Molly Bellah and her children have found their “happy place,” and it’s the National Center for Children’s Illustrated Literature in downtown Abilene.
The children’s picture book museum has captured their hearts.
“Long before I was hired, my kids and I loved visiting the NCCIL,” Bellah said of her twins, Greer and Ford, 8. “They love immersing themselves in books and creating inspired art pieces. We have more works on the walls of our home that I do pictures of them. They look forward to the B.L.A.N.K. boxes each month. They truly enjoy just being here and creating. It’s our happy place.”
Bellah, who was hired in January as the NCCIL’s executive director, said she was familiar with the museum growing up in Abilene, where she graduated from Abilene Christian High School in 2003 and from Hardin-Simmons University in 2008 with a business management degree. She moved away after graduation, working in different jobs and wearing different hats before returning to her hometown in 2019. Here, she rediscovered the museum and wanted to get more involved. She met the museum’s executive director at the time, Trish Dressen, who hired her as the development director.
Dressen said she hired Bellah for business savvy, passion and authenticity.
“Molly is by far one of the most genuine people on the planet. She has the ability to see the big picture, strategize and implement a plan of action to meet goals,” Dressen said. “A bonus was that her tender heart that was so aligned with our mission and vision. I consider hiring Molly my greatest achievement during my tenure at the NCCIL. The organization is in great hands.”
Bellah later replaced Dressen, who stepped down in December as executive director of the NCCIL. That was in 2020, and things quickly changed for the NCCIL and other museums around the world as the COVID-19 pandemic unfolded.
The NCCIL pivoted from offering in-person school tours to virtual tours, created take ‘n make art activities to replace in studio classes, and launched a new product people could order online called B.L.A.N.K. boxes. These activity boxes pair a children’s book from the museum’s gift shop with an art activity with instructions and all the supplies. The art activities and B.L.A.N.K. boxes were so popular the museum still offers them.
For Bellah, starting her new job in the museum was a crash course in learning about artists, book illustrations, school tours and touring exhibitions. After exhibitions wrap up at the NCCIL, they are available to tour at other museums across the country. Bellah said she loved how a small city like Abilene could have a big impact in the children’s picture book world by sharing the art not only here, but across the nation. Her goal is to increase visitors to the museum and help spread the word about the wonderful things there are to do in downtown, including the Children’s Art & Literacy Festival, known as CALF.
Bellah said one of the best parts about working at the NCCIL is getting to know the artists, who travel to Abilene for their exhibition openings. She is excited to welcome this summer’s artist and CALF honoree Sophie Blackall, a Caldecott Medal winner.
“Sophie is such a dynamic artist. Not only is she a prolific illustrator but her ability to tell a captivating story is just remarkable. I think she’s fantastic and her work is beautiful,” Bellah said.
The NCCIL hosts the artist and exhibit, and the Abilene Cultural Affairs Council presents the festival in collaboration with downtown venues. Activities planned to celebrate the 10th CALF from June 9 through 12 include demonstrations by animal stilt walkers Animal Cracker Conspiracy from San Diego, a live production of “Ivy + Bean: The Musical” based on the book series illustrated by Blackall, and a 10th CALF dramatic book reading venue where we are bringing back favorite books, costumed characters and buttons from previous festivals.
In addition to the exciting new events, the Abilene Zoo is setting up Animal Encounters during the festival, and if you wear your CALF pass on Sunday, you can enter the zoo for free and experience more CALF with a reading of “Meet Wild Boars” and a running of the hogs!
The festival started in 2012 with a Dr. Seuss celebration. Since then, CALF has expanded to 19 venues throughout downtown, bringing nearly 5,000 people a year from across Texas and the United States.
Registration is open at www.abilenecalf.com. Thursday events are free. Passes for Friday and Saturday are $8 for children 3-12 (2 and under are free) and $13 for ages 13 and up through May 15. After that date, passes are $11 for children and $16 for ages 13 and up.
SOPHIE BLACKALL ART EXHIBIT
Where: National Center for Children’s Illustrated Literature (NCCIL)
When: June 9-Sept. 26, 2022
Featuring: Original artwork from some of Sophie’s 50 children’s books
By Sidney Schuhmann Levesque
Photography By Shayli Anne Photography