everything grows with love

Stories about My Experiences with Writers & Illustrators Who Bring Light into the World…by Bonnie Ingber Verburg

Archive for January, 2013

Barry Moser & Van Dyke Parks: JUMP! The Adventures of Brer Rabbit

 

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It is 1985, and I am fascinated by what my husband, Ira Ingber, can do with a guitar. He pulls music out of the air and bends notes into songs that will haunt me for the rest of my life. Today he is on his way to a recording studio in Hollywood, and he wants me to come. His friend, renowned composer Van Dyke Parks, has been commissioned by the North Carolina Symphony to create a body of music that is distinctly American. Parks, who hails from Mississippi, has chosen the subject of Brer Rabbit, and he has built a musical around the rascal trickster. I don’t know a lot about Brer Rabbit except for Disney’s Song of the South, which I saw as a child, but I am about to be educated.

Parks is in the studio and seems to be torturing the singer. She must sing a very challenging song over and over and over and over. She is singing from the point of view of Miss Molly Cottontail, one of Brer Rabbit’s “neighbor ladies,” and that’s probably all you need to know. At any rate, Mo Ostin at Warner Brothers Records is making an album from it (yes, this was the era of albums and record companies, and JUMP! was actually one of the first CDs), and I watch Van Dyke coach the singer to get it exactly the way he wants it. He is hilarious, although he doesn’t seem conscious of that. She is a real pro and keeps belting out this impossible song, and Parks is pacing and saying things like, “I’m not making one dime from this!” in that funny, unforgettable voice of his, and you really have to know him to imagine what I am describing here.

I have just taken the position of Editor, Children’s Books at Harcourt Publishers in San Diego, and I find myself very interested in Parks’s JUMP! The Adventures of Brer Rabbit. (I may be wrong about this, but I think it was Parks’s pal Harry Nilsson who came up with the name Jump! for the project–I’ll have to ask Ira if he remembers. Of course it is the perfect title.) And the music is astounding. I go home thinking that this might be a very good book to create and to publish.

My first stop is the San Diego Library. Harcourt is located in San Diego in 1985, and I am commuting from Santa Monica where I live with Ira to San Diego so I can acquire, edit, and publish children’s books. I ask the librarian if they have a copy of Joel Chandler Harris’s Uncle Remus: His Songs and His Sayings, the famous collection of Brer Rabbit stories, and she hunts it down for me. It is a massive book, and the copyright page says it was published in 1881, although that is not entirely accurate. The librarian looks at the paper glued in the back of the book and tells me it has not been checked out for eight years.

During the Civil Rights Movement, which was during my era, Brer Rabbit was one of the babies thrown out with the bath water, and there are good reasons for it. But the stories themselves are absolutely wonderful. I stop by two bookstores on my way back to work, and I ask the buyer at each store if he would consider buying a book of five stories about Brer Rabbit. “Absolutely not!” they both tell me emphatically. The Rab, as Parks calls him, is persona non grata. He has become a symbol of racism. And the more stories I read, and the more I learn about Harris and how he collected them after the Civil War, and how they came with slaves from Africa who brought little more than their stories…well, it is all very powerful, and storytelling is one of the best ways people communicated in those days. If they wanted to make a comment about someone, that person might come out as a character in a funny animal story told for the amusement of the community. As well, storytelling was the source of entertainment–and Brer Rabbit is the good guy, the little, oppressed character who outwits the bigger animals in every single tale but one.  Brer Bear and Brer Fox are always after him, but Brer Rabbit wins again and again, usually making it clear that his adversaries may be large, but they’re no match for his smarts.

