everything grows with love

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

Archive for May, 2013

Virginia Hamilton: Whiteout in PLAIN CITY

Plain City was conceived in a whiteout, a moment in a blizzard on a highway in Ohio when Virginia was driving and couldn’t see a thing. I wasn’t there, but I’m telling you this because all writers are different, and Virginia’s process of writing this novel was as unique as her voice, from the very start.

She told me about the scene on the highway. The story began growing in her head, and as it grew, she wrote pieces of it and sent them to me. She did not send me a novel with a beginning, a middle, and an end. She sent me fragments. Scenes. They were disconnected. Some of the scenes I could see fitting together, and other scenes did not seem to belong in the same book. She kept writing, and I kept reading. Slowly, as in a darkroom, when you watch a blank sheet of photographic paper reveal gray shapes, then blurry images, then a sharp picture, the scenes in Plain City began to fit together. She wrote the scene about the frogs almost independently, and that was the one scene that concerned her in terms of the fit. But as if by magic, the quilting mechanism in her mind almost unconsciously created the fiction around that scene that made it fit perfectly into the rest of the book. And after that happened, she told me she had finally discovered why she had written the scene. It was as much a puzzle to her as it would have been to anyone else.

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I need to say that my editorial work with Virginia was intensely private. She asked me to keep our conversations to myself, and I respected that. What she said about them, if anything, to others, is something I do not know. But I do know that the process of working with Virginia was very intense, and it was also very calculated on both sides. I carefully devised methods of presenting information to her in ways that might maximize my ability to persuade her to my opinion. In turn, she had an arsenal of persuasive tactics herself. She could be charming, flattering, white-hot brilliant, pensive, irritated, angry, enraged–whatever it took to do what she wanted to do with her book. Our editorial relationship ranged from fun games of mental ping pong to very uncomfortable, tense disagreement. It became clear to me, when I first began working with her, that it was dangerous to call her right after I’d sent her editorial suggestions about anything. I learned to wait three days. On the third day, she would no longer want to rip me to pieces. She had taken in the information and processed it. Sometimes she agreed with me, and sometimes she did not agree with me. At no time, during our two decades working together, did she ever agree to make a change she did not wholeheartedly want to make.

At her memorial services, I told funny stories about the goofy things we did because when we were alone she dropped what I teasingly called The Mighty Hamilton and became a silly playmate who was one of the funniest people I’ve ever known. In public she was almost always “distinguished,” and educators, teachers, and librarians were afraid of her. In private she was a stitch. I guess at the memorials I wanted people to know Virginia my pal. The funny one. The sneaky, wily, irreverent girlfriend who would silently slip out the back door of a party given in her honor because we wanted to go see Aaron Neville sing instead. Bad, bad, bad. Our behavior could be terrible. And what grand time we had being terrible. I am laughing out loud as I write this.

In Fall 1993 I launched the Blue Sky Press at Scholastic with four books, and one of them was Plain City. Virginia had been the first writer to call me when I changed my employment from Harcourt to Scholastic. In fact, it was Jean Feiwel’s question about Virginia’s husband/agent, Arnold Adoff, that made me think of changing companies for the very first time since I’d started working with Virginia–many years earlier. Jean wasn’t offering me a job, but she asked me if I would ever consider leaving Harcourt. I immediately said no. I could not leave, I told her, because I had recently signed up a second multiple-book contract, this one for nine books. I was finishing up Drylongso, with illustrations by Jerry Pinkney, the first book in that contract. Leaving Virginia behind at Harcourt was out of the question. Jean, ever direct, gave me a hard look and said, “Do you really think Arnold Adoff is going to allow Virginia to stay at any publishing company where she is not happy?”

This had not occurred to me.

But Jean was right. If Virginia was unhappy at a publishing house, I was certain that Arnold would solve the problem for her. No question about it. It was inconceivable that Virginia would be made to stay anywhere she didn’t want to be. Arnold was her agent, and in that role he was tough as nails. There was no better agent in the business.

So Virginia called me one hour after I gave her the news about leaving, and she said, “Can I come, too?” And I don’t even know what to say about that. Maybe just that the atmosphere at Harcourt had become uncomfortable for both of us. She and Arnold broke that multiple-book contract at Harcourt, and she signed up a new multiple-book contract at Blue Sky to replace it. And the first book in that contract was Plain City.

The worst thing that happened with Plain City was that I was new at Scholastic and had hired an incompetent assistant who truly seemed to have come from Jupiter. I joked to myself that Janet Schulman at Random House must be secretly paying my assistant to undermine everything I was doing, and you probably can’t really imagine just how bad it was. My best example of the woman’s incompetence was the morning I came into the office and couldn’t find my MASTER copy of the Plain City manuscript that was going to the printer that day. Now this was 1992, and I only had one master. ALL my editorial corrections were on that one set. It did not leave my desk. I don’t even think I had a computer. If I did, I certainly didn’t edit anything on it.

“Have you seen my master of Plain City?” I asked. “I’m really confused, because I left it right here, in the middle of my desk. And now I can’t find it.”

“Oh, I have it,” the woman told me cheerfully. “I was fixing it.”

“You were what?”

“I was fixing it. Making it nicer for the printer.”

What she had done was use White Out to erase all my editorial changes. ALL OF THEM. The manuscript was clean as a whistle, without a single mark. My assistant had cleaned all the marks off it so it would be easier for the printer to read. I held the pages up to my lamp to see if I could at least see my corrections through the paper. I would have to reconstruct every single re-written sentence and all the punctuation and spelling and everything else. I’m guessing it was at least a year’s worth of work. And no, the White Out had done its business. NOTHING could be seen.

Fortunately I had a young brain, and fortunately I am a maniac. I go over and over and over and over everything I edit. I actually did reconstruct my edits on that manuscript, and I did them immediately. I do not know where the White Out version is–in some filing cabinet, probably. But if you go to Virginia Hamilton’s archive at Kent State, that is one edited manuscript you are not going to find.

Now that the cat is out of the bag, I’ll look for it one of these days. I never told Virginia, and thankfully I did not have to share that news. I did help the gal get a new job. She went to work for an agent. I am a softy and have only fired one person in my entire career, and it absolutely could not have been avoided. Plain City came out to rave reviews, and we successfully launched the Blue Sky Press. Virginia began making frog jokes, and all the pieces fell into place. It was a very good time for us, and many, many extraordinary books were made with great support and enthusiasm.

In the end, I suppose Virginia might have found humor in knowing Plain City began with a whiteout and almost ended with White Out; she loved to play with double meanings of words. But I can’t be certain she would think it was funny. That is something I will never know….

David Shannon: NO! NO! NO, DAVID!

It is 1992, and artist David Shannon has agreed to publish some of his books at my fledgling imprint, the Blue Sky Press. I’ve been working with him since his second book, Encounter, by Jane Yolen, and I’m so pleased I’ll get to continue to work with him. He’s enormously talented and can tell an entire story within a single painting as few people can. On my second Blue Sky list, I get to publish the first picture book he writes himself: How Georgie Radbourn Saved Baseball.

