The ginger tub tabby, Lottie the hottie, Dizzy Lizzie the giraffe, Leon the chameleon, the chittery-chattery crab — these are just a handful of the characters that resident Robert Forbes brings to life in his children’s poems.
Many of his characters are currently spread across the walls of The Society of the Four Arts children’s library as part of its exhibition, “Illustrating Words: The Wondrous Fantasy World of Robert L. Forbes, Poet; and Ronald Searle, Artist.”
More than 60 works combining the creative poetry of Forbes and the imaginative art of Searle went on display Nov. 1 and will stay up for the next two years.
Forbes, vice president of Forbes and president of ForbesLife magazine, frequently visits the library to read during student field trips, which already are booked through April. He said his poems are for all ages.
He tells the children, “Everybody has an imagination. Yours is just as good as mine or anybody else’s. It’s what you do with it.”
Children’s Library Director Susan Harris said the exhibit is an educational experience in which each student learns new words, sentence structure, grammar and creativity.
“I think they learn to enjoy poetry,” she said. “One of the hardest areas to teach is poetry, especially to the boys. I think the big thing is to show that it’s neat and exciting. When you read his poems and look at the pictures, it leaves an impression.”
Nearly 700 people have visited the exhibit since it opened, Harris said. The Palm Beach County School District approved the exhibition as meeting language and visual-arts standards for grades kindergarten through 12, and the library developed a teacher’s manual and student guide.
“You’ve got two great things at work here: art and writing,” said Nancy Mato, Four Arts’ executive vice president and curator. “Communication and creativity are the two key factors. This is a brilliant exhibition combining both of those. It’s incredibly unique and a very inspirational and fun exhibition. That’s why it’s terrific for the children’s library.”
Forbes said he finds inspiration everywhere: “I listen. I observe. As a result, things strike me one way or another. The ideas come from a little bit of everywhere. If you listen to language and observe what’s going on around you, you can find things that will spark an idea.”
For example, he said, the Palm Beach Zoo is a great source of inspiration. “I look at the animals, watch them and try to think what it would feel like to be the tiger walking around, big tail swishing; or the python in his glass cage slithering around.”
One of his poems is about Dizzy Lizzie, who has an abnormally long neck, even for a giraffe. It makes her different, but her difference allows her to do something none of the other giraffes can do — eat a cloud, Forbes said.
“I love playing with clichés, juxtaposing them, seeing what’s in them,” he said. “I get so involved in each character, there’s not one that I like more than the other.”
Forbes, who has been writing poetry for about 15 years, has three books with drawings by Searle. He was known as one of the world’s top illustrators until his death in 2011. Searle produced work for Life magazine, The New Yorker, Holiday magazine, TV Guide and numerous British publications.
“I would send him three to six poems at a time,” Forbes said. “He never did preliminary sketches. Two or three months later, his package would arrive, and inside would be these glorious depictions of what was in my imagination and how he interpreted them and brought them to life. It’s rich, it’s whimsical, it’s silly, it’s lighthearted, it’s fun.”
Forbes said his fourth book with Searle needs about six more drawings. He plans to have another illustrator finish the book. He’s also working on several other projects.
“Once you start writing, you can’t not write,” he said. “I’m always writing. There’s always ideas going on. I hope that my writing will inspire kids of any age. I hope they amuse all ages. I write for me. I write to please myself, and when I started, I didn’t know who my readers would be. Your writing will find its audience.”