Go see Hilary Knight!

If you're like me and pick up a book with Hilary Knight illustrations to read without even looking at the text, you're in luck! Two New York museums are currently featuring exhibitions of his work. The New York Historical Society is running Eloise at the Museum through October 9, and the New York Public Library’s Performing Arts Library showcases Hilary Knight’s Stage Struck World through October 14.

 Eloise, Knight's best-known character,   was the alter ego of nightclub personality Kay Thompson  .

Eloise, Knight's best-known character, was the alter ego of nightclub personality Kay Thompson.

One of the frustrations of becoming a better reader in the English language is that the amount of illustrations in a book drops to almost nothing. After years of lush picture-book illustrations, this was a real letdown for me. Fortunately, Hilary Knight’s illustrations bridged the gap. He’s illustrated (and sometimes written) books with almost no words (Where’s Wallace, The Twelve Days of Christmas) to picture books with sophisticated text (the Eloise series) to iconic chapter books (Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle). You can find a partial list of his books at goodreads.

We introduced Junior to Eloise last year and he fell in love. We read the first book every night for a week, and then he insisted that I come in and read the book to his first-grade class. They were entranced and mystified by lines like

My mother knows Coco Chanel.
She goes to Europe and Paris
and sends for me if there’s some sun
I am always packed in case I have to leave on TWA
at a moment’s notice or something like that

Junior’s teachers smiled ear-to-ear throughout the reading. Illustrating the Eloise series paved the way for a career illustrating books with multigenerational appeal for Knight. I can also recommend

  • the Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle series, by Betty McDonald. Make sure you've got the Knight-illustrated version, and start with Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle.
 The frustrations of this dreamy child's mother are only too familiar to me, but I still love the illustration from Mrs. PIggle-Wiggle.

The frustrations of this dreamy child's mother are only too familiar to me, but I still love the illustration from Mrs. PIggle-Wiggle.

Other books to investigate

  • I Hate to Cook, by Peg Bracken. While you’re enjoying the chapter-opener illustrations, look for the lasagna recipe, which contains the instructions “Add the flour, salt, paprika, and mushrooms, stir, and let it cook five minutes while you light a cigarette and stare sullenly at the sink”

  • Where’s Wallace (written and illustrated by Knight)
  • The Twelve Days of Christmas

but really, you can’t go wrong. Knight has illustrated over fifty books and written nine (which he also illustrated). I knew that he’d done more than just books, but before the NYPL Performing Arts Library exhibit, I had no idea that he’d also created posters for the Broadway musicals Half A Sixpence, Hallelujah Baby!, No, No Nanette, Irene, and Gypsy.

This preview of It’s Me, Hilary: The Man Who Drew Eloise showcases animation firm Grand Jete's delightful animations of Knight's original illustrations.

Hilary Knight: Drawn from Life, will be published in spring 2018. Until then, you can check out the endpapers of his version of The Twelve Days of Christmas, which show his childhood in Roslyn, NY. You can also see the documentary It’s Me, Hilary: The Man Who Drew Eloise (take another look at the preview of the Lena Dunham-produced documentary here) on Netflix.

 The  Twelve Days of Christmas  endpapers show Knight's world as a child. Here's a piece from his upcoming biography showing him at work as an adult.

The Twelve Days of Christmas endpapers show Knight's world as a child. Here's a piece from his upcoming biography showing him at work as an adult.