My kids return to school next week, and so we head back to the city this weekend after a month away. The bittersweet that is the end of summer is fully upon me. As I gear up for more time for focus and work, I’ve discovered, happily, that a bounty of kidlit-related shows awaits in Philly to distract and, with luck, inspire.
First, at the University of Pennsylvania, As the Ink Flows: Works from the Pen of William Steig opened August 22 and runs until December 19, 2014. In conjunction, a second show will be up from September 8 2014 to March 27 2015: The School of Atha: Collaboration in the Making of Children’s Books.
Steig is Steig, and seeing more of his sketches and work can only delight. Book designer and art director Atha Tehon (1926-2012) is new to me, and the exhibit promises to cover new territory as it explores her role in the creation of picture books by greats like Sendak, Steig and others.
Both shows revolve around bequests to the University’s libraries. Tehon’s papers, donated by her niece, landed at Penn likely because she was an alum, having studied Fine Arts at Penn/PAFA. Similarly, a cache of Steig’s drawings, sketches, papers etc. was gifted to Penn by his widow, Jeanne Steig. The exhibits draw from these donated works, as well as items loaned by the subjects’ families.
In addition to the two gallery shows, an accompanying symposium on October 17 and 18 at Penn, Creating Children’s Books: Collaboration and Change (October 17 & 18), will feature kidlit historian Leonard Marcus, among others.
Two more exhibtis are simultaneously up across the Schuylkill at the Rosenbach Museum and Library: Sendak in the 60’s and Bescribbled, Nibbled and Dog-Eared: Early American Children’s Books. I’ve seen the former, which runs through November 2 and provides a well-constructed look at Sendak’s most fertile period, kidlit-wise. The latter, which surveys early American picture books, is up until January 18 2015.
Why the focus on children’s books at the Rosenbach — and particularly on Sendak?
The Rosenbach is one of a special breed of quirky, unique-to-Philly, historic institutions (like The Wagner Free Science Institute, The Mutter Museum, Smith Playhouse, etc.). Housed in the former townhome of two brothers, Philip and Dr. A.S.W. Rosenbach, the base of its holdings come from the two men’s private collections of art and books. Both men dealt and traded in books, documents and art, from the late 1800’s until their deaths in the mid 1950’s, and were instrumental in helping to assemble various private and historic libraries around the country. Dr. A.S.W. Rosenbach was one of the first great collector’s of children’s books, specifically, and his bibliography of Early American children’s literature was a standard reference in its time.
The Rosenbach/Sendak relationship was based on mutual interests: Sendak, for his part, loved many of the same writers and artists as the Rosenbachs, particularly Herman Melville (back to marine mammals again…). The Rosenbachs and Sendak developed a relationship around these shared passions, and ultimately Sendak bequeathed his documents to the museum. Perhaps as part of the arrangement, the Rosenbach maintains a committment to the continued study and display of Sendak’s work.
The Penn and Rosenbach shows extend what has been a great run of attention to kidlit — especially picture books — in Philly over the course of the last year and a half. In the summer of 2013, exhibits on native son Jerry Pinkney hung at the PMA and the Free Library, and another on Ezra Jack Keats at the American Museum of Jewish History. Sendak was at the Rosenbach at that point, too, in a show called The Night Max Wore His Wolf Suit: 50 Years of Wild Things. Then in January, the Caldecott & Newbery Awards were announced right here in the City of Brotherly Love, with one of our favorite FLP librarians, Rahel Fryd, weighing in on the Caldecott decision.
Philly, a city of firsts (with this summer’s “firsts” revolving around the awesome Taney Dragons (google them if you don’t know their story!)), is no longer a center of publishing. And — though it can claim that David Wiesner lives here, that Kate di Camillo was born here, and that Jean Craighead George wrote at a desk that sits just 2 hours west — if there is a coordinated, organized community of writers-for-children, I have yet to find it.
So these shows feel like real, unexpected gifts. I cross my fingers that, moving forward, other venues will continue to join the Rosenbach (now operating under the umbrella of the Free Library of Philadelphia) in continuing to share the brotherly love.