What do King Arthur, Henry Hudson, and Thomas Cole have in common? They’ve all been featured in the books of celebrated children’s author and illustrator Hudson Talbott whose work is featured in a retrospective, “River of Dreams,” at Hudson Hall through August 15. In a career that spans more than 30 years, Talbott has written and illustrated over 27 books for young readers.
The cover image is from United Tweets of America (Puffin Books, 2015), which celebrates the state birds of the US. The eastern bluebird—not the pigeon—is New York’s avian mascot. “I imagined a chirpy little bluebird from upstate, thrilled about his first time in the big city, with the jaded New York pigeons looking on, smirking at the naïveté, and that reminded me of myself arriving from Kentucky to New York City a few decades ago,” says Talbott. “I had fun losing my innocence in the Big Bad Apple, but now I’m just glad to
be here upstate, with bluebirds nesting in my backyard.”
Talbott is well known for From Wolf to Woof, It’s All About Meow, and Leonardo’s Horse.His book O’Sullivan Stew was inspired by trips to Ireland; Tales of King Arthur from travels to the UK; while Amazon Diary is based on his time spent among the Yanomami tribe in South America with photographer and coauthor Mark Greenberg. The two friends accompanied Dr. John Walden on his mission to bring much-needed malaria medicine to remote tribal people. “It’s important to share that there are other cultures out there,” Talbott says. “I love to impart a sense of wonder about the world with young readers.”
Stephen Spielberg came across Talbott’s first book We’re Back: A Dinosaur’s Story, bought the rights, and made it into an animated feature length film in 1993, which helped kickstart Talbott’s career. Eventually, he moved up to the Hudson Valley, where he now resides in a farmhouse overlooking the Catskills.
“This region played such a pivotal role in American history and directly influenced my book River of Dreams: The Story of the Hudson River,” he explains.“In order to make it more personal, I thought of myself as a dreamer coming to the big city, which would never have been here without the big river. I found my thread in all the dreams the river has inspired over the centuries and used that as the foundation for my story, right up to the 20th century, which placed the Hudson Valley at the center of the environmental movement.”
Knowing that he was seeking additional information for the history of the Hudson, his editor connected him with Pete Seeger who called him on the phone. “Hearing his voice, I felt like I was talking to Abraham Lincoln. He couldn’t have been nicer and was so ready to share what he knew about the Hudson River. He was a huge force in raising consciousness about the region and the whole environmental movement. So, I made sure he appeared in my book.”
The legacy of the Hudson River School moved Talbott to pay tribute to the movement in Picturing America: Thomas Cole and The Birth of American Art. “A teacher of mine suggested I create a book about him. I ran it past my editor who loved the idea,” he says. “As an immigrant, Cole viewed this country with a fresh perspective and helped Americans see the magnificence of this country.”