The work of iconic American artist Norman Rockwell (1894–1978) hangs in countless museums and galleries worldwide, and is showcased in numerous art books published over the past decades. For the first time ever, his paintings now grace the pages of two picture books, Norman Rockwell’s A Day in the Life of a Girl and Norman Rockwell’s A Day in the Life of a Boy, released this month by Abbeville Kids. Chronicling the activities of two children from sunup to sundown, the images in the books originally appeared in Rockwell’s paintings of the same titles, which he created as covers for the Saturday Evening Post in 1952. Each picture book features a rhyming text by Will Lach, as well as a brief biography of Rockwell and a personal note from the individual who served as the child model for Rockwell’s original oil painting.

Rockwell’s connection to the publisher dates back to the artist’s friendship with the late Harry N. Abrams, who founded his eponymous art book publishing house in 1949. Abrams published a collection of Rockwell’s paintings in 1970, before launching Abbeville Press with his son, Robert E. Abrams, in 1977. Two years later, Abbeville published Norman Rockwell: 332 Magazine Covers, a compilation of the artist’s paintings first published as cover art.

Lach, a former senior editor at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and currently v-p and editorial director of Abbeville Press, explained that the A Day in the Life… books were created in partnership with the Rockwell estate and the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Mass., and said they were in part inspired by his passion for introducing children to master works of art.

“I am always looking for ways to bring art treasures to kids—that’s what makes me tick,” Lach said. “I am a longtime Rockwell fan, and had been wondering how to pair one of his paintings with a children’s story, since his pictures are so charming and so story-like—but you can’t make a picture book about just one picture.”

That dilemma was solved when Lach, perusing 332 Covers, came across the Post’s A Day in the Life… covers, comprised of 23 visual vignettes tracking each child’s daily diversions, including splashing in a swimming pool, riding a bike, sharing a milkshake with a friend, playing baseball, and settling into bed. Lach annotated each scenario and linked them with couplets that, he noted, “encourage kids to keep turning the pages to see how the rhyme finishes.”

The Making of Two Masterpieces

Through the Norman Rockwell Museum, Lach located Mary Whalen Leonard and Chuck Marsh, the models who posed for the photographs on which Rockwell’s A Day in the Life… paintings are based. Now in their 70s, the two were neighbors of the artist as children in Arlington, Vt., a village that provided Rockwell with many of his models.

The books’ endpapers reproduce the photos, film strip-like, that provided the basis for each painting, revealing Rockwell’s meticulous attention to detail in his posing of the children and selection of props. “He was a master at capturing time and place—he was in effect a director,” observed Lach, adding that it’s likely no coincidence that Steven Spielberg and George Lucas both collect Rockwell’s art.

Calling the picture-book adaptation of A Day in the Life of a Girl “just pure delight,” Leonard recalled visiting Rockwell’s studio for three straight days in the summer of 1952, when she was 10. Her mother came along, and helped her hold each pose that Rockwell orchestrated while photographer Gene Pelham snapped the pictures. “I didn’t really know what was going on at the time,” she noted. “I just loved working with Norman and being with somebody who loved what he was doing.”

Leonard, who also served as the model for several of Rockwell’s other paintings, was in her early 20s when she came to appreciate her work with this artist as “a true gift in my life.” While visiting the Bennington Museum, she saw Girl at Mirror, for which she had posed, for the very first time. “Two women were looking at the picture, and one said, ‘That girl’s parents must be so proud of her,’ ” said Leonard. “I was so overwhelmed, I walked outdoors and started to cry. I suddenly realized that this was a picture of me—I had never really brought the experience inside of me before. It was really powerful.”

There is a lingering mystery to the tale of Rockwell’s paintings’ transformation from magazine covers to picture book art, which involves the discrepancy in the resolution of the images between the two books. While the crisper images for Girl were reproduced from the original painting (on view today at the Norman Rockwell Museum), those in Boy were reproduced from the Saturday Evening Post cover, because the original painting went missing.

“At some point early in its history, the canvas for Boy was donated to a community group raffle, where it sold for just 50 cents,” Lach reported. “The painting’s current whereabouts is unknown, and it’s possible that it was destroyed. But the canvas may well be hiding in plain sight—hanging in a New England home, perhaps—a multimillion-dollar national treasure, presumed to be just another reproduction of this very popular work.”

If the canvas for A Day in the Life of a Boy does surface, he added, “the discovery will be its own reward to the lucky owner, and Abbeville will make every effort to use the new images in a revised edition of the book. It is the hope of everyone involved with these books—Abbeville Press, the Rockwell estate, and the Norman Rockwell Museum—that increased awareness of the missing painting will bring about a happy ending.”

Norman Rockwell’s A Day in the Life of a Girl by Will Lach. Abbeville Kids, $16.95 Oct. ISBN 978-0-7892-1290-0

Norman Rockwell’s A Day in the Life of a Boy by Will Lach. Abbeville Kids, $16.95 Oct. ISBN 978-0-7892-1289-4