Harris is both applauded and deeply criticized for the way he gathered the tales, wrote them in his own interpretation of African American colloquial speech (to use Virginia Hamilton’s phrase), and created a warm, “uncle” slave storyteller who told the tales to a white boy. By doing so, he made these remarkable stories acceptable and popular to a broad white audience, who loved them. Those who admire him are also grateful that he recorded stories that might have disappeared during post-Civil War times, thus preserving an important page in American history to say nothing of world literature.  One of the complexities of the Brer Rabbit stories told in Harris’s voice (where he tried to mimic the speech of the original teller) is that you cannot talk about slavery without talking about shame. The fabric of the tales, the blood and pain that shaped them, is steeped in human suffering. All of this, and much more, must somehow be fed into the book. Van Dyke asks his friend, book critic Malcolm Jones, to help with the project and to write an introduction that addresses these issues in a way that will inform children and their parents without weighing down the exuberance of the stories.

Van Dyke and I work on the manuscript. We sit on his front steps or in his living room in Hollywood while his two children run around. It’s a fun and funny and extremely interesting project and process. We decide to choose five of the best stories for the book, but we will leave out the most famous one, the story about the Tar Baby, because it has too much luggage, and if we are lucky enough to do a second book, we can publish it there.

One of the first decisions is to get rid of the framework Harris invented to tell the Brer Rabbit stories. That was the character of an African American slave, Uncle Remus, who happily told these stories to a young white boy. It is the seeming cheerfulness of the slave that is offensive and unrealistic in 1985. Without it, the Rab is back to belonging to the original tellers. So we peel off the framework, and Parks steers me through the stories, staying true to the voices and also drawing upon his Mississippi childhood to know, absolutely, what to keep in and what to take out. He likes the word “segatiate,” and he insists on keeping it in. He likes it so much, in fact, that I write it into the front flap copy. It becomes an asset, not a liability. And the whole manuscript goes that way, with the stories flowing in Van Dyke’s rich Southern voice, and their beauty protected by his deep understanding of the red earth in that place where he was a child.

65587._SX67_SY100_ Mister Van Dyke Parks

As we are working on the manuscript, the “book” for the Broadway musical is also being written, and Tony-Award winner Lewis Allen, who produced Annie and I’m Not Rappaport and a host of Broadway hits is supposed to develop it and bring it to Broadway. I meet Lewis many times in New York, and we have dinner and drinks, and he invites me back stage to various shows, including I’m Not Rappaport, and I bring Virginia Hamilton with me back stage so I can introduce her to Ossie Davis and Hal Linden, who are starring in it. But the project keeps stalling, and Lewis explains to me that this business of Broadway plays is not for New Yorkers or people like me; it is for tourists and visitors who are coming to New York from out of town and want to see a show. That’s who goes to see Annie. He has said he is going to try Jump! out at a small New England theatre, but time passes, and I have the brains to publish the book alone, as its own entity, without tying it to the musical in any way.

Backtrack to the manuscript as all of this is going on, because I need the perfect illustrator. One always does. I start my search with Maurice Sendak because I know he loves theatre, and Lewis says there is a possibility of having Sendak design the sets for the show. I send it to Sendak, and (this shows you how long ago it was) in doing so, I go to a place where they send documents using something called a fax. I fork over the manuscript, and the gentleman behind the desk feeds the pages into a machine. I don’t recall why, but it is imperative that Maurice Sendak must get this manuscript on this particular day, not a day later. And I keep questioning the gentleman about the newfangled machine. “You mean you put it in there, and then it magically shows up in Connecticut?” I keep asking. A courier will pick it up at another fax machine in Connecticut and drive it over to Maurice’s home. The man is patient with me and assures me that yes, this is precisely what is going to happen. And I believe him, and sure enough, Maurice gets the manuscript, and I continue to be baffled about how it all happened.

Yes, he would like to illustrate the book if he can also do the sets for the show. But again, Lewis is stalling. I am very young, and I do not know how difficult it is to get a Broadway show produced–how much money and commitment it takes, and how rarely it actually happens, despite many good intentions. So, as the months pass, I have to give up on Maurice Sendak. And when he and I have the conversation that he is going to move on, I remember feeling so depressed at my San Diego desk, with this wonderful, funny manuscript in front of me, and no idea who could visually bring it to life. Maurice suggests a number of people who are similar to A.B. Frost, who made the original engravings, but alas, Maurice tells me, they are all dead.

