Precocious 'Eloise' Returns To Print

Hilary Knight, illustrator of the "Eloise" children's book series, during an interview in his New York apartment, Tuesday Nov. 19, 2002 CBS/AP

Eloise, the Plaza Hotel's most famous fictional resident, has re-emerged after decades of seclusion.

It seems the precocious 6-year-old celebrity was pretty tired after all her traveling and needed a long soak in a hot bath. But time certainly hasn't mellowed the never-aging child, who lives in the fancy digs with her nanny, her dog Weenie and turtle Skipperdee.

In "Eloise Takes a Bawth," the first new Eloise book in more than 30 years, the little girl stirs up all sorts of trouble when she goes to scrub up.

But the book never would have been published if the series creator, Kay Thompson, were still alive, says illustrator Hilary Knight, who had collaborated with Thompson ever since "Kay Thompson's Eloise: A Book for Precocious Grownups" was published in 1955. The book has sold more than 2 million copies, and inspired other books as well: "Eloise in Paris," "Eloise in Moscow" and "Eloise at Christmastime."

Both the story and a complete set of pictures for "Bawth" were finished in 1964 and it was to be the fifth installment of the series, but neither Knight nor Thompson was happy with the book.

"We actually had put too much work into it and it ended up that we lost our spirit," Knight says.

They tried to revamp the book a few times but were never satisfied, and the project was tabled for decades.

"As brilliant and hilariously funny as this woman was, it was her great frustration that she couldn't draw this book herself," says Knight of Thompson, who also was a close friend.

In the years between Eloise's Moscow and Bawth adventures, Knight kept himself busy illustrating everything from greeting cards to posters to Broadway musicals and about 50 other kids' books, including the "Mrs. Piggle Wiggle" series.

Working on children's books is the most challenging work for an artist, he says, because the drawings have to be so simple that they're challenging.

Knight's parents were artists and writers, and it was one of his mother's paintings featuring a little girl with striped socks that inspired Eloise's image. That painting still hangs in Knight's art-filled apartment.

"Eloise has a funny little face. Her anatomy and the way she propels her way through the books is what brings her to life," Knight says.

The idea for this self-centered-yet-affable girl, though, was born when Thompson, a singer and dancer, was late to a nightclub rehearsal. According to Eloise legend, Thompson was asked, "Who do you think you are, coming here five minutes late?" In a childlike voice she replied, "I am Eloise. I am 6."

Because of her musical background, Thompson wrote in a rhythmic style that children adore. However, the books were not meant to be "children's books." In fact, the first "Eloise" landed on The New York Times' best-seller list before there was a children's category.

Thompson, who had not wanted to revisit Eloise, died in 1998. A few years earlier, Vanity Fair asked Knight to do some drawings to accompany a story the magazine was publishing about Thompson.

He pulled out some of the "Bawth" artwork as a refresher and Knight decided the concept was still a good one, rekindling his interest. After her death, Thompson's estate agreed.

Knight then worked with Thompson's friend, Mart Crowley, to simplify what was a very overwritten text but still keep the essence of what Thompson had written. After that, a new set of drawings came easily.

There are only two spreads from the original 1964 version in the new "Bawth" but the old drawings blend very well with Knight's new artwork.

"When I look at this new book of Eloise, it becomes strikingly clear that what Mr. Knight created, almost 50 years ago was remarkably modern, even revolutionary," says Robin Preiss Glasser, illustrator of the popular "You Can't Take a Balloon" series of children's books.

"What has been so influential is that with only a few lines, he has been able to capture wild personality and vibrancy. All of us believe that Eloise is real, don't we?"
  • David Hancock

    David Hancock is a home page editor for CBSNews.com.

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