Off-Handed Art: Collecting the Sketches of Visiting Children’s Book Creators
The other day I wrote a post about those books so beloved by librarians that they’d rather lock them away in a cabinet or a drawer than weed them. As a result, I received countless comments from people confessing to me what their locked up books were. Then I got this comment from Meg. It read:
“I haven’t been able to keep them in the system, but I’ve rescued them from the discard pile: Marguerite de Angeli’s books including Skippack School, Thee, Hannah, and Henner’s Lydia. Yup, I’m in Pennsylvania. Our library even has an original Marguerite de Angeli sketch which we believe she drew during a children’s program here.”
Just to give that statement a little context, Marguerite de Angeli lived between the years of 1889 and 1987 (well done there) and is one of those rare people to win both Newberys and Caldecotts alike. She won a Newbery Medal for The Door in the Wall, and two Caldecott Honors, one for Yonie Wondernose (which, if the title weren’t enough for you, is apparently about the “Amish Curious George”) and again in 1955 for the Book of Nursery and Mother Goose Rhymes.
So what this means is that Meg’s sketch from a library program is probably pretty old. As I considered that, I remembered some of the sketches kept in files at New York Public Library. We had a flat file cabinet that contained quite a few that I recall. The oldest were probably the ones by James Marshall. Nothing fancy or anything. Just large sheets of white paper that he would have drawn on when he was visiting.
When an illustrator is making a visit to a library, it is customary for the children’s librarians to provide large easels and pieces of paper upon which the creator might draw something. Then, I have no doubt, many librarians save these sketches. But how old is this practice? Certainly for as long as there have been children’s book illustrators, there has been an inclination to doodle for the masses.
Here’s a different kind of sketching. In the course of my time at NYPL I discovered that in the children’s collection were several very old guest books. These would have been brought out for lectures and annual children’s book events. Some of them dated back to the founding of children’s library services, and to my delight I found that the illustrators in attendance at these events couldn’t resist drawing fun things in the pages. The earliest one that I recall was created by, I believe, Tony Sarg. He was a cartoonist before he went on to help create the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade balloons, and I remember a beautiful full-page picture in one of the oldest books. As time went on you could see Ludwig Bemelmans and Maurice Sendak dueling it out for supremacy on a certain page, or the tiniest little cat scratch of a signature to indicate that Dare Wright had been in the room too.
These days it is not uncommon for illustrators to be asked to contribute to a wall. At the Bank Street College of Education’s library, for example, the walls are bedecked with artists’ scrawls and images. Certainly these will fade with time, though there is the rare occasion where they are removed and preserved elsewhere. I am thinking of the bedroom mural Maurice Sendak once created for a friend. It was actually donated to the Rosenbach Museum and Library. An extreme example, but there you go.
Not that all illustrators are so generous with their art. I know of at least two that make a point to never leave any spare sketches of theirs hanging about. If they draw something at a school they might rip the art up afterwards. Why? The less art floating around out there, the more they’ll be worth after their demise. Of course, if you rip up a pretty sketch in front of an infuriated librarian, you may be hastening your demise faster than originally intended.
Considering how many libraries out there keep little secret collections of children’s artists’ work, there’s no way to determine what some of the earliest sketches by visiting illustrators might be. Here’s one last item that NYPL has, somewhere, that’s neat. For all that Hans Christian Andersen was a strange fellow (to put it mildly) he truly did like kids. He also was incredibly dexterous when you put a pair of scissors in his hands. When he was visiting a group of children, he’d tell them a fairy tale. As he spoke he would idly cut at a paper in his hand. By the story’s end, he reveal the paper, and it would show the characters from the tale he’d just been telling. Or, as the Royal Library in Copenhagen describes it:
When Andersen began to turn the coloured pieces of paper around the steady tips of his scissors, none of the children around the table knew what was going to happen. He liked to start by talking a little, and in doing so would incorporate an improvised fairy-tale relating to the theme or subjects of the paper-cut. Frequently he would stop in order to add a new longitudinal or transverse axis on the paper so as to break the symmetry and provoke new angles and perspectives. These corresponded to the devices he would employ as a storyteller, whether orally or in writing, when he started “editing” – in a filmic sense – the chronology, or suddenly reshuffled the composition in order to introduce new angles, scenes and persons.
The result was the ultimate in artist visits. Andersen made hundreds of them in his lifetime. And to my knowledge, he never tore up a single solitary one.
What’s in your library files?
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About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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