It is Maria Modugno, the manager of Children’s Books at Harcourt at that time, who shows me the wood engravings of Barry Moser. She shows me Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, which has won the National Book Award, and an editor of adult books, who ran the paperback publishing program at Harcourt at the time, is her friend and is very hot on Barry Moser. She is not suggesting him for this book. She just thinks I might be interested in Moser’s wood engravings, and she is absolutely right. To illustrate this lively, funny, Southern collection of Brer Rabbit tales with wood engravings in our children’s picture book form would be the kiss of death.

I look at Barry Moser’s work, and it is exquisite for a thousand reasons. His use of space, his design sense, his acute sensibilities, and his dark side might be perfect for a new telling of “Beauty and the Beast,” I am thinking. So I get his number from the adult editor, and I give him a call.

Although he is painfully polite in terms of his Southern manners, Mr. Moser is not remotely interested in “illustrating a juvenile,” as he puts it. He almost spits the word out. “Jew-ven-eye-al,” he says, enunciating every syllable and coating it with his distaste. I thank him, and I am thinking this is the end of the conversation when he snaps at me, “The only Jew-ven-eye-al I would be willing to illustrate is one that no one will ever publish.”

“What book is that?” I ask.

“Brer Rabbit,” he says.

Pause while I almost swallow my tongue. Even now, decades later, I have to pause when I recall that conversation. I DO NOT WANT WOOD ENGRAVINGS IN THIS BOOK. Yet I feel as if God’s pointer finger has parted the clouds and is directed at the manuscript that is planted in the middle of my desk.

“Mr. Moser, I know you have won the National Book Award, and many, many other prizes. You are internationally famous, and I feel like such a loser asking you this question. I beg for your forgiveness to even ask such a thing, but do you ever paint in watercolors?” I ask.

“I’ve been painting with watercolors my entire life,” he says.

“Because,” I go on, “I have a wonderful manuscript in front of me, and it is by a composer named Van Dyke Parks, adapted from the Joel Chandler Harris tellings of Brer Rabbit stories. It is connected with a Broadway musical that may or may not happen, and the music is being made into a record album by Warner Brothers. But the five stories in this book have to be illustrated in color,” I tell him. “And I feel the size of a worm to ask someone of your accomplishments and stature to do a sample piece of art for me–I am so embarrassed. But I have to see a watercolor to know this is going to work. Again, I am so sorry.”

To make a long story short, I send Barry Moser the manuscript. He loves it. He sends back a watercolor that brings me to my knees. Why? Because I have been researching Harris, and the tales, and the slaves who told them, and their history, and Moser has nailed it to the wall. Bull’s Eye. This is the real deal. It is a colorful character sketch of the rabbit, so perfectly suited to this book and to Harris and to Van Dyke Parks that I almost can’t believe what I am seeing. Brer Rabbit is in suspenders, and he is sitting on a log, and he is holding a fishing pole. A cigar hangs out of his mouth, and a bottle–moonshine, no doubt–sticks out of his pocket.

The Rab. In all his glory.

The Book Angel has spread her wings and circled above this project and made impossible things happen. Van Dyke is beside himself when I show him. He’s not sure about the sample wood engravings, but the sample watercolor art is utterly convincing, and Parks is a visionary. He knows.

From start to finish, JUMP! will be one of the most important books of my career and one of the most joyous events of my life. And so begins my long and rich friendship with the remarkable Barry Moser, who turns out to be a gentleman in every way, one of the warmest, kindest people on the planet, and a true friend for life.

There is more to this tale, and one of the great things that happened was the reception to the book that held those stories that had been banned for so many years. The critics loved it and showered it with starred reviews, it was an ALA Notable Book, and it sold like hotcakes. The Rab was back, and suddenly a flurry of Brer Rabbit stories cropped up from various publishers.  Barry and I took a trip to “Wren’s Nest,” Harris’s house in Georgia, and I got to see the red clay dirt and the hanging moss and places where these stories were translated by slaves into African American folklore–where the African animals were changed into local animals like foxes and bears and terrapins, and, of course, the rabbit.

