everything grows with love

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

Archive for Arnold Adoff

Anniversary of Virginia Hamilton’s Passing

On this day, February 19, 2002, the blazing spirit of magnificent Virginia Hamilton, friend, mentor, writer, confidante, and kick-around girlfriend, took off with the power of a comet and left this world for the next. Virginia was–and still is–the most distinguished writer of books for young readers in the world, and she was given every major award in her field, including some that had never been given before, such as her MacArthur (genius) Fellowship. As her longtime editor and pal, my life has been blessed more than words can say. And I don’t want closure. I want every door and window and drawer she opened inside my heart and mind to STAY open. Virginia, I miss you every day. You go, girl. You go…. You reconfigure the stars in the sky and keep on shining.

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The Genius Club: Memorable Remarks from Memorable Writers

Every day something enters my mind that was said to me by a writer or illustrator I’ve published. 

“There is no such thing as a bad scene–just a badly written scene.”  –Cynthia Voigt (about The Glass Mountain, adult)

(Speaking on an ALA panel) “Every time a question about race is asked, all of you turn to me to answer it. Why is that? Am I the only person here who has any kind of racial or ethnic background?” –Virginia Hamilton (followed by a long moment of silence) (Plain City; Time Pieces; Her Stories; In the Beginning; etc.)

“There is no such thing as a coincidence.”  –Leo Dillon (If Kids Ran the World; Aida; Pish, Posh; Rap a Tap Tap; The Girl Who Spun Gold; To Every Thing There is a Season; etc.)

“We know there will be always be people who won’t like the book we’re making, so we may as well make a book we like ourselves.”–Diane Dillon (about If Kids Ran the World)

“Moderation in all things, including moderation.”  –David Shannon (No, David!; Duck on a Bike; Too Many Toys; Jangles; etc.)

“That shows maturity, when you’re beginning to notice the insecurities of other people.” –Arnold Adoff (Flamboyan; In for Winter, Out for Spring)

(After I asked him the location of Hidden Valley, where he had just moved) “If I told you, then it wouldn’t be hidden, would it?” –Harry Nilsson

“Let’s make a funny blog about the worst dates we’ve ever had, and all our bad boyfriend experiences.” –Dawn Barnes (laughing) (The Black Belt Club)

(As he’s about to step on stage at Irvine Meadows, we skid up to him, late to the concert because of my young son’s Little League game.) “Bon, don’t hug me because I’m all covered with wires!  (He laughs and turns to my son.) I heard )you had a big game tonight. And you played second base. Did you catch any fly balls? (My son, looking out at 16,000 screaming fans, is speechless.) Hey, I like that Red Sox cap. I like the Red Sox, too.” –Jimmy Buffett (concert while working on A Salty Piece of Land)

“Love is the path to forgiveness.” –Audrey Wood (Blue Sky; A Dog Needs a Bone; It’s Duffy Time; etc.)

“Whistle while you work.”  –Don Wood (Merry Christmas, Big Hungry Bear; Into the Volcano; Jubal’s Wish; etc.)

“Look at that man’s eyebrows!”  –Karen Barbour, who notices everything (Little Nino’s Pizzeria; A Sip of Aesop; You Were Loved Before You Were Born; etc.)

“Are you sure you want to leave a toy gun instead of a tip?” –Barry Moser (The Dreamer; When Birds Could Talk & Bats Could Sing; In the Beginning)

(When I asked her how she writes such impressive speeches) “I always prepare. Always.”  –Jane Yolen (How Do Dinosaurs Say Good Night?)

“It’s catnip for boys.” –Mark Teague (about The Tree House that Jack Built)

(After I bragged that there was a blackout at the Algonquin Hotel, but I managed to grope through the room and find my high heels for dinner) “Look at your shoes. One is blue, and the other one is black.”  –Virginia Hamilton (The Bells of Christmas)

“Your son is the golden retriever of children.”  –Edward Gorey

(After I asked her how she was able to write an utterly believable scene where three angels appear in an ordinary American kitchen) “It’s the details.” –Nancy Willard (about The High Rise Glorious Skittle Skat Roarious Sky Pie Angel Food Cake)

“The problem with illustrating this book is drawing and coloring all that plaid!” –Chuck Mikolaycak (about Tam Lin)

“People always tell you what you need to know about them–right away. It’s just a matter of whether or not you’re willing to listen.”  –Steve Faigenbaum

(After I blurted out that I was intimidated by working with a writer who was Poet Laureate and had won two Pulitzer Prizes)  “That’s the nice thing about teaching at Harvard. You have to read the classics because you teach them. But I still haven’t read Anna Karenina.” –Richard Wilbur (adult)

