A large and aged hardback lies open on one edge of Billie Levy's dining table, revealing the illustration of a rolling countryside set around a small castle perched on a distant fairy tale hill. The illustration, rendered in pastel pink and greenish-yellow watercolors, flows flush to the edge of the 14-inch long pages. Leaning in close to one page, Levy moves her index finger to rest above the crimson cheek of a knave crouched in the foreground: "[If this is an original illustration], the ink will show up smooth under the microscope," she says, "but if the dots show up, you know it's [a reproduction]."
The book is a 1920s edition of The Story of Naughty Kildeen, a children's tale published in Romania and illustrated by Job, an important 20th century European artist whom Levy admires. "I have lots of European illustrators. This fills in some of the gaps in my collection,'' she says.
Nearby on the table, a similarly aged large-edition of Gulliver's Travels, also illustrated by Job, awaits the same fate as Naughty Kildeen. Levy is cautiously optimistic about the prospect of discovering original hand-colored art in this oversized and slightly frayed hardcover she pores over. The possibility has launched her on a quest for a highpower microscope that will distinguish original art from reproduction.
Coupled with the book lover's knack for being in the right place at the right time, Levy is blessed with the book lover's good judgment, which persuaded her to purchase this outwardly unremarkable book from a Massachusetts book dealer last summer for only a few dollars. The discovery of hand-colored illustrations would raise the book's value significantly. However, it is the intrinsic benefit—the chance to fill out her collection of European illustrators to complement her more extensive collection of American illustrators— that is important to Levy.
In the meantime, she inspects the condition of the book, recording details about its soiled seagreen binding, grayedged pages, tears, cracks, discolorations and other signs of wear. In fact, Levy spends many hours of her retirement days recording in a computer database the condition of thousands of children's books she has collected. It is a labor of love that also reveals how the art and science of book collecting intersect in the bibliophile's life.
Since about 1997, she has been making her laudable labors of collecting permanently available to others by transferring the astounding 8,000 volumes of children's fiction, fairy tales and folklore she has collected to the Thomas J. Dodd Research Center at the University of Connecticut. Levy's donation, along with the donations from other collectors, helped to establish the Northeast Children's Literature Collection at the university, one of only several similar research collections in the country.
"I had a basement full of books. My husband, a law professor at UConn, kept building me shelves,'' she said. Eventually, her books were overtaking space, and the idea of a children's collection at UConn was a perfect solution. "Norman Stevens was the UConn librarian at the time; he put them on loan. When I saw the appreciation [that people had for the collection], I gave them to the university."
Levy, a retired children's librarian, has been rescuing orphaned children's books from used bookstores and garage sales for more than two decades. Generations of American schoolchildren have grown up reading some of the classics on her shelves, such as the adventures of the lovable pachyderm, The Travels of Babar (1934); the trials of The Five Chinese Brothers (1938); the plucky confidence of Mike Mulligan and his Steam Shovel (1939); the madcap antics adapted from a folktale, Caps for Sale (1940); the high-spirited heroine, Madeline (1940); and the footloose freedom paraded in the story Make Way for Ducklings (1941). Another perennial favorite she collected is Millions of Cats (1928): "It's the perfect children's book. The text was hand-lettered. It set the standards for illustrated books — wonderful pictures [of cats] flowed over the pages. Pictures have to be totally integrated to work at all," she says.
Everything about Billie Levy seems to be generous and substantial, except her petite 5- foot-tall frame, which she moves quickly through the rooms of her artistically appointed West Hartford home. Her collection reflects her boundless enthusiasm for some of the great American artists, among them the renowned painter Howard Pyle and wood engraver Alexander Anderson. "My goal is to have one edition of every illustrator in America. I'm over 1,500 now," she says.
Copyright Hartford Courant, reprinted with permission, 2004