everything grows with love

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

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.

Cover of

Cover of The Girl Who Spun Gold

Cover of

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.

Cover of

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

Cover of

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.

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