Not being a kid (or parent) I wasn't sure what an exhibit on children's books might hold for me. But I remember the cozy, lush, saturated worlds of my favorite childhood books. And it turns out that's plenty of prerequisite for Once Upon a Book, the current exhibition at San Francisco Center for the Book.
If you've ever thought that the topsy-turvy worlds portrayed in children's books appear in full bloom in their creator's head, this show sets the record straight by showing the lively, tangled work of teasing them out of their creator's imagination.
There are notes scribbled in the margins of manuscripts, doodles, page layouts, type that's been cut out and arranged on the page by the artists. There are small sketchbooks, research photos, different versions of illustrations with shifts in perspective, background, scale. In ink, gouache, snipped paper, pencil, and watercolor.
Remy Charlip, one of the six illustrators featured in the show, puts it this way: "A thrilling picture book not only makes beautiful single images or sequential images, but also allows us to become aware of a book's unique physical structure, by bringing out attention, once again, to that momentous moment: the turning of the page."
When leaving the exhibit, I saw for the first time the published books from each illustrator, and I almost didn't want to look. I was so suspended in the intimate, finely articulated creative process of each of these artists that I didn't want to see the mass-produced versions.
I agree with curator Thacher Hurd that sometimes it can be more revealing, more transporting, to see the way people work rather than the finished work itself. This exhibit allows for that, and offers a fuller glimpse into the artists' imaginings than the books alone.
We all know these worlds from our childhood. These are places, as illustrator Elisa Kleven says, "where forests grew and seasons changed, where animals talked and anything was possible." This exhibition contains the maps to lead us back there.
Once Upon a Book is at the San Francisco Center for the Book through August 7, 2009 and includes illustrations from Remy Charlip, Maira Kalman, Elisa Kleven, David Macaulay, Chris Raschka and Brian Selznick. For more information, visit www.sfcb.org.