Picture this Dilys Evans
Above all, Evans emphasizes that children’s illustrations, whether from a wordless story or from something as literate and wordy as The Invention of Hugo Cabret, are always in service to the narrative.
Dilys Evans’ 2008 Show & Tell: Exploring the Fine Art of Children’s Book Illustration is a book about children’s books, specifically those fanciful, often- oversized volumes called picture books. Evans, who l ives part t i me i n Santa Fe, has argued for decades that the origi nal i l lustrations done for t hese books are worthy of display in galleries, homes, and other showcases. “Historically, children’s books have not been categorized as fine art,” she writes in the author’s note. When she first worked in the art department of the children’s magazine Cricket in the early 1970s, she was surprised to learn that there wasn’t much of a market for her artists’ work. “Many children’s-book illustrators at that time gave their work away to a special editor or art director, or in some cases to the author of the book. They certainly never thought about selling it,” she wrote in a 1998 article for the children’s literature journal The Horn Book.
Evans told Pasatiempo she wasn’t very familiar with children’s books when she first took the job at
Cricket. “I was raised in England during World War II. There weren’t many children’s books around and what we had were precious.” She came to America as a young nurse in 1959 and spent years as an aide to the landscape painter Nell Blaine, who suffered from polio. She also tried her hand at painting.
Cricket’s first art director, Trina Schart Hyman, an illustrator known for her lushly detailed versions of “Snow White” and “Little Red Riding Hood” (her work is discussed in Show & Tell) hired her as an assistant. “When I got to Cricket and saw all the wonderful pictures that were coming in, I came to a realization: This is fine art.” She recalled reading a book review after she took over as Cricket’s art director that dismissed the art in a children’s book as “pretty little pictures.” “Give me a break, I thought. That really got me going on a rant.”
In 1978, she founded Dilys Evans Fine Illustrations and began representing the work of various children’s illustrators, including some profiled in Show & Tell. In 1980, Evans organized a galler y exhibition, The Original Art, an event that collected 225 works by 120 illustrators from books that had been published that year. “It was Christmas time,” Evans said, “and we were afraid people weren’t going to come. But 400 or so people showed up at the opening, filling the gallery and spilling out on the sidewalk. The next year, 500 people turned up.” Evans continues to participate in the annual exhibit, now organized by New York’s Society of Illustrators.
The book brings Evans’ efforts full circle, returning the illustrations to the page. It’s a collection of essays on a dozen of the better-known illustrators, including Hilary Knight, who did the art for Kay Thompson’s
Eloise, the popular story of the girl who lives on “the tippy-top floor” of New York City’s Plaza Hotel; and Brian Selznick, whose sizeable book The Invention of Hugo Cabret inspired Martin Scorsese’s 2011 Academy Award-winning film Hugo. Evans writes that her purpose “was not to profile a particular group of illustrators but to choose a group that would offer readers as broad a frame of reference as possible,” giving readers perspective on “the range of styles, techniques, and content” contained in picture books, while “finding a universal language to us to talk about art on the page.”
That language turns out to be the same language used to discuss all fine art. She describes the work, both serious and silly, in terms of line, motion, color, and tone. She finds qualities that suggest artistic category and spots influence, seeing hints of Milton Avery, Arthur Dove, and Miró in the somberly colored work of Petra Mathers. She sees meaning in subtlety, uncovering the humanity suggested by a subject’s position, posture, and facial expressions in the works. Above all, she emphasizes that children’s illustrations, whether from a wordless story or from something as literate and wordy as The Invention
of Hugo Cabret, are always in service to the narrative (many picture book authors both write and illustrate their work). “It’s a challenge,” Evans said. “You can’t just make a picture. Every picture has a story. It has to tell as well as show.”
This storytelling ability of a book’s pictures is especially important to its target audience, children who have yet or are just coming into reading age and the adults who read to them. “Even the youngest children start associating the words with pictures, “Evans said. “They start looking for the specific words that tell what the pictures say. Pictures help them put it all together.” Like show and tell.