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Cover of How Georgie Radbourn Saved Baseball

He’s highly original and a natural storyteller, so I am thrilled when Dave tells me that  the books he writes himself will be published by Blue Sky. Wow! Part of what makes him such great company is his ability to tell a tale–about anything–so vividly I can see it. He describes the guy who comes to his house to locate whatever dead animal is stuck in a vent somewhere, and you swear you can see the guy–and smell him. Or he tells about the time his family was invaded by head lice, and you laugh so hard your Perrier almost comes out your nose. Maybe it’s from growing up in Spokane with all those Paul Bunyan tales, or maybe it’s from a lifetime of fishing trips where I imagine the guys sit around the campfire at night telling wild lies about the big ones that got away.

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Dave’s imagination is not like anyone else’s imagination. Unique doesn’t even come close.  it’s fascinating and fun to watch him develop the story and pictures for A Bad Case of Stripes, for example. Among other things, he is determined to create a book cover with a striped spine, and I love that about him. He points out that the book will spend much of its life spine-out on bookcases, and the stripes…well, they will be something we will notice. He tells me this with a twinkle in his eye, and he’s right–it’s a great idea.

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Cover of A Bad Case Of Stripes

I’m nuts about the whole book, and when Camilla breaks out in stars and stripes, I think stories don’t get any better than this.  Dave and I disagree that lima beans are something kids dislike–because as a kid, I always liked them. Turns out he is right, as usual. Kids generally don’t like lima beans. In it stays.

Despite one of the most ridiculous reviews I’ve ever read (“psychedelic” and “will give your children nightmares”), the kids immediately love the book, and so do the parents, and in the end it will be one of David Shannon’s strongest sellers ever. He is a very funny guy, and as he publishes more, he is increasingly unleashing his limitless sense of humor into his books…which is so much fun.

Still, his recent books continue to have many portraits and landscapes. I am lucky enough to have the splendid title page from Audrey Wood’s The Bunyans (the painting with Ansel Adams and his camera tucked into

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Cover of Bunyans (Scholastic Bookshelf)

the side of a scene that looks to be Yosemite) hanging in my living room.

I dive into it every single day. With this in mind, on this sunny California afternoon, I am stunned when he calls and tells me his new book idea. It will be, he says, an entire picture book of a little boy doing things he isn’t supposed to do. And on every spread will be the words, “No, David!” and “No, no, no!”  I can hear how excited he is about the idea, and he’s still rolling it around in his mind. I can hear that, too, over the phone.

Now, I have been taught, in my career, that it is pure poison to have a negative title, and “No!” is something to be avoided at all costs. Children’s books are supposed to be positive. I take a deep breath and tell him that it sounds very interesting, and I’m sure it will be terrific. He’s the genius, after all, and my bread and butter has been encouraging geniuses to do what they do best…with as little interference as possible. The phone call is so surprising that all these years later, I vividly remember exactly where I was standing in my dark little office when he told me the idea: I am next to a tall filing cabinet, and I don’t move during the entire conversation.

Shannon is the kind of person who constantly challenges me to step out of the circle I’ve drawn around myself, and this is no exception. His popularity is building.  Will a picture book about “No!” find an audience? I decide not to worry about it right now, but then a few days later, Dave calls me again with more news. He has decided to illustrate the “No” book with stick figures.

Stick figures.

David Shannon is well on his way to rivaling Winslow Homer, and with every book, his skill as a fine artist is stronger. Stick figures?

Yes indeed. The kind of stick figures little kids make when they are learning to draw. I can hear the gears turning, and he is rolling this idea around in his head, too. “Sounds really interesting,” I say with enthusiasm. But when I get off the phone, I am wondering what he sees in his mind’s eye. What people want from him are his divine landscapes and portraits. He is a fine artist whose paintings belong in museums. Stick figures?  I am really surprised!

You already know the point of this story. 

If you are an editor, or a publisher, or someone in a position to make decisions about what will and what will not get published, I hope you have a combination of good taste and an extraordinary ability to trust that talent will always take care of itself. I am not the queen of children’s books, but this is one thing I know to be absolutely true: The greatest obstacle to good publishing is fear. Good books can’t be published by people who are afraid to take risks. And if you aren’t failing some of the time, then you aren’t doing a good job. Because when you take risks, sometimes you fail. That’s how it works. For me, for David Shannon, for every editor and writer and artist I admire. Risk, fail. Risk, succeed. Risk, succeed. Risk, succeed. Risk, fail. There you go.

So yes, I am going to publish this book about “No!”  And yes, I have very good taste, and I have complete trust in David Shannon’s vision and his talent. Sink or swim, we will do it together. And when the dummy comes in, it is wonderful. Very, very, very funny. The stick figures are what make it work. Bull’s eye. He is right on target.

I’d like to say that I knew it it would be a hit all along, but how could I?  Yet the moment I saw Dave’s sketch dummy, I immediately got it. And by now the story of No, David! is famous…even the small details such as how his dad used to work in an x-ray lab and brought home lots of leftover orange paper so Dave could draw. And he drew an entire book when he was five–a book filled with pictures of himself doing things he wasn’t supposed to do. On every page were written the words: “No, David!” He says that’s because they were the only words he knew how to spell.

I have seen that orange book that his mother, Martha, saved all those years until Dave was an established children’s book writer and illustrator, and then she showed it to him. That book from childhood inspired the new one, and like all revolutionary picture books, not everyone loved it right off the bat. But most people did.

I invited a local librarian, Michael Cart, over to my dark little office in Santa Monica to take a look at my new books. Along with No, David! I was publishing Leo & Diane Dillon’s masterpiece To Every Thing There Is a Season, and Michael has tremendous knowledge of children’s books and really knows the full range much better than I ever will. And when Michael saw No, David!, he was the first person to look at it. He couldn’t stop laughing. When I walked him out to his car, he was still laughing. Thank you, Michael, for the first review….

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Cover of No, David!

As I write this, I take a break to open a window, and I look down at a postcard of the double-spread cover of Jangles, one of the most magnificent books I have ever had the good fortune to publish. It is David’s most recent book, and the oil paintings–his first book in oils–literally made me weak in the knees the day he first showed them to me in his studio. These paintings in Jangles…. I would fight my way from another incarnation to be the publisher of this book. And if anyone else had published it, truthfully I would have been extremely jealous. Not in a nice way.

No, David! quickly became a classic, and it was chosen as a Caldecott Honor Book. The librarians on the committee were witty and interesting and had a lot of questions. I remember that one of them was disturbed that the character’s nose was slightly crooked throughout the entire book. “But your nose is crooked!” she said happily. And at the Newbery Caldecott dinner, when Dave’s mom, Martha, quietly left her seat at our table and followed him up to the front of the ballroom where he was to receive his award, he didn’t know she was right behind him. The entire audience knew it–and Barbara, the chair, was up at the podium in a drop-dead gorgeous dress, trying not to laugh. But she couldn’t help it. The entire, massive ocean of librarians and publishers broke out into hilarious laughter as Dave turned and saw Martha, right behind him, as if she’d won the award herself.

I don’t know how Dave felt about that, and because he’s so gracious he just made a joke about it. In the receiving line he said he was going to call his next book “No, Martha!” But it made history, and those of us who attended that dinner will never forget the time a Caldecott Honor Artist’s mother followed him up to the podium. After all, isn’t that what mother’s do?

