Fairy Tales to Nursery Rhymes: The Michael and Esther Droller Collection of Picture Book Art

It is mainly a labour of love to infuse pictures intended for childish eyes with qualities that pertain to art.

Gleeson White, in “Children’s Books and their Illustrators,” Special International Number of The International Studio, London, 1897-8[1]

White’s statement distills the challenge of illustrating children’s books. How does an illustrator align a child’s curiosity and imagination with artistic merit? Perhaps an even higher bar: how to create imagery original enough to attract not just eager-eyed children but also the adults who read with them? The exhibition Fairy Tales to Nursery Rhymes: The Michael and Esther Droller Collection of Picture Book Art, on view at the Delaware Art Museum through May 12, offers113 lively answers. Comprising only a fraction of the Drollers’ collection, the show features works by mainly British and American artists—though 8 nationalities are represented—from the last quarter of the 19th century to the present. The collectors’ taste favors precise and detailed imagery with a focus on fairy tales, nursery rhymes, and folk legends. Throughout the exhibition, the artists exemplify the ideal of illustrator Michael Hague: “I strive to create something from an empty canvas that becomes a whole ‘other world’ that people can visit for a while and totally believe in… my approach is…to try and blend fantasy with realism.”[2]

The Collection

The collection began over 40 years ago, when Dr. Michael Droller received a reproduction of a

Maxfield Parrish illustration for Eugene Field’s Poems of Childhood (1904).[3] The gift ignited a love for the art of illustration. Michael and his wife Esther branched out from their collecting of antiquarian children’s books to encompass original art by the illustrators. They gathered many works from the Golden Age of Illustration, a period of innovative excellence from about 1875 to World War I. Randolph Caldecott IMAGE 1, Walter Crane IMAGE 2, and Kate Greenaway IMAGE 3 were among those who fashioned—quoting White again—“the most delightful books for the nursery and the studio, equally beloved by babies and artists.” 

In the early 1980s, Michael Droller attended some book signings by contemporary illustrators of children’s literature. Soon, the Drollers began to enjoy more such encounters with practicing artists, which in turn led to a new focus on collecting modern children’s book illustration. Justin Todd IMAGE 4 and Jerry Pinkney IMAGE 5 are just two of many well-known artists in the collection who offer current takes on traditional fairy tales and nursery rhymes.

Pictures of anthropomorphized animals by artists such as Harry Bingham Neilson in 19th-century England IMAGE 6 and William Wallace Denslow in 20th-century America IMAGE 7 allow for comparisons across decades and oceans.

As Curator of Illustration, I oversaw the installation of the exhibition at the Delaware Art Museum. Much of the research I did for interpretive materials turned out to be both enlightening and entertaining, two adjectives that define the exhibition. A few examples highlight the scope and depth of the collection. Each work offers both imaginative visualization of a children’s story and a glimpse into an artist’s own time and place.

The Golden Age

Randolph Caldecott (1846-1886),[4] Walter Crane (1845-1915), and Kate Greenaway began their careers in the 1870s when technical and social directions in Great Britain—and subsequently in the United States—converged to foster a thriving children’s illustration movement. Progress in mass-printing technology and distribution meant greater quantity and quality of books for all ages. The increasing prevalence of compulsory literacy expanded the young readership. Mechanization of labor brought about more leisure hours and less child labor, at least for the growing middle class. During the same years, attitudes toward childhood changed. Until the late 18th century, most Europeans accepted the prevailing Christian belief that children are inherently wayward and need strict training in proper behavior from an early age. Reading on their own or being read to, children encountered many moral tracts and few pleasing images. Gradually, as play and parental care replaced relentless moralizing as avenues to children’s good conduct and happiness, illustrated children’s literature flourished.[5] While moral teaching did not disappear, especially since many long-established tales centered on instructive plots that reflected commonly held values, absorbing stories and witty poems began to take precedence.


