everything grows with love

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

Archive for Barry Moser

On the wings of time….

It’s difficult to believe that on May 26, two years have passed since Leo Dillon died. After more than twenty-five years of close friendship, what can I possibly say about that? And although many years have now passed since I lost Virginia Hamilton, I still find myself wanting to call her when some funny thing happens that would make her laugh. Suddenly, after 37 years of book publishing, I no longer feel that time is an endlessly renewing river. Suddenly those years of memorable moments are beginning to ask to be recorded. When I was working with Jimmy Buffett on A Salty Piece of Land, he said, “It feels as if time is flying by because it is.”  So here is a spot for me to share some snapshots of small events along my editorial journey. I started out this crazy career wearing snakeskin cowboy boots and ridiculously short skirts, and now I’m somebody’s mother…sitting quietly at a computer while my golden retriever sleeps on my feet. All these years of publishing, I have kept what Barry Moser called “day books,” and by now I have shelves of them. They are packed with quotes and snippets of conversations and pasted-in pictures and lots of contract negotiations. They are also overflowing with love. What I feel most today is gratitude. So I hope that comes across as I try to gather a morning here, a dinner there, and wrap my arms around these brilliant, generous, highly creative people who fill my life with such abundance.

June 4, 2012

IMG_5933IMG_5717     Photo of me 1992 by Leo Dillon, taken in the kitchen; and photo of Leo…

Cover of

Cover via Amazon

Faster than Lightning: Snapshots of Jane Yolen

Jane & Bonnie by Robbie

A visit to see Jane in Scotland–photo by my son

Trying to describe Jane Yolen is more difficult than trying to describe water in its many forms and moods and storms and meanderings. I sat here with a blank page for a long time, wondering how to begin to talk about her; I have known her for so many years that it becomes difficult to stand at a distance and make objective observations.

IMG_6243

Cell phone photo…not clear, but I like the kiss.

I was introduced to Jane in 1985 at Harcourt, after I was hired by Maria Modugno as Editor in the Children’s Books Department of HBJ.  The first book I would edit of Jane’s was her Lullabye Songbook, with stunning illustrations by Chuck Mikolaycak.  But first I had to drive Jane to a speaking engagement. We talked in the car while I drove, and I learned that Jane always prepares; she puts a great deal of time into the talks she gives, and it is one reason why she is so effective.

As I published more and more books by Jane, I discovered that she was—and still is—the fastest writer I have ever encountered. Several times I pitched a picture-book idea to her at dinner and received a finished manuscript the next morning over breakfast. Once, many years ago, when I had labored for months editing Jane’s middle-grade novel called Wizard’s Hall (a story about a boy who is sent off to a school to become a wizard…sound familiar?), I mailed the edited ms. back to Jane with a sigh of relief to get it off my desk. I had spent a lot of time on it, and I was happy that it was now on her desk, so I wouldn’t have it on mine for a few months. Surprise! In less than a week the manuscript was back; chapters had been rewritten, scenes adjusted, characters developed, lines changed. She had taken the advice in the margins, but she had finished it at the speed of lightning. I smile at the memory.

One of the more interesting books I published early on was a picture book called Encounter at Harcourt. I had received a phone call from a well known children’s organization asking me if I had any poets in mind they could contact to write a poem celebrating Columbus’s discovery of America—for their 1992 program. I didn’t like the idea of encouraging children to think that nothing was in “America” until Columbus “discovered” it, so it was a short, polite conversation. I didn’t bring up my thoughts about the subject, but I did decide I wanted to publish a picture book in 1992 that would present the arrival of Columbus from the Arawak point of view. How did the people who lived in San Salvador see Columbus and his men and his ships when they arrived to “discover” them? I thought it would be interesting.

First I researched the Taino people and tried to find a native to write the book. To my dismay, the culture had vanished. So I asked Jane to consider it, and the result was Encounter, a book I was sure would be one of at least a dozen from that perspective. Oddly it was the only picture book from that point of view in 1992, and I still find that surprising all these years later.

After Jane had written the manuscript, the next difficult task was to find an illustrator who could create the powerful scenes we had in mind—and who could show the conflict through paintings. Jane was visiting me in Los Angeles, and we took a trip over to the children’s art gallery called Every Picture Tells a Story. Lois Sarkasian, the owner, gave us a tour through her flat files, and in them she brought our attention to a new illustrator, David Shannon, who was local and had just published his first children’s book: How Many Spots Does a Leopard Have? by Julius Lester, published by Scholastic.