Not long ago, I listened to an NPR interview with a physicist who had won the Nobel Prize. The interviewer wanted to know what the physicist’s mother had said when he called to tell her he had won. “She said, ‘That’s nice. But when am I going to see you?'” I can imagine her following her son up to the podium as he goes to get his Nobel Prize…and then tugging at his suit and saying, “And when are you coming over for dinner?”

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Dave in front of my “Rent a Wreck” truck–a bashed-up clunker to haul one of my Habitat for Humanity projects–in front of the posh Beverly Hills Hotel. Oops, I forgot to swap the dented, spray-painted truck back for my car before an early meeting with an eBook executive. But seeing the horror on the valet’s face when I drove up was worth a million dollars….

We started on the second David book before No, David! won all those awards and prizes, so it’s a good thing it did. Better still is to have another book about David for children to read again and again and again. I started writing this because I wanted to write something about David Shannon, but I see I haven’t captured him at all. As is true with everyone I have published, he is a complicated, brilliant artist who sparkles like a Tiffany diamond and has a hundred times the facets. So I’ll sign off by saying I have been very, very fortunate to have had the honor and delight of publishing so many of his unforgettable books. This season, the 20th anniversary of the Blue Sky Press, we’re taking our newest risk on a very funny book about the hysteria caused when a boy comes home with head lice. It’s called Bugs in My Hair! and we promise it will make you itchy.

Once again, David Shannon breaks the sound barrier.

KABOOM!!!

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GREAT NEWS! This week BUGS IN MY HAIR! received its first review: a STAR in KIRKUS. Congratulations, Dave! xxoo  (June 11, 2013)

(May 21, 2014: BUGS IN MY HAIR! turned out to be a big hit! And last week, in New York, it was voted Book of the Year by the Children’s Choice Awards–a huge honor. According to the article in Publisher’s Weekly, “Either this means that a lot of kids liked the book or that a lot of kids have head lice,” said Bugs in My Hair! author David Shannon while accepting his award. He also gave a special shout-out to school nurses (“I want to thank them in particular”).

Here’s a new portrait of Dave:

Portrait of David Shannon

The Limitless Imaginations of Audrey and Don Wood

Let me tell you about Don and Audrey Wood. They are highly unusual people. I have known them for almost three decades, and I have never–not once–heard Don say a negative thing about a single person. Audrey is simultaneously one of the funniest and most spiritual people I know. They fit together seamlessly like yin and yang, except their colors aren’t separate, and instead of black and white, they are every hue of the rainbow, with new, invented colors from the ninth dimension mixed in to make it really sizzle. Cooking up anything with them, from a graphic novel to a concept book to spaghetti sauce, is a wild adventure. Frankly I don’t know where to begin.

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BEGIN WITH A SNAPSHOT, OF COURSE. (You can tell the boring stuff later.)

SNAPSHOT:  I am eight months pregnant, and I have swollen from 123 pounds to more than 200 pounds–I stopped looking at the scale at 201. This means I am so pregnant that if I crouch down, there is no possibility that I will be able to stand back up again. When I drop a slip of paper, for example, I watch it flutter to the floor, and it stays there. Trying to pick it up would be easier than crossing the Grand Canyon on a tight wire. I am that big.

I stopped going out a long time ago, because I got tired of all the pointing and laughing. My doctor, who has delivered more than ten thousand babies, says I am having one of the four biggest pregnancies he has ever encountered. Women in his waiting room see me and sprint back to his office in a panic. “I’m not going to look like that, am I?” He reassures them that they won’t.

I’m dying to have the baby, but being transformed into an orca-sized freak show is very disturbing. And that is why, when I drive my gigantic self up to Santa Barbara to see Audrey Wood, I feel very self conscious. My favorite Bed & Breakfast, the Villa Rosa, doesn’t allow children. I won’t be back for a long, long time.

Don is away, and Audrey and I will be dining at a very posh restaurant called Citronelle, At 7pm, she comes to pick me up. I am so big I can hardly move, but when I open the door, she is standing before me with her black sweater stuffed with pillows. She is almost as pregnant as I am, and I laugh so hard tears stream down my face.  One enormously pregnant woman is a lonely place to be. Two enormously pregnant women going out to an upscale dinner is hysterically funny. I can’t think of anyone else in the universe who would come up with the idea of mirroring my pregnancy; and when I say Audrey is highly creative and inventive, those words don’t even come close to describing her imagination. It is unpredictably wild and untamed and magical. It is always in motion, and it pervades everything she does, from her writing to her clothing to her lifestyle to the choices she makes in her daily life. It has no limits.

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We waddle out to her car, and of course everyone in the lobby is bug eyed. Next stop is the restaurant, where the valet almost chokes, and the maitre’d of the crowded restaurant tries to control the contorted look on his face. He leads us across the noisy, crowded dining room, and suddenly the room is silent. You could hear a pin drop. Every head turns. Audrey, doing a very slow, labored, convincing sway and waddle, leads the way.

The maitre’d has found us a table in a corner and as far of sight as possible, presumably so the other patrons won’t be disturbed again. Audrey is in high spirits.  I am so impressed with her convincingly awkward duck walk that I add a little swagger to my own. We thread our way slowly to the exit, and then we burst out into exuberant giggles. We dine with glee and then laugh the whole way back to the Villa Rosa. There is nobody remotely like Audrey Wood.

Eighteen years later, a photograph from that night is in my dining room, and I look at it every single day. There we stand, tummy to tummy, with no idea what the future holds, and no concerns about it, either. Audrey and Don will become the godparents of the baby I am carrying, and since my parents have both been dead a long, long time, that means they will step in to become my son’s grandparents, and a huge part of the best of him will be because of the imaginative, kind, gentle, funny, loving people they are.

SNAPSHOT: My son, Robbie, is six, and it is the first week of July. I want to celebrate an accomplishment of mine in a big, big way, and so I take my son to Hawaii for a week of vacation. We live in California, and I haven’t been to the islands since around 1984 when I left my job as a sales and editorial rep for Little, Brown; they rewarded me by adding Hawaii onto my L.A./Santa Barbara territory, and they sent me to the islands for about six fully-paid weeks a year.

A few months back, Don and Audrey Wood broke my heart by leaving Santa Barbara and moving to Hawaii, and not only that, they’ve disappeared from all contact. I know the reason they are impossible to reach is because they bought conservation land on one of the islands and have been living in a trailer in the middle of the jungle while they start building a house. The only thing I know about it is that a huge part of the land is taken up by an enormous, ancient banyan tree. Their cell phone isn’t working, the road where they live is a rutted lava path that is impassable, and although I call some people to try to help me locate them, I finally have to give up. My son and I are going to Hawaii anyway.

I am at the ALA Convention in Atlanta with a writer, and he is tan and relaxed and having a great time. As usual, I have been working myself into a frenzy, and when I see how calm and happy he is, I ask about his recent vacation. He and his family have just returned from Maui, he tells me, and it was paradise. I decide I want the exact same vacation he just took, and he gives me the contact information. Now my son and I are headed from LAX to the Ritz Carlton Maui, and still no word from Don and Audrey. That’s a shame, but the show must go on.

