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How a kids’ book character helps draw noted author and illustrator William Joyce and the National Center for Children’s Illustrated Literature to West Texas

When the Abilene mayor cracked open “Santa Calls” by William Joyce for a children’s book reading in 1993, he had no idea the story put his city in the spotlight.

Yet there on Page 1, Joyce presents the young protagonist, Art Atchinson Aimesworth. He wears a cowboy hat and is from Abilene, Texas.

“Naturally, I was pleased that Abilene was selected as the site for this particular book,” says Gary McCaleb, who served as mayor from 1990 to 1999.

After that fateful story time, McCaleb’s staff contacted the author and illustrator, who lives in Louisiana. “I just wanted to know why and how he had chosen Abilene,” McCaleb said. “He could have made up a name or he could have picked another name.”

Joyce explained that he had never been to Abilene and didn’t know anyone there, McCaleb recalls. He “just wanted it to be a real place where a kid could grow up on an ‘Animal Phantasmagoria,’ whatever that is.”

Joyce soon visited Abilene and befriended the mayor. Together, they devised a plan based on this notion articulated by Joyce: “Children’s literature is the first literature and the first art that children are exposed to. It should be good. And when it is, it should be given respect.”

That was the happy beginning of the National Center for Children’s Illustrated Literature, established in 1997 to showcase original art from books that would inspire children to read and appreciate art. At that time, the NCCIL was the only center in the country to focus exclusively on children’s illustrated literature.

Now housed in a renovated building in the historic district, the center is hosting its 53rd exhibit. “William Joyce: A Guardian of Childhood” runs through September. This is the second time Joyce’s art has graced the NCCIL (pronounced nickel).

The artist’s works include the picture books “George Shrinks,” “Dinosaur Bob” and “The Guardians of Childhood” series, made into the DreamWorks Animation film “Rise of the Guardians” in 2012.

His portfolio also boasts the creation of animated shorts, a video game and co-winning a 2012 Oscar for the short film, “The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore.”

“Joyce, I’ve heard him speak several times,” says Debbie Lillick, NCCIL executive director. “And his imagination is like—woo-hoo!” She waves her arm up and out to indicate a place far, far away. His ability to dream combined with the depth and detail in his work, she says, makes him a real artist.

For the NCCIL exhibit, original images from Joyce’s stories adorn the walls. Works of art, such as the bold-colored acrylic paintings that pop from the pages of “Santa Calls” and the digital art of some “The Guardians of Childhood” books, hang a little lower in the gallery where even small children can see them.

An objective of the center is to unravel the creative process for young minds. Displays of artists’ early sketches complement the works on the walls, and lecterns with published books show the finished product. At exhibit openings, often the author visits the museum to share stories about development and inspiration. Then the exhibit travels to other museums nationwide. Also, the center hosts children’s events on Saturdays and gives docent-led school tours as part of its educational effort.

“The children come in, and they think the book is its own entity,” Lillick says. “It’s neat for the kids to see that it’s not magic.”

Yet the museum and its programming can have transformative powers, says Sujata Shahane, NCCIL education and programming director. “Everything about this place is magical,” Shahane says, describing the wide-eyed schoolchildren. “It inspires them to pick up a book and read a story.”

That simple act of reading a book, as the former Abilene mayor discovered 21 years ago, can set in motion a real-life fairy tale.

Suzanne Haberman, staff writer