We were very enthusiastic about his pictures and talent, and he agreed to illustrate the book for us at Harcourt. At the time the book did not seem controversial to me—just, as I’ve said, a point of view I believed needed to be presented, and both Jane and Dave agreed with me.

It was our understanding that the locals did not wear clothes, so Dave created very simple clothing for them and added a note in the book explaining that he did this so teachers and librarians would feel more comfortable sharing the book with young readers. All very fair.

The reaction to Encounter was very positive, and when my son was in third grade, and I was volunteering by sorting papers in the back of Mrs. Fiske’s room, I was very surprised that she gathered the students and read Encounter aloud to them. She did it every year. And I believe it remains one of the only younger books from this perspective, which I still find hard to believe. Maybe I am wrong. I hope so.

At my launch party for the Blue Sky Press on Bourbon Street in New Orleans, one of my guests was Michael Dorris. This was at ALA in June 1992, so Encounter was still a new book. (I’d published it at Harcourt and then moved on to become Editorial Director of the Trade Book Group at Scholastic, starting Blue Sky in the fall of 1993.) Since Michael was Native American and had co-authored The Crown of Columbus for adults, I wondered what he thought of Encounter. He said he liked it, and he was very glad we had published the book, but his Native American children were constantly being pressured to talk about their dreams, as if Native Americans always dreamed the future, and he wasn’t thrilled about that part of the story. It hadn’t occurred to me that this was an issue, and at that point I couldn’t take it out, but I believe that was the only criticism I heard of the book, and it was said to me in a very mild, helpful way.

So Encounter was David Shannon’s second book for children, and I have been publishing his books ever since. Jane and I vividly remember that day at the gallery, pulling the paintings out of the flat files and feeling certain that he was the right illustrator.

Back when I worked for Harcourt and traveled a great deal of the time, I used to go stay with Jane often. I stayed in her lovely farmhouse, Phoenix Farm, in western Massachusetts, and I ended up publishing lots of writers and illustrators in her area. I met many of them through Jane, who was always encouraging new talent and pitching books to publishers with one of her new “finds” attached.

She sent Jane Dyer to Maria at HBJ with Jane’s wonderful Baby Bear’s Bedtime Book, and that was the beginning of a long and very close friendship between Jane Dyer and Maria Modugno that continues today. Maria has since been with several different publishing houses, including Little, Brown and HarperCollins, and I believe that Jane Dyer has published books with Maria at all of them.  I met Dennis Nolan through Jane and published their collaboration, Dove Isabeau, at HBJ. Barry Moser I met independently, but he collaborated with Jane for me on Sky Dogs; the stunning cover painting of that book hangs in my dining room where I see it every day. And I met Patty MacLachlan and her husband, Bob, before Patty published Sarah, Plain and Tall—which took Patty and me to a writer’s conference where we behaved like high school girls in our shared cabin after the day’s events. Six packs of beer and lots of cigarettes and a very, very late night of laughing. That was a few months after she won the Newbery Medal, and people started assuming she knew everything and was asked for marital advice and lots of other things that were not a part of her career.

Jane Yolen has mentored more people that I could even list here, and I think of her as the Mother of Children’s Books for that reason. Her generosity is staggering. She is strong as an eagle and a fighter by nature—she stands up for the best causes and never backs down—but she is also gentle and kind and is the first one to comfort you and put her arm around you and remind you that nobody is perfect. She also publishes with so many houses that she seems to have her finger on the pulse of what is happening in the book industry, which is also helpful and interesting. It’s a relief to know you aren’t the only one who is required, after a lifetime career of freedom, to now jump through hoops of fire and stand before committees of marketing people and make a case for a book that you know will be a shoo in. There you go. Jane says it is happening almost everywhere. We are all in cages, and we are probably all uncomfortable being inside of them….

Last summer I took my then-17-year-old son to Scotland where Jane lives in the summer. She has always had her husband, David Stemple, by her side, and it was strange to have him missing. Of course I flew east for the memorial service, but as Jane took us on a tour of the castles and highlands and the fishing villages, memories of David, and what David did and thought and saw, were all around us.

IMG_6211

Jane is small but she is very, very, very brave.

It was a precious trip to stay at her beautiful home, Wayside, and since my son was a serious water polo player, and St Andrews has a good water polo team, it was worth checking out and meeting the coach (who could not have been more friendly and more encouraging). But St Andrews is a place that is very unlike Santa Monica (huge understatement here!), and the cold, and rain, and distance from a city would have been a mistake.  We loved the colors of August in Scotland and took the train with Jane back to Edinburgh and played and explored there for two days while the Fringe Festival was going on.

