This weekend I went down to the first-ever Empire State Book Festival in Albany, NY, an event for librarians and other fans of the kind of books made from dead trees instead of pixels and bits. The place was filled with writers from New York State, some well-known, some not so much. I went to see if I could pick up any tips on how to help nurture my new career as an author and illustrator of kids’ nonfiction. But I was also looking forward to a talk by a children’s book writer and illustrator who I have long admired, Hudson Talbott.
Given that New York had just celebrated the Quadricentennial of Henry Hudson’s sail up the river that bears his name, it was only fitting that Hudson Talbott’s presentation focused on his wonderful new book River of Dreams. But I first discovered Talbott several years ago when I read his series Tales of King Arthur to my kids. Talbott’s retellings, which include The Sword in the Stone, King Arthur and the Round Table and Excalibur, are what I think of as wordy picture books. They’re aimed at kids who can understand a more involved story than they’re able to read themselves. And Talbott’s detailed watercolors owe something to the Howard Pyle/N.C. Wyeth school of old-fashioned adventure story illustration.
However, the book I really remembered Talbott for was a quirky little volume he illustrated called Leonardo’s Horse. Written by well-known historical biographer Jean Fritz (who deserves a post of her own), Leonardo’s Horse tells about one of the great Renaissance artist Leonardo da Vinci’s many unfinished grandiose schemes. The plan was to build a bronze horse for the Duke of Milan, 24 feet high. It was to be “his mark on history,” Fritz writes, the thing for which Leonardo would always be remembered. In 1493, Leonardo unveiled a full-sized clay model for the duke, and assembled the materials needed to cast it in bronze. But then he became distracted by a new commission (the Last Supper), and the horse was put aside. Before he could return to the project, the city of Milan was attacked by the French. The metals for the bronze casting were used to forge cannon, and between the French invaders and the weather the clay horse was destroyed. Flash forward a few centuries, and an art collector named Charles Dent reads about Da Vinci’s unfinished dream and decides to make it a reality. Today, versions of Leonardo’s massive horse sculpture can be seen in Milan, Italy and Grand Rapids, Michigan.
What makes Leonardo’s Horse so memorable is Talbott’s design. Drawing on Charlie Dent’s dome-shaped art studio as inspiration, he gave the book a rounded top, and then fit the illustrations into the unusually-shaped pages. Together with the sepia-colored facsimiles of Leonardo’s drawings, it gives the book something of the feel of a Renaissance cathedral. Now, I’m not big on buying books – we’ve got a tiny house and a great library system. But this was one opportunity I simply couldn’t pass up. So I indulged in a little fangirl behavior, snagged the last copy of Leonardo’s Horse at the Festival bookstore, and caught Talbott on his way out the door and got him to sign my copy. And now I’ve got a bit of inspiration to keep on my own bookshelf.