Randolph Caldecott (British; 1846–1886). “Babes with Huntsman,” for The Babes in the Wood (Routledge, 1879). Pen and ink on paper. 4 1/8 x 6 5/8 inches. Collection of Michael and Esther Droller             

In 1877, 26-year-old Randolph Caldecott moved to London from his native city of Chester. Years of night art classes and local exhibitions of his work quickly paid off, and he became a recognized illustrator. “Babes with Huntsman” is one of Caldecott’s 22 line drawings for The Babes in the Wood, which also included 8 color images. Originally intended for adult readers and listeners, The Babes in the Wood is a traditional British poem about a brother and sister entrusted to their uncle on their parents’ deathbed. To gain their inheritance, the uncle abandons the children to their lingering death in a forest. The story ends with divine retribution against the uncle and a warning to care for orphans.[6]

In Caldecott’s drawing, the uncle leads the two frightened children into the woods. Their unhappy expressions point to their fate. The artist combines a foreboding mood with emotive actions. The uncle’s pose is a study in graceful complexity: he steps forward, reaches back to hold the reins of a sprightly horse, and bends to look at the little girl and grasp her hand. But his towering figure and prominent knife make him a sinister presence. The girl—with the tentative walk of a toddler—must reach up to hold the hand of her killer. Her brother is a little steadier as he helps guide her, holding a stick he has picked up along the way. A reviewer noted Caldecott’s ability to give the illustrations of the “plaintive and delightful” story a “naïve pathos” that would evoke the sympathy of children.[7] The artist trusted young viewers’ compassion for the orphans to balance their sadness about the tragic ending. His skill made the book “a boon to the best parlour as well as to the nursery.”[8]

The Babes in the Wood is a good example of the malleability of folk tales. Eventually, adults found the story too dismal for youngsters and created versions that spared the children. Probably the most radical re-invention was The Walt Disney Company’s 1932 Silly Symphony animated film The Babes in the Woods, which incorporated elements of Hansel and Gretel, a band of friendly elves, and a happy ending.[9]


Walter Crane (British; 1845–1915). “’Here’s some supper for you. Wake up and eat a bit. It’ll do you good,’” for Us, by Mary Louisa S. Molesworth (Macmillan and Co., Ltd., 1899). Pen and ink on illustration board. 6 7/8 x 4 3/8 inches. Collection of Michael and Esther Droller

Walter Crane had his earliest training in the Liverpool studio of his father, the portraitist Thomas Crane.

During an apprenticeship with the well-known London engraver William James Linton, Crane quickly learned the printmaking arts as well as the publishing trade. In 1865, he began to illustrate a series of children’s books, which helped make him one of Britain’s most popular illustrators.[10] He would go on to become a foundational figure in the Arts and Crafts movement of the 1880s and 1890s, and a leader of Socialist causes.

This drawing was originally identified as a scene from The Babes in the Wood from the late 1870s, a logical assumption given the suspicious boy and girl in a forest recoiling from an apparent stranger. The man reclining just above the children could be one of the uncle’s confederates in crime described in the poem. I wondered if Crane were illustrating a variant of the story that might have included such characters. In searching for any Crane Babes in the Wood of any date, I found that Crane created this densely patterned drawing for a different story altogether: Mary Louisa S. Molesworth’s 1885 story Us, one of several books he illustrated for her. At 240 pages with 7 illustrations, Us is less a picture book than a novel for children of reading age. It centers on an orphaned brother and sister kidnapped from their grandparents; the two then endure various miseries in a forest until their escape.[11] The author emphasizes their reliance on each other and their constant anxiety—seen here in their pose as they shrink together and away from one of their captors. Crane built his composition with ascending layers rather than spatial recession: the resting man, the tent and curling smoke, and a donkey in front of impenetrable woods. The closely drawn lines of the confined space evoke the oppressed state of the orphans and their inability to escape.[12]


