The spotlight’s on kids in picture books

PICTURE PERFECT: This illustration from Margaret Chodos-Irvine's "Ella Sarah Gets Dressed" is part of a traveling exhibition entitled "Children Should Be Seen: The Image of the Child in American Picture-Book Art" currently at Central Library in downtown L.A.
PICTURE PERFECT: This illustration from Margaret Chodos-Irvine’s “Ella Sarah Gets Dressed” is part of a traveling exhibition entitled “Children Should Be Seen: The Image of the Child in American Picture-Book Art” currently at Central Library in downtown L.A.
(Margaret Chodos-Irvine / Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company)
Special to The Times

THE COMIC lunacy of Theodor Geisel’s illustrations for “The Cat in the Hat” is light years away from the pale delicacy of Kate Greenaway’s 19th century watercolor depictions of idealized childhood.

In fact, the 1950s Dr. Seuss classic turned out to herald an explosion in the way picture books portrayed children. It’s an explosion that’s ongoing, and it’s the subject of “Children Should Be Seen: The Image of the Child in American Picture-Book Art,” an exhibition receiving its West Coast premiere at downtown’s Central Library through Sept. 14.

The show -- organized by New York’s Katonah Museum of Art and the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art in Massachusetts and curated by art historian Jane Bayard Curley, picture-book historian Leonard S. Marcus and librarian Caroline Ward -- is the first in the U.S. to focus on the portrayal of children in contemporary picture-book art, says Gloria Gerace, the library’s director of exhibitions.

“This is not a children’s exhibition,” she says. “It’s for anybody who likes to look at marks on paper.”

With the range of media on display -- collage, drawing, painting, photography, laser art -- and subjects that hop from the Underground Railway and multicultural adoption to adventures magical, humorous and fantastic, “it’s really an exhibition of illustration and the state of illustration.”

Mo Willems’ “Knuffle Bunny” computer-graphics and Peggy Rathmann’s laser-cut vinyl illustration of houses on a hillside from “The Day the Babies Crawled Away” -- the latter intricately detailed in black silhouette down to hair-thin TV antennae -- are testament to the exhibition’s breadth.

Elsewhere, a child’s encounter with a snowman from Denise Fleming’s “The First Day of Winter” proves to be made of colored cotton fiber pressed through hand-cut stencils.

All told, more than 80 colorful, varied depictions of children in worlds of reality and fantasy hang on the walls, divided into sections. They begin with “Touchstones” (a look back) and “The New Child” (newborns and infants) and continue with “The Child in the Family,” “At School and Play,” “In the Community,” “In History,” “The Questioning Child” and “The New Picture Book” (new mediums, new technologies).

Among the scores of artists represented are such well-known names as Maira Kalman, Chris Van Allsburg, Maurice Sendak, Ezra Jack Keats, Eric Carle, Marla Frazee, Tomie dePaola, Brian Pink- ney and Brian O. Selznick, this year’s Caldecott Medal winner.

A separate section, “Stompin’ at the Savoy,” is the library’s own addition to the original show. It displays, in sequence, watercolorist Richard Yarde’s original art from the book by the late Bebe Moore Campbell about a little girl’s odyssey of discovery into the swing era past.

“It includes every single page,” Gerace says, “plus a couple of extra illustrations that were not incorporated into the book, to give you an idea of how to see this work in context.”

A “Performing Books” reading of the Yarde-Campbell book, accompanied by music, will be presented in conjunction with the exhibition Saturday in the library’s Mark Taper Auditorium, with the artist in attendance, Gerace says.

“Children Should Be Seen” is one of a series of exhibitions that the library plans to present over the next year. It will be followed by “L.A. Unfolded,” created around the library’s collection of maps.

“Visual literacy is just as important as any other kind,” Gerace says. “This is an example of how the library is trying to provide a variety of experiences for all of our visitors.”