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Illustrators get their day in the gallery

For artists such as Chris Van Allsburg, children's books are anything but child's play.

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When actor Tom Hanks and director Robert Zemeckis sought to bring the classic "The Polar Express" to the big screen, their chief challenge was more visual than literary.

Author and artist Chris Van Allsburg's 1985 book tells the story of a boy who rides a fantasy railroad to the North Pole. For the filmmakers, capturing the essence of Mr. Van Allsburg's painterly illustrations proved to be complex, requiring pricey digital animation. They determined that the trouble and expense were necessary, because much of the book's enduring appeal lies in its haunting pictorial magic.

The success of the film version of "The Polar Express" has helped write a new chapter in the history of children's-book illustration. In recreating the dreamlike ambiance of Van Allsburg's tale, the movie has added momentum to an awareness of children's books as works of visual art.

From "Winnie the Pooh" to Dr. Seuss, a long legacy exists of crossover hits from book to film. But literary art for children is far more than cartoons. "Picture-book art is understudied and undervalued," says Jane Bayard Curley, a Yale-trained art historian. "I see it as a child's first experience of art."

Ms. Curley, a one-time children's librarian, is an independent curator specializing in such art. Picture books are "a universal shared language, worthy of examination," she says. "A great picture-book artist inspires readers to see something they've never seen before." The best artists, who typically write as well as illustrate their books, "expect their audience to live up to the words and images they use."

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