Kate Greenaway (British; 1846–1901). “Deaf Martha,” for Little Ann and Other Poems (George Routledge & Sons, c.1883). Watercolor and ink on paper. 4 5/16 x 6 5/8 inches. Collection of Michael and Esther Droller

Kate Greenaway’s parents noted her artistic talent and allowed her to study art almost exclusively. After early work designing greeting cards, she illustrated several children’s books in the 1870s, anchoring her reputation as a specialist in the field. Greenaway was one of the first women to earn her living as an illustrator. Her watercolors featured children dressed in a style that viewers would have recognized as early 19th century. The Victorian era was one of historical revivals. Greenaway’s costumes recall the fashions of the Regency (broadly speaking, from about 1795 to the late 1830s). Here, the boy wears a skeleton suit, a one-piece garment that often had a white ruffled shirt. Both girls wear Regency-style bonnets and dresses, the older one in a pinafore and the younger in a high-waisted, short-sleeved frock.

The daughter of a milliner who also operated a women’s clothing shop in London, Greenaway mastered sewing and often created costumes for her child models.[13] Her styles established a trend: her friend Walter Crane noted that “Her treatment of quaint early nineteenth-century costume….and the child-like spirit of her designs in an old-world atmosphere…captivated the public in a remarkable way.”[14] The British department store Liberty of London adapted Greenaway’s costumes for a line of children’s clothing. She also sold her designs to wallpaper makers (as did Caldecott).

Despite their innocent appearance, the children are shown tormenting a deaf woman. The illustration shows how a pleasing picture can complement a serious message. The poet reminds the child reader:

One day, when those children themselves are grown old,

Perhaps they may find that some children, as bold,

May tease them, and mock them, and serve them the same…

A faithful account will their consciences keep,

And teach them, with shame and with sorrow, the truth,

That “what a man soweth, the same shall he reap.”

The Modern Era


Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art

Michael Justin Todd (British; b. 1932). “‘Who are you?’, said the caterpillar,” fromAlice’s Adventures in Wonderland, by Lewis Carroll, Victor Gollancz Ltd., 1984. 12 x 8 inches. Gouache on illustration board. 11 3/8 x 8 1/2 inches. Collection of Michael and Esther Droller. © 1984 Justin Todd

In this illustration, one of many Todd has done for children’s books, the hookah-smoking caterpillareyes Alice who, at 3 inches tall in this part of the story, stands on her toes to return his gaze. Curls of smoke echo his serpentine form. A grasshopper moves toward the lower right corner. A butterfly against the sky reminds us of the caterpillar’s next phase; its wings, and some of the flowers, break the margins of the drawing.

A fellow illustrator described Todd’s working method.[15] He divides his composition into grids on the illustration board. With a collection of extremely fine brushes, he slowly paints from one side of the composition to the other. Using very little water with the gouache, he creates deeply colored areas (like the grass) and delicate striations (like the butterfly wings). One work may take weeks to produce. Here, the enamel-like painting in striking blues, greens, and yellows, conjures up a fantastical moment suspended in time. Alice does look timeless—not Victorian but not especially contemporary. The scene has the convincing reality of a dream. Todd captures a spirit described by Walter Crane: “There is at least one advantage in designing children’s books: that the imagination is singularly free…it finds a world of its own, which may be interpreted in a spirit of playful gravity.” [16]


Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art

Jerry Pinkney (American; born 1939), “Being Fashionable Ain’t Often Healthy,” for More Tales of Uncle Remus: Further Adventures of Brer Rabbit, His Friends, Enemies, and Others by Julius Lester (Dial Books for Young Readers, 1988). Graphite on paper. 8 3/8 x 6 7/8 inches. Collection of Michael and Esther Droller. © 1988 Jerry Pinkney.            

