Dream Big

The Arts

June 3, 2019



The Mint Museum Randolph celebrates the wild imagination of children’s book author and illustrator Tony DiTerlizzi.

By Page Leggett

Children place no limits on themselves, declaring ambitious plans to become astronauts, movie stars — even the president of the United States. It takes a lot of courage to hold on to the grandiose dreams of childhood.

New York Times-bestselling author and illustrator Tony DiTerlizzi made his childhood dream of being a children’s book author and illustrator come true. “It would have been so easy to give up and take a (quote) “real job,” he says. “But I held on to the idea that younger Tony had. It’s not easy to hold on to the pie-in-the-sky dreams of youth.”

Today, DiTerlizzi, 49, is one of his generation’s leading authors and illustrators of books for children and young adults. He’s created wildly popular picture books, including The Spider and the Fly, a Caldecott Honor book; chapter books Kenny & the Dragon and the WondLa trilogy; and The Spiderwick Chronicles, a middle-grades series he co-wrote with Holly Black that has sold more than 20 million copies and was made into a 2008 movie featuring Freddie Highmore, Mary-Louise Parker and Nick Nolte. In an uncommon twist, he partnered with Lucasfilm Ltd. to retell the original Star Wars trilogy as a picture book. Whereas typically a book gets adapted as a movie, in this case the perennially popular film franchise was turned into a book.

The Mint Museum Randolph will celebrate DiTerlizzi’s artistry with Never Abandon Imagination: The Fantastical Art of Tony DiTerlizzi, the most extensive look at the art of book illustration The Mint has ever done. More than 150 original works will be on view at the exhibit, which opens June 22 and runs through November 3.

The artist himself can’t quite believe it. “Take me out of the equation,” he says. “Just the idea of any children’s book illustrator in a museum excites me. Children who might not ever visit a museum may now have the chance to go. And maybe that visit will turn into a lifelong love of the arts.”

The exhibition, which broke attendance records when it premiered last year at the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Mass., includes interactive elements that allow visitors to engage with DiTerlizzi’s whimsical characters. In one area, visitors can curl up with one of DiTerlizzi’s books; another spot allows visitors who feel a sudden creative impulse to sketch their own masterpieces. (Adults: Take note.)

“[Illustrators] are not always viewed as artistes,” DiTerlizzi says. “Yet, this is the first visual art we’re exposed to when we’re young.”

Creativity for all

Children are inherently artists: All kids draw, and the lucky ones have their work displayed in a gallery — aka the family fridge. All kids use their imagination, though many of us tend to outgrow our innate creativity as we grow older. If DiTerlizzi’s art — his kindly teal dragons, whimsical grass-colored ogres, starry dreamscapes and dreamy moonscapes — has a message, it’s this: Creativity lives in all of us.

“Never abandon imagination,” DiTerlizzi’s personal motto, is an exhortation to grown-ups that imagination is essential for, well, everything. “Imagination is so key to us as a people,” he says. “All the advances we’ve seen throughout history are due to imaginative thinkers.”

On the day we spoke, scientists had just released the first photograph taken of a black hole. “At some point, someone thought of that idea,” DiTerlizzi says. In that case, someone turned out to be Katie Bouman, a 29-year-old computer scientist. DiTerlizzi believes science isn’t separate from imagination, and that scientific breakthroughs actually are the result of imagination — the kind children naturally have, and the kind adults can cultivate if they’ve lost it along the way.

“If I can manage to impart the importance of imagination through a silly book for kids — and maybe for the adults reading to them, then what more could I ask for?”

The magic of books

DiTerlizzi never lost his love for his favorite childhood books. Roald Dahl, Edgar Rice Burroughs and Beverly Cleary are some of his heroes. As early as high school, he knew he wanted to create fantastical worlds for children. But having his own daughter — Sophia, who’s now 12 — changed everything. “I realized how much I didn’t know,” he says.

When he published his first picture book, “I was trying to write for the 5- and 6-year-old version of me. But children’s books have evolved so much in the last couple of decades. They’re much shorter now. They’re simpler — not in context, but in language. My early books were a little wordy.”

He recognized this in his daughter’s preferences for bedtime stories. “I’d say to her, ‘Don’t you want to read this one? It’s a really famous book.’ And she’d say, ‘No, read me the one about the cat.’” So he learned to give his young audience what they wanted: elaborate illustrations with minimal text.

The exhibition spans DiTerlizzi’s entire career and includes his early work as a designer for the Dungeons & Dragons role-playing game and Magic: The Gathering, a collectible card and digital game.

“Gaming has had an unbelievable impact on pop culture,” he says. “It really excites me to see Dungeons & Dragons inside a museum. The gamers and nerds of the ’70s were pariahs in their day, but now it’s OK to be nerdy — it’s encouraged,” he says.

“This is a moment,” says the lifelong big dreamer. “I’ll take it.”  SP

Let your imagination run wild. Never Abandon Imagination: The Fantastical Art of Tony DiTerlizzi opens at the Mint Museum Randolph on June 22 and runs through Nov. 3. The Mint Museum’s Randolph Road location is open Wednesdays from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m., Thursdays through Saturdays from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. and Sundays from 1 to 5 p.m. mintmuseum.org 

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