What I am celebrating will remain a mystery, but let’s just say it’s the accomplishment of my life. Big time. With this in mind, I rent a Mustang convertible and go all out. And our first night in Maui–where I discover that all Ritz Carlton Hotels are pretty much the same, and this one is quiet as a tomb except for us–I try once more to call the Woods on their cell phone.

Surprise!  Don actually answers.

They are not on Maui, they are on a different island, and they have not had cell service because Don dropped the cell phone into something–there’s static, and I can’t understand what he says. Later I will find out he had dropped it into a “pool of eels,” leaning so far over to watch them that the phone fell out of his pocket and into the writhing eels. Anyway, the phone is finally fixed, or maybe it’s a replacement, but they are on another island, they have been living in a trailer smaller than a compact car, they take their showers outdoors and have jimmied together an outdoor toilet, too. Audrey cooks under a tarp like a tiny tent using a gas grill, and except for sleeping, they seem to be camping outdoors 24/7.

Why don’t they come over to Maui and stay with us at the Ritz Carlton? I ask. They can spend a few days at the hotel and visit with us. Nothing would make us happier.

Amazingly they are able to do it, and in a day or two they arrive. The best part of the vacation is watching their reaction to the hotel. As I said, they have been camping in the jungle for months, and when Don walks into the room, his jaw drops. Let me tell you this–unless you are a rich person used to luxury hotels, the Ritz Carlton Maui is not your average hotel anyway. Thick white robes hang in the closet, terrycloth slippers are placed at the foot of your bed. The beds are long and wide and thick and heavenly, covered with heavenly sheets and pillows and blankets. The thick, soft carpeting helps to keep the room completely quiet, and everything is sophisticated, elegant, tasteful, and clean.

I think Don’s eyes are going to roll out of his head and across the floor. He is in a state of shock. He has not seen a bathtub for six months, a lot less a queen bed and feather pillows. If you know their work, you know that Don and Audrey created the Caldecott Honor Book King Bidgood’s in the Bathtub, about a king who won’t get out. That night I make dinner reservations, and Audrey can’t get Don to get out of the tub. He absolutely refuses. I postpone dinner, and each time we get to the reservation time, Audrey calls to tell me that Don still refuses to leave the tub. Our vacation, I see, is going swimmingly well.

One of the odd things about the Ritz Carlton Maui is that you clearly can’t buy good weather, no matter how much money you spend. It seems to be raining most of the time at the hotel. What is strange is that down the highway, if you drive south, it is sunny. So my son and I have taken to leaving the hotel in the drizzle, then driving south into the sunshine where we can put down the convertible top. Then we find a sunny beach and spend the day there. We return back to the Ritz Carlton, and as we approach, the drizzle begins, and we have the convertible top back up by the time we drive up to the hotel.

Don and Audrey are happy to drive down the coast with us, and Don wants to take Water Boy out snorkling. My son is a fish, which means that since he was a baby, he has headed for the water. Even before he could walk, he would wait for me to look away from his beach blanket and then extend his turtle-flipper arms and try to push his way across the sand, headed straight into the ocean. How could he ever grow up to be anything but a swimmer?

A swimmer he is, and at six, Robbie is ready to go out to deep water, Don decides, to learn how to snorkel. I snap a picture as Don dresses Robbie in fins, snorkle, and mask. They have already practiced the whole routine in the Ritz Carlton pool all morning, and Robbie is ready to go. Even at six he is a very strong swimmer, and this morning he didn’t want to come out of the pool at all. “Tell me again, what’s the point of being out of the water?” he asks us. Now in the ocean, with Don in charge, I’m not worried.

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Don picks my son up, like a medium-sized sack of flour, and carries him under his arm across the sand and into the Pacific. Then they swim out to the end of Black Rock, a great snorkle spot, and my son experiences the thrill of seeing his first honu, or sea turtles, and schools of brightly colored fish out at sixty feet. He holds onto Don’s strong back, and Audrey and I sit on towels on the beach, talking as we watch them explore the deep water.

So begins our love affair with Hawaii, although it will be a different island that will win our hearts. Don and Audrey continue to be wide-eyed at their three days of supreme luxury–including food cooked by chefs in a kitchen–and then it’s time for them to leave. Saying good bye is really difficult, and ever since I published Jimmy Buffett’s The Jolly Mon, when my heart tears because someone I adore is leaving, I think of how Jimmy described the Jolly Mon: “They loved to see him come, and they hated to see him go.” My son and I hate to see them go, and every day of the rest of our vacation, we stop in front of the door to their room and look wistfully at it for a moment before we move on by to embrace the rest of our day.

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I met Don and Audrey Wood around 1985, when Maria Modugno hired me to become Editor, Children’s Books at Harcourt. I was living with my rock-musician husband, and the new job meant I commuted between Santa Monica and San Diego–a three-hour drive when there isn’t any traffic, and there is always traffic.

At the time, Harcourt was enjoying the enormous the success of Don and Audrey’s Wood’s The Napping Housetheir first book with Harcourt. Don was delivering paintings for their second Harcourt book, King Bidgood’s in the Bathtub, and I remember looking a the original art for that book and noticing what I called the “Napping House blue” that to me was a signature of Don’s palette. I won’t get into those years except to say that the Woods became the toast of the children’s book industry, and for good reason. Their new books at Harcourt were warm, funny, and appealed directly to what occupied the minds and lives of children. They were winning awards and selling like hotcakes, the reviews were starry, and the Woods were talented performers. Their hugely popular book signings usually included a dramatic performance, and accompanying music was often created by Audrey’s talented sister Jennifer. As usual, the Woods broke new ground and turned their book signings into entertainment events–a success story that was imitated and has almost become the norm more than two decades later.

Although they had a backlist of books with a private British publisher, those early books (Quick as a Cricket; The Red, Ripe Strawberry and the Big Hungry Bear) were purchased by the publisher for a small flat fee, although they sold millions of copies internationally and still do. It was never mentioned to me by the Woods themselves. That Don and Audrey moved on with no resentment–instead building a collection of superb new books–is typical of their compassion and wisdom.  My comments here are my own opinions and in no way reflect Don and Audrey Wood.

Fast forward to 1992, when I left Harcourt and joined Scholastic.

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The Woods have made books together and separately, and as of today, those combinations include picture books where Don and Audrey collaborate, usually crediting the the text to Audrey and the art to Don, although they are married and work flawlessly as a team, so every book is a melding of minds and the result of much discussion. Their most recent book is It’s Duffy Time, published this past fall, featuring one of their two pug dogs, although both dogs (brothers) posed for the paintings.

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Duffy reads his new book.

