Illustrations in classic children’s books make narratives vivid, stir memories

“Draw Me a Story: A Century of Children’s Book Illustration” is the new exhibit at The Hyde Collecti

Many of the animals now on display at The Hyde Collection are well-dressed.

Ducks wear sailor caps, neck scarves and sweaters. A wolf walks the woods in cuffed trousers, top coat and oversized fedora. Possum fashion includes a walking stick, suspenders and patched pants.

They’re all part of “Draw Me a Story: A Century of Children’s Book Illustration” at the Hyde, Glens Falls’ art museum and historic house. The new exhibit features 40 original works of art that celebrate 130 years of illustrations in children’s books.

A companion exhibition, “Hyde & Seek: Illustrated Children’s Books from the Permanent Collection,” is another attraction. Thirteen books from the Hyde archives are being displayed for the first time.

Jayne Stokes, curator at the Hyde, believes children’s illustrated books have universal appeal.

‘Draw Me a Story’ and ‘Hyde & Seek’

WHERE: The Hyde Collection, 161 Warren St., Glens Falls

WHEN: Through Dec. 4. Museum open Tuesday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, noon to 5 p.m. Closed Mondays


MORE INFO: 792-1761,

“You grow up with them and they never leave you,” she said. “I think that’s one of the wonderful things about ‘Draw Me a Story,’ it lets you go back to those images and remember your childhood. For people like me who are over 50, it lets you discover a whole new world. There have been a lot of books published and illustrated since I was a kid, so those are new discoveries for me. And I think for a lot of people they may be new.”

Among the American, British, French, German and Italian illustrators represented are Jean de Brunhoff, the French originator of Babar the elephant. Jessie Willcox Smith, one of America’s top talents from about 1890 to 1935, is also represented.

The exhibit originated at the Cartoon Art Museum in San Francisco. Most of the pieces were collected by Malcolm White, a San Francisco-based author, publisher and museum founder. He first became interested in artwork from children’s books when he saw a Harrison Cady drawing at a book fair. The author saw the artistic and narrative links between cartoonists and children’s book illustrators and began collecting pieces.

The books in the adjunct exhibition once belonged to the children of Mary, Charlotte and Nell Pruyn, who lived in the three houses that are now the center of The Hyde Collection’s campus. Charlotte Pruyn Hyde founded the museum; several books are inscribed with the names Mary van Ness “Nessie” Hyde (1903-1979), Charlotte’s only child, and Mary Eliza “Polly” Hoopes (1905-1994) and her brother Samuel, children of Mary Pruyn and Maurice Hoopes.

Art lovers may enjoy the attention to detail in the illustrations. The well-dressed wolf meets a small cat wearing a dress, apron and red shoes in the 1925 “Story of Little Blackie.” A sleeping baby is at peace in a basket that sits in a miniature, flower-blooming tree in the “Hush-a-Bye, Baby” artwork from 1900’s “The April Baby’s Book of Tunes.” Sweater-wearing ducks — Mother Duck in red and ducklings in yellow — are part of the proceedings in “The Ducks of Dingle Dell” from 1941. And a grand ballroom dance is a watercolor scene from the 1986 “Brave Irene.”

New England primer

Books for young audiences can be traced to 1689, when “The New England Primer” was published in Boston. Art authorities consider the “Primer” the first American children’s book, although America was still a British colony at the time. The book’s collection of Bible verses, prayers and illustrated alphabet rhymes lasted through 450 editions and into the 1830s.

“The demand for children’s illustrated books grew enormously, beginning in the 1920s,” Stokes said. “Publishers finally realized there was a major audience for this material. A company in the United States, Volland, was a large publisher and for the first time they hired editors specifically for children’s titles. They were looking specifically for authors and illustrators of children’s titles because they realized this was a major market for them.”

Changing times during the end of the 1800s helped put more books in stores and on children’s shelves.

“With the Industrial Revolution at the end of the 19th century, you begin to get more production of paper, so the price of books begins to come down,” Stokes said, adding that color reproduction also improved.

Animals as central subjects in kids’ entertainment were old tricks by the time Leonard Leslie Brooke drew a sartorially splendid bear as part of “Johnny Crow’s Garden” in 1903.

“I think that’s been going on for a very long time,” Stokes said. “Even things like ‘Aesop’s Fables,’ the ancient Roman, you often find they’re narrated by a character like a fox or a crow. William Steig talked about how he generally used animal characters to tell a story because he could have his animal characters do wackier things than he felt he could do with human characters. It is really tradition.”

Hints of darkness

Another tradition might be hints of darkness that come with some illustrations. A wolf meeting a cat on a deserted road might spell trouble. Evil against innocence may be hiding behind the bright colors.

“We tend to think of children’s books as amusing, but there’s a little bit of fear,” Stokes said. “It all resolves well at the end, the wolf always gets it in end, but that’s part of grabbing your audience and keeping it for a while. Is it going to come out all right?”

Categories: Life and Arts

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