Jerry Pinkney’s parents valued creativity, storytelling, and their son’s childhood sketching. A few years after his graduation from the Philadelphia College of Art (now the University of the Arts), his illustrations for Joyce Cooper Arkhurst’s The Adventures of Spider: West African Folk Tales were the first of his more than 100 picture books. His imagery also appears in magazine literature, on postage stamps, greeting cards and posters. As a visual storyteller, Pinkney is especially interested in the Black experience:

A sense of community has always been important to me, and I want that to be reflected in my art. When I speak of community, I am not only talking about the immediate world around me, but also legacy. I am always searching for projects that connect with my culture and the experience of being Black in America.[17]

His illustrations for the Uncle Remus tales are part of that experience. In 1880, the White journalist Joel Chandler Harris published Uncle Remus, His Songs and Sayings: The Folklore of an Old Plantation, a collection of African-American folktales that he had heard as a youth while working on a Georgia plantation. Harris wrote in a dialect intended to recreate the tales’ narration by enslaved people such as George Terrell, who became a model for Uncle Remus. The lead character is Brer (or Brother) Rabbit, a trickster who regularly outwits his fellow creatures. Uncle Remus enjoyed popular success through the mid-20th century; since then, its intrinsic racism and patronizing depictions have elicited criticism for several decades. Recent scholarship has counter-argued that Harris and his characters use subversive language and plots to control their lives and undermine their “masters.”[18]

This complex history absorbed Pinkney as he collaborated with author Julius Lester on drawings and watercolors for the children’s book The Tales of Uncle Remus.[19] They were both aware that the stories “really had bruised people.”[20] Lester knew that

…there were those who remembered the stories from childhood and retained an almost sacred affection for them in their original form. Others associated the tales with slavery and saw no reason why anyone would want to resurrect them.[21]

Just as Lester decided to eliminate Harris’s dialect, Pinkney wanted to make his illustrations approachable and good-natured. His fascination with wildlife, bolstered by his extensive reference library about animals, led to illustrations like this one of Brer Rabbit (at right) with Mr. Carney Crow and Dock Wolf (called Brer Wolf in other chapters). In an attempt to be “fashionable,” the bird unwittingly invites his own decapitation by the wolf. This plot twist soon leads to another murder. All characters except the victims find these events hilarious. Although one critic objected to the “positively homicidal humor of the material,” she also noted that

Every single illustration by Jerry Pinkney is fastidious, inspired and a marvel of delightful imagination.[22]

It’s easy to imagine Pinkney in front a mirror acting out his interpretations of the 3 animals, perhaps in costume, something he did while creating the illustrations.[23] The talkative crane displays a variety of feathers, including the long, graceful black ones on his head. He addresses Dock Wolf, with his spotted tail and elaborately designed suit of clothes. We see the surprised wolf’s wide eyes and upturned paws, as he spies an opportunity for his natural instincts. At the moment, Brer Rabbit, dressed in a simple vest and trousers, is quietly observing the scene. Violence is kept in the offing. Pinkney concentrates on the animals’ emotions. He allows viewers (to the extent they want to) to imagine the gruesome action.

A comparison

Beloved from the time of Aesop’s fables in the 6th century BCE, animals with the emotions and activities of humans enjoyed renewed popularity in 19th and 20th century children’s literature. They could be both simple fun and irresistible models for life lessons. Harry Bingham Neilson and William Wallace Denslow adopted pigs for quite different but equally endearing scenarios.


Harry Bingham Neilson (British; 1861–1941), “High Jinks,” unpublished, not dated. Ink and watercolor on paper. 10 11/16 x 8 1/8 inches. Collection of Michael and Esther Droller

This scene seems to be Neilson’s own variant on the “Hey diddle diddle / The cat and the fiddle” rhyme. Instead, we have the inscription:  

Hey diddle diddle / The piggies are having a prance / The fiddler laughed to see such fun / And the chicks wished they also could dance.

In a well-kept and well-stocked rustic cottage, the pigs (their feet high off the floor) and the fiddler are clearly delighted. The envious chickens are peering down and frowning. The dancer at left carries a shillelagh, a traditional Irish walking stick, so maybe an Irish jig is in progress. His partner’s multi-colored costume seems to swirl with her frisky moves. Details like the ribbons on the cat and the fiddler’s hat, the hanging cups, and the curtains keep our eyes moving beyond the festive dancers.