IMG_6247

My son was little when I came up with the idea of How Do Dinosaurs Say Good Night?, and Jane was the perfect person to write the book. I have already gone into some detail about how that book—and the eight that have followed—came into being, so I won’t write more about them tonight. What I will say is that Jane writes them with an uncanny sense of the things that matter most to children. I am guessing it is just her innate sense of young people more than it is all the time she spends with grandbabies (which is considerable, too).

We are finishing up How Do Dinosaurs Stay Safe? for next March, and I have high hopes that the book will start a dialog among parents and children about more worrisome dangers than those I can print in that book. But it has been a great deal of fun to make them all, and I believe each one contributes something very special to children. They are fun and funny and lighthearted, but they also offer children help with an issue such as feeling mad, or feeling love, or going to school, or going to the doctor, and it’s a grand time to share all those dinosaur antics and mischief with a little one.

It’s late tonight, and I am getting sleepy. I wish I were at Wayside right now so I could take a bath in the especially long bathtub upstairs, walk down the hallway in my pajamas, and give Jane a good-night kiss.

I’ll do that from afar.

Thirty years of stories. And I can only take a snapshot here or there. That will have to be enough of a scrapbook for now…..

DSCF8807

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…)

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.

IMG_4523

Virginia Hamilton: IN THE BEGINNING: An Editorial Afternoon

It is 1987, and my father is dying of lung cancer. I have taken a leave of absence as Editor-in-Chief at Harcourt to be here with him, in the home where I grew up. He is in the final stages of a brief but highly aggressive  illness, and while he is sleeping, I spread my work out on the family dining room table.

Today I am working on the last pieces of Virginia Hamilton’s In the Beginning: Creation Stories from Around the World, and the book is more profound and beautiful than I could have imagined. When we started this journey, we didn’t have any idea what her research would reveal, and every time I’ve had dinner with Virginia to talk about it, she’s been glowing with some new, wildly imaginative creation story she’s found. The tales are amazing, and they are from all over the world. It’s fascinating to see how people have explained their existence since the beginning of storytelling. She wants to cover tales from every corner of the planet, to keep it balanced and diverse. It is a trick for her to dig up stories from some of these places, and there are also stories that are so x-rated she can’t possibly include them. Some make her laugh. It is not an easy book to write, but it is endlessly fascinating. When she finally makes her choices of the stories she will include, I am stunned by the content.

Cover of

Cover via Amazon

We both see the book as a celebration of human differences as well as all we have in common, and that’s how I am hoping people will approach it. So I am deep in thought, working on the introduction and the flap copy. Virginia and I have been lobbying hard at Harcourt to have Barry Moser’s watercolor illustration of Ra on the jacket. There is quite a bit of resistance, but Virginia and I prevail, and we joke that this will be the first “heavy metal” children’s book cover. Pages of text and illustrations are spread across the big cherry table on this September afternoon, and I’m working away with my favorite pencil.

That is when my mother comes downstairs. Upstairs, in their bedroom, my father, who has always been a big, strong man, has been reduced to 80 pounds. The cancer has spread all over his body, although nobody talks about this. We have been watching the person we love most in the entire world get eaten alive in front of us.

My mother asks me what I’m doing, and I tell her about the book. I need to preface her reaction by telling you that my mother was an intellectual genius who read as many as five newspapers a day, and she did a great deal with her life to enhance the lives of others, primarily as a political activist. She was a woman with vision and courage. But today she is furious that I am doing this book. Livid. She doesn’t want me to work on it at all. When it becomes clear that I am not going to stop working on it, she tells me it is of critical importance that my name won’t be on it–she doesn’t want anyone to know I’ve had any part in it. She is shocked and recoils from the book and the concept, and I still don’t understand why.

“This is how people cope with their difficulties,” she says to me, breaking down. “This is where they get their faith so they can continue to live. And you are making fun of them!” She goes back upstairs to tend to my father. He stopped eating days ago and lies in bed, blinded by the cancer, unable to move or speak, mostly asleep or unconscious. Later, when I take a break and look in on him, my mother is gently holding his hand and reading from the Bible. Does he hear her? Can he feel her hand?

