Once Upon a Time It Was 1950

klickitat_streetAsk any reader, teacher, librarian, author, or illustrator to rattle off their favorite Beverly Cleary books, and chances are the list will contain names of literary personalities we all know and love: Henry Huggins, Ramona Quimby, Ellen Tebbits, Ribsy, and (my favorite) the motorcycle-riding Ralph S. Mouse.

cleary_henry hugginsAsk that same group if they know who Louis Darling is and, unless they’re of an older generation, they’ll likely draw a blank. Yet Darling’s illustrations of Ramona and company — like those by Ernest Shepard for Winnie-the-Pooh or Garth Williams for Charlotte’s Web — were integral to the books’ appeal.

The Connecticut native was the first artist to illustrate Cleary’s cherished classics. Beginning with the debut of Henry Huggins in 1950, Darling rendered now-iconic scenes from Klickitat Street with energy and verve in his crisp linear style, observing and capturing Cleary’s protagonists against a backdrop of postwar suburban America — a time when children still had paper routes and built their own clubhouses while coonskin caps were all the rage.

With a decade of experience working as a librarian and bookseller behind her, Cleary understood the importance of illustration in her books. The duo’s synchronicity seemed clear from the start:
I want to tell you how delighted I am with your illustrations for “Henry Huggins.” You seem to know exactly what I had in mind.
—Beverly Cleary in a letter to Darling on June 17th, 1950, upon the publication of her first book

However, despite a successful partnership that spanned twenty years, in recent editions Darling’s illustrations no longer accompany Cleary’s texts. His art has been gradually replaced as the books are re-branded, re-packaged, and re-launched in an attempt to appeal to new audiences.

This is not to disparage the later illustrations that decorate Cleary’s works. Darling passed away from cancer in 1970 (at age fifty-three), leaving his publisher the daunting task of finding another artist to fill his shoes as Cleary continued to write new stories about Ramona Quimby. Thus the opportunity arose to update what some may have considered Darling’s old-fashioned imagery.

cleary_beezus and ramona redNevertheless, there is a charm, an allure, of viewing a bygone era through the lens of Darling’s art. I get the same feeling when looking at a Saturday Evening Post cover by Norman Rockwell. I was introduced to Cleary’s stories in elementary school, a generation after they were published. So strong was my connection with them that when my daughter was eight, I tracked down old dog-eared copies to share with her. She enjoyed Darling’s retro drawings as much as I did. They said, simply: “Once upon a time it was 1950…”

As a fellow illustrator who renders in pen and ink, I wanted to showcase the brilliance of Louis Darling. I visited the Kerlan Collection at the University of Minnesota, where Darling’s late widow, Lois, donated his life’s work, and went through boxes of sketches, photographs, letters, and artwork to curate an exhibition of his work. This spring, the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art will commemorate those first iconic images of Henry, Ramona, Beezus, and Ribsy.

Though we are celebrating Beverly Cleary’s 100th birthday, Louis Darling should not be lost or forgotten. His drawings are as vibrant, chaotic, and lively as ever — a reflection of childhood from yesteryear to share with children of today.

From the March/April 2016 issue of The Horn Book Magazine. Happy 100th Birthday, Beverly Cleary! For more, click the tag Beverly Cleary at 100. Read a fantastic letter that Tony DiTerlizzi found in the Cleary archives -- with a Horn Book shout-out!
Tony DiTerlizzi
Tony DiTerlizzi
Tony DiTerlizzi is the illustrator of the 2003 Caldecott Honor Book The Spider and the Fly and co-creator, with Holly Black, of the Spiderwick Chronicles. He curated the exhibition “Louis Darling: Drawing the Words of Beverly Cleary,” opening at the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art in spring 2016.

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