Picturing Inspiration

Last week, my mother sent me four boxes filled with all the books she’d collected when my brother and I were kids. She and my father are moving and as my brother doesn’t have any children, I got them. I gnashed my teeth because we just moved and our house is filled with books. But who turns down more books? Certainly not this girl!

As I unpacked, inside one of the boxes I found Hilary Knight‘s Cinderella (1978). Of all the books she sent, this was one I sat down with re-read on my own, cover to cover, as soon as I took it out, a tingling sense of remembrance settling over me with each turn of the page.

Knight is most famous as the illustrator of Kay Thompson’s Eloise (1969). In comparison, his illustrations for Cinderella demonstrate the effects of the 1970s on aesthetics, particularly in his use of color (think Precious Moments).

But what amazed me was how well I remembered the pictures: the gauzy sleeves on Cinderella’s ball gown. The ginger prince in his pale blue coat. A discarded blue bottle and a lizard in the corner of the garden. The wisps of hair escaping from Cinderella’s chignon. As a child, I had studied these illustrations. Closely. Obsessively.

What I hadn’t remembered was this this version of Cinderella is set in the Regency (or perhaps a decade later, I’m not good with clothes and dates). At the very least, these images could serve as costume inspiration for the Austen adaptations I’d be avidly consuming a few short years after I put this book away.

I closed the book. I reopened it. I read it again. Holy cow. Maybe Hilary Knight’s illustrations for Cinderella primed me to love Austen and Regency/early Victorian England. Maybe Knight is responsible for everything that followed.

I’m utterly certain that this book set me up to appreciate Maurice Sendak’s illustrations for The Nutcracker (which Brain Pickings profiled here), a book I loved so much and for so long I took it with me when I moved out of my parents house. Sendak’s illustrations for Hoffmann’s novella (set in the late 18th century) got me into bel canto opera, which led to…

You get the point: inspiration is nested. It’s random. It’s unpredictable. And I suspect that we all process it differently. Books and words inspire me, but I don’t tend to remember them quite as clearly as I do images. Ditto for music, taste, and smell, all of which are more abstract.

When I reopened Knight’s Cinderella, I realized that for me, the picture might be the most important thing. Or at least the one that stays with me the longest. The swept of a line, the shade of blue, the quality of light: these have become part of me forever.

So what inspires you? What’s the core of what you’re writing or reading these days? And did anyone else have this edition of Cinderella?

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