That night I call Virginia and explain to her that we need to change the introduction. And I need to change the flap copy. We need to change the entire approach to the book–the shape of the copy that pulls it together. Because my mother is right. To the people who believe these stories, it is the Truth. We must be extremely careful and respectful. And we must say this. We were never making light of any of the beliefs in the book, but we did not make the point my mother made. Virginia and I talk about it, and we agree, and as a consequence she changes the introduction so this point is made–and made forcefully enough that you can’t miss it.  (I will say, over and over, that one of the great qualities Virginia had as a writer was her willingness to listen, to consider, and to handle suggestions with sheer genius. She enjoyed being challenged and questioned, although she would never agree to make even a slight change if she did not wholeheartedly agree with it.)

At ALA Midwinter, one of the members of the BBYA committee contests the Mayan creation story, saying it can’t be accurate because the Mayans did not have enough wood to put it into their story. This is the kind of thing that is a real challenge, because I have all the research at home from Virginia, and I have all the visual research from Barry Moser. I call each of them and go over the research again, just to be sure. There it is, faxed to me at the hotel. And the nutty thing is this: Virginia didn’t make up this Mayan creation story. The Mayans did. Virginia didn’t put the creation of Wood Man into the story–she just collected it and retold it. But I am a guest, and my role is to listen to the committee and keep my lips zipped. They are kind enough to actually discuss the book a second time, but I leave the room with the clear sense it will be voted down because of this question about the Mayans. I walk back up to my hotel room and ask myself why I am wasting my time with this ridiculous career. I am exhausted, and my shoulders are stooped, and more than anything, I want to give up making books and go home. My beloved dad is dead, and I’m depressed anyway, and after I put the key in my door, there is a phone message that In the Beginning has apparently been chosen as a Newbery Honor Book. After the BBYA discussions, I don’t believe it.

The next morning at the announcements, I find out it is really true. If anything, I’ve been worried the book might be banned. Putting the Judeo-Christian creation story in a collection along with twenty-four other creation tales could be the end of my career, and that has worried me. So the good news is particularly sweet. It was a concept I asked Virginia to tackle, and I run to a phone bank. The committee has already called Virginia, and I call her, too. She’s pleased!  After I congratulate her, I call my mother. As soon as she answers, I burst into tears. “I want to tell Dad,” I sob into the phone. My mother is sweet. “I’m happy for both of us,” she says. She has forgotten the project and her objection to it. Sadly I will soon get a call that she has cancer, too–brain cancer. They will die a little more than a year apart.

And the book? I don’t have to worry that it will be banned. And despite my mother’s protests that day, my name did end up in the book–because it is dedicated to me. And tonight, as I write this so many years later, after both of my parents have been gone for decades, and Virginia has crossed over, too, I smile with the thought that a book with so many gods in it probably had a pretty safe place in the universe all along.

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

 

387445 copy

It is 1985, and I am fascinated by what my husband, Ira Ingber, can do with a guitar. He pulls music out of the air and bends notes into songs that will haunt me for the rest of my life. Today he is on his way to a recording studio in Hollywood, and he wants me to come. His friend, renowned composer Van Dyke Parks, has been commissioned by the North Carolina Symphony to create a body of music that is distinctly American. Parks, who hails from Mississippi, has chosen the subject of Brer Rabbit, and he has built a musical around the rascal trickster. I don’t know a lot about Brer Rabbit except for Disney’s Song of the South, which I saw as a child, but I am about to be educated.

Parks is in the studio and seems to be torturing the singer. She must sing a very challenging song over and over and over and over. She is singing from the point of view of Miss Molly Cottontail, one of Brer Rabbit’s “neighbor ladies,” and that’s probably all you need to know. At any rate, Mo Ostin at Warner Brothers Records is making an album from it (yes, this was the era of albums and record companies, and JUMP! was actually one of the first CDs), and I watch Van Dyke coach the singer to get it exactly the way he wants it. He is hilarious, although he doesn’t seem conscious of that. She is a real pro and keeps belting out this impossible song, and Parks is pacing and saying things like, “I’m not making one dime from this!” in that funny, unforgettable voice of his, and you really have to know him to imagine what I am describing here.

I have just taken the position of Editor, Children’s Books at Harcourt Publishers in San Diego, and I find myself very interested in Parks’s JUMP! The Adventures of Brer Rabbit. (I may be wrong about this, but I think it was Parks’s pal Harry Nilsson who came up with the name Jump! for the project–I’ll have to ask Ira if he remembers. Of course it is the perfect title.) And the music is astounding. I go home thinking that this might be a very good book to create and to publish.

