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Vol. LXIII, No. 45
Wednesday, November 11, 2009
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Puppies, Picnics, and Parading Pigs: Works by Lois Lenski On View at Zimmerli

Ellen Gilbert

Time is running out to see the endearing, instantly-recognizable samples of Lois Lenski’s illustrations currently on view at the Jane Voorhees Zimmerli Museum in New Brunswick.

Adults who grew up reading about the moon-faced Mr. Small or who loved Lenski’s regional history books may experience a great wave of nostalgia on entering The Roger Duvoisin Gallery, the small jewel of a space where the exhibit is on view until November 29.

Their children will be happy too; after all, there is nothing time-bound about pictures of a car filling up with gas, or children cooling off in a wading pool on a summer day. The younger set will also be engaged by the gallery’s junior-sized tables and chairs, outfitted with copies of Lenski’s books, colored pencils, and drawing suggestions. “Lois Lenski’s Sugar Plum House tells the story of three young children who adopt a puppy named ‘Timmy,’” begins one of the “assignments.” “The new dog is cute, but he creates chaos in the house. If you were the author and illustrator of this book, what type of mischief do you envision for Timmy the puppy? Draw a picture of this scene in the box below.”

Organizer Gail Aaron, who is the Assistant Curator, Original Illustrations for Children’s Books, Morse Research Center for Graphic Arts, provides a nice narrative account of Lenski’s evolution as a book artist. The inspiration for Lenski’s first book, The Little Auto, published by Oxford University Press in 1934, came, we learn, from watching her son play “car” with his friends. “Instead of recounting a strong narrative,” Ms. Aaron writes, “The Little Car dramatizes a sequence of activities the little boys enacted as they pretended to service, drive, and wash an imaginary car.” Although the ink and watercolor pictures on paper may lack the computer-enhanced razzle-dazzle of today’s illustrations, any young child will instantly recognize a car stopping at a gas station to be refueled, or happily follow as “The Little Auto goes Up Hill and the Little Auto goes Down Hill!”

Adult viewers may appreciate details like the subtle advertisement for “Torrington, Connecticut Union Hardware” in the marching band drum in Johnny Goes to the Fair, and both adults and children will breathe a sigh of relief when Johnny’s pig gets up from a sit-down to march with Johnny “in front of the procession” at noon.

In addition to creating picture books, Lenski (1893-1974) researched, wrote, and illustrated works of fiction for older children. Curiosity about the former residents — especially the children — of the 18th-century Connecticut farmhouse her young family moved to in 1931 led Lenski to create a fictional child of the 1830s, the central character of Phebe Fairchild: Her Book, published in 1936. Laura Ingalls Wilder fans may also like A-Going to the Westward, Lenski’s 1937 chronicle of a family’s 19th century journey from Connecticut to Ohio, which is where she spent her own childhood.

Judy’s Journey, published in 1947, traces the daily lives of migrant workers and their children. “Lenski’s stories portray ways of life that had previously been overlooked, and they provided children of the World War II and postwar era with a perspective on lives much different than their own,” we learn from exhibit captions. “Lenski’s small, information-packed illustrations for these books have the impromptu feel of field notes.”

Family ties are also evident in the exhibit’s provenance — the illustrations are the gift of Lenski’s son, Steven Covey — and it’s no surprise to find that the dedication of her autobiography, Journey Into Childhood (a copy of which is on hand in the gallery), is to her “beloved grandson.”

While Aaron touts recent reprints of Lenski’s books that boast enhanced coloration, diehard Mr. Small fans may like him better the way he was before. Still, it’s nice to think that Lenski’s work is still being enjoyed by children in the twenty-first century.

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