everything grows with love

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

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

 

387445 copy

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.’

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