In 1889, after a career as an engineer and electrician in the shipbuilding business and no record of art studies, Neilson illustrated his first of 21 books for children.[24] He specialized in portraying animals dressed as and behaving as people. His childhood in Lancashire in the north of England may have inspired comical characters like those in “High Jinks.” He remembered

Small thatched cottages, with white-washed walls…and all with pig sties… The ladies wore…many-flounced, voluminous skirts, while young men of fashion affected peg-top trousers [and] little pork-pie hats with fluttering ribbons.[25]


William Wallace Denslow (American; 1856–1915), “This Little Pig had None,” for Denslow’s One-Ring Circus and Other Stories (G. W. Dillingham Co., 1903). Pen and ink on paper.10 11/16 x 9 inches. Collection of Michael and Esther Droller

Although Denslow is most famous for his collaboration with L. Frank Baum on the Wizard of Oz books of the early 1900s, he also illustrated several of his own books, including the 18-volume Denslow’s Picture Book Series (1903-04), to which this illustration is related. His usual seahorse monogram appears here in the upper right. He originally placed it on the opposite side and then obscured the image so it would not appear in the publication.

The nursery rhyme “This Little Piggy” or “Five Little Pigs” is traditionally recited as the count of a baby’s toes:

This little piggy went to market,

This little piggy stayed home,

This little piggy had roast beef,

This little piggy had none,

And this little piggy cried “wee wee wee” all the way home.

Denslow’s weeping pig who “has none” perches next to an “I am hungry” sign. He wears a tattered jacket and patched pants as he receives a coin from a well-dressed little girl carrying a substantial purse. The image becomes an example of a child’s charity, reversing the hungry pig’s sad fate. Denslow’s aim, as he said, was “to furnish good, clean wholesome fun for children, eliminating the deceit, murder and theft that is so rife in the older fairy tales.”[26] In “This Little Pig Had None,” he left the poem intact (he changed some other tales’ violent plots and characters) but used his illustration for a reassuring and uplifting message.

Just as Victorian parents eventually found “The Babes in the Wood” too frightening for children, today’s Internet exchanges about “This Little Piggy” show how fairy tales and nursery rhymes persist as touchstones of adult values. In 2018, Chicago Tribune reporter Eric Zorn and various bloggers related with mock horror their realization that one pig is going “to market” for slaughter and one is going home apparently grateful to be spared for a day.[27] That’s why, Zorn notes, “some more sensitive souls have posted revisions that avoid the uncomfortable topic of butchery: ‘This little piggy ate blueberries/ This little piggy ate cheese…’”

Fairy Tales to Nursery Rhymes: The Michael and Esther Droller Collection of Picture

Book Art crystallizes the best in children’s illustration. The small sampling shown here—in dazzling or subtle color, or finely drawn line—reflects the larger exhibition. Each work appeals to young eyes and hearts and to their older companions in reading. The collectors clearly follow the insight and advice of renowned illustrator Arthur Rackham (British; 1867-1939), also represented in the exhibition:

I can only say that I firmly believe in the greatest stimulating and educative powers of imaginative, fantastic, and playful pictures and writings for children in their most impressionable years …. And it must be insisted on that nothing less than the best that can be had…is good enough for those early impressionable years … Any accepting, or even choosing, art or literature of a lower standard, as good enough for children, is a disastrous and costly mistake.[28]

[1] White’s essay is still a useful review of British children’s book illustration to the end of the 19th century. Also helpful is E. M. Field’s book The Child and His Book: Some Account of the History and Progress of Children’s Literature in England, Wells, Gardner, Darton &  Co., London, 1891:

[2] Tikvah, Children’s Book Creators Reflect on Human Rights, SeaStar Books, New York. © 1999 University of Connecticut, 97. See also

[3] The Parrish illustration was “The Dinkey-Bird,” painted to illustrate Field’s poem about a magical bird who sings from the mythical amfalula tree: The painting is now in the collection of the Charles Hosmer Morse Museum of American Art (Winter Park, FL): The figure in the swing and the blue sky are recurring motifs in Parrish’s work.

