This fall, 13-year-old WoodstockArts is looking to fulfill its mission “to shine a light on Woodstock, N.Y.,” with a book on the life and work of Maud and Miska Petersham, leading picture book illustrators of the 1920s through the ’50s – and the area’s best-known husband-wife writing and illustrating team. Under the North Light (Nov.), WoodstockArts’ third book since its founding, was written by librarian and nonprofit consultant Lawrence Webster, who grew up in Woodstock during the ’50s and ’60s and knew the Petershams well. She worked with their granddaughter, Mary Petersham Rheinhard, who donated a number of photos and artwork from the walls of her home, and a few stored under her bed, for an accompanying exhibition at the Woodstock Artists Association and Museum, “Inspired by the Light” (which runs through December 31).
The Petershams were also inspired by Miki, the son who served as the basis for their first book, Miki (1929), which Anita Silvey, writing in The Essential Guide to Children’s Books, calls “the first big colored picture book.” It follows the story of a little boy who travels to Hungary by himself and was also the first picture book set in a foreign land. The following decade was the pair’s most prolific one: during the 1930s, the Petershams published nearly 50 picture books, including the Story Book Series of 25 books on subjects ranging from coal to cotton, houses, and trains. They also illustrated religious books like The Ark of Father Noah and Mother Noah (1930) and The Christ Child (1931). A decade later, in 1946, they won the Caldecott Award for a book of rhymes and jingles, The Rooster Crows.
In a foreword to Under the North Light, husband-and-wife team Philip and Erin Stead, winners of a 2011 Caldecott for A Sick Day for Amos McGee, write that “this tale of Maud and Miska Petersham’s life together sheds light on the powerful and complicated art of intimate collaboration.” Thomas Hill, art librarian at Vassar College, Maud Petersham’s alma mater, calls it “a must for all who are interested in the evolution of children’s book publishing in this country.”
As for WoodstockArts, it is supporting the book, which is filled with four-color reproductions of the Petershams’ illustrations, with a sizable first printing for a small press. Publisher Weston Blelock says that he is exploring the possibility of moving the Petersham exhibit to other venues, including the de Grummond Children’s Literature Collection at the University of Southern Mississippi, which holds many of the Petershams’ papers. As for the publishing house itself, he says, “We’ve gone very slowly. We’re building up speed.” The press has several projects in the works, including a biography of Norman Studer, one of the founders of Camp Woodland, where Pete Seeger honed his talent along with other musicians.