A second kind of collaboration is when Audrey writes the story and draws the sketches, and then Don makes the paintings. The first book of this nature was Elbert’s Bad Word, published at Harcourt, and they will have a new one, The Birthday Queen, to be published this coming fall in 2013, celebrating the 20th birthday of the Blue Sky Press. Audrey also writes picture books that are illustrated by painters other than Don, and the most popular of these have been collaborations with their son, Bruce, who created three-dimensional art on the computer. Audrey writes the story, Don art directs, and Bruce creates the art and sends in prints (as opposed to paintings), which are matched by the printer. Audrey and Bruce have published numerous highly successful concept books together, including the very popular Alphabet Adventure series as well as stand-alone concept books such as The Deep Blue Sea and Ten Little Fish, which continue to sell huge numbers and garner strong reviews. The alphabet books in particular were great for my own son, especially when he was learning the difference between the “big” letters and the “little” letters–something most alphabet books don’t address, and learning to read can be very confusing because of that. Audrey, Don, Bruce, and my son back in the Alphabet Adventure days:

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As well, Audrey writes and illustrates her own books, and she is a fifth-generation artist. The most recent book she wrote and illustrated was Blue Sky, which the reviewers loved, although I expect her most successful book in terms of sales was the popular (and addictive) Silly Sallypublished at Harcourt.

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And then there are the books that Don Wood writes and illustrates himself–such as the outstanding graphic novel Into the Volcano, which was applauded from coast to coast and impressed more than one librarian to comment that an entirely new award needed to be created just for Don’s new book.

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Every book has its story, but I have written enough for now, and none of it does the Woods justice. I often explain to my son that I find writing a mysterious process, and I really do believe there are times when a person writes well, and times when the writing doesn’t flow so well. It’s Mother’s Day today, and we are going to go do something special. Another Sunday I will come back to this piece and write about moments in bookmaking–afternoons where all the new paintings are spread out on a big table with lots of real sunlight so we can see the true colors. Mornings when we go over manuscripts and dummies and iron out the kinks, or come up with a new last line of the book, or decide to put it away until after dinner. Evenings when Audrey comes running out of her studio with a surprise–a new drawing that fits perfectly into the book and solves every one of the issues. Endless discussions of cover art, type designs, what will go on the title page, which endpaper color will make the interiors sparkle, how the copy has to change to direct the reader. As they say, another story for another day. But for now, let me share that my heart is very full, and there are no words to express my gratitude, professionally for the joy and honor, and personally for the bottomless generosity, love, and guidance.

And yes, I do have the best career in the world. No question.

Aloha and Hibiscus

Aloha and Hibiscus

Afternoons in Margaritaville: Snapshots of Jimmy Buffett

Jimmy Buffett. Singer, songwriter, showman, novelist, journalist, sailor, airplane pilot, surfer, father, humorist, performer, husband, world traveler, survivor of Catholic school, entrepreneur, balladeer, chef.  The only person who reminds me of Jimmy is Mark Twain, who also defies description and refused to fit in a box. Colorful beyond words, part pirate and part angel, both men were mavericks and boldly stepped into the unknown. How appropriate that Jimmy Buffett’s favorite writer is Twain.

For somebody who is an open book, Jimmy Buffett manages to be a very private man. I edited all his books but his autobiography, which he wrote after I left Harcourt’s adult department for Scholastic, where there was no adult publishing at all. He told me he had nine editors on that book at Random House, and I don’t doubt it. It’s not a criticism of Random, and it isn’t a criticism of Jimmy, either. It all comes back to that chemistry thing that writers and editors have when they get lucky. I have been very, very, very lucky with Jimmy Buffett, and I will always love him to pieces.

 

Cover of

Cover of The Jolly Mon

 

I worked with Jimmy for about 28 years–from his first book, The Jolly Mon, after a friend introduced us, and I asked Jimmy to try his hand at writing–to his last novel, A Salty Piece of Land as well as his collaboration with Helen Bransford, Swine Not, that followed. He hasn’t written a book since. My stories and observations about those years are so long and detailed and filled with funny anecdotes it would take a year to write them all down, so instead I will present a few snapshots of memorable moments. Why not? There is nothing here that Jimmy wouldn’t tell you himself, or I wouldn’t write it. Any close relationship has lots of confidences, or it wouldn’t be close. And to edit Jimmy Buffett, you have to walk around in his head and his world, because he is one of a kind. Fortunately for literature, he is confident enough to let that happen. The fiction that emerges from that degree of trust is something to behold. The editor listens, observes, encourages, and then gets out of the way. The writer creates a show-stopping display of fireworks and delivers a quality of fiction he never thought possible. It is a rare and beautiful thing.

 

Cover of

Cover of A Salty Piece of Land

 

Of all the writers and illustrators I have worked with these 36 years, two people have consistently taken direction most enthusiastically: One was MacArthur Fellow Virginia Hamilton–winner of the Newbery Medal, four Newbery Honors, the Andersen Medal, and a list of awards so long it would take me pages to recite. The other is Jimmy Buffett, whose list of accomplishments is so broad and so lengthy I won’t even start. I will say he is one of those rare writers to have earned the number one spot on both the fiction and nonfiction bestseller lists of the New York Times, and that’s not even counting his gold and platinum records. He has earned some of the best reviews I have ever read in my life (Kinky Friedman in the NYT reviewing A Salty Piece of Land, for example), and his first book for adults, Tales from Margaritaville, was the longest-running bestseller of that entire year.

 

 

When I say “take direction,” I don’t mean the editor tells the writer what to do, and the writer does it. That’s a no-brainer and not nearly as interesting. Again, keep in mind that Virginia and Jimmy are both shockingly brilliant and endlessly creative. No, what I mean is this: I make a comment that a scene isn’t working, and then I make a suggestion about how to fix it. Here’s an example from Jimmy’s first novel, Where Is Joe Merchant? 

I am visiting Jimmy at a quail hunting lodge in Mississippi that looks very much like a log cabin, except that it isn’t a cabin–it’s made for groups of men to come and hunt quail. If my memory serves me well, I believe Jimmy flew us in, because I vividly recall looking out the window of the very small plane (it reminded me of flying in a Volkswagen) and watching the carefully controlled fires below that created the perfect environment for quail. Jimmy’s a pilot, and it makes traveling a lot faster and easier.

That night, we sit in comfortable chairs and go over the new fiction. Trevor Kane’s brother, Joe Merchant, has disappeared and is believed dead, and Trevor’s mother has died. Right now Jimmy needs to send Trevor off someplace so he can keep her occupied while other things are happening at the same time in other scenes. The sun has set, and Jimmy says, “I’ll send her to a spa. Isn’t that where you women go when you have this kind of stress?”  And I say, “No, you can’t send her to a spa. She has to deal with attorneys and her mother’s estate. After my parents died, my cousin was the executor, and I had to read the will and take care of the bills and get everything straight. She has work to do.”

Jimmy looks at me for a minute, and I can see the wheels turning. Then he lets out a laugh that is more like a whoop. He runs outside onto the broad porch and sits down with his computer and starts typing madly. He’s out there having the time of his life, and peals of laugher drift in through the open window as he’s typing. What the hell is he writing? I’m wondering, and then he comes back inside the lodge and sits down to read it to me. The grin on his face mirrors the Cheshire Cat.

