Arts & Literature

Words and Pictures

"The Making of A Picture Book" illuminates the creative processes of local writers and illustrators

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Finding the exhibition The Making of a Picture Book: The Marriage of Text and Art at Northampton's Forbes Library can be a little tough if you don't know the place. It's in a small, unassuming spot down in the close confines of the basement, and takes up only a few shelves' worth of space.

The modest size belies just what intriguing information is involved. Local children's book author and Mount Holyoke professor Corinne Demas curated the material, and it offers an entertaining glimpse into how authors and illustrators work together.

Its resonance is pleasantly local, but considering some of the names involved, it's got much broader reach as well. You'll find images by Leonard Baskin, who worked with Richard Michelson on Ten Times Better. (Michelson, who's also a prominent gallery owner, has made a habit of picking up awards for his children's books.) The exhibit also includes The Perfect Wizard: Hans Christian Andersen, by Jane Yolen, Valley resident and remarkably prolific (300-plus books so far) writer of kids' books, science fiction and fantasy. Yolen worked with illustrator Dennis Nolan of Hartford Art School. I Once Ate A Pie was penned by Patricia MacLachan and daughter Emily MacLachlan Charest, and illustrated by Katy Schneider, a member of the Smith College art faculty. The work of curator Demas is included as well—her book The Littlest Matryoshka was illustrated by Kathryn Brown (who's written and illustrated her own works as well).

The exhibit, which has previously visited UMass-Amherst and Mount Holyoke College, consists primarily of original paintings and conceptual sketches by the illustrators, and pages by the authors marked up by editors, plus correspondence between all of the above. The result is a warts-and-all version of book creation, one that lets viewers in on the messy process that leads to that gleaming new title that ends up on bookstores' shelves.

I recently asked Demas about one aspect of the process that remains rather mysterious—who chooses which illustrator is right for a book?

"It's the editor and the art director who select an illustrator," said Demas. "They usually do this after they have acquired a manuscript, and sometimes it takes a long time before they hire an illustrator. The author has no legal rights in this matter—though editors usually discuss suggestions with the author, and the author has 'the power to whine.' ...On occasion an author and illustrator will be working on a project together and approach a publisher, but this is rare."

Regardless of how they ended up together, the authors and illustrators in the exhibit appear to have taken a fair bit of pleasure in the results, although, as Demas explains, some worked together closely, others not at all.

"I wanted to show four different kinds of picture book 'marriages'—ranging from my own book, The Littlest Matryoshka, where the illustrator, Kathryn Brown, worked independently after she had my text, to Patty MacLachlan and Katy Schneider, who worked more in collaboration," said Demas. "I wanted to select outstanding picture books, and I decided I wanted to pick books where both the author and the illustrator lived in the Valley. Where else but here would that be possible?"

The exhibit may not be as extensive as something like the Eric Carle Museum in Amherst, but in this case, it's completely local and the tip of the iceberg; it's accompanied by a website (which, Demas says, will remain in place indefinitely after the exhibit) where you'll find even more information, including bios and a link to particularly illuminating video interviews with participants.

In addition to offering a nice glimpse into the nuts and bolts of the collaborative process of creating picture books, the exhibit is notable for casting light on a corner of the Valley's creative economy that may well prove a force in attracting yet more artists. According to Demas, the Valley's long-heralded drawing power for artists and writers, especially of children's literature, is snowballing: "Now that we're known as a beehive of children's book creativity, even more authors and illustrators are moving here."

The exhibit continues at Northampton's Forbes Library until Friday, May 28, and the website is: .html (please note space before ".html").

© 2010 The Valley Advocate