“They Also Wrote Children’s Books:” An Exhibition at the Grolier Club, New York City

This thought-provoking exhibition, which opened at the Grolier Club (East 60st Street near Madison Avenue) on March 3rd , is scheduled to close May 23rd.    I’ll make a pitch for going to see this handsome selection of books from John R. Blaney’s extensive collection of modern firsts, hoping that the city will be coming back to life in the middle of May.

Blaney’s curatorial concept was to pick a pair of works by each author, one for adults, one for children.   The majority of the pairings are novels with  picture books and it’s quite interesting to compare the differences in packaging.   Kurt Vonnegut is a standout in this respect. Vonnegut is represented by Slaughterhouse-5, with the iconic dust jacket by the “Big Book Look” graphic designer Paul Bacon.  His only work for children, Sun Moon Star was illustrated by another heavy-hitter, Ivan Chermayeff, son of the distinguished architect (and ballroom dancer) Serge Chermayeff, and principal of Chermayeff & Geismar & Haviv, the firm responsible for some of the great twentieth-century Modernist logos.  Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest also has a typographical Bacon dustjacket, while his Little Tricker the Squirrel Meets Big Double the Bear has a full-color pictorial dustjacket with an illustration by Barry Moser repeated from inside the book (see above).  Blaney also showcased Gertrude Stein and Clement Hurd in The World is Round, John Updike and Nancy Ekholm Burkert in A Child’s Calendar, Robert Graves and Maurice Sendak in The Big Green Book, and  John Steinbeck and Wesley Dennis,the illustrator whose work is inseparable from Marguerite Henry’s horse stories, in The Red Pony.There are many other ways of breaking out the materials on display.  One unexpected discovery was the works that were collaborations between parents and children, most notably Toni Morrison and her son Slade, which first appeared in  Ms. Magazine’s series “Stories for Free Children” in 1980, seven years before Beloved,  later published as a picture book illustrated by Giselle Potter.  Also noteworthy are Ann Tyler’s Tumble Tower illustrated by her daughter Mitra Modaressi  and William Kennedy, famous for his series of novels about New York politics, and his collaboration with son Brendan on Charley Malarkey and the Belly Button Machine.

Another intriguing aspect of Blaney’s selection are the  books straddling the line between child and adult reader like Ian McEwan’s The Daydreamer  with illustrations by Anthony Browne (better known for his picture books starring Willy the Chimp).   My favorite chapter has always been the ghoulish one about the bad dolls of the protagonist’s sister, who come to life one night when he fails to put them back in their places before turning in.  There has never been any consensus about the effect of scary tales on children and it seems unlikely to be settled any time soon.

Perhaps the most sobering example of a book “for ages nine to ninety” was by Langston Hughes.  He wrote quite a few children’s books, many encouraging African-American children to take pride in their people’s accomplishments such as The First Book of Jazz or The First Book of Negroes.  Blaney chose the most heartbreaking of them all, Black Misery, the last thing he wrote before his death in 1967.  It was illustrated with great sensitivity by Lynette Arouni, who made a career of being a fine artist than a book illustrator.  One perceptive blogger pointed out that just because Black Misery is a picture book, doesn’t mean its portrayal of the coruscating effects of racism on young black child’s sense of self is only for that audience: it will surely sit heavily on any child or adult who takes the time to read it.The exhibition comprises only 39 pairs of books, due to the space  limitations on the Club’s second floor. But a crafty curator leaves us wishing for more.  Maurice Sendak could have just as easily been represented by his illustrations for Randall Jarrell as for Robert Graves. I missed the unforgettable picture book collaborations between Isaac Bashevis Singer and Margot Zemach and the unlikely pairing in Tucky the Hunter of James Dickey, author of Deliverance, and the exquisite calligrapher/illuminator Marie Angel.  Should T. S. Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats illustrated by Nicholas Bentley made the cut?   The Book of Adam to Moses, novelist and translator’s Lore Segal’s retelling of the Pentateuch illustrated by Leonard Baskin’s line art, would have added a note of grandeur.   Although it would have exploded the show’s concept, I would have tempted to show at one work interpreted by different artists.  The most obvious candidate would have been Dylan Thomas’s A Child’s Christmas in Wales, with the luxury of chosing from versions by Chris Rascha, Edward Ardizzone, Fritz Eichenberg, and Ellen Raskin.

How remarkable is it that so many writers risk their laurels by creating books for the sometimes inattentive but often ruthlessly acute audience of small people.  Expect no sympathy from this crowd if the book was written to fulfill a contractual obligation AND pay for a new roof on the house.  Be braced for the Amazon customer who points out “every child with whom I shared this book was not interested.”   Be prepared for a review that starts with “Rein in your expectations”  or the one that ends with  “a ludicrous book [that] should more than please the most fervent among the gross-out set.”    It does not follow that if you can win the Nobel, Man Booker, or Pulitzer Prizes, that you can garner the John Newbery, Caldecott, Carnegie medals or the Children’s Laureate.  Kudos to those who have tried for both.

Do visit the Grolier Club website if you’d like to see more of the exhibition on Flickr.