The Traveling Exhibition “Young at Art” Comes to the Library

Chris Van Allsburg (b. 1949), Jumanji, 1980; graphite, 15 1/2 x 17 inches; Courtesy of Wichita Falls Museum of Art at Midwestern State University

Robin Williams and Jack Black added fast action and surround sound to the story of Jumanji years into the beloved book’s life. For more than a decade prior to the first movie version, the tale of a mysterious board game that acts as a conduit between the workaday world and a wild, magical one had already buzzed and stampeded in the minds of its readers.

Chris Van Allsburg’s black and white illustrations of two siblings watching their home slowly fill with large game animals and natural disasters are not Hollywood flashy, but they’re riveting — same as his Polar Express images.

The images are also Caldecott Award-winning, and one of the drawings from Jumanji is on display through Oct. 5 at the Kansas City Public Library’s Central library in the traveling exhibition “Young at Art,” comprised of 35 Caldecott works by 31 artists.

“Just to have the chance to see that original art is so special. The pictures in Jumanji have so much depth in so much small detail that you could just look at them and find new things every time you open that book,” says April Roy, director of employee success at the Kansas City Public Library.

That depth and detail are in all the pieces in the collection, the earliest of which are by the inaugural winner, Dorothy Lathrop, who won the Caldecott Medal in 1938 for her illustrations in Animals of the Bible, by Helen Dean Fish.

Also in the exhibition is work by Maurice Sendak — though from Memoirs of a Mouse, not the better known Where the Wild Things Are — and Tasha Tudor’s 1944 Mother Goose.

The exhibition includes a bookshelf with 15 of the books for patrons to read in full as they view the work. The completed work will provide some context for the pieces on display, particularly in cases when a visitor is unfamiliar with the story.

The collection’s gallery of origin is Wichita Falls Museum of Art at Midwestern State University in northern Texas.

Curator Danny Bills says in the mid-1960s at the museum’s inception, a women’s group started the collection — now 1,700 pieces strong — with a selection of works on paper purchased with money from their grassroots fundraising effort.

“Printmaking in the American art world was very hot at the time, and it was a way to collect work of artists that was more affordable,” Bills explains.

One of the earliest museum efforts made by the women’s group was to gather pieces by Caldecott winners, because the work was on paper, making it less expensive to collect. But another bonus was the educational component.

“I would call it a visual literacy,” Bills says.

Roy agrees. In 2012, she was one of 16 members who served on the Caldecott Committee. She’s currently on the American Library Association’s children’s notable books committee.

Picture books, she says, including those that are wordless, are very powerful teaching tools.

“You get to see this multidimensional, multifaceted art, and then put that together with the way that they weave the words in, and you just get this perfect piece of art and something that’s smart,” she says. “Kids deserve things that are smart and beautiful.”

Since 2018, kids and adults across the country have seen the exhibition through ExhibitsUSA, a division of Mid-America Arts Alliance in Kansas City. Most ExhibitsUSA touring exhibitions last only five years; this one has been in high demand and will continue for seven or eight.

Roy is thrilled. She thinks one loud and clear message the exhibition delivers, particularly to children, is that they matter. Their ambitions matter. Their feelings, experiences and interests matter.

She says the exhibition shows that children’s books matter, too, that “they’re something that we really think about, and we really honor. I think it says a lot to children and shows that we respect them.”

CategoriesArts Consortium
Anne Kniggendorf

Anne Kniggendorf is a writer and editor at the Kansas City Public Library, author of Secret Kansas City, and co-author of Kansas City Scavenger. She has local, national, and international bylines, and produces the Fiction/Non/Fiction podcast for Literary Hub.

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