Remember your favorite childhood picture book. Close your eyes and think about the illustrations: the hyperbolic colors, the cartoonish proportions, the fantastical settings. Recall the excitement of turning the pages, anticipating the words on the page you almost knew by heart. For many, a certain children’s book helped shape their formative years, also known as the transition from toddler to “big kid”. Many of these favorite stories are used as source material for films (like Spike Jonze’s 2009 reimagining of Where the Wild Things Are film), spin-offs, and eventually, they are destined to become favorites for kids generations younger than us. When a favorite childhood book—in some form of media or simply recognition/celebration—comes back into the spotlight after years of growing up, it serves as a trigger for remembering how much the book meant to us as a developing little human.
For me, a trip down literature memory lane happened upon my viewing of the Matt Wolf directed, Lena Dunham/Jenni Konner produced short documentary It’s Me Hilary: the Man Who Drew Eloise. My mind immediately travelled back to my sixth year of life when the character Eloise, a six-year-old resident of the Plaza Hotel in New York City, encompassed my daily reading lists and inspired my every move. For those who are not acquainted with the petite tour-de-force, the Eloise series follows a very precocious six-year-old girl as she causes mischief in all rooms of her hotel home and lived the life of a socialite (with an endless account for room service). The series was authored by Kay Thompson, an actress and radio personality, and has four installments with one book published posthumously. They are the kind of books that one must read to understand the utter silliness and splendor that are contained in their delightfully illustrated pages. As much as I loved and wished to emulate Eloise as a child, I never knew much about her author and her illustrator. Perhaps I was always lost in the Plaza with my doppelgänger, wishing for her life of pink-striped walls, nannies and pugs. When I heard the news that Lena Dunham, creator and star of HBO’s Girls, was producing and launching a documentary project on the illustrator of Eloise, I feverishly found out the release date and waited patiently for its release. When it premiered, I was far from disappointed.
The documentary is a short one—only around thirty-three minutes in length—yet it tells the story of a man who gave life to a little girl who was just words before his hands started drawing. Hilary Knight, now eighty-eight, can take the title of being one of the most charming subjects since the penguins in The March of the Penguins (but seriously, it is so true). The focus of the documentary is Knight and his passion for drawing, even after the tragic tale of the dissolution of he and Thompson’s friendship and partnership. Dunham and Knight immediately make a viewer believe that they are the oldest of friends. In reality, they have only known each other briefly, after Knight found out she had a tattoo of Eloise and contacted her with personalized drawings. Of Eloise the character, Dunham says she had the “feeling pretty strongly” that Eloise was hers from an early age. Dunham believes Eloise’s carefree independence is a character trait that inspired her forever, saying, “Eloise does what she wants, when she wants, so there is a lot to relate to when you’re a slightly weird child.” Dunham cites Knight’s illustrations as sources of “lifelong inspiration.” According to Mindy Kaling (one of the women interviewed for the documentary) because of the illustrations “Eloise became likable”, despite her nature as a “little tyrant”.
Knight himself speaks candidly and passionately about his work; throughout the film, he gets meta, filming Dunham and crew back at one point. He is extremely child-like, but not in an off-putting way. He moves about as spritely as he can in his secluded garden where he makes films and spends time with his muses (he names Dunham as one of them). Knight’s nieces discuss his presence in their formative years and emphasize their understanding of him as a gay man, but never caring, as he was almost a child like they once were. The touching anecdotes that pepper the film’s footage of Knight himself are a testament to the fantastical creature he was and still is. Watching him in his home and listening to the articulation of his passion proves why the Eloise series was so popular. Knight—through his energy and spirit—draws himself into our hearts.
The documentary is all together charming and uplifting, moving beyond Knight’s expulsion from drawing his beloved Eloise (due to legal issues) to the examination of a man who can inspire anyone—fan or otherwise—to follow in his footsteps and never lose the desire to create. It’s Me Hilary gives lifelong fans what they need: a deeper companionship with the illustrator who breathed life into a tiny, impish, messy-haired girl we could see within ourselves. If you have thirty minutes, even if you do not know the little girl in the Plaza Hotel, you will want to get to know Hilary Knight.