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Roberta Smith

March 22, 2002

When I used to catalog books for the library, I got to see all the books that came and went. I especially enjoyed the variety of children’s books and often paused to admire them.

Fine art and craftsmanship are not lost on children, and this fact is not lost on publishers, who put out many beautifully illustrated children’s books every year.

Children return to their favorites again and again, for the art as well as the stories. Many stories are inextricably tied to their pictures — Dr. Seuss books, for example; or Beatrix Potter’s, Maurice Sendak’s, or Chris Van Allsburg’s.

Some are so strongly connected to particular renderings that alternatives pale in comparison — consider the “original” Tenniell drawings for “Alice in Wonderland” and “Through the Looking Glass,” which to me are the quintessential Alice images.

Many fine children’s books tell their story entirely through pictures. I think of “Dylan’s day out” by Peter Catalanotto. Dylan is a dalmatian who is bored sitting on the newspaper on the black-and-white tile floor and looking out the window all day. One day, he escapes and runs through the countryside. He stumbles upon a soccer game between penguins and skunks, coached by nuns. You get it. The visual joke is charming, and it is delightful for adults as well as children.

Where do such illustrators come from? Catalanotto studied at New York’s Pratt Institute, the same place Salida’s own Roberta Smith studied. Roberta’s art is on display now at the library. Her lovely, colorful pastels have drawn a lot of comment. One woman looked long at the landscape on the easel by the door. “I know that place well,” she smiled, as she remembered her childhood on the plains.

Roberta grew up in Colorado, as she says, “dreaming of adventures in the far corners of the world.” Many children do, and they travel vicariously through the books they read. But eventually Roberta did travel the world — first, for six years in a small sloop, and for years thereafter to parts of the world that fascinated her.

Many of her early paintings were inspired by the “incredible grace and dignity of the women and children” she had seen in her travels. Her work was noticed by some publishers, and so she became a book illustrator, as well.

Some of Roberta’s work on display in the library are the finished pieces used to illustrate children’s books about Haiti and Bali. Others are pictures of people seen in her travels to Bhutan and India. Roberta has been most taken during her travels with “the beauty and diversity of the human family.” Her figures are full of the grace and dignity, not to mention color, that she sees in them. They are strong and appealing images; I can see why they caught the eye of a children’s book publisher.

Perhaps my favorite is a landscape, upstairs to the left behind the stacks, where a few paintings hang. I’m a sucker for impressionism, but I don’t think it’s because I’m maudlin. I must leave that judgment to others, though.

Roberta has graciously agreed to talk at the library about how a book gets illustrated — Wednesday, April 3, 2:45-3:45 p.m. I would imagine this will appeal to children’s book lovers of all ages. She will show how the “storyboards” are developed that lead up to the finished work.

If you know of children or grandparents who would enjoy this look behind the pictures, spread the word.


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