What kind of adventures might a book go on after it leaves the library? A new multi-paneled mural installed in the Brooklyn Public Library’s Central Library Youth Wing loosely explores the answer, imagining the possible journeys of a single red book after it ventures into the community.
Installed on June 7 along BPL’s Eastern Parkway wall, the mural consists of seven distinct, but interconnected 8 x11 foot artworks created by a group of award-winning illustrators with different ties to BPL, including Selina Alko, Sophie Blackall, Yuyi Morales, Christopher Myers, Stephen Savage, Javaka Steptoe, and Paul O. Zelinsky. Two-time Caldecott Medalist Blackall acted as artistic director.
“We wanted something that was related to the library, but very broad so we would have lots of different types of images, styles, and themes,” Judy Zuckerman, director of youth and family services told PW about BPL’s vision for the mural. Zuckerman co-managed the project along with Cora Fisher, curator of visual art programming.
The result is indeed diverse. Library patrons are first greeted by Savage’s panel—a striking scene of a UFO beaming up a small red book from BPL while a group of people and creatures look on in silhouette.
Brooklyn native and Caldecott Medalist Steptoe’s collage-like piece comes next, suggesting possible directions for the red book as it zigzags through a maze of families and strollers (formed with patterns consisting of cultural fabrics meant to represent Brooklyn’s diverse residents) before leaping to Alko’s neighboring mixed media panel, which displays a classic Brooklyn brownstone streetscape.
“I was thinking quite a bit about the book that I had written about Brooklyn, B Is for Brooklyn,” said Alko of her work. “In that book, I had a chance to put a lot of the feeling and flavor of the neighborhoods in this borough, and I thought I would try to encapsulate that within my panel with the buildings and diverse variety of people just kind of hanging out.”
Caldecott Honor artist and six-time Pura Belpré winner Morales also took inspiration from her own recent work. Her panel, a portrait of a woman pushing a child in a stroller while butterflies float up from the red book, draws on her recent picture book, Dreamers.
“When I was a new immigrant, the public library became my home,” Morales told PW. “When I was asked to make a panel for BPL, I knew immediately that this was my opportunity for the mother and the baby from Dreamers to get to live inside a library.”
Imaginative panels by Blackall and fellow Caldecott Medalist Zelinsky also include elements from their best-known works. Zelinsky said he included at least four references to his books hidden among the otherworldly creatures depicted in his panel. Blackall’s storybook-like scene features diverse children (including her beloved Ivy & Bean characters) reading while flying high above BPL on the backs of assorted magical creatures.
Completing the mural’s narrative arc is a work by Caldecott Honoree Myers, which depicts a girl held aloft by books against the backdrop of a recognizable Brooklyn skyline.
“We all know this library well and this is our community, so we wanted the panels and the artwork to really reflect Brooklyn,” said Blackall.
From Idea to Installation
The initial vision for the space wasn’t actually a mural. In early 2018, BPL made the decision to spruce up the Youth Wing by purchasing a series of framed prints. When several illustrators came back offering to create original works instead, plans for the mural were set in motion. Sophie Blackall, a long-time friend of BPL, came on early as artistic director, helping to recruit artists and generate ideas.
“I feel like this is my library—my son learned to walk here,” Blackall said. “As a children’s book maker you form a bond with your local library, and the people here are so wonderful and so passionate about the community and children and books, and they have fantastic programming. Once they know you’re willing and local then you get invited to do all of these things, which is a long-winded way of saying anything BPL asks me to do I would say yes to in a heartbeat.”
The creative team met last November to brainstorm, and from there they created initial sketches with pen and paper or tablet. Because the panels weren’t completely blank canvases, but were broken up by heating vents, fire alarms, and the like, Zelinsky created Photoshop model templates of the panels and their surroundings to help the group visualize what their work would potentially look like in the physical space. The artists were able to work in any medium with the understanding that the final work would be digitized at high resolution and printed on adhesive, textured vinyl (making the panels easily reprinted and replaced if necessary).
Alongside the red book, most of the panels also include a stroller and/or a UFO somewhere within their design. Many artists additionally incorporated elements from other panels, subtly emphasizing the interconnectedness of the mural. Close inspection of Alko’s panel reveals a vine-like pattern of the woman’s skirt, which hints at the full-blown, blooming skirt depicted in Morales’s adjoining work. Similarly, some of the books being read in Blackall’s work have cover designs that link to other panels.
Zelinsky, whose work started as a doodle, included the most references to other panels. “Because my drawing is so scattered, so random in certain ways, it was easy for me to grab little bits of other people’s art and just stick it in mine for fun,” he said.
To help further connect the diverse art, Blackall created a shared color palette that drew from colors found at the library and surrounding neighborhood. Red matches that of nearby subway lines, the 2 and 3. The purple is the color of BPL librarian Judy Zuckerman’s sweater.
In addition to reflecting colors around the neighborhood, several works also took the Central Library’s iconography as inspiration. Animal figures in the panels by Blackall and Savage are drawn from the gold figures that adorn BPL’s front doors.
Most of the artists convened at BPL after hours on June 7 to watch printing and installation firm Color X hang the final artworks, which, up until that point had only ever been viewed on-screen. “It was magical,” said Alko of the installation. “It was really hard to imagine how our sketches would translate TO such A? large scale. It was stunning to see the details enlarge and then come to life.”
“It was kind of like Night at the Museum, where you’ve always wanted to go into a library and see what it’s like when people aren’t checking out books,” said Savage.
Now that the mural is up, it’s difficult to imagine the Youth Wing without it. “We’ve heard from a number of people that it looks like it was always there, that it just fits in so beautifully,” said Zuckerman, noting that the library would like to create youth art and writing programs that use the mural as their jumping off point. BPL also intends to create a mural scavenger hunt where children will be asked to find certain items hidden among the panels.
“We all wanted to make something that would become the background of a childhood,” Blackall said. “The children who frequent this library will grow up with this on the wall. This is our legacy in a way.”