“She pulled her lips back and snarled. Then she said, ‘I hate that book. It’s the only thing I ever wrote for money.'” –Barry Moser (telling me about his meeting with Miss Eudora Welty after I asked him to illustrate her long out-of-print children’s book called The Shoe Bird)

“I’d like to wear her guts for garters.” –Robin McKinley (The Light Princess)

“I don’t care what Harcourt wants me to do. I am leaving this party. Madonna’s concert is on TV.” (And when I asked her what she loved so much about Madonna she said:) “You never know what she’s going to do next. Never.”  –Virginia Hamilton (In the Beginning: Creation Stories Around the World)

(Talking about her cat, Blueberry, who had chosen to spend the night with her downstairs instead of upstairs in the big cozy bed where I had slept as the honored guest) “I was worried he would go sleep upstairs, because he’s used to that bed, but no, he came down  here and stayed with me.”  –Cynthia Rylant (my first visit, in Kent, Ohio) (Dog Heaven; Mr. Putter and Tabby; The Dreamer; Poppleton)

(Showing me a diagram he’s made on a napkin at our table at a Mexican restaurant) “Responsibility is here (he points to one end of the line), and surfing is here (he points to the opposite end of the line). I’ve spent the last two years at Art Center trying to get those surf colors out of my art.” (about the possibility of illustrating Jimmy Buffett’s first book, The Jolly Mon, which was all island, ocean colors)

“Just do the work.”  –Leo Dillon (To Everything There Is a Season)

“Bonnie, please come out from under the table.” –Dav Pilkey (The Adventures of Captain Underpants; The Dumb Bunnies; The Hallo-weiner; Ricky Ricotta’s Mighty Robot; Ook & Gluk)

“I would love to become a member of the Hearts Club.” –Michael Rosen (A Thanksgiving Wish)

“I used paper that’s recycled from elephant dung.” –Richard Jesse Watson (The Magic Rabbit)

“It’s the way the green and red vibrate.” –Lois Ehlert (about the cover of Growing Vegetable Soup)

“We do not approve of our food product being used on your book.” (Hormel Foods Corporation, manufacturers of SPAM, which was sitting on a table in the “Good Night Moon Room” cover of Dav Pilkey’s The Dumb Bunnies.) “We deny you permission to use it.”

(After I asked him why he drew a different dinosaur on every spread of the book) “It was too boring to draw an entire book of Tyrannosaurs.” –Mark Teague (How Do Dinosaurs Say Good Night?; The Tree House that Jack Built; LaRue for Mayor; etc.)

“If we don’t stop putting carbon into the atmosphere, we run the risk of climate change so drastic that the path of the Gulf Stream could change.” –Molly Bang (about her five books in the Sunlight Series, which began with My Light)

(After flying me into New York on his seaplane so I could get to work on time) “It’s worse than heroin.” –Jimmy Buffett (about the addiction of flying in seaplanes, while working on Swine Not?)

“Every year my grandfather sat us all down and told us the story of how he and his mother escaped from slavery in Virginia–so we would never forget.” –Virginia Hamilton

“This manuscript has to be published exactly as it is, without a single change. If you feel the need to change anything,  I will have to withdraw it and send it elsewhere.”  –Cynthia Rylant (in her cover letter enclosed with the manuscript Appalachia: The Voices of Sleeping Birds which happily was flawlessly written and did not require as much as a comma)

“I love Christmas.” –Bruce Wood (after inflating and enormous Santa suit that made him bigger than a VW bug) (Alphabet Mystery; The Deep Blue Sea; Ten Little Fish)

“Did I tell you that my friend Debra Frasier wrote a children’s book? And Crown Publishers is interested. Their sales rep saw it and sent it to New York, and they’re going to publish it.” (my sister JoAnn, on the phone) “Why didn’t you tell her to send it to ME?” (I ask, frustrated.) “OK, I will.” (JoAnn is a photographer and very close friends with Debra’s husband, who is also a photographer; Debra created the banner’s for Jo’s wedding. So Debra sends the dummy  to me, and although Crown is making her an offer, I am nuts-cuckoo-crazy about the book and persuade her to do it with me at Harcourt. That was On the Day You Were Born. Thanks, Jo!!!)

( During an interview, Jimmy Buffett was asked about several very attractive women characters in Tales from Margaritaville who were passionate but also very kind to their male lovers–and when it was time for the male lovers to say good bye and head off on another adventure, the women understood and warmly wished them well.) “Where do you find these women???” the interviewer asked. And Jimmy, with a pirate’s laugh, said, “It’s fiction! I make them up!”

“When I was little, I always wished I had a big robot friend.” –Dav Pilkey, about Ricky Ricotta’s Mighty Robot

 

(to be continued…)

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….

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