Children’s Book Author and llustrator Brings Beloved Characters to Rutgers
Exhibit at the Zimmerli shows process behind Frank Asch’s work
Finding inspiration from as eclectic a group as Mondrian, Montessori and Maurice Sendak, Frank Asch has spent the last four and a half decades crafting an imaginary universe for children.
Its denizens are a whimsical bear that offers birthday presents to the moon, a baby dragon who loves milk and cookies, a jaunty Frenchman and his amazing baguette, among many others. Their creator, a Somerville, N.J., native who studied art at Rutgers in the early- to mid-1960s, says that behind all these characters is an aesthetic imperative: you start with a story – then the illustrations follow.
“Aesthetic” is a word that crops up often when the award-winning illustrator talks about his work.
“I was a Montessori teacher for a while, and I learned to appreciate that all teaching materials had to be aesthetically oriented to appeal to kids,” says Asch, whose best-selling books include Happy Birthday Moon, The Sun Is My Favorite and Just like Daddy.
From now through June 24, visitors to the Zimmerli Art Museum on Rutgers’ New Brunswick Campus can see the labor-intensive process that goes into Asch’s 65-plus books. “Popcorn & Starbaby: Children’s Book Illustrations By Frank Asch” features two series of original page designs, matted and hanging in the Roger Duvoisin Gallery.
Marilyn Symmes, director of the Zimmerli’s Morse Research Center for Graphic Arts and curator of prints and drawings, curated the exhibition.
Asch traces his ties to Rutgers to time he spent under the mentorship of Bille Pritchard, former dean of the Rutgers’ art department, just four or five years before his first book came out. It was here that Asch developed his profound appreciation for the works of Piet Mondrian, the Dutch-born painter best known for saturated colors, rectangular forms and thick black lines.
“I was very influenced as an art student by Mondrian,” Asch says today. “I wondered, how would Mondrian illustrate a kids’ book, how would he manage to put across the elements of the story using contour and form. That’s when I developed the style I use for my bear books.”
Becoming a children’s book author wasn’t automatically written in his stars. As a child, Asch wanted to be a philosopher, or maybe an astrophysicist. He first inclined toward art in high school, he says, eventually earning a bachelor of fine arts degree from The Cooper Union. Then reality hit.
“No galleries wanted to handle the paintings I was turning out, and I needed to make a living. I decided to try children’s books as a way to supplement my income. That took off, so I switched to that line of work when I realized it met all my creative needs and my practical needs,” he says.
“Voila! I was a children’s book author.”
Asch credits Maurice Sendak, who died last week at the age of 84, with helping that reality crystallize in his mind. “I remember seeing his book when I was in high school and thinking, wow, this is a legitimate field of art, this is a legitimate genre. His art, in Where the Wild Things Are, really opened my eyes,” Asch says.
He’s not really delighted with the overall state of children’s literature today, he acknowledges. Although Asch says he hasn’t really kept up with what his colleagues have been producing, what he does see lacks a certain depth, and is more special-effects driven than compelling in its own right.
“Too many special effects,” he says, without naming names. “A lot of razzle-dazzle. I look at it and think, why didn’t they hire a good writer, because the story really stinks.”
Nowadays, Asch splits his time between Vermont and Hawaii, where his son and collaborator Devin lives. He continues to favor a style he describes as painterly/photorealistic, grabbing a lot of images from the Internet – “in a very organic way,” he says – to enhance his free-hand illustrations. Simon & Schuster, his longtime publisher, is bringing many of his older titles back in hardcover; its editors have asked him to work on another in his beloved Bear series, as well as a book about, of all things, pizza.
On his website, Asch continues his longtime dialogue with children. He encourages visitors to the site to send him questions – “Why are Legos different colors? “Why do turtles have shells” – which he answers in the persona of Moonbear, a perennial reader favorite.
The Asch exhibition is open to the public Tuesdays through Sundays in June; special tours can be arranged. To reserve a class or group tour, contact the Zimmerli’s Education Department, 732-932-7237, ext. 615, at least two weeks in advance.