Not every book is a miracle. But in my blessed career, a great many of them have been. And JUMP! The Adventures of Brer Rabbit was a startling, thought-provoking journey that sparked so many new and wondrous fires I can’t begin to count them.

For years, I had this quote in a frame over my desk, and now it hangs over my sink at home, where I read it every day. It is the original piece of paper I enlarged and photocopied and hung up at Harcourt while I was working on this book:

“Brer Rabbit say, sezee, ‘Dey’s allers a way, ef not two.’

Leo & Diane Dillon: The Heart with Wings

My love for Leo and Diane Dillon is so deep it is woven through the fabric of my entire being, and when I try to find words to explain it, I don’t know where to begin. My trust and faith in them is such a part of who I am that I don’t know if I could publish books without them. Leo died in May, and I have not accepted that yet. He was, with Diane, my mentor and soul mate for almost three decades. When I try to write about it today, the words elude me. I am reminded of the last page of Norman Maclean’s A River Runs Through It. “‘It is those we live with and love and should know who elude us.’/ Now nearly all those I loved and did not understand when I was young are dead, but I still reach out to them…. /Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world’s great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of the rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs./I am haunted by waters.”

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So I will begin at the beginning, on a cold New York City day in 1987, when we are supposed to meet at Cafe des Artistes, and I am running down a street in my short black skirt, ripped black sweatshirt, velvet-trimmed black wool coat, and an off-white scarf woven by my great grandmother that is really a shawl, and it is so long I wrap it around my neck and it still drapes down to my feet. My hair is long, and in my right ear I have earrings made of bones and beads, and in my left ear I have only three studs. That is the rock ‘n roll fashion. My black suede heels are from the 40s, from the same vintage shop as my coat, and I am terrified because I am dressed like the wife of a rock musician–which is what I am–rather than dressed like a publishing executive–which is what I also am. I have never met the Dillons, and I don’t think they will like the rockstar wife blowing into their lunch. They are hugely famous and distinguished in my field of children’s books. I desperately want to work with them on a particular project I’ve cooked up, and I do not have time to take a cab back to the Algonquin to change into more appropriate clothes. I am already on the edge of running late.

I give up on the Algonquin idea and decide this will just have to be another low point in my career, and they will think I am fluff and flighty, which goes with the fact that I live in Santa Monica with my guitarist/songwriter husband, Ira Ingber, who tours with bands like the Eagles and Rita Coolidge and writes songs for Bob Dylan and Bonnie Raitt and Joe Cocker, to name a few. I whoosh into the restaurant on the heels of a big gust of wind, and there, at a table against the wall, is Leo Dillon.

Click.

I know from the moment I see the man, from the first time I set eyes on him, that he will be one of the most important people in my entire life, and I am dead right about that. I sit down, apologize for the way I look, and without any pretty introductions, we launch into a discussion of what I can only describe as the many masks of God and the broad things people have dreamed up to try to capture God in words and stories, and it is a kind of Joseph Campbell investigation, and then Diane Dillon walks in the door and joins us. She, also, sends an arrow straight into my heart, and they will be my friends and partners in book creation as long as we live. Good times, joyful times, frustrating times, horrible times, we are connected for life.

How about that?

So it is fitting, in 1992, when I begin building the Blue Sky Press at Scholastic Inc., that the first people who join up are Leo and Diane–and Virginia Hamilton, who actually was the first. And when the company does not like Angel City Books, my name for the imprint, but agrees to The Blue Sky Press, I am OK with that name as long as the logo is a heart with wings. Because the heart with wings will say it all. And Leo and Diane draw the logo. I have their original drawing hanging on the door of my home office. If you look at it closely, it is clearly their work.

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By the time I start Blue Sky, we have already published Leontyne Price’s Aida and Nancy Willard’s Pish, Posh, Said Hieronymous Bosch at Harcourt.

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We launch Blue Sky with Nancy’s The Sorcerer’s Apprentice and will go on to publish a stunning and powerful body of work,

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including many books the Dillons will write themselves, such as Jazz on a Saturday Night and Rap a Tap Tap: Here’s Bojangles, Think of That! There will be collaborations with Virginia such as Her Stories and The Girl Who Spun Gold, a miraculous picture book that shows a broad range of art styles as it reveals the span of human emotion in To Every Thing There Is a Season, which for me is partially an attempt to make a book that can help people through grief. Leo and Diane helped me through the loss of my parents, as they help me through everything that happens in my tangled life. They still do. In my bedroom I have two black-and-white photographic portraits Leo took of me more than twenty years ago at their kitchen table, which is where we have shared endless meals and discussions that have gone late, late, late into the night, talking about life, death, love, family, politics, writing, and–most of all–art.

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Cover of The Girl Who Spun Gold

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Cover of To Every Thing There Is A Season

Today I will call Diane and check in with her to say hello and see how she’s feeling. We both have birthdays coming up. Last week she sent me the last pieces we needed to discuss for If Kids Ran the World, which is the picture book she was working on with Leo when he had to pause to have his unexpected surgery. The paintings are fanciful and light-hearted, and they leave me breathless. Leo caught a staph infection in the hospital after his surgery, if you are wondering why he died. Do I sound angry? I am.

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Cover via Amazon

When things have been rocky, Leo always said the same thing. “Just do the work.” It is a refrain that has enabled me–and countless others, I’m sure–to drop my resentment about the sticky mess of corporate encounters and instead push it aside so I can focus on the books in front of me. They are ultimately what feed my soul, not the clapping of critics or the encouragement of some publishing executive. It always comes back to the books. Always. The Dillons have always been Teddy Roosevelt’s “Man in the Arena,” and in everything they do, they dare greatly. Which is not to say that critics understand it. A lot of the time they don’t. “Just do the work” is an antidote for the people who will always feel more comfortable with the art on Hallmark cards than they do with a multicultural book that challenges

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Cover via Amazon

the reader the way To Every Thing There Is a Season inevitably does.

There is no tidy way of ending this essay by putting my relationship with Leo and Diane into a neat little gift box to display, and there is so much more to say about the limitless genius, kindness, and generosity of these artists that I will continue to write about them. More than anything, I feel enormous gratitude for the opportunity and the blessing of having them beside me all these years. Together and apart, they are the rock foundation upon which everything else has been built…my roots, my heart, my wings.

Art from the book Leo & Diane Dillon were finishing up last May; I'll be publishing this in Fall 2014.

Art from the book Leo & Diane Dillon were finishing up last May; I’ll be publishing this in Fall 2014.

On the wings of time….

This past May, Leo Dillon died. After more than twenty-five years of close friendship, what can I possibly say about that? And although years have now passed since I lost Virginia Hamilton, I still find myself wanting to call her when some funny thing happens that would make her laugh. Suddenly, after 36 years of book publishing, I no longer feel that time is an endlessly renewing river. Suddenly those years of memorable moments are beginning to ask to be recorded. When I was working with Jimmy Buffett on A Salty Piece of Land, he said, “It feels as if time is flying by because it is.”  So here is a spot for me to share some snapshots of small events along my editorial journey. I started out this crazy career wearing snakeskin cowboy boots and ridiculously short skirts, and now I’m somebody’s mother…sitting quietly at a computer while my golden retriever sleeps on my feet. All these years of publishing, I have kept what Barry Moser called “day books,” and by now I have shelves of them. They are packed with quotes and snippets of conversations and pasted-in pictures and lots of contract negotiations. They are also overflowing with love. What I feel most today is gratitude. So I hope that comes across as I try to gather a morning here, a dinner there, and wrap my arms around these brilliant, generous, highly creative people who fill my life with such abundance.

NANCY WILLARD: The High Rise Glorious Skittle Skat Roarious Sky Pie Angel Food Cake

When Nancy Willard picks up a pen, wings flutter in Heaven, and a circle of delighted angels begin quilting with their magic needles. What is spun out into the world through their collaboration with Nancy is lighter than air. I love many, many books by Nancy–all of them, in fact–and one of my favorites is a story she sent me when I was editing and publishing books at Harcourt: The High Rise Glorious Skittle Skat Roarious Sky Pie Angel Food Cake.

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Cover via Amazon

In this perfectly written story, a girl wants to make her mother a birthday present, and although she has some earthly ideas, she remembers the tale of a unique cake baked by her grandmother in childhood–a cake her mother loved and has always longed to eat again. In addition to its heavenly flavor, a golden thimble is always found in the cake. But where to find the recipe? The girl goes to great lengths to follow clues until she indeed finds the mysterious recipe in order to give her very nice mother a very special birthday gift.

She carefully gathers the ingredients and follows the recipe’s directions–which include writing EVOL in the sugar with her finger, something I still do when I’m making pancakes for my son. Behold, as the cake is baking, the kitchen is scented with a fragrance so delicious the moon must certainly tilt in its orbit. What happens is unexpected, but the scene is written so flawlessly that it rings completely true. Three angels appear in the girl’s kitchen, drawn by the scent of the baking cake. And to the girl’s dismay, they each gently but firmly want a slice–a substantial slice–of that High Rise Glorious Skittle Skat Roarious Sky Pie Angel Food Cake. (How do you say no to three angels?)

I’m not telling the story well–my pen is not guided by angels tonight, and writing about Nancy’s flawless fiction feels lumpy and inadequate. But in the end, after the angels have devoured the entire cake with great happiness and satisfaction, the girl wakes up with no present to give her beloved mother. She only had enough ingredients to bake one cake. With great angst and disappointment she watches her father give a satisfactory gift to her mother, but now it is her turn, and she is empty handed.

That is when the scent of a baking cake flows out of the kitchen, and to the girl’s surprise, a heavenly cake is in the oven, ready to be sliced and eaten. Her mother is delighted beyond words. As they all are amazed and thrilled by the delicious High Rise Glorious Skittle Skat Roarious Sky Pie Angel Food cake, the girl finds the golden thimble has been tucked in her slice of cake. Somewhere in Heaven the angels are surely fanning their wings with pleasure…to have Nancy Willard tell their story so well.

It has been many, many years since I published that story, and Richard Jesse Watson’s beautiful but unconventional paintings added just the right splash of quirky energy to a tale that defied illustration, as most of Nancy’s stories do. (Who can illustrate the writing of an angel?)

This week, when my employer insisted I empty my storage space, I spent three days sifting through publishing memories I wasn’t expecting, and one of them was opening a dusty box that was filled with carefully wrapped, fragile gifts made for me by writers and illustrators over the years. I carefully removed brown paper from a small, hand-painted oven made by Nancy, with a glittering cake inside, of course. Her kindness, generosity, and sheer genius are so powerful they bring me to tears. This is the deep, razor-sharp pain I feel about children’s book publishing these days. Big publishing corporations no longer acquire angelic books of this nature because they assure us they can not sell them, and the loss to the world of children’s literature is devastating. Nancy WIllard’s extraordinary books all deserve to be in print and deserve to be delighting audiences, from her Newbery Medal-winning A Visit to William Blake’s Inn (which I did not publish) to The High Rise Glorious Skittle Skat Roarious Sky Pie Angel Food Cake; Pish, Posh, Said Hieronynomous Bosch; The Sorcerer’s Apprentice; Cinderella’s Dress; Beauty and the Beast; An Alphabet of Angels; and The Flying Bed, which I did publish. I suppose it is a miracle that any intelligent book stays in print these days when the public is clamoring for TV tie-ins, and I’m guessing the word “poetry” nowadays sends people running away in fear. (It certainly sends publishers running.) Let’s face it, today so much depends on having the “right” cover and a mesmerizing topic that doesn’t take any risks or chances. How do we keep the light alive in ourselves and in our children? How do we protect and preserve the books that shine the light we need as a healthy, loving culture?

But back to the miracle of this wonderful book, published back in the time when such a unique, unconventional story was one of an ocean of highly creative books that were  embraced and marketed enthusiastically…and sold lots of copies and got into the hands of people who read and treasured them. This book was applauded and was chosen by Walden Books (one of the three big chains at the time) as one of their two “favorite children’s books to sell” of the year.

I see, as I write these pieces, that each book is inevitably tied to my own personal experiences during the time I was working on the project, and that is true of The High Rise Glorious Skittle Skat Roarious Sky Pie Angel Food Cake. The night before my mother had brain surgery, I had the manuscript of this book in my bag in her room at the hospital. I read her the story, and of course she loved it, with the part of her brain that could still listen to stories–she always loved poetry, especially. The next day, after the surgeon left–quietly and impersonally telling my sisters and me that the cancer he’d found in Mom’s head was the “astro” kind, called that because it grows so fast–I kissed my mom and gave her the good news that the doctor had found something very surprising in her head. It was the golden thimble in Nancy’s story. At first she looked confused, but then she laughed. Thank you, Nancy Willard.

I have the painting of the golden thimble in my dining room, and tomorrow I will carefully fix the cracked leg on the magical oven Nancy made for me all those years ago. It belongs in a place where I will see it every day. If nothing else comes from the sadness of having to give away 36 years of books, the joy of finding Nancy’s lost oven will make up for it.

Nancy Willard, Leo & Diane Dillon, David Shannon, Mark Teague, Molly Bang, Jane Yolen, Rodman Philbrick, Don & Audrey Wood: You are the light. You are not the lamp or the electricity or the bulb. You are the light. 

What a fearsome beauty and responsibility it feels this late night to have been given the gift of being one of the guardians of that light.

In eight days I will celebrate my 58th birthday. I think I will ask my son to help me make an angel food cake. After all, it has always been my favorite. Who knows? The Book Angel hangs out in my back yard, and miracles happen every day. We will read Nancy’s picture book, and I will tell my son about the grandmother he never had the good fortune to meet, and the golden thimble. I will have a loving day, but at the end of it, I will be sure to begin this new year of my life with my favorite lines at the end of a different story by Nancy Willard:

“He whose face gives no light will never become a star.” –William Blake

The Man in the Arena: About Reviews

Perhaps because ALA Midwinter and the Caldecott/Newbery Medals will be announced this month, I have had an unusual flurry of emails about reviews and reviewers lately. I believe most editors are taught, as I was early on, to keep our lips zipped and to never respond to the slings and arrows of outrageous misunderstandings that appear in the reviews of our books. I worked with writer Cynthia Rylant for more than a decade, and at the time she did not read her reviews. She told me they didn’t help her writing, and she asked me not to send them to her. This was not arrogance on her part, and she was a very sensitive and careful writer. The reviews did not help her work, and when she began painting and illustrating some of the picture books herself, such as her splendid Dog Heaven, it was not helpful when, for example, an elementary school teacher had her entire class write individual letters to Cyndi asking her to please stop illustrating her books. The letters somehow got to her–I believe they had tracked down her address and sent them directly, because back then I had an assistant, and we went through the letters and would have filtered out anything mean spirited and hurtful. At any rate, as the years went on, I found that reading reviews became less and less meaningful for me, as well. I had a meeting with Jean Feiwel, who hired me to work at Scholastic, and I asked for her permission to stop reading the journals. In addition to taking up too much of my time, I didn’t think they helped my work, either. Would it be acceptable if I only read the reviews of the books I was publishing, rather than entire journals? She took it lightly and laughed. Then she told me that so many people at our company were glued to those journals that she didn’t think the editorial group would be losing anything if I wasn’t staying on top of them. And that gave me permission to drop all my subscriptions. Although I read every review I can find of the books I publish, I have not read a review journal in at least ten years, probably longer. Reading them doesn’t improve my work, it just makes me anxious–in an unnecessary way. And I don’t think it’s arrogance on my part, either, because I have a very, very heavy workload these days and almost no help. I’m told this is the case with most editors in book publishing now. It has been years since I’ve had a full-time assistant, and that means I do all the FedXing and photocopying and mailing myself along with all the other things an assistant used to do–so the end result is I publish fewer books and also have far more difficulty staying on top of the ones I’m doing. Again, I am told this is a result of our economic times, and as Arnold Adoff once remarked, “New York publishing is filled with empty offices.” I have enormous gratitude that unlike so much of the U.S., I am still able to do what I love and still get a paycheck, at least for now. Reading review journals isn’t high on the priority list.

The larger, and more painful issue about book reviews is how difficult it is when a reviewer misses the point of the book. I am finding this to be increasingly true, not only for the books I publish but for the books published by friends and colleagues where reviews are passed along to me, and I am often astonished at the lack of perception and education on the part of the reviewer. All of us who have been around for a while can talk about stacks of reviews we vividly remember that were insulting, rude, trivial, and completely missed the boat. In retrospect, when a book has become enormously popular and loved over many years, it can even be fun and funny to go back to those reviews that absolutely trashed the book when it was initially published. The first review of David Shannon’s beloved bestseller A Bad Case of Stripes warned readers not to order the book because it was psychedelic and would give children nightmares. Having published 29 of Dav Pilkey’s books, including The Adventures of Captain Underpants and The Dumb Bunnies, you can only imagine the book banning incidents across the country as well as the punishment individual children have had to endure at the hands of teachers who strongly dislike those books.  With regard to reviews, the sharp, dire criticisms expressed often fade into the mist, although–as it is with most writers and illustrators–we do tend to remember the nasty ones, don’t we?

I was profoundly affected by the two TED talks given by Texas researcher Brene Brown about human connection, vulnerability, and shame. In her second talk (available on YouTube), she quotes Teddy Roosevelt’s famous speech that has come to be called “The Man in the Arena.” It is an excerpt from a speech given in 1910 in Paris, and this past season I emailed it to all the writers and illustrators on my list who had books coming out in the fall. It explains, better than I can, my attitude about critics and reviewers, and what I hope writers and illustrators will feel about their own work and its inherent value–which is not diminished by what people say. “Do people understand how much time and work goes into making these books?” a very seasoned writer/illustrator asked me at lunch last week. “Do they understand how many decisions we make, and how much thought we put into everything we do?” This particular person has been creating bestselling, award-winning books for decades, yet it’s rare that a book comes out that does not get completely misread by somebody in a very public way. And that’s true about everyone I publish–and has been the truth these past three decades. I’m not forgetting the critics and reviewers and bloggers who enthusiastically do understand the beauty of a book or it’s enormous contribution to the world of children’s literature. Those people and their good spirit far outweigh the lone librarian off in Connecticut somewhere who misses the point so completely you think she could only be getting review assignments because her sister works at one of the journals, right? We’ve all had a review from that misguided soul, wherever he or she is located.

Anyway, here is “The Man in the Arena” by Theodore Roosevelt, an excerpt from the speech “Citizenship in a Republic,” delivered at the Sorbonne, in Paris, France, on 23 April, 1910:

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly….

Thinking about this makes me want to thank some of the great supporters of the writers and illustrators I’ve published: Ginny Moore Kruse, K.T. Horning, Michael Cart, Rudine Sims Bishop, Ron Jobe, Amy Kalman…. It’s a long list, but the encouragement has made all the difference in the lives and careers of so many people. You know who you are. Thank you, from all of us.

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