Sit back. I'm going to tell you one of my favorite children's book publishing stories.
No, wait. I already did. Go and read it or this post won't make much sense. I'll wait here.
What took you so long?
Isn't that an amazing story? (I mean the Curious George story, but I love all three of them.) It's been a favorite of mine for a long time, even before I read Louise Borden's wonderful book: The Journey That Saved Curious George.
I happened to be in Manhattan this past weekend and luckily stumbled across an extraordinary exhibit at The Jewish Museum that thoroughly documents the Rey's four month trip from France to the United States via Brazil. There are countless original sources including the journals that H.A. Rey meticulously recorded. There's the hand drawn wedding invitation and incredibly creative New Year's cards. There are the letters from various publishers. There are the videos of interviews with the Reys. But there's so much more than that.
You get to see the artwork.
Creating picture books is a very involved process and there are numerous steps that have to happen in order for you to hold the finished book in your hands. For some great children's picture books with details and illustrations of every step, see Eileen Christelow's What do Authors Do? and What do Illustrators Do? and Aliki's How a Book is Made.
Original picture book art is the actual illustration that's used to make the image you see in the book. It's magical stuff. No matter how well you know the book, the real artwork will always surprise you. It will be smaller or bigger than you expected. It will have many more or less colors than you expected. It will have colored pencils where you thought there was paint. It will have texture and fabric that you're not able to fully appreciate in the book. At the same time, the image is so familiar to you that it feels like an old friend.
The remarkable thing about this exhibition is that there are nearly eighty original works. That's right, almost eighty. Usually, if you're lucky, you'll get to see a few pieces at a time or maybe even ten. But with this exhibit we get to see so much more than that. We get to see our friend George in pictures you'll recognize immediately. And not just him. There's Katy Kangaroo, Pretzel, Spotty and Whiteblack the Penguin and many other delightful characters that the Reys created. What does it look like? Hop on over to the exhibition's main page to see a tantalizing sample.
Okay, hop back. What struck you the most? For me, it was the physical shape of the of the pictures... which is the most obvious in the picture of George swinging from the trees and eating bananas. I'm so used to seeing the white pristine background but in reality the pictures were cut out (much more than in that one image you saw) and glued on to the pages. It makes perfect sense but was so surprising to see nonetheless. George himself was fairly small suspended in the middle of a huge white space. Once I got over that, I wanted to spend all day looking at the artwork. It was so beautiful I really can't put it into words.
This exhibit showcases many treasures from the extensive archive of the Rey's papers at the de Grummond Children's Literature Collection at the University of Southern Mississippi. Take a look at the H.A. and Margret Rey Digital Collection. It's fascinating.
Curious George Saves the Day:The Art of H.A. and Margret Rey is at the Jewish Museum in New York City through August 1, 2010. It's appropriate for all ages and completely accessible to kids. There's a comfy reading area filled with many of the Reys' books which are begging to be read aloud.
If you can't make it to New York, the best substitute is The Journey That Saved Curious George which contains lots of the archival material found in the exhibit.
And keep your eyes open for picture book art. Ask around. Maybe your local library (particularly if it's a large, central, urban library) has a few on the wall of their children's room. Maybe you'll find a picture or two in a children's bookstore. Watch for exhibits that come through your city. Visit the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art in Amherst, Massachusetts.
The artwork above that you're drooling over is for sale at the legendary Manhattan children's bookstore: Books of Wonder. It's all of the original cover art work for Rick Riordan's Percy Jackson series. The artist is John Rocco. There are also pictures you may not have seen before that were created for the deluxe edition of The Lightning Thief. You can see better pictures here and even order your own prints.
Whenever or wherever you find it, it will always be magic.