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Orange County Public Library displays work by children's book illustrators

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A new gallery located at the Orange County Public Library, called The Cora Grace Collection of Picture Book Art, features over 100 pieces of art from 56 illustrators.

Last year, Orange County resident and UNC alumnus William McLean started writing letters to some of the illustrators of children's books favored by his now 3-year-old daughter Cora Grace.

What started as a small idea turned into an exhibit containing almost 100 pieces of artwork from renowned illustrators, including Marc Brown, creator of the "Arthur" series; Robin Preiss Glasser, illustrator of the "Fancy Nancy" series; and Eric Carle, creator of "The Very Hungry Caterpillar."

With a mix of donated and purchased pieces, the Cora Grace Collection of Picture Book Art opened at the Orange County Public Library in September and will remain open through December.

Cora Grace was born during the height of the pandemic, so her access to outside life was limited. Picture books and this collection gave McLean a chance to introduce his daughter to the world and show her the importance of reading.

“Early on, we were, first and foremost, trying to show her that reading is something that we value," McLean said. "I think for kids, having a tangible connection to your favorite book is kind of exciting.”

Both the McLeans and the Orange County Public Library were enthusiastic about displaying art for the community, and McLean said it was the right setting to host the collection. 

“The show itself is kind of a celebration of libraries and what a special thing they are in the communities,” he said.

The collection is also doing a small fundraiser to help the library increase programming and furnishings to be accessible and comfortable for neurodivergent children, McLean said.

While the exhibit focuses on illustrations from children's books, there is no age limit to who can enjoy it.

“The images from the books that we were read as kids stick with us, and those memories of being read to are our kind of core, or binding, memories with our parents,” McLean said. “I feel like it's an art form that doesn't always get recognition as being a fine art.”

Beth Hawkey, the Orange County Public Library youth services supervisor, said the library regularly receives all kinds of art — some tailored more to adults, some to kids and some in between.

She also said that people, especially adults, have been drawn to the collection and come into the library just to look at it.

“It just brings back so many memories of the importance of books in our lives as we grew up,” Hawkey said.

From pencil drawings to watercolor to ink renderings and signed prints, the artwork spans generations and creates a connection with viewers that shows the importance of this form of art.

“It's just brought a lot of joy,” Hawkey said. “And I think the kids seeing something that they’ve read, whether it's 'Ladybug Girl' or Jan Brett books, seeing that somebody else knows who they are too, it's like, 'Oh, this must be important that other people know about it,' and realize that some of these have been around for a very long time.”

Renowned author and illustrator Ashley Wolff has two pieces of her personal work in the collection.

Wolff, who notably illustrated "Baby Bear Sees Blue" and the "Miss Bindergarten" series, spent the last year painting a different bird every day.

Both of her paintings in the collection were done in gouache, or watercolor. One depicts seagulls and the other, puffins.

Wolff said she spent a period of time painting state birds, which led to the fruition of the California gulls painting — which depicts the Utah state bird. She also said different birds were painted on different holidays, with the common puffin painting being made on Mother’s Day.  

While these pieces aren’t necessarily within a children’s book, Wolff said she believes in the importance of children having access to and being able to view art all of the time.

“The illustrations are building a parallel universe to the words rather than repeating the words,” Wolff said.

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McLean said picture books play an important role in childhood, as they are kids' first introduction to learning vocabulary and emotions. They also act as a reminder to parents about the perspectives of kids and facilitate conversations between the two about the world.

Children’s books and the images inside them are the gateway for preliterate children to start understanding and conceptualizing new ideas, he said.

“The pictures are what builds the visual worlds,” Wolff said.

For more information about the collection and the illustrations being exhibited, visit the collection's website.

@dthlifestyle | lifestyle@dailytarheel.com