Hilary Knight's career as a children's illustrator changed forever when he was introduced to Kay Thompson, who had an idea for a book about a six-year-old girl she had made up as a sort of alter ego. Knight sent Thompson a Christmas card with a drawing; the two cloistered themselves in a room at the Plaza, and Eloise was born. Her 1955 debut was a smash.
Knight has been in the press as Eloise's de facto representative since Thompson passed on in 1998 and her titles were freed for republication. But his contribution to children's literature is vaster, and his talent for creating evocative, singular illustrations is peerless. His work on Betty MacDonald’s Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle series in the late 1940s, for example, was another case of his creating images that became inextricable from the stories; so much so that when Maurice Sendak took over the job for one Mrs. Piggle Wiggle title (Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle’s Farm, 1954), even that legendary illustrator’s work seemed somehow unsatisfying. Knight had already left his imprint on the job with the flowing lines that had brought the story to life, seemingly drawn by MacDonald’s words themselves.
In the MacDonald books, Knight lent his drawings of oval-faced, pixie-ish characters a certain ethereal quality, so that they often appear to be floating or vibrating. He accomplished the same conveyance of mood for the Eloise books, giving everything – especially the stringy-haired, peripatetic Eloise -- a sense of swanlike exuberance. It was with the Eloise titles that Knight had an opportunity to expand his art’s relationship to a story; and the detail and scope evident in those books is often breathtaking and delightful. His work for other authors, including the The I Hate to Cook Book by Peg Bracken (for adults) and Sunday Morning by Judith Viorst, shows his versatility.
Though he has primarily been known as an illustrator for other writers, Knight has also had sole billing on a few titles of his own. The best known of these is Where’s Wallace, featuring an orangutan antecedent to Waldo, and it’s an excellent example of Knight’s ability to create a virtual circus (or, in this case, zoo) on the page. He has also revived classics such as Cinderella, The Owl and the Pussycat, and The Twelve Days of Christmas, all of which show a softer, more textured style than in his other books. His work is always magical and alluring.
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Eloise's visual inspiration was from a painting that Knight's mother did in the 1930s. He had plenty of encouragement: He told Barnes & Noble.com, "I started as a craftsman in my early teens -- family friends were trapped into buying jewelry, paintings, and 'objects' even before they got to the safety of our living room."
Eloise has a sort of doppelganger in Ian Falconer's irrepressible pig, Olivia. His Olivia and its sequels earned a coveted book blurb/blessing from Knight: "Eloise has met her match! We love Olivia!"
Knight's parents, Clayton Knight and Katherine Sturges, were successful illustrators also. Knight attended art school but his studies were interrupted by World War II, and he enlisted in the Navy. After almost two years of service, he began working as a magazine illustrator.
The origin of Eloise's dog Weenie, according to Knight in a 1999 Newsday article, came from one of Thompson's notes on the story that she gave to Knight before he began work on it. "I was intrigued by pugs long before Eloise. Kay gave me a piece of paper that read, 'I have a dog that looks like a cat,' and my original drawing was neither dog nor cat. It obviously wasn't right. Just about then the Duchess of Windsor began collecting pugs - at that point the Windsors were taken seriously as arbiters of fashion."
Well into his 70s, Knight says he is "still standing, with a pen in my hand." He reserves special admiration for fellow artist and renowned cariacaturist Al Hirshfeld: "[He] is my inspiration and should be to everyone. Here is a man at 100 whose work is consistently terrific."
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In 2002, Hilary Knight took time to answer some of our questions. Read on for a fascinating earlier conversation with Knight about Eloise: The Absolutely Essential Edition, and the beginnings of the character.
What was the book that most influenced your life, and why?
Perhaps the books that made the greatest impact on me and my work are A.A. Milne's set of four books with sensitive line drawings by Ernest H. Shepard, Now We are Six (it contained "King Hilary and the Beggerman," my personal favorite as a child), When We Were Very Young and two about Winnie the Pooh. They showed me how to render tender emotion and high humor in animals (or were they really people?). From mournful Eeyore in "Pooh" to outrageous Toad in Shepard's version of The Wind in the Willows. Toad certainly helped me in some of Eloise's more tempestuous moments.
My choices are mostly pictorial. For instance, the fairy tale books illustrated by Edmund Dulac are numerous. His technique, design, and use of color, has influenced many artists, myself included.
A book I would love to illustrate, but because it is so brilliantly written, drawings would be superfluous is T. H. White's The Once and Future King. A rare book is one that can attract a person with an active imagination or one with none at all -- that can ignite a spark in each of them.
Again, I could never narrow down a choice, but I am drawn to exotic locales ([Michael] Powell & [Emeric] Pressburger's 1947 Black Narcissus) and people (Elephant Boy [1937, directed by Robert J. Flaherty and Zoltan Korda] -- note both starred my childhood hero Sabu). Films with car chases and mass-murders are low on my list.