Trevor has gone to handle the details of her family’s estate alright. She has gone to Miami to meet with her shady cousin lawyer, the executor, who drives up in a black Mercedes convertible with a license plate that says: I’m Clean. His name is Hackney Primstone III, and he’s wearing a custom-tailored khaki suit, one of his hundreds of pairs of elevator shoes (he’s short), and Person water-buffalo-frame sunglasses. In one hand he’s gripping the steering wheel and a Monte Cristo cigar, and the other hand is outstretched to help Trevor into the car. Only highly paid women would ever get into bed with this slimeball, Trevor thinks, cringing. Her revolting cousin has recently been under investigation in connection with a black-market organ-donor scam…and the scene goes on. (That scene and character will eventually surface again in a song Jimmy writes called “Everyone has a Cousin in Miami.”)

SNAPSHOT: I am walking down a cobbled street in the French Quarter of New Orleans on my way to have lunch at somebody’s house with Jimmy. Around the corner I hear men hooting with glee, and who should appear but Jimmy and his close pal Ed Bradley, the investigative reporter from Sixty Minutes, wearing the robes of alter boys. If you know Jimmy’s stories about growing up Catholic, you’ll know what makes that funny.

SNAPSHOT: I am staying in Key West at the Marquesa Hotel, and Jimmy is supposed to pick me up at 8am. I’m bleary because my puddle jumper from Orlando was cancelled, and it was the last plane out. I ended up sharing a stretch limo with a very bigoted Mormon businessman who secretly wanted to be an opera singer. But the racist things he tells me about his so-called faith annoy me to the point that I have the driver pull over and stock up on cigarettes and beer. For whatever reasons (maybe because I’m going to Hell anyway, the Mormon figures), it doesn’t bother him that I chain smoke and chug Fosters the entire drive down to the Keys. But I find drowning him in smoke and the heavy scent of beer satisfying.

Anyway, Jimmy is late, which never happens. When he finally pulls up in his convertible, during the drive to his house, he tells me that his parents are visiting, and very early this morning when J.D. (his dad) got up to take a swim, three Cubans pulled up to Jimmy’s dock on the canal on a raft. They had paddled from Cuba all night and were doctors. We don’t do any work that day because the press comes, and the Cubans are shown being welcomed to America with Parrothead tee shirts and CDs. That night, family and close friends have dinner outside at a local restaurant, and I get another lesson in Southern Storytelling–the kind that makes these tellers legendary. Even the kids can tell a story better than nearly any writer I’ve ever read. No more details except to say that Jimmy Buffett’s father is an even better storyteller than his son, and as the moon shines over us (yes, the Cubans paddled when there was a moon, which has been pointed out to me as very dangerous), I am conscious that I am a Yankee girl who is quietly having a once-in-a-lifetime glimpse into a lifestyle I may never see again.

SNAPSHOT: We are in Nashville, where Jimmy and his wife are living in a plantation house off the Nachez Trace, and they are restoring it back to its original period–with some new amenities such as a state-of-the-art kitchen and beautiful bathrooms based on a recent trip to Europe. The hunting dogs want to come into the house, but an invisible electric field keeps them from entering, because Jane’s rugs are handmade and exquisite, and dogs are dogs. On the side of the house I see Jimmy’s horse, Mr. Twain, and Jimmy asks me if I want to get up early tomorrow and go riding. Anybody who thinks he is a drunk is mistaken. This is a man who is so organized it makes my head spin, who is always on time and often early, found sipping cranberry juice and revising his manuscript on his Mac as I drag my way down to coffee. He is sharp as a tack, quick as greased lightning, has the patience of a saint, and always seems to be in a good mood. In fact, over the thirty or so years I have known him, I have only seen him in a bad mood once. And that was later on this same day in Nashville, and only for about two minutes in his car on the way to lunch. I have made a strong suggestion for a revision to Where Is Joe Merchant, and he absolutely hates it. He driving and wants to show me a new place called Borders where they sell not only music but books, and the store even has a cafe where we can get lunch. After we eat, we will go back to his study and work on the book some more, and then the phone will ring, and it will be Savannah’s school, calling to tell her parents that she did especially well on a test.

SNAPSHOT: We are in New York City, and Paul McCartney is having a show at Madison Square Garden. Do I want to go? We won’t have seats, we will be backstage, but Jimmy wants to see Paul’s show. Jimmy is a showman, after all. He is very curious.

We end up standing close to the stage, and the thing that blows my mind is that we know the words to every single song. Remember, I am married to a rock musician during this time period, so I am used to going to concerts and recording studios and being backstage and talking to famous musicians and going with Ira to parties with Bob Dylan or hanging out at Don Henley’s house on Mulholland. It’s my world, and although it sometimes seems a little weird to be a book publisher in this environment, I don’t think about it much because it’s just my life, you know?

Anyway, the McCartney concert is awesome. It’s incredible! And we’re so close, it’s right in my face. Jimmy is planning his upcoming summer tour, and again I see the wheels are turning. Afterward we join some friends at Elaine’s for champagne, and years later, when I am in New York on publishing business and see that Jimmy has sold out Madison Square garden for two nights in a row, I will remember this night and smile. He’s come a long way…and deserves every inch of it.

SNAPSHOT: I know Jimmy has this other career besides writing–but that’s how I think of it. His other career. In fact he has a lot of careers, but he doesn’t talk about them much. With me he talks about the books, but along the way he is always sending me the recorded sketch of a new song he’s written that is connected to one of his short stories or one of his characters, and it’s a big surprise–when he finishes Tales from Margaritaville, a massive effort on his part, and his first book for adults–that he hands me a copy of what he’s been working on in the studio. He’s used a red Sharpie to scrawl on it “Off to See the Lizard,” and it’s an early copy of the album he will be releasing where every song goes with one of the short stories in Tales from Margaritaville. See what I mean? He is one of a kind. Like Twain in that way of being unique, but not Twain at all. He is the only Jimmy Buffett we will ever have, and I am convinced history will be drawn to him in a similar way. Right now, as was true with Twain and Fitzgerald and so many other people we now revere–he’s alive and living his life, so none of it seems historic. But the songs are beautiful. He captures the landscape of Tully Mars and his longing to find a better place than the poodle ranch he escapes in “Take Another Road,” as he rides his horse, Mr. Twain, “to the shore.” And Jimmy writes about food in his fiction because he loves good food, and he makes a mean shrimp salad, which I remember eating in Key West. “I Wish Lunch Could Last Forever” is the perfect New Orleans song and again captures the sweetness of Slade’s love affair in that story. It’s a unique blending of the fiction and music, and I can’t imagine that anyone else on the planet could do it. At least not do it well. So I am once again stunned. Speechless.

We are in Key West again, and I’m working away at his house while he’s out with J.D. and Peets, his mom. The convertible pulls in the driveway with “The Pascagoula Run” on at full blast, and his dad is laughing. After all, it’s a Buffett family song. At the end of making Tales from Margaritaville, Jimmy gives the typeset manuscript pages to Peets to proofread.

Cover of

Cover of Tales from Margaritaville

And when I call her to ask her about it, she is laughing so hard! “Willet Rainer Snow!” she says. “I can’t believe Jimmy remembered that after all these years.”  And after I get off the phone and ask myself why she was laughing about Willet, I finally get the joke. Yes, I am a Yankee girl who has edited this entire book and read the story at least two hundred times, yet every time I read it, I missed the humor. Willet Rainer Snow. A Buffett family joke from childhood. From the shipyard, I think she said. Amazing.

