everything grows with love

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

Lois Ehlert: Growing Vegetable Soup

I am very new at my editorial job at Harcourt, located in San Diego, and I am in New York, making the rounds to meet people. One of the stops on my list is Kirchoff & Wohlberg, and we have a nice conversation while I look at portfolios. I am almost out the door when a young agent named Liza Pulitzer asks to show me one more thing. She comes back with a bright red dummy that has been made out of that sticky, neon-colored paper that has a really, really strong scent of adhesive.

On the center of the cover, boxed in red, is a tomato. The artist has done something with the colors–a slight contrast of the reds and greens, I’m guessing–that makes the cover seem to vibrate the way optical illusions sometimes do…the ones that make your eyes water. The book is called Growing Vegetable Soup, and the graphics are arresting. I love it.

The dummy is complete–an entire book, finished–and the writer/illustrator’s name is Lois Ehlert. I am told she lives in Milwaukee. I can see the book is going to have to be rearranged a bit, and some things will have to change, but I am enchanted. The bright colors, the bold, sunny graphics, the simple language…all of it speaks directly to my senses. A child and parent are going to plant a vegetable garden, and the artist walks us through the preparations, the care of the plants, and the harvest. Then it’s time to make vegetable soup! My entire childhood, my dad and I planted a vegetable garden every spring. Among other things, I was in charge of keeping the lines of seeds straight, but inevitably when the lettuce came up, the line zig-zagged in a crazy way, and it was a task to keep the rabbits out. I know I will have great fun with this book, and so will children and parents and teachers.

It is the second book I acquire for Harcourt, after Jump! The Adventures of Brer Rabbit, which is the first. Later I will find out that this lively little book has been rejected by something like eight different publishers, and that is a testament (like Harry Potter) to the fact that editors and publishers have wildly different taste in books. It’s legend now that a dozen or more editors rejected Harry Potter, but one, Barry Cunningham, liked it and published it. “No” is terribly discouraging, but it only takes one “yes”–and how critical it is that writers find editors and publishers who are passionately in love with that writer’s work. I am a writer, too, now, and I am currently learning this from the writer’s side of the desk…another story for another day.

I fly to Milwaukee to meet Lois Ehlert. She is warm and highly creative, and she is dressed like her book–in bright colors that are unexpected but add up to a feeling of energy and good spirit. It turns out she loves gardening, and this will lead to other books on the subject: Planting a Rainbow, which will follow Growing Vegetable Soup, and later, when my parents die, a book I will always connect to them, to the land where I grew up, and to my childhood filled with trees: Red Leaf, Yellow Leaf. That will be my last children’s book season before I leave to work at Scholastic. My friend and colleague (and former editorial assistant) Allyn Johnston will become Lois’s editor, and it is a match made in heaven for both of them.

But back to Growing Vegetable Soup. So Lois, I come to discover, goes around Milwaukee like a spy and secretly plants bulbs in the city. Then, in the spring, they pop up in their bright colors and surprise everyone. She is the Robin Hood of tulips and daffodils, as filled with promise, hope, and optimism as spring itself.

She is unusual in many ways, but it is extremely helpful that she cuts and pastes a complete dummy and sends it in that way. It’s a lot easier to work on the book having such a clear road map.  I get to see her studio, and the big sheets of blank paper where she is drawing the outlines for the finishes. She has an exhaustive collection of that sticky colored paper in every possible color, and she constantly experiments with how one color changes the dynamic of the color next to it as well as the entire page. I know it will be some trick to reproduce this complex level of collage, because the separator wraps the art around a huge metal drum to shoot it, and that creates shadows with collage. (Again, it was a long time ago, and we had many constraints–such as the size of the art itself–which do not exist in this digital age of PhotoShop and instant art reproduction. To get those neon colors that gave Lois’s books so much zing, we sometimes added fluorescent inks–which, I was told, would fade over time, although the basic color would not. I doubt if those inks are even legal now because of possible contaminated substances, a consideration that would not have even occurred to us back then.)

Throughout my career, I have had single books I call “trouble magnets” because if something can go wrong, it will go wrong with that particular book. Growing Vegetable Soup is something of a trouble magnet in-house in that weird and bizarre things happen with it. Nothing that involves Lois, but events that set my hair on end. For example. the designer pastes up type with uneven letter spacing and word spacing. We are not in the era of computer design; everything is cut and pasted on mechanicals by hand. Type is generated and purchased, and I guess that day the type machine went whango. The result is a set of mechanicals with some words jammed together and others floating along with too much space. We have decided to enter the modern era and send the book to print in South China rather than in the U.S. where we are doing all our other books, so the schedule moves up dramatically, and I am told I will have to live with this horrific type because there is not enough time to change it. I pitch an absolute fit that gets me sent down to Human Resources for a lecture on cooperation, but my fit is insistent enough that the spacing is corrected. Then, on the way from South China, a boat sinks, and an entire print run goes down with the ship. Can you believe it?

The response to Growing Vegetable Soup is immediate and very positive. Lois Ehlert’s sunny little book instantly sells out its modest first print run of ten thousand copies, and then it’s out of stock and backordered for what seems like forever.

It’s a sweet book to publish, with a very sweet author. Looking back (I haven’t worked at Harcourt for more than two decades), I’m guessing cumulative sales of that book must be in the millions. Which makes me smile. I have my own tattered first printing, and it was always one of my favorite books to give as a gift. Lois continues to write and illustrate books that delight children, and many years later, after I’ve moved to Scholastic, I still get to see her popularity in the book clubs and book fairs–which means thousands of teachers and children are celebrating Lois Ehlert every time the book box arrives in their classrooms.

Cover of "Growing Vegetable Soup (Voyager...

Cover of Growing Vegetable Soup (Voyager Books)

Growing Vegetable Soup. It makes me happy–and hungry–just thinking about it!

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