Exhibit Emphasizes the Importance of Children’s Books
“Imagine That! The Power of Picture Books” will be on display at the Portsmouth Historical Society starting May 6
Starting on May 6, the Portsmouth Historical Society will debut the first-ever exhibition that celebrates the heritage of children’s books created in northern New England. “Imagine That! The Power of Picture Books” will feature original artwork by more than 30 illustrators, plus a bookmaking station, reading nook, play space, toy theater, story hours, weekend workshops with artists, pop-up events around town and more.
“It’s a radical idea for a historical society, that we should meet people where they first encounter art — in the pages of children’s books,” says guest curator Nina Maurer. “This is a game-changing exhibition for kids and families.”
Portsmouth, she adds, is an ideal location for such an exhibit, as New England is “the cradle” of picture book illustrations, she says. Many beloved classics were published in Boston in the early to mid-1900s, with many writers and illustrators hailing from New England, like Maxfield Parrish, who lived at “The Oaks” in Plainfield, New Hampshire, from 1898 until his death in 1966, and illustrated a number of works, including Frank L. Baum’s “Mother Goose in Prose.” And then there’s Robert McCloskey, whose cherished ducklings are still making their way in Boston Public Garden. Some of McCloskey’s original sketches from “Blueberries for Sal” will be on display, depicting the moment Sal (whom McCloskey modeled after his daughter) and the bear first notice one another.
Today, that rich tradition of outstanding children’s books has “really spread up to Portland, Maine, and beyond, and we’re at that halfway point,” says Maurer. “We have this great wealth of children’s books that’s been produced in the region, and we want to look at this art form that’s been shaped for over a century, and to see what it’s become. If you look at the history of of children’s book illustrations, it’s rooted in Boston and flourishes here today. We’re really thrilled that we can bring this aspect of the region’s heritage to the public. If they come away learning that this is a part of our heritage, that’s wonderful.”
Classic illustrations by artists including Parrish, McCloskey, N.C. Wyeth, H.A. Rey, Dr. Seuss and Eric Carle will appear alongside those by contemporary illustrators such as Grace Lin, Chris Van Dusen and Mo Williams. Of course, New Hampshire’s own beloved Tomie DePaola will also be represented. In all, more than 100 illustrations, including recent work reflecting diversity in children’s books, will inspire both adults and kids to explore the creative process and the joys of reading.
While reminding visitors that many of the books they cherish are a part of New Hampshire and New England’s history — this is at the Portsmouth Historical Society, after all — it’s also about showing people that children’s books are both meaningful and powerful.
“The foundations of literacy, as well as visual literacy, are in children books,” says Maurer. “The first time we encounter art in our lives is in the pages of children’s books.” And those first encounters likely happen when someone is reading to you. “Shared reading is so emotionally powerful,” adds Maurer. “When you’re physically together and focusing together on the words, they sink in and then lock in to a very deep place. We find that people recall them for a lifetime in a very positive way.”
The exhibit is also about recognizing talented artists. Children’s books may seem simple, but they take enormous skill to create. “Illustration is a legitimate art form — it’s an art form in itself,” says Maurer. “It has been relegated to a lesser status because of a lack of understanding of the form and the amount of work it takes to achieve success.”
Finally, says Maurer, she hopes it provides families with relief after the many hardships caused by the pandemic.
“Part of this story is about wonder, about self discovery, about reaching worlds that are unseen,” she says. “We feel that it’s so important for children and families to renew their sense of wonder since it’s atrophied over the last two years. Spring is a chance to once again indulge that sense of discovery, curiosity and wonder.”
More to Explore
A few ways to continue to encourage passion for curiosity, learning, reading and artmaking
The Oaks and Saint-Gaudens National Historic Park
Maxfield Parrish’s former home in Plainfield is privately owned, but is available to rent for overnights and gatherings via Airbnb ($225 a night). If you’re looking for something a bit more budget-friendly ($10 for adults, free for youth 15 and under), the Saint-Gaudens National Historic Park is located in nearby Cornish, and features similar views of the landscape and Mt. Ascutney that inspired Parrish. The park includes the grounds, home and studios that once belonged to the renowned American sculptor. Parrish and Saint-Gaudens were friends as well as neighbors, and Parrish was among the notable artists who helped form the Cornish Colony.
The park grounds and trails are open year-round during the day, and the visitor center, galleries and historic buildings are open daily from Memorial Day to October 31. See nps.gov/saga for more information.
The Rey Cultural Center
Margret and H.A. Rey, authors of the “Curious George” children’s books and former summer residents of Waterville Valley, were people of many talents and interests, including the arts, history, exploring and preserving the natural world, gardening and more. Today, the nonprofit Rey Center in Waterville Valley honors their spirit of discovery by growing the public’s understanding of science, art and nature with programs for kids and families. Visit thereycenter.org for information on upcoming events.
Art for All
Beloved children’s book author and illustrator Tomie dePaola of New London passed away in 2020, but his influence on kids’ imaginations lives on in more than just his cherished books. The Currier Museum of Art in Manchester is the steward of the Tomie dePaola Art Education Fund, which provides children and teens with tuition-free classes in the museum’s studio art program. Visit currier.org for information on the fund and the wide variety of classes available for both adults and youth.