Not just kids’ stuff

Celebrating a classic children’s book at the RISD Museum  
By BILL RODRIGUEZ  |  May 2, 2006

ENDURING NIGHT: A detail of one of Clement Hurd’s illustrations in Moon.

Children’s book illustrators have a pair of challenges. Not only do they have to be visually compelling for grown-ups — who are buying the books, after all — but they must also subliminally persuade the children, who need to be transfixed for the book to succeed.

Examples of how that all works are charmingly displayed in “From Goodnight Moon to Art Dog: The World of Clement, Edith, and Thacher Hurd,” at the RISD Museum of Art through July 23.

Visitors are immediately struck by the ambition of the show, greeted by a wall-long 3-D reproduction of the cozy green room of Goodnight Moon, which is slanted and foreshortened to take less space. That might later bring to mind Clement’s favorite letter from a parent, cited in the show, in which a mother describes her 1-1/2-year-old’s upset at not being able to step into the room of Goodnight Moon when he placed his feet on the pages.

On display are numerous original drawings and book covers from the illustrators of the exhibition’s title as well as publishing industry figures and, in passing, a few other illustrators. Demonstrating the printing process are examples of proofs, color separations, and a four-page layout. A human-scale fantasy “Brushmobile” rocket car from Art Dog is on display in the room devoted to that 1996 book by Thacher. (The title character is a museum guard by day and sniffs out art thefts at night, as the book acquaints young readers with canine versions of art world classics, such as the “Mona Woofa.”)

Thacher, born two years after the publication of Goodnight Moon, has published more than 20 children’s books. His mother, Edith Thacher Hurd, has written nearly 30, illustrated by her husband and others.

It was Clement Hurd who drew the simple but captivating pictures for the 1947 Goodnight Moon, written by Margaret Wise Brown. The book remains a classic to this day, responding as it does to the requirements and affinities of children rather than those of publishers’ marketing decisions. Never out of print, it has sold more than 11 million copies, in eight languages and Braille.

In the late 1930s, Brown was one of the early writers who turned away from fairy tales and toward the “here and now” of children’s everyday experiences. The simple rhymed words (“Goodnight nobody / Goodnight mush / And goodnight to the old lady whispering ‘hush’”) epitomize the comfort and security of a toddler’s bedtime as a sleepy little bunny delays shutting his or her eyes.

As is appropriate at a teaching museum, the exhibition is quite instructive about the decisions that go into creating a children’s book. Clement, we learn, developed his affinity for primary colors under the influence of modernist Fernand Leger while studying painting under his tutelage in Paris in the early 1930s. Clement was a hard taskmaster on himself, redrawing all the illustrations in his 1942 Runaway Bunny for the 1966 republication because they fell short of his standards. The exhibition compares illustrations from the two editions, pointing out some of his improvements: in an indoor scene, warmer colors in and around the fireplace, the baby bunny snuggling a tad closer to his mother on her lap.

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