 

 

SNAPSHOT: Book jackets from Hell. I am in the middle of one now, more than twenty years later, and it just doesn’t ever stop, does it? The marketing and sales people always want exactly what was on the jacket that sold so well last time, and Jimmy says it’s the same way in the music business.

For Tales from Margaritaville, we didn’t have this problem because nobody but me expected it to sell. The initial print run was 3000 copies, and after pressure from the sales reps, Peter Jovanovich reluctantly allowed us to raise the run to 10,000. Fun and games, because when our New York rep, Schuyler Huntoon, reported his first sale to the chains, the order from Walden Books was 10,000 copies. If you have a first edition of Tales from Margaritaville, hold onto it. They are very rare.

Back to the jacket. I am in the hands of a designer I don’t work with, because he’s what they call “the jacket man” and only does the jackets for the adult books. Most of my books are beautiful picture books for younger readers at this point, so I don’t have to deal with him. And it appears he is having some kind of breakdown or family problem or something, because I keep asking for some cover comps, and I keep hearing that they’re on the way, and they never come. It is getting closer and closer to pub date, and I’m getting really, really anxious. Finally I get a cover comp that is a map (a nice idea) with Jimmy’s picture imposed on it. It’s a bit stiff, and a bit awkward, but we are out of time, down to the wire, and Jimmy approves it, and we are off to the races.

Since Tales from Margaritaville becomes an immediate bestseller and remains not only the longest-running bestseller of the year but is also, according to ABA, “the hardest book of the year to buy” because it is always out of stock (God forbid we have a 1% return rate; thanks for the confidence, guys), when it comes time for the cover for the second adult book, Where Is Joe Merchant?, a novel, it is really no fun at all.

We have the same delay–endlessly asking for comps, and endlessly not seeing anything. Then we are at the “911” emergency wire, and I’m told that we are going to do a map again because it did so well on the first book.

(Expletive here.)

Really, sometimes it seems truly miraculous that book publishing houses ever stay in business at all. I mean it.

We have something like two days to come up with a cover, and I am getting a comp shoved down my throat (the old “We’re out of time so we have to go with it” trick) that shows a map with two suitcases in front of it, and Jimmy’s face on one of the suitcases. I KID YOU NOT. Jimmy and I have been working on this novel, seven days a week, for years, and I am still publishing a complete children’s list of superstars. In fact, I have two jobs. I have changed from Editor-in-Chief of the Children’s Books Division to Executive Editor so I can build an adult fiction list, and I am also Executive Editor in the Adult Trade Department. I report to one person, but I have a full list for both jobs. When I tell my boss it’s too much–I am working myself to death, he simply says, “Bonnie, we want both from you, and so we are going to push you hard to get both. You are the only person who can balance it, because nobody is going to look out for you but you.” Thanks a lot.  I am going out of my mind, and the stress is killing me. Now I have a gorgeous, funny, engaging novel by a bestselling author and recording artist, but the cover is ugly as sin…and insulting.

I show it to Jimmy, and he hates it.

“We are out of time,” I am told, and even when I remind my boss that in his contract, Jimmy has jacket approval, my boss doesn’t budge. “Give me twenty-four hours,” I beg. “Just give me 24 hours, and I’ll get a new cover for you. Something that Jimmy will like, and something that will sell.” My boss begrudgingly gives me the 24 hours.

At this point I am living in New Jersey in the house where I grew up because my parents have each died horrible, violent, grisly deaths from their respective cancers, and being a workaholic is an effective way, I’ve discovered, to medicate the pain. I have taken out a mortgage and purchased the house, and although I commute in to my office in New York City a few days a week, I’ve turned the top floor of my home into an office, complete with a desk, a drawing table, art supplies, a fax machine, and two cats, Nick and Nora, gifts from Barry Moser. I sit down at my drawing table and remind myself of all those years of art school and get out my paints. Then I paint the scene I think should be on the cover. It’s in the book, of course. The sun is setting over the ocean, the lone palm is on the edge of the beach with its tire swing hanging down, and a sea plane–Frank Bama’s Grumman Goose–is coming down for a landing. I’m rusty as hell with my paintbrushes, but when I finish, it’s good enough to photocopy and send to Jimmy and send to New York. Which I do.

Cover of

Cover of Where is Joe Merchant?

 

Jimmy loves it. Perfect. My boss buckles under and agrees. We will find a “real” artist to take my primitive watercolor and make it into a “real” jacket. Which is exactly what happens. And my little joke is on the back flap. Jimmy is a jokester, so I plant a little humor of my own for his Parrothead fans. Something to make them scratch their heads. The lead female character in the book is Trevor Kane, who is an artist. So this is the credit for the cover art:

         Jacket illustration by Michael Koelsch based on a painting by Trevor Kane

That will keep them guessing.

SNAPSHOT: For the first few years I worked with Jimmy, I thought most of the places in his fiction were imaginary. And they are. He uses scrupulous detail to make them utterly real. But there are a few outlandish places in the short stories and the novel that are not imaginary–and I found out about them because I stumbled upon the real places in my travels. So I actually can’t tell you, for certain, which places are real, and which places are imaginary. I will say that one location is very real. I published it as fiction, but I now know better because I’ve been there.

Jimmy won an award in Alabama, and he couldn’t go, so I went in his place to accept on his behalf. The plane was late, and Harcourt (or maybe it was the awards group) had put me up at what I assumed was a hotel near the venue. All I know is that my plane was late, I had flown out of New York straight from work, so I was wearing a snappy little business dress and high heels. When I got off the plane, the entire wall of the airport was covered in a gigantic Confederate flag. I rented my car and set off to try to find the hotel–with no directions other than the car rental man’s instructions on how to get to the address on the highway where my hotel was supposedly located. Harcourt was closed, cell phones hadn’t been invented, and GPS navigators were a thing of the future. It was dark, late, and once I found the highway, it was completely, although it ran for miles and miles along a sandy beach. All I had was my little slip of paper with an address on it, yet the address didn’t match up with any of the buildings, and all of them seemed to be vacation condos, off season, and every single one of them was dark.

Also to my dismay, I discovered that the highway crossed the Alabama-Florida border, and on either side of the line, the street numbering system was different. I was already spooked by being alone on a deserted road late at night in a place I’d never been, but the hotel didn’t exist, so I was now guessing I was staying at a condo–except that didn’t seem to exist, either. There were no gas stations, no stores, no Seven-Elevens, no nothing. Then I remembered that I had driven past a bar. It was miles back, but maybe the people at the bar could help me find the condo.

I pulled into the driveway of a deserted condo to turn around, and Jersey Girl Bonnie learned a big, important lesson. If you back your car into sand, you are going to get stuck.

Nothing I could do would move that rental car an inch. I knocked on the door of the deserted condo, and knocked on the doors nearby. Again, nobody was there, and it was getting close to midnight, and there I was, my car stuck in sand, and I was wearing high heels and a business-type dress, and the only thing I could think of to do was to haul my sorry self down the deserted highway back two or three miles to that bar. Great.

