For the next two weeks, an enchanting exhibit at St. John’s College in Annapolis will magically transform everyone who sees it into the selves they were when they were 6 years old.
It doesn’t matter what year you were born. At least one of the 140 original drawings or paintings on view in “Childhood Classics: 100 Years of Children’s Book Illustration” is almost guaranteed to call forth memories.
For Baby Boomers, it could be the boring but oddly endearing Dick and Jane and their little dog, Spot. Generation Xers might gravitate toward the mischievous rodent wearing bib overalls in Felicia Bond’s illustrations for “If You Give a Mouse a Cookie.” (The story was written by Laura Numeroff.) Millennials will thrill to the sight of the potato-headed title kid in David Shannon’s “No, David!”
Of course, those people who are biologically 6 years old possess a natural advantage when it comes to wonder. Recently, a tumble of Cub Scouts from Crofton’s Troop 731 gawped at illustration after illustration when they visited the Mitchell Gallery. They didn’t know what to look at next.
There’s Max from “Where the Wild Things Are!” And ooh, ooh, look! a big drawing of Fern from “Charlotte’s Web!” Over there is “The Cat in the Hat!” Babar! Madeleine! Eloise! That cwazy wabbit, Bugs Bunny!
No wonder the kids’ eyes were as big as the badges pinned to their navy blue and orange uniforms.
‘You have to be real careful not to touch,” said Lucinda Edinberg, the tour leader and Mitchell Gallery’s art educator, as one Scout walked so close to an illustration of Maurice Sendak’s Max that his nose practically touched the drawing. “We can’t just take Windex and clean this off.”
With her long gray hair streaming down her back and smiling eyes, Miss Cindy looked like a storybook illustration of a fairy godmother come to life.
Gazing up at Floyd Cooper’s “Jump: From the Life of Michael Jordan,” 6-year-old Jacob Murray practiced his hook shot. Across the room, 8-year-old Reese Morataya stood transfixed in front of the famous illustration of the old house in Paris that was covered with vines from the “Madeleine” books. (Though not a troop member herself, the third-grader accompanied her younger brother and mom on the field trip.)
“She was not afraid of MICE,” Reese recited. (She knows the book by heart.) “She loved winter, snow and ICE.”
This traveling show was curated by the California husband and wife team of Lee Cohen and Lois Sarkisian. The show’s organizers have anticipated that guests may want to reread their old favorites; a collection of many of the hardcover editions celebrated in the illustrations is fanned invitingly on a nearby, comfy bench. And grownups will appreciate the exhibit’s insights into the evolution of a modern concept of childhood.
Though kids’ books have been around since the 1400s, the wall text says, they were rarely illustrated before the 19th century. Books for boys and girls were intended to provide moral instruction and mold youngsters into upstanding citizens who would make their elders proud.
One example is Sarah Noble Ives’ illustration, “Through the Ice” painted between 1910 and 1915 for “A Book of Nursery Rhymes.” The watercolor shows two little boys and a girl in turn-of-the-century play clothes plunging head-first through a hole in a frozen pond. The text reads:
“Three children sliding on the ice. The ice was thin and they all fell in!”
The conception of children as a blank slate on which their parents imbued the appropriate virtues fell out of fashion in the mid to late 1800s with the Victorians, who romanticized childhood as a time of innocence. In this era, books began being published that aimed to amuse youngsters as well as improve them. According to the exhibit wall text, “Parenting began to change from perceiving children as mini-adults, to cherishing innocence, encouraging play and building imagination.”
For the first time, illustrations — colorful and carefully integrated into the story — were considered essential to children’s stories. The exhibit includes sketches from these early days, including a 1915 design for the groundbreaking St. Nicholas Magazine, which was published from 1873 to 1940. In addition to the illustrations, the magazine published the first pieces of writing by an astounding number of famous authors of the future, according to the wall text: the naturalist Rachel Carson, Random House founder Bennett Cerf, and the novelists Frances Hodgson Burnett, F. Scott Fitzgerald and William Faulkner.
The mid-20th century saw the leveling of American society and the growth of the middle class, a sweeping change mirrored by kids’ literature. The Little Golden Books (initially published in 1942) introduced a new era of high-quality, low-priced children’s books with thick cardboard pages that were designed to be sturdy. The Golden Books were sold not just in bookstores but in department and drug stores, which greatly expanded their reach.
Young readers devoured these and other mid-century classics, and the stories became indelibly linked in their minds with their accompanying illustrations. Who can think of “The Cat in the Hat” without immediately envisioning the scrawny black feline wearing the red and white striped top hat as conceived by Dr. Seuss (real name: Theodor Geisel)?
Over time, those illustrations became a shared experience, a touchstone crossing national divides and different generations. Hydee Schaller, the Mitchell Gallery’s director, said an exhibit guard talked of reading “If You Give a Mouse a Cookie” in her native Korea. And Dr. Seuss, who published his first book in 1937, has taught at least three generations of children to read. Twenty-four years after his death in 1991, the wall text says, the good doctor continues to be the best-selling author of children’s books in the world.
The exhibit even contains a section on banned books, which had the Cub scouts grappling with complicated notions of good and evil.
Why, 6-year-old Aneesh Ranadive wondered, weren’t books about zombies banned? Everyone knows that the Undead are wicked; no animated corpse has ever won a Scouting merit badge.
“Just because things go wrong in a book doesn’t mean it should be banned,” Edinberg said. “A book isn’t banned because a child does a bad thing. A book is banned because of the worry grownups think it might create for children.”
Nonetheless, a visitor comes away thinking that books are most likely to be censored when they rile grown-up sensibilities, not disturb little children. Some of the fiercest censorship battles have been fought over picture books that address what at the time are hot-button social issues.
For example, Garth Williams’ 1958 “The Rabbits’ Wedding” was controversial because it featured a marriage between a white rabbit and a black rabbit and was perceived as promoting integration. The frequently-banned “The Wizard of Oz” has been interpreted by some critics as a Populist parable. That master provocateur, Dr. Seuss, tackled anti-Semitism in “The Sneetches” from 1953 and nuclear war in 1984’s anti-war “The Butter Battle Book.”
Significantly, the butter battle ends ambiguously, with both sides poised to drop their bombs. Geisel later defended the absence of a happy ending, saying that 6 year olds often possess a surprising capacity to cope with difficulties that can stymie people in their sixties.
"I try to treat the child as an equal," Geisel once said, "and go on the assumption that a child can understand anything that is read to him if the writer takes care to state it clearly and simply enough."
If You Go:
“Childhood Classics: 100 Years of Children’s Book Illustration” runs through Dec. 16 at the Mitchell Gallery at St. John’s College, 60 College Ave., Annapolis. Free. Call 410-626-2556 or go to sjc.edu/annapolis/mitchell-gallery.