By Allison Campbell-Jensen
Renowned children’s book illustrator Ariane Dewey has received the 2021 Kerlan Award — and long-delayed recognition for work early in her career. The Kerlan Award recognizes Dewey for her accomplishments and for her generous donations to The Kerlan Collection of Children’s Literature at the University Libraries.
Dewey’s online conversation with Kerlan curator Lisa Von Drasek was part of the 2021 Twin Cities Book Festival, sponsored by Rain Taxi Review of Books.
An unacknowledged partnership
Initially in the 1970s, Ariane Dewey worked with then-husband José Aruego in a partnership — a silent partnership. He loved to draw and created the drawings for children’s books. Then she would apply the color to bring them to life, but he received entire credit for the artworks.
Dewey said of Aruego, who died in 2012: “He thought having a husband and wife team was not very professional. … In the beginning, it didn’t really matter.”
Once she was working full-time on their books, however, it did matter to her, particularly as her work in color separation was complicated, time consuming, and it was the unique color that was receiving acclaim in the review media.
Dewey shared some advice for would-be illustrators: “When in doubt, choose purple. A person can tire of grey elephants, but purple ones? Not so much.”
—From the Oct. 4 Kerlan Award event
Aruego had been conveying her questions to his editors, and they had no idea that the whole of the art work wasn’t his. Their first book that required a four-color process was “The Chick and the Duckling,” which generated a meeting with the editor, art director, and publisher.
Dewey accompanied him to Macmillan for the meeting.
“Jose said, ‘This is my wife, Ariane’ — and didn’t tell them I worked on the books,” Dewey said. She sat quietly until knotty questions of color separation arose and she asked spot-on questions: “They were flabbergasted.”
Von Drasek completed the story: “They said your name needed to be on the books.” And starting with “The Chick and the Duckling,” both artists were credited.
Because of the way that color was printed in books at the time — three-color process uses three different printing plates for yellow, red, and blue — Dewey had to envision different parts of the image in those colors and depict them with a percentage density in greyscale.
“I would imagine what all of it would look like,” she said, “but I wouldn’t see it until it was printed.
A colorful career
Together and individually, Aruego and Dewey contributed art to more than 70 titles in children’s literature. Even after they divorced, they continued to work together.
“His style and movement were pure genius,” Von Drasek said, while Dewey was called out for her command of color.
One of their groundbreaking books, still in print, “Leo the Late Bloomer” was praised by Betsy Bird, then youth materials specialist for the New York Public Library, for “advancing watercolor to the next level.”
To illustrate during the conversation, Von Drasek displayed several color studies of a page from “The Littlest Wolf” (held in The Kerlan), in which Dewey used a variety of media, like oil pastels or watercolors, in different colors, to gauge the effects.
“The colors expressed emotions; in some colors, the wolf looks mean,” noted Von Drasek; in other colors, he appears curious.
The importance of Ariane Dewey’s contribution to the art of award-winning titles like “Leo the Late Bloomer,” “Antarctic Antics,” and “Herman the Helper” cannot be underestimated. As the conversation continued, Aruego and Dewey’s son Juan, who was in his mother’s home, was called to put on the headphones. Von Drasek said, “It’s important for people in children’s literature to understand that Ariane was more than a helper.”
Because Ariane Dewey held no copyright, royalty, or credit for her early works, Juan Aruego held them as heir of his father’s estate. He agreed that he would work toward getting his mother’s name on those early titles when they are reprinted. The event audience posted their support in the chat.
The legacy continues
The children’s literature thread continues in Dewey’s family: Juan Aruego’s wife, Erin McGill, has published a few books. Her latest is “If You Want a Friend in Washington: Wacky, wild & wonderful presidential pets.” Perhaps someday McGill’s drafts will be collected in the Kerlan, which Rain Taxi editor Eric Lorberer called “a treasured collection.”
Dewey shared some advice for would-be illustrators: “When in doubt, choose purple.” A person can tire of grey elephants, but purple ones? Not so much.