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Illustrator's 'Balloon' Is Going Places, Artfully

Books Robin Preiss Glasser of Newport Beach and her sister take kids on a tour of the Met and New York.

November 18, 1998|DENNIS McLELLAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Some of Robin Preiss Glasser's fondest memories of growing up are of the times her parents took her and her four sisters to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in Manhattan.

"They'd pack us in the car dressed in our nicest outfits, with patent-leather Mary Janes and bows in our hair," recalls Glasser, 42, a Newport Beach children's book illustrator. "It would be a big, exciting day going to the museum. We'd always stop and have a Sabrette at the hot dog stand out front."

Three decades later, Glasser and her youngest sister, Jacqueline Preiss Weitzman, have returned to the Met, this time via a whimsical children's book that is earning raves for its energy and charm.

"You Can't Take a Balloon Into the Metropolitan Museum" (Dial Books for Young Readers; $17), Weitzman and Glasser's first collaboration, is a wordless adventure through the streets of New York and a look at some of the world's great works of art.

A Junior Library Guild outstanding selection, the slim volume has a simple premise: A little girl who is visiting the art museum with her grandmother is prevented from taking her yellow balloon inside. A friendly guard ties the balloon to a railing and promises to watch it for her. But a pigeon picks at the string, setting in motion a frantic dash through the streets of New York as the guard tries to snare the errant balloon.

Meanwhile, the little girl, oblivious to the increasingly madcap chase, tours the museum's Monets, Pollocks and classic Greek art.

Glasser's illustrations are detailed pen-and-ink drawings, with the central action highlighted in color. What makes the book unusual is that not only are full-color reproductions of 18 works of art from the Metropolitan's collection incorporated into Glasser's drawings, but also that the action in the guard's chase mimics and the artwork the girl is viewing.

When the balloon floats through a snooty New York eatery, the girl is looking at Mary Cassatt's "Lady at the Tea Table." When the balloon sails through a bridge in Central Park, the girl is examining Claude Monet's "Bridge Over a Pool of Water Lilies."

Weitzman, 34, a Manhattan interior designer, came up with the idea for the book after her 3-year-old niece was prevented from taking her balloon into the Met. Weitzman, intent on writing a children's book, has been pitching ideas to her sister for years, Glasser said.

"I've been saying, 'That's nice. Work on it, work on it,' " Glasser said. "But when she told me this idea, I just got chills. I thought it was a fabulous way to bring the classic art of the Met to children in a fun, approachable way."

Even the frames around the paintings in the book, while drawn in Glasser's squiggly cartoon style, resemble the real ones. (The museum granted the sisters permission to use color transparencies of the artwork from its collection.)

Of course, now that their wordless picture book is out, people are asking Weitzman, "What did you do?"

But, Glasser said, the book was not only Weitzman's idea, but Weitzman also developed the characters and figured out the balloon's route. The rest, she said, was a "seamless" collaboration. That included shooting hundreds of photographs of Manhattan sites that Glasser used as references for her drawings.

"Everything that happens [in the book] is doable," Glasser said. "You can walk that route the balloon takes, visit all those places that we go to and experience the entire adventure if you want."

Weitzman made another valuable contribution to the book: Glasser used a vintage childhood photo of her sister, dressed in red kilt, fisherman-knit sweater, Mary Janes and red-bowed pigtails, as the model for the girl in the book.

The sisers had intended to tell their story with words. After the story, characters and route of the balloon were mapped out, Glasser gave Weitzman three weeks to write the story before dummying the pictorial layout of the book.

"She worked on it 2 1/2 weeks and sent me the strangest version," Glasser said. "It all sounded like a Rambo movie: 'Get that balloon!' 'Get that balloon!' 'Did you get it?' And the little girl was saying, 'I wonder how my balloon is doing?' It was horrible."

One night, Glasser recalled, "She called me at two in the morning and said, 'This book is about seeing; it's about looking and making up your own mind about art. When each child looks at art, they have to take it and tell what it's about. This is how our book should be presented: no words.' "

"I said, 'Brilliant! It should be done in mime, and each child can make up the story themselves.' "

As illustrator, Glasser's challenge was to tell the story solely through her drawings. But Glasser, a former leading dancer with the Pennsylvania Ballet, said that was no problem.

"It was a natural for me because when we did a story ballet it was told in mime," she said. "So I know how to express myself in movement. It was the same thing, acting out this book physically and then connecting movement into a single image: What image would best express this particular moment? So it's almost like taking a reel of film and editing one frame at a time to best tell the story."

"You Can't Take a Balloon Into the Metropolitan Museum" is the fourth children's book Glasser has illustrated, including Judith Viorst's bestselling "Alexander, Who's Not (Do You Hear Me? I Mean It!) Going to Move." She has six books coming out next year.

Glasser will sign copies of her book at noon Saturday and Sunday at the Metropolitan Museum of Art store in South Coast Plaza, Costa Mesa. (714) 435-9160.

O.C. Books and Authors * A calendar of events is on E3

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