime member of the Museum’s Board of Trustees, with two exhibitions through January 22. Tenacity & Resilience: The Art of Jerry Pinkney honors the artist’s 57-year career as an illustrator, arts educator and writer. In the Spot Gallery and Pollack Family Learning Center, A Sense of Community: Celebrating Jerry Pinkney’s Legacy displays nine illustrators that Pinkney mentored, including James Ransome, co-curator of the exhibit, showing the illustrator’s indelible mark on diversity in children’s literature.

“[Jerry Pinkney was] a longtime supporter of the museum. He was instrumental in founding our Learning Center,” said Emily Handlin, Associate Curator of Exhibitions and Programs at KMA. “He was, of course, a great advocate of picture book art, and is one of the reasons we have such a robust program in picture book art here at the museum.” Pinkney also contributed to several previous picture book related exhibitions there.
Tenacity & Resilience, organized by Gail Stavitsky, Chief Curator at Montclair Art Museum, features seven of Pinkney’s 100+ books. The museum divides the exhibition across its two galleries, separating books that deal directly with African American history and culture, like Minty: A Story of Young Harriet Tubman and Goin’ Someplace Special, from his books that recount folktales or explore his other interests, such as The Little Mermaid and God Bless the Child. Overall, his books on view show a dedication to empowering children to dream freely and to see themselves in the world, no matter their race.

For A Place to Land: Martin Luther King Jr. and the Speech that Inspired a Nation and The Little Mermaid, KMA shows the books’ progression, from sketch to storyboard. Wall text for stories like Sweethearts of Rhythm: The Story of the Greatest All-Girl Swing Band in the World and I Want to Be analyzes his works’ composition. Throughout the years, Pinkney honed in on a story’s personal and emotional truth, while incorporating historical or cultural elements from West African or African American history. Techniques that helped him to evoke the tone he desired in his books ranged from collage and detailed line work to intentional color choices and the layering in of historical symbols. When combined, his process, attention to detail and craft work together to create powerful stories about having courage in the face of adversity.
“For everybody, for kids and adults, his work carries such beautiful messages and, frankly, messages we can all be reminded of right now,” said Handlin.

Jerry Pinkney, Goin’ Someplace Special, cover from Goin’ Someplace Special by Patricia C. McKissack. Watercolor and graphite on watercolor paper, 15 1/8 x 21 5/8 in. (38.4 x 54.9 cm), Courtesy of the Estate of Jerry Pinkney, © 2001 Jerry Pinkney. Photograph by Peter Jacobs.