Brandywine Museum’s ‘Get the Picture! Contemporary Children’s Book Illustration’

Perfect words, truthful illustrations

Some pictures may be worth a thousand words, but in children’s picture books, the true value is found when the two dance beautifully together.

Illustration by Sophie Blackall for 'Finding Winnie: The True Story of The World’s Most Famous Bear,' written by Lindsay Mattock. (Image courtesy of the Brandywine Museum)

Stand among the examples of contemporary picture book illustration on display at Brandywine River Museum of Art’s Get the Picture! Contemporary Children’s Book Illustration exhibition, and you may find yourself reluctant to leave. Who could blame you? These are delightful, sophisticated, and thoughtful works of art. Many tell stories on their own, but they exist to be a partner to carefully chosen words. It’s a deliberate collaboration designed to engage.

The power of pictures

Picture books serve a unique purpose for little listeners or readers, and many times also for the grownup reading or sharing the story. Think about your own experiences. Remember reading the same book over and over again? Picture books can be powerful. For many, they become the first books you love, perhaps the first time you understand that a book can inspire, thrill, amuse, and comfort.

The artists whose work is featured here represent some of the finest illustration work being done today. As an aspiring picture book author, one of my earliest understandings of the craft is the absolute necessity of writing words that leave some details of the characters and action open for an illustrator. I might write, “The dog chased the ball down the street.” The illustrator envisions an old, red, chewed-up ball, and suddenly the story has an important new dimension.

Learning to leave air around the words means trusting that the story that came to life via my imagination will be told more fully with someone else’s help; it is a pure and vital collaboration. (Some of the featured artists at Brandywine are also authors. Lucky are they to be able to both write and draw their stories!) 

Establishing trust

One of the artists showcased is Sophie Blackall, who illustrated the Caldecott Medal-winning book Finding Winnie, The True Story of the World’s Most Famous Bear. In a video interview, Blackall explains that she throws herself into doing research for the books she illustrates. Her desire, she says, is to make the illustrations “as authentic as possible.”

Finding Winnie starts off during World War I, and takes place in Canada, France, and London. Blackall studied the uniforms of soldiers in that specific war to be sure she depicted them just so. Would the little ones looking at the pictures know whether the uniforms had the right number of buttons in the correct configuration? That does not matter. As Blackall explains, she does the research “so children will feel they can trust the pictures.”

Picture books continue to evolve, as does all literature. Today, many of these books have fewer words than they did just a decade ago. The upper age range for picture books has expanded somewhat, in part, to draw in older reluctant readers. And there is an earnest effort for greater diversity in children’s book characters and experiences.

Some things, though, should never change. I believe we must never stop giving children stories they can trust. Let’s always give them perfect words and truthful illustrations. Let’s allow wonderful picture books to help them grow up graciously. That’s a truly superb gift.

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