[4] In 1938, the American Library Association established the Caldecott Medal, awarded to “to the artist of the most distinguished American Picture Book for Children published in the United States during the preceding year.”

[5] For a brief review of changing beliefs about childhood, see Ashley Erskine, “From Trivial to Treasured: Childhood in the Enlightenment,” The Bildungsroman Project and related bibliography, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill,

[6] For a discussion of tragedies that befall children in picture books, see “Babes in the Wood: Picturing Displaced Children,” by Kathryn E. Shoemaker, The Looking Glass: New Perspectives on Children’s Literature, vol. 9, no. 2, November 2005.

[7] “Fine Art / Art Books,” The Academy / A Weekly Review of Literature, Science, and Art, London, Nov. 15, 1879. 362:

[8] Ibid., 362


[10]  Andrea Korda, “Learning from “good pictures”: Walter Crane’s picture books and visual literacy,” Word and Image / A Journal of Verbal/Visual Enquiry, vol. 32, 2016, issue 4, 327-339

[11] One of the chapters is titled “Babes in a Wood.”

[12] For a view of the Victorian preoccupation with orphans, see Jacqueline Banerjee, “Ideas of Childhood in Victorian Children’s Fiction: Orphans, Outcasts and Rebels.” Victorian Web. Viewed March 26, 2019

[13] “Kate Greenaway (1846-1901).” Victorian Web.

Viewed April 10, 2019

[14] Walter Crane, quoted in Kate Greenaway, Marion Harry Spielman and George Somes Layard. Adam and Charles Black, London, 1905, 71

[15] Graphic Journey. Mike Dempsey’s blog on graphics and living.

[16] Walter Crane, quoted in Francesca Tancini, “As a Kind of Picture-Writing”: Walter Crane, Drawing, and the Creation of a New Symbolic System, in Picturing the Language of Images,Nancy Pedri and Laurence Petit, editors. Cambridge Scholars Publishing, Newcastle Upon Tyne, 2013.

[17] Jerry Pinkney, “Artist Statement,” Jerry Pinkney Studio:

[18] Armistead Lemon, Summary / Uncle Remus, His Songs and His Sayings: The Folk-Lore of the Old Plantation, Documenting the American South and related bibliography:

[19] Originally published in 4 volumes

[20] Jerry Pinkney, in “Digital Tour: Jerry Pinkney: Imaginings,” The Tales of Uncle Remus (1987), Norman Rockwell Museum:

[21] Ibid.,

[22] June Jordan, “Children’s Books; A Truly Bad Rabbit,” New York Times, May 17, 1987

[23] Jerry Pinkney, in “Digital Tour: Jerry Pinkney: Imaginings,” The Tales of Uncle Remus (1987), Norman Rockwell Museum:

[24] Christopher Proudlove, “Life and times of a comic genius,” in Write Antiques, July 27, 2007.

[25] Harry B. Neilson, Auld-lang-syne: recollections and rural records of old Claughton, Birkenhead and Bidston with other reminiscences. Willmer Brothers, Birkenhead, 1935, 11

[26] Quoted by Michael Hearn, “Introduction,” The Denslow Picture Book Treasury.Dover Publications Inc., 2010.

[27] Eric Zorn, “Social media post reveals the unsettling truth about the first little piggy,” Chicago Tribune, August 28, 2018

[28] Quoted in “Children’s Literature / Arthur Rackham,” Clarke Historical Library, Central Michigan University; from Derek Hudson, Arthur Rackham: His Life and Work. Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York, 1960, 82

Organized by The Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art, Amherst, Massachusetts On view at the Delaware Art Museum, March 2 – May 12, 2019

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