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Chester County Press

Tour the rich world of children's illustration

07/05/2016 09:48AM ● By J. Chambless

Illustration by Sophie Blackall for 'Finding Winnie: The True Story of The World’s Most Famous Bear,' written by Lindsay Mattick (Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, 2015)

By John Chambless
Staff Writer

In a publishing world that too often short-changes young readers with cheap, terrible illustrations, it's rewarding to see artists who care deeply about engaging children and drawing them into fantasy worlds – or tales of real life – with art that lives and breathes and inspires.

You don't have to be familiar with the books spotlighted in “Get the Picture: Contemporary Children's Book Illustration” to appreciate the rich wellspring of imagination that goes into the artwork. The show, which opened on July 1 at the Brandywine River Museum of Art, features illustrations by eight artists that will engage children and dazzle adults.

Sophie Blackall's sweet, round-faced characters on white backgrounds have a clean, contemporary look in illustrations for “And Two Boys Booed” and “The Baby Tree.” Richer backgrounds are used to illustrate “Missed Connections: Love, Lost and Found,” a book based on anonymous online messages from lovelorn people. Sophall's three-dimensional illustrations for “The Mighty Lalouche” give the characters a distinctive pop. The deep backgrounds are not accomplished with computer trickery, but with sharp knives and an impeccable sense of whimsical design.

Visitors will love Bryan Collier's wonderfully rich watercolor collage illustrations for “I, Too, Am America,” by Langston Hughes, and “Knock, Knock: My Dad's Dream For Me” – particularly a jagged cityscape of overlapping tenements and an evocative fedora on a kitchen table. Collier's work has a consistent warm-toned richness that makes them look lived-in.

Jon Klassen takes an entirely different approach, with stylized illustrations and textures that simplify a scene to its essence. Two illustrations for “The Dark” by Lemony Snicket perfectly capture the universal childhood fear of shadowy places and cellar stairs. There are two works from Klassen's tale, “I Want My Hat Back,” that do contain a spoiler alert about the book's wry ending.

Mo Willems is well known among the younger set for his books featuring Pigeon and Knufle Bunny, as well as Elephant, Piggie and Cat the Hat. There are preliminary sketches and finished works for several illustrations, showing the artist's working process. They are simple, yet brimming with humor, immediately accessible to children and parents alike.

Marla Frazee's four illustrations for “Is Mommy?” welcome young readers to play along with the book's questions. Her black-and-white illustrations for “Completely Clementine” show a contemporary home setting. In Frazee's “The Boss Baby,” a newly arrived tiny tyrant will be familiar to every frazzled new parent.

Melissa Sweet's works are packed with detail. Her two illustrations for “Little Red Writing” turn pencils into leading characters. Sweet's mysterious, fascinating strip of images for “Firefly July: A Year of Very Short Poems” plays out like an open-ended storyboard. But her three-dimensional collages for “The Right Word: Roget and His Thesaurus” are showpieces – immersive artworks packed with twigs, typewriter keys, old book fragments, shells, words, and a thousand other carefully selected bits and pieces. Anyone familiar with the works of West Chester artist Horace Pippin will enjoy Sweet's illustrations for a children's version of the artist's life titled “A Splash of Red: The Life and Art of Horace Pippin,” written by Jen Bryant.

David Wiesner, who is best known for the floating frogs of “Tuesday,” is represented by exhaustively researched illustrations, particularly “Mr. Wuffles,” which contrasts a cat playing with an intriguing toy and what's going on with the little people who live behind the radiator.

Raul Colon's work glows with golden light, shown in his illustrations for “Draw!”, “Child of the Civil Rights Movement,” and “Leontyne Price: Voice of a Century.” His work has a lushly textured, pointilist technique that's immediately identifiable.

The exhibit is careful to include the young visitors who are fans of these books. Some works are hung low enough for children to get close to them, and the museum gift shop has copies of the books, as well as toys, featuring the characters seen in the illustrations. There's a coloring table open to children, as well as sketchbooks that are just waiting for a child's creativity.

Parents who take the time to discuss the images and the stories might just be rewarded with an inspired young artist of their own.

“Get the Picture: Contemporary Children's Book Illustration” continues through Oct. 9 at the Brandywine River Museum of Art (Route 1, Chadds Ford). There are several family workshops and illustrator visits scheduled throughout the run of the show. Visit

To contact Staff Writer John Chambless, email

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