New Exhibit Highlights Children's Book Illustrations

Dec 14, 2016

At this time of year, many people discover the wonderful world of children’s books as they search for holiday gifts.  At the Virginia Historical Society, visitors can view some of the most beautiful illustrations from kids books as part of a show called Illustrated Treasures.  

In the 21st Century, many kids get an idea of what characters look like from animators like Pixar and Disney. Take Pocahontas, for example, the native American Princess of Virginia’s Powhatan tribe who – history tells us – rescued British Captain John Smith.

But how much does the woman on screen resemble the heroine from history? Caroline Legros is School Program Coordinator for the Virginia Historical Society.

“She has more in common with her fellow Disney Princesses than she does with the actual historical version of Pocahontas.”

Alongside a Disney book, visitors to the society’s museum see tales of Pocahontas from 1946 and 1916 in which she looks very different. 

“So what’s nice with this collection of books is it’s an opportunity to talk with visitors about how you determine what is a reliable source.”

One of the many children's books on display at Illustrated Treasures.
Credit Pocahontas, written and illustrated by Ingri and Edgar Parin d'Aulaire

Legros hopes viewing these and other illustrations from books produced over 170 years will draw children to history.  

“We usually, when we work with students, try to get them to understand that history is just story-telling on a broad scale, so it’s a helpful tool to engage younger audiences about the fact that the past is a story they can explore.”

She points to another children’s book from Virginia – this one called Getty Goes to the Homestead.  Written by a Richmond teacher, illustrated by one of her 16-year-old students, it takes visitors to a couple of lovely and historic hotels.

“A little boy named Getty lives at the Jefferson Hotel in Richmond, Virginia, and he has these adventures.  I kind of think of him as like the male Eloise if anyone’s familiar with the Eloise stories.  It’s a really cute example of a super local story that probably didn’t get a whole lot of readers around the country, but this is something that if you lived in Richmond you might pick up at a local bookstore.”

From one decade to the next, illustration changed – influenced by trends in the art world and by new printing technologies that allowed more detail and a wider array of colors.  The society’s Caroline Legros is excited to be putting some of these little-known works in the spotlight.

“There is a huge amount of labor that goes into producing these beautiful works of art, that we just turn the page and then maybe forget about after we set the book back on the shelf, so it’s really wonderful to see these elevated to the fine art that they deserve to be.”

Illustrated Treasures  is free and runs through April 2nd in Richmond.