Brooklyn, surprising capital of children’s art

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An image from 'Peppe the Lamplighter.' (Illustration by Ted Lewin.)
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There are more children’s book illustrators living in Brooklyn than anywhere else in the world. That’s the mighty boast that opens “Drawn in Brooklyn,” an exhibition that opened Wednesday night at the Brooklyn Public Library and remains on display until January 2011.

I was there to support my pal John Bemelmans Marciano, the writer and children’s book illustrator who curated the work of 34 local artists. I don’t have kids, and other than Marciano and Maira Kalman, I’ve never given much thought to art for kids' books. Maybe that's why I was so impressed by what I saw.

John Nickel’s acrylic "Alphabet Explosion" is a colorful but muted assemblage of all things P from the animal world—a pipe-smoking poodle painting a parakeet, a polka -dot penguin, a parachuting porcupine—rendered in styles from simple line drawing to detailed shadows. Ted Lewin’s “Peppe the Lamplighter," a narrative-rich watercolor portrayal of immigrant New York, is done with a moody realism evocative of N.C. Wyeth. There’s nothing childlike there. It hung in sharp stylistic contrast to his wife Betsy Lewin’s plucky and cartoonish “Duck for President.” In “My Chinatown,” Kam Mak pays tribute to his childhood neighborhood in a bird’s-eye view of two kids and a cat playing checkers. It looks like a painting because it is.

In Boris Kulikov’s “Eraserheads,” an earnest lion stares at a befuddled ink-stained piglet within the open pages of a notebook. A little blue bird nearby sweetly ignores them. Brian Selznick recently won a Caldecott award for “The Invention of Hugo Cabret,” which Martin Scorsese will soon turn into a movie with Sascha Baron Cohen, Ben Kingsley, and Jude Law.

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The work hangs in a few dozen panels in the library's Youth Wing and continues in display windows on the balcony. One window showcases the iterations Aileen Leijten took the characters in “Bella and Bean” through—girls, frogs, geese—before deciding they would be mice. But the most stunning displays are Sophie Blackall’s. One window is a diorama of antique and arcane objects on cardboard sconces: tiny pocket knives for whittling toothpicks, a hoof-cum-pincushion, “fat oil given to me by dear friends,” and a mechanical bottom she found in France. The other display contains scrapbooks from the early 20th century with penmanship-perfect notations explaining the rich trove of dance cards, Greyhound tickets, meat rationing stamps, “Joann’s lips,” and a junior high yearbook. The whole effect, in fact, is of a proto-Facebook.

Marciano, who lives in Red Hook, writes and illustrates books for children as well as adults. (“Toponynity,” a geographic counterpart to last year’s word-nut darling “Anonyponymous,” will be released next month.) The grandson of Ludwig Bemelmans, he counts new Madeline installments among his works, and has included a gorgeous gouache of the Sistine Chapel from “Madeline and the Cats of Rome” in the exhibition. When asked by the library to do a full show of his own art, he offered to curate the work of other illustrators instead.

“Writing children’s books isn’t so hard,” he says. “It’s the illustrating that keeps you up for months on end. Illustrators are the stepchildren of two industries: not taken seriously by the fine artist or gallery community and not part of the publishing world, which is so focused on the writing. I wanted to bring attention to the artists.”

This Sunday, September 26, at 2 p.m., the museum will host “My Inspiration,” a panel discussion with several of the artists. Bring the kids, or don't.