Long before children can read, they connect to the stories read to them through the illustrations inside a book's pages. Those images do a great deal to help the story leap to life, drawing youngsters into the tale being told.

When you hear names like Dr. Seuss, Garth Williams, Maurice Sendak and Sarah Noble Ives, you can't help having a sharp visual recall of their timeless artwork. The illustrations of characters like the Cat in the Hat, Stuart Little, Wild Things and those within the Mother Goose canon are unforgettable.

The themes of the earliest books for children include topics like minding your manners, being good citizens, learning your ABCs, etc. From the 15th to 19th century, illustrations in children's books were rare. It was the 19th century when books written for kids took a turn to spark imagination, encourage play and cherish innocence. At this juncture, artwork became imperative to telling the stories. The best illustrations in children's books enhance the stories by tapping into the emotional psyche of kids.

You and your kids can have fun exploring the past century of children's book art at Cheekwood through a special exhibit in the Museum of Art — Childhood Classics: 100 Years of Children's Book Illustrations (from the Art Kandy Collection).

The exhibit features more than 140 illustrations from more than 75 books now considered classics. You'll find favorites like The Cat in the Hat, Stuart Little, Charlotte's Web, Frog and Toad, Madeline, Babar, The Wizard of Oz, Dick and Jane, and many more. In addition to taking in the whimsical artwork, you'll discover text panels throughout the experience that help you dig deeper into the history of children's books ranging from classic themes to chapter books banned from school libraries, including Little Black Sambo (1899), The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876), Lord of the Flies (1954), Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret (1970) and even Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (1998).

It's interesting to note that some famous picture books didn't escape the clutches of censorship, including In the Night Kitchen (1978), Where the Wild Things Are (1964), Rabbit's Wedding (1958) and Where's Waldo (1987).

The Reading Room in Cheekwood's "Childhood Classics" exhibit.

Along the way, you'll learn how the styles of artwork evolved as printing technology advanced, and you'll also discover how the 20th century's new standards and ideas in education drove children's literature into brand-new directions. One of those avenues, primarily in the 1980s and '90s, is the expansion of diversity by encompassing the African-American culture into children's books.

One of the most fascinating pieces of history highlighted in the exhibit focuses on Little Golden Books. These beloved picture books were first published in 1942 and have been a staple of childhood literature ever since, offering high-quality books at affordable prices.

By the way, you can get your hands on a Little Golden Book or several other options in the exhibit's Reading Room. This space features large bean-bag chairs inviting you and your child to plop down and enjoy a cozy reading experience.

A local girl plays the chimes in the Dr. Seuss-inspired Storybook House.

While appropriate for all ages, Childhood Classics is geared toward older kids and adults in regard to the depth of history it presents. The striking illustrations lend older viewers a reminiscent walk through childhood's past. Plus, all the artwork is hanging at an adult eye level, so if you have little ones who want a good look, you'll need to hoist them. Aside from the Reading Room, the element your littlest ones will enjoy most is the related Storybook Houses outdoor exhibit. Five unique play structures inspired by children's book art invite kids to climb, play and explore to their hearts' content.

Be sure to snap a few pics while exploring Storybook Houses, because you have a chance to win a Cheekwood membership by participating in the Storybook Houses Instagram contest. To enter, simply share your best photos on Instagram using #StorybookHouses and tag @cheekwood. Winners will be drawn twice per month through the end of August.

Both Childhood Classics and Storybook Houses run through Sunday, Sept. 1.

Cheekwood is located at 1200 Forrest Park Drive, Nashville. Hours are Tue - Sun 9 a.m. - 5 p.m. (Cheekwood stays open until 9 p.m. on Thursdays). Tickets are $20 adults, $13 ages 3 - 17 (tickets are half price on Thursdays starting at 5 p.m.).

Call 615-356-8000 or visit cheekwood.org.