When I'm not drawing it seems I'm driving, and music plays an important part -- with both songs from 1930s films and stage shows and band music from that era. Also Latin rhythms. And I find that nothing can compare to sailing along the Long Island Expressway with Ravel's "Daphnis & Chloe."
If you had a book club, what would it be reading, and why?
I own so many books I'm considering starting my own club.
Who are your favorite writers, and what makes their writing special?
My favorite authors were always the ones that made me laugh. In my youth it was S. J. Pearlman. Today it's Barry Humphries (creator of Dame Edna). We are planning a book together.
What else do you want your readers to know? Likes and dislikes, interests and hobbies, your favorite ways to unwind - whatever comes to mind.
My favorite way to unwind? . . . Well, I'm not wound very tightly to start with. I do love to work. I'm fascinated with the process of putting a book together, and when it's all done I find it very hard to just let it go. But I manage.
When I grew up in Roslyn, Long Island, we had a pond -- a great source of wonder to me as a child. Now, still in Long Island, there is another body of water, filled with bullfrogs making extraordinary music. At the end of day a usual sight on its banks are Hilary and his cat Ruff "pondering," blissfully happy and totally unwound.
[From 1999]: Meet the man who made Eloise "not yet pretty but already a person..." -- acclaimed illustrator Hilary Knight. With his lively line drawings and marvelous imagination, Knight captured the spirit of Kay Thompson's rambunctious character, Eloise -- and brought the naughty yet lovable little girl to life!
For the last 35 years, only the original book, Kay Thompson's , has been available. Why did the sequels go out of print at all?
Kay felt the other books detracted from the original (a very few agreed with her). I am thrilled they are coming back into print. When I do signings, the most asked question (after "Do you get writer's cramp?"...I don't) is when will we get the other books back? Now you will -- and Eloise: The Absolutely Essential Edition contains all sorts of additions, biographical notes, and unpublished photos and sketches.
As an artist, who has had the greatest influence on your work?
I grew up in a great period, the '20s, '30s, and '40s. Commercial and decorative art were at their inventive height, and my parents [artists Katharine Sturges and Clayton Knight] being part of it helped me decide that was the direction I wanted. In their library and on my bookshelves were the books that inspired me -- illustrations by Edmund Dulac and Ernest Shepard made me want to be an illustrator.
How did you end up being the one to illustrate Eloise?
It was Kay and me from the beginning. Our mutual friend (and my neighbor), a fashion editor at Harper's Bazaar, D. D. Dixon, got us together, and we became an instant team. It was a thrilling part of my life.
Eloise is the quintessential six-year-old. Is she modeled after a real little girl?
Eloise is the alter ego of Kay Thompson but was visually inspired by a painting my mother had done in the 1930s. "Quintessential" suggests that there are more like her out there -- that's just not possible.
Have you ever stayed at the Plaza Hotel?
I'm waiting for Eloise to ask me for a weekend.
For Eloise in Paris, you and Kay Thompson actually traveled to France together. Can you talk a little bit about that trip?
All of the Eloise books were done in close collaboration from the start. Kay and I worked night and day at the Plaza in New York, then in hotels in Paris and Moscow. If you love laughing a lot, eating delectable meals, and having the best time of your life, it was absolutely great -- it certainly wasn't work.
Did you have any pets when you were a child, such as a dog or a turtle, like Eloise?
I cannot recall a moment in time when my family didn't have pets -- dogs, cats, finches, gerbils, and turtles. I think they are a vital part of life, as Weenie and Skipperdee are to Eloise.
How much research did you do at the Plaza Hotel before you illustrated Eloise?
I have sketchbooks bursting with drawings and notes. If the Plaza should vanish one day for some mysterious reason, come to me -- I'll reconstruct it for you.
What have you been up to since illustrating the last Eloise book? Where else have your drawings appeared?
I've kept at it. I love work. I have illustrated over 50 books that do not feature Eloise (9 of which I also wrote), and I've done greeting cards, CD covers, Broadway show posters, and lots of magazine illustrations. Recently, I've contributed regularly to Neiman Marcus's catalogue, "The Book," and Vanity Fair magazine.
Your name is unusual for a man. Is there a story behind the origin of your name?
When I was born in the 1920s, Hilary was a man's name. My father, a pilot in World War I, had a good friend and fellow flyer named Hilary. He liked the name and passed it on to me in 1926.
What do you say to people who insist that Eloise is a "girls' book"?
Any boy or girl can respond to another child who has the great luck to have an entire hotel as a playground. And boys will love Eloise in Moscow -- lots of spies and mystery and not a trace of pink.
What's on the horizon for Eloise after the re-release of the three sequels and the new tribute book, Eloise: The Absolutely Essential Edition?
There will be dolls, some very special items that only Eloise would approve of, and something she always wanted to be...a movie star. And perhaps a new Eloise adventure....
What do you tell kids when they ask you if Eloise really lives at the Plaza?
Of course she lives at the Plaza! But she is a free spirit and exceedingly nimble -- just when you think she's in the lobby, you hear from the elevator operator that she's on the top floor. That's Eloise.
Q&A courtesy of Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers.
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