For author and illustrator Tony DiTerlizzi, it all started with a bedtime story. And like a bedtime story, DiTerlizzi’s latest adventure – as a museum curator – has “a beginning, a middle, and an end,” though he didn’t know that at first. DiTerlizzi’s exhibition, Louis Darling: Drawing the Words of Beverly Cleary, which opened on May 17, will be on display until November 27 at the Eric Carle Museum in Amherst, Mass.

But back to the beginning. A few years ago, DiTerlizzi and his daughter, Sophia (now eight), developed a nightly ritual of reading chapters from Beverly Cleary books before bed. Not only did Sophia take quite a shine to Cleary’s stories, but re-reading the books gave DiTerlizzi a chance to reflect back on his first experience with characters like Ramona and Beezus Quimby, Ralph S. Mouse, and Henry Huggins.

Only, as he was reading these newer editions of Cleary’s books, he came to feel that something was missing: the artwork he remembered from the editions he read when he was a child. He was also “perplexed” to find that the Cleary books featuring Louis Darling’s pen-and-ink drawings were no longer available in print. After some research, DiTerlizzi was on his way to rediscovering an illustrator whose influence on his own work he hadn’t fully appreciated.

Housed in the Kerlan Collection, a children’s literature archive at the University of Minnesota, were Louis Darling’s papers, which included the artwork he created for 12 of Cleary’s novels. A friend and trustee of the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art, DiTerlizzi brought the Louis Darling collection to the attention of (now retired) chief curator and founding director Nichols B. Clark in 2014. Not only was Beverly Cleary’s 100th birthday coming up in 2016, DiTerlizzi told Clark, but he felt this was a wonderful opportunity to feature the work of Darling in an exhibition. Clark was all for the idea – but he insisted that DiTerlizzi take the helm.

The Middle

DiTerlizzi began the process of poring over the Louis Darling materials. Cleary and Darling’s relationship spanned 20 years, beginning with Cleary’s first book, Henry Huggins, published in 1950, and concluding with Runaway Ralph in 1970, the year of Darling’s death. DiTerlizzi was especially curious to learn more about the author and illustrator’s collaboration, and was initially disappointed to see that there didn’t appear to be any correspondence between the two housed at the Kerlan. Or so he thought. Finally, in the back of an unmarked, brown folder, DiTerlizzi discovered 20 years of letters and notes shared between Cleary and Darling. The Kerlan curators had not even realized that the letters were there.

The communications between the author and illustrator demonstrated to DiTerlizzi their extreme fondness for one another’s work. In one letter from 1950, Darling tells Cleary how much he appreciates Henry Huggins: “He and Ribsy, Beezus, Ramona, and all the others have taken their place in a very special circle of esteemed friends which can be added to, unfortunately, only once in a great while,” he wrote. DiTerlizzi noted how Darling, who had a background in creating naturalistic images (in fact, he illustrated Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring), brought that same attention to detail to the Cleary art. It was important for Darling to get these characters and the worlds they occupy just right. When working on Ramona the Pest, Darling wrote to Cleary to inquire “What is kindergarten like?” In another letter, Cleary makes the modest suggestion to Darling that he provide Mrs. Frawley (from the last Henry Huggins book, Ribsy) with pincurls in her hair, as befitting “women of that age.” Suggestions aside, her letters to Darling convey how she felt that the illustrator fully captured the essence of her characters: “You seem to know exactly what I had in mind,” she wrote in 1950.

It was the sort of organic and fruitful creative collaboration that DiTerlizzi has experienced himself, he said, in working with Holly Black on the Spiderwick Chronicles. DiTerlizzi explained how reading these quiet exchanges of input between the author and illustrator “humanized” their partnership for him in a way he hadn’t felt before; “it was about creative people working together to make a great book,” he said.

Though DiTerlizzi couldn’t determine whether Darling and Cleary actually ever met, it seemed that most of their correspondence occurred through their letters and their work. PW reached out to HarperCollins assistant editor Alyssa Miele, who works with Cleary. She reported that she had recently spoken with Cleary about her memories of Darling. Cleary recalled how, years ago, her editor Elizabeth Hamilton had the Clearys and Louis come to New York; they all enjoyed an afternoon out at lunch. “He was a lovely man,” Cleary said.

Sadly, their partnership did not last as long as it might have, as Darling died of cancer at age 53 – a fact that, for DiTerlizzi, lends a particular poignancy to the letters. He was working on illustrating Cleary’s books up until the very end of his life, the way DiTerlizzi said he hopes to go out himself: “pen in hand, illustrating stories for children;”

In closely studying Darling’s images, their richness became even clearer to DiTerlizzi. Whether it’s Ramona pedaling her bicycle or Henry Huggins waving a newspaper, the pictures are “always moving, never static,” he said. He also began to recognize the influence of Darling on many contemporary illustrators, explaining that “we are all links in the chain of children’s literature.” Within Darling’s work, for example, “I could see Marla Frazee’s DNA, William Joyce’s, and Mark Teague,” he said.

With a deepening desire to “really celebrate” Darling’s work, DiTerlizzi got down to the nitty gritty of creating the exhibition, which would involve some strategic innovation and more than a little spilled paint.

It was critical for DiTerlizzi that the exhibit be an immersive experience. On display are Darling’s sketches, finished artworks, photographs, letters, and objects like a replica of the toy motorcycle that Cleary first sent to Darling for The Mouse and the Motorcycle. In addition to material directly related to Cleary and Darling, the exhibit contains items that “are reflective of the post-war American era,” particularly of life in the suburbs. For example, he wanted young visitors to learn about how a paper route represented an important right of passage in the 1950’s and to understand the cultural significance of a coonskin cap (there’s an entire display case devoted to the once-popular head piece). A soundscape captures the ambiance of a summer afternoon in 1950s suburbia, complete with the sound of birds, sprinklers, and newspapers being delivered. Visitors can also hear Mr. Huggins calling to Ribsy.

DiTerlizzi struggled with how to present some of the archival materials while maintaining the interactive and exploratory environment he sought. In order for museum guests to be able to read the notes and letters, he had copies replicated by hand to look like the originals. Another problem concerned the books themselves; DiTerlizzi wanted to have one set of the books that Darling illustrated be available for readers to freely leaf through. All the old editions of the books that DiTerlizzi could find “looked like they’d been dragged behind a school bus.” The solution he found was to scan the original, tattered dust jackets and create facsimile covers, but the key was to get just the right look. A visit to Marcus Printing in Holyoke, Mass., was fortuitous. The printer had been in business since 1930 and had old paper stock that had never been sold. It used to be white, the printer explained, but time had faded it to a cream color that perfectly fit the condition of the original covers. “I was so damn excited!” said DiTerlizzi.

A Happy Ending

Toward the end of the process of designing the exhibition, DiTerlizzi had another nagging sensation that something was missing. “Everything was so pretty, so perfect... I wanted there to be a bit of chaos,” he said. With the go-ahead from the Carle, he decided to make a bit of mess by covering the tires of a 1950 Schwinn bicycle with paint and wheeling it through the exhibit space. He also felt it would be fitting to “put a little Ramona in the show” – or, in this case, Sophia. DiTerlizzi invited Sophia to leave her painted handprints on the walls next to Ramona’s signature – just the sort of thing one might expect from Cleary’s inquisitive and occasionally unruly character.

DiTerlizzi’s wish to have the Louis Darling illustrations reunited with Beverly Cleary’s books not only came true at the Eric Carle Museum, but also in print. HarperCollins will be reissuing the original versions of all of the Henry Huggins books in 2017 – giving fathers like DiTerlizzi the chance to rediscover them with a new generation of readers.