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Imaginative Illustrations: “Enchanting Simplicity” Children's Book Exhibit


Just the thought of nursery rhymes and fairytales whisks me back to nights of bedtime stories that my parents read from brightly colored books filled with imaginative illustrations that found their way into my dreams. The Athenaeum of Philadelphia’s current exhibit, “Enchanting Simplicity: Children's Book Illustration Past & Present” truly captures that very imagination and innocence in their expertly curated children’s book exhibit, which includes a legacy collection of rare, original editions along with contemporary creations from recent graduates of University of The Arts. 

PrincessThe Athenaeum of Philadelphia, “a member supported, not-for-profit, special collections library founded in 1814 to collect materials ‘connected with the history and antiquities of America, and the useful arts,’” discovered their abundance of children’s literature while creating this exhibit. 

The moment you step into the historical brownstone, you are greeted with a display case titled “Little Books For Little Hands” revealing miniature illustrations and leather bound books from the 1840’s to 1960’s. This introductory display leads into the gallery that is filled with enough categorized cases to entice any literary enthusiast. 

Before taking a peek at the gems under the glass, your eyes are instantly drawn to the whimsical, enlarged illustrations that line the walls. From the soft pastel blankets in The Princess and the Pea drawing to the memorable black and white sketch of the royal rabbit from The Adventures of Alice in Wonderland, each image takes you back to carefree days of childhood. And if the cheerful display sends you spinning with joy, wooden benches reminiscent of those that might have filled your school’s library sit directly in the center of the room, creating the perfect viewing spot for each illustrated page that covers that walls.

The “Illustrated Books of Instruction” case reveals educational watercolor scenes from the 1950’s that teach children how to build a fire or fish, while the “Modern Illustration” displays well-known scenes from The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Charlotte’s Web and sketches from Maurice Sendak. One of the most colorful cases, “Children As The Main Actors,” spotlights the 1920’s Jell-O Girl Entertains illustrated by Rose Cecil O’Neil; a book created by the Jell-O company to highlight recipes via the story of a lovely little girl helping her mother prepare for a party by making Jell-O. Directly above this childhood culinary adventure, is the enlarged illustration of colorful childlike characters that represent each Jell-O flavor, a personal favorite as its colors span the rainbow and brighten the room.

Beyond the familiar tales of The Adventures of Alice in Wonderland, The Secret Garden, The Ugly Duckling, Thumbelina, Snow White, Hansel and Gretel and other childhood creations from Lewis Carroll, Frances Hodgson Burnett, The Grimm brothers and Hans Christian Andersen, there are many unknown, rare pieces that capture childhood via illustrations that spark and create new imaginative memories. Although there are a few stories that are seen in a new light, such as the 1860’s version of The Three Bears, who unlike the casual contemporary version are depicted in elegant apparel, donning a monocle, parasol and walking stick. One could imagine that their meal of porridge would be a bit underwhelming for their refined tastes in this version.

Even though the majority of the exhibit does take you on trip down memory lane, your contemporary curiosity is sated by the modern storybooks in the “Early Technology of Children’s Illustrations” case, which highlights illustrations made with engraved wooden stamps. Caroline Garcia, an ‘07 University of The Arts grad, loaned her limited edition children’s book, A Gaggle of Hoodlums, To The Athenaeum to offer an extremely modern example of hand carved wooden blocks stamped illustrations and an original poem handset on recycled paper.

Before leaving the gallery of childhood memories and entering the fast-paced, real world beyond the brownstone walls, climb the stairs to The Athenaeum’s library to experience the last two cases filled with Mother Goose jingles and nursery rhyme illustrations. You might find yourself humming the lyrical verses as you view Humpty Dumpty and Little Bo Peep tales and sketches, although the librarians presence might shush any outbursts and send you back to days in your very own quiet, cool childhood library. Although unlike your library, this word nerd’s dream room is filled with elegant furniture, lined with wall to wall books encased in glass shelves that fill the 24-foot vaulted ceiling and lead to a balcony with large windows that fill the room with abundant sunshine.

As you leave the Athenaeum with a flooded imagination and memories of childhood, you’ll be comforted to know that the curator intends to create a future exhibit dedicated to the expansive children’s literature collection that was discovered while gathering books for this exhibit. Take a peek at this exhibit before it’s gone and keep a look out for your next chance to experience brightly colored illustrations, miniature pages for tiny palms, elaborate typography, bound leather and delicate paper to inspire your child like senses.

The Athenaeum of Philadelphia
Enchanting Simplicity: Children's Book Illustration Past & Present

March 23 - August 7, 2009

Monday-Friday, 9:00AM-5:00PM
First Saturday 10am-2pm

219 S. 6th Street Philadelphia, PA