Off came the heels, and I wasn’t brave at all. The rare times a car or truck came by, I wasn’t about to flag them down. By the time I finally saw the lights of the bar, I was completely freaked out. There weren’t any gas stations to drag my car out of the sand anyway, even if I found a pay phone. What was a fancy Yankee girl going to find at a local bar at this hour?

And then I realized where I was. It was the FloraBama Bar, right out of Jimmy’s short story in Tales from Margaritaville. Oh, my God. I had walked into a Buffett short story!

When you are lost at midnight in a place that scares the pee out of you, it is very reassuring to find a place you know from a scene in a short story by the author you are there to honor. So I walked into the FloraBama Bar, figuring that if Jimmy knew the place well enough to put it in his book, then hopefully they would know him.

Of course everyone in the place turned and stared. I was in my early thirties, my long blonde hair was pulled up in a bun, and I sure wasn’t wearing my snakeskin boots. I was about as out of place as a ferret on a bicycle. No, as out of place as a New York publisher in a loud, drunken, backwoods redneck bar. “Hi,” I said, counting on Tales from Margaritaville to pull me through this one. After all, Jimmy’s nickname for me has always been Glinda the Good Witch. “I’m Jimmy Buffett’s editor. I’m here to get a writing award because Jimmy had to work. And my car got stuck in the sand, and I can’t find my hotel. Can anyone help me?”

I am not going to tell you what happened after that, except to say that many drinks were consumed at the FloraBama, and my car was pulled out of the sand, and they found the address, and it was a condo, and I managed to find the venue at the right time the next day, and the awards ceremony began with a prayer. A few weeks later I had Jimmy sign a box of copies of Tales from Margaritaville to my new friends at the FloraBama Bar who had been so helpful, and I assume the box made it down there. I never did go back.

Years later, when my son and I went to Belize to scuba dive, I walked past a nightclub in San Pedro town that I also thought had been a figment of Jimmy’s imagination, but there it was, smaller than I had imagined, but real as the fingers on my hand. It was right out of a scene in A Salty Piece of Land, and Tully Mars had had quite a wild night there.

I am ready to take a break from Jimmy Buffett snapshots right now, but I hope you can see that the man has more talent in his toe than most people have in ten lifetimes. So working with him all these years has been great fun, a great challenge, and many great lessons in kindness, generosity, and the value of hard work, passion, and imagination. We all have our ups and downs, but Jimmy Buffett chooses to walk on the sunny side of the street.

And I am so delighted to share a few moments of that sunshine with you.

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Captain Underpants and the Big Pitch

We are in Chicago, sitting in the cafeteria of the Art Institute of Chicago. It is a modest lunch, and our sandwiches are still on paper plates on our plastic trays.

I brought Dav Pilkey to this museum because he likes Chagall, and I have been hoping he will love the stained glass windows here. He does. Last night, on the phone, he repeatedly told me to “bring a big glove” to lunch because today he is going to give me “a really big pitch.”  Now I am waiting.

The big pitch comes. I can see he is nervous, but I don’t know why. He tells me about going to grade school and being punished so often the teacher put a designated Dav Pilkey desk in the hallway.

Day after day he sat alone out there with pencils and paper, and what did he do? He drew.

He tells me he made up superheroes. His favorite, he says, was one called Captain Underpants. Superheroes, he says, all seem to dress in their underwear. He explains he wants to make a book that will feature Captain Underpants.

I laugh. It’s a great idea.  “I love it,” I say. “Let’s do it.”

He gives me a very curious look, as if I’ve just said something in Chinese.

“Really?” he asks.

“Of course. Why not?”

 

The first Captain Underpants book.

The first Captain Underpants book. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

We change the subject and talk about Chagall and some of the other artists at the Institute. Then we bus our trays and go back to the galleries.

It is only much later that I come to understand that something big has happened. Not to me, because I love Dav’s sense of humor. I get it. I always have. And I’m a happy camper because now I have a funny new book to publish.

But something big has happened to Dav Pilkey. All his life, grown-ups have ridiculed his humor. They’ve punished him for it. And they’ve sweetly added things like “you’ll never get anywhere in life with those stupid drawings.”  He is certain the answer to the Captain Underpants book will be a resounding no. Instead, his editor said yes. No argument, no persuasion, no resistance at all.

So he didn’t give a big pitch, and I didn’t need a big glove. And I don’t feel smart for saying yes, because humor is subjective. Millions of people find Dav’s sense of humor really, really funny. Maybe you do, too. Or maybe you don’t. In book publishing a lot depends on making a good match–the way Barry Cunningham loved Harry Potter, and some other editors didn’t. I’m a big believer in single editorial vision, because it works for me, and obviously it worked for Barry Cunningham. I don’t believe committees can have a single vision. And in humor that’s particularly deadly since a group rarely agrees that something is funny. You love the Three Stooges, and your neighbor hates them.

I’d like to say the road to publication of The Adventures of Captain Underpants  was simple and smooth, but because it’s humor, it wasn’t. A number of people along the way wanted the book cancelled, and they were very angry and vocal about it. But Jean Feiwel backed us up and drowned them out. Barbara Marcus and Dick Robinson gave their support.  Roz Hilden, one of the most respected sales reps at that time, boldly announced it was her favorite book of the season.  And although our initial print run was only 10,000 paperbacks, Alan Boyko, in Scholastic Book Fairs, was so wildly enthusiastic about the book that his division sold something like 700,000 copies in the first season. I may be wrong about the number, but whatever it was, it was astronomical. And the last time I looked, the worldwide number of books in print was hovering somewhere around 60 million. What these books have done to promote literacy is one of the great victories of our time.

What’s my point?

This is a simple story with a happy ending. Volumes could be written about Dav Pilkey and his wonderful books, and they probably will be written–someday. I skipped past the fascinating stories behind Dogzilla and Kat Kong and Dog Breath and The Hallo-wiener, but I wouldn’t have been able to publish Dav Pilkey at all if Dogzilla, Kat Kong, and Dog Breath hadn’t been rejected elsewhere. That never stopped Dav. He is such an inspiration. I guess what I’m trying to say is that many of the most accomplished writers I’ve published–Dav Pilkey, Virginia Hamilton, the Woods, and Rodman Philbrick, for example–have had an unflagging willingness to take risks, and in many cases, they failed repeatedly before they became successful. Most people don’t know that it took Virginia ten years to get published. Rod wrote novels for twelve years before he got his first contract. In her inspiring TED talks, Dr. Brene Brown calls the collective TED speakers “the failure club.”  Why? Because before they became the genius successes that brought them to TED, they failed–and usually failed repeatedly, sometimes in very public arenas. ” Take risks,” she says. “Do your best. And if you fail, you fail having dared greatly.”  Just because you’re assigned to a desk in the hall, and your teachers say your drawings are worthless, it doesn’t mean they’re right.

During my divorce, Dav gently reminded me that if those teachers hadn’t belittled and punished him, we wouldn’t have Mr. Krupp, and George and Harold, and Captain Underpants. Sometimes very happy things come out of pain, he said.

And that’s the truth.

Cover of

Cover of Dog Breath

 

The Hallo-Wiener

The Hallo-Wiener (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

Kat Kong

Kat Kong (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

 

 

 

 

Cover of

Cover of Dogzilla (digest)

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