Not many picture books are 50 years in the making. But a new version of a very old tale can make that claim: Walt Disney’s Cinderella, retold by Cynthia Rylant (Disney Press, Aug.), has its origins in design work done by artist Mary Blair in the 1940s.

Before her career in children’s book illustration (I Can Fly!; The Up and Down Book), Blair was one of the top artists at Walt Disney Studios, where she put her whimsical and colorful stamp on many feature films, including Alicein Wonderland and Peter Pan. Animators created backgrounds and characters by taking their cues from Blair’s conceptual paintings, like those she created for Disney’s 1950 film version of Cinderella.

That artwork might have remained in the vault at the company’s Animation Research Library in Glendale, Calif., but for the success of a scholarly work by John Canemaker, director of the film program at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. In 2003, Disney Editions published Canemaker’s coffee table-style tribute to Blair’s oeuvre, The Art and Flair of Mary Blair. The book was a hit with critics, film students, and collectors of Disneyana—everybody but the intended audience for Blair’s original work: kids.

“There was such a great response to that book that we wondered how we could bring her art to a young audience,” said Nancy Inteli, executive editor at Disney Press. “We decided we could do it best in a jacketed picture book.”

The first person Inteli thought of to write a text for Blair’s paintings was Newbery Medalist Cynthia Rylant, who happily accepted the assignment. “She was thrilled,” Inteli said. “She loves the Cinderella story. She likes the hope, the sense of romance, the dreams of a better life. She gave perfect voice to the paintings.” Disney Press ordered a first print run of 50,000.

Blair, who died in 1978, spent 34 years on Disney’s payroll, so much of her original art is held by the company. But her work is prized by collectors, which meant some of the paintings needed to complete the book were in private hands.

“Certain paintings we had to borrow,” Inteli said. “However, people are always happy to have their pieces reproduced in this kind of volume. It increases the value.”

Inteli plans to dip into the treasure trove that is the Disney archives again, with Jon Scieszka signed on to write a text to go with Blair’s conceptual art for Disney’s Alice in Wonderland (fall 2008). There are also plans to produce a picture book version of Disney’s Peter Pan for fall 2009, though Inteli says the writer is not under contract yet.

Paging Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson?