everything grows with love

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

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.

Cover of

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

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