My first stop is the San Diego Library. Harcourt is located in San Diego in 1985, and I am commuting from Santa Monica where I live with Ira to San Diego so I can acquire, edit, and publish children’s books. I ask the librarian if they have a copy of Joel Chandler Harris’s Uncle Remus: His Songs and His Sayings, the famous collection of Brer Rabbit stories, and she hunts it down for me. It is a massive book, and the copyright page says it was published in 1881, although that is not entirely accurate. The librarian looks at the paper glued in the back of the book and tells me it has not been checked out for eight years.

During the Civil Rights Movement, which was during my era, Brer Rabbit was one of the babies thrown out with the bath water, and there are good reasons for it. But the stories themselves are absolutely wonderful. I stop by two bookstores on my way back to work, and I ask the buyer at each store if he would consider buying a book of five stories about Brer Rabbit. “Absolutely not!” they both tell me emphatically. The Rab, as Parks calls him, is persona non grata. He has become a symbol of racism. And the more stories I read, and the more I learn about Harris and how he collected them after the Civil War, and how they came with slaves from Africa who brought little more than their stories…well, it is all very powerful, and storytelling is one of the best ways people communicated in those days. If they wanted to make a comment about someone, that person might come out as a character in a funny animal story told for the amusement of the community. As well, storytelling was the source of entertainment–and Brer Rabbit is the good guy, the little, oppressed character who outwits the bigger animals in every single tale but one.  Brer Bear and Brer Fox are always after him, but Brer Rabbit wins again and again, usually making it clear that his adversaries may be large, but they’re no match for his smarts.

Harris is both applauded and deeply criticized for the way he gathered the tales, wrote them in his own interpretation of African American colloquial speech (to use Virginia Hamilton’s phrase), and created a warm, “uncle” slave storyteller who told the tales to a white boy. By doing so, he made these remarkable stories acceptable and popular to a broad white audience, who loved them. Those who admire him are also grateful that he recorded stories that might have disappeared during post-Civil War times, thus preserving an important page in American history to say nothing of world literature.  One of the complexities of the Brer Rabbit stories told in Harris’s voice (where he tried to mimic the speech of the original teller) is that you cannot talk about slavery without talking about shame. The fabric of the tales, the blood and pain that shaped them, is steeped in human suffering. All of this, and much more, must somehow be fed into the book. Van Dyke asks his friend, book critic Malcolm Jones, to help with the project and to write an introduction that addresses these issues in a way that will inform children and their parents without weighing down the exuberance of the stories.

Van Dyke and I work on the manuscript. We sit on his front steps or in his living room in Hollywood while his two children run around. It’s a fun and funny and extremely interesting project and process. We decide to choose five of the best stories for the book, but we will leave out the most famous one, the story about the Tar Baby, because it has too much luggage, and if we are lucky enough to do a second book, we can publish it there.

One of the first decisions is to get rid of the framework Harris invented to tell the Brer Rabbit stories. That was the character of an African American slave, Uncle Remus, who happily told these stories to a young white boy. It is the seeming cheerfulness of the slave that is offensive and unrealistic in 1985. Without it, the Rab is back to belonging to the original tellers. So we peel off the framework, and Parks steers me through the stories, staying true to the voices and also drawing upon his Mississippi childhood to know, absolutely, what to keep in and what to take out. He likes the word “segatiate,” and he insists on keeping it in. He likes it so much, in fact, that I write it into the front flap copy. It becomes an asset, not a liability. And the whole manuscript goes that way, with the stories flowing in Van Dyke’s rich Southern voice, and their beauty protected by his deep understanding of the red earth in that place where he was a child.

65587._SX67_SY100_ Mister Van Dyke Parks

As we are working on the manuscript, the “book” for the Broadway musical is also being written, and Tony-Award winner Lewis Allen, who produced Annie and I’m Not Rappaport and a host of Broadway hits is supposed to develop it and bring it to Broadway. I meet Lewis many times in New York, and we have dinner and drinks, and he invites me back stage to various shows, including I’m Not Rappaport, and I bring Virginia Hamilton with me back stage so I can introduce her to Ossie Davis and Hal Linden, who are starring in it. But the project keeps stalling, and Lewis explains to me that this business of Broadway plays is not for New Yorkers or people like me; it is for tourists and visitors who are coming to New York from out of town and want to see a show. That’s who goes to see Annie. He has said he is going to try Jump! out at a small New England theatre, but time passes, and I have the brains to publish the book alone, as its own entity, without tying it to the musical in any way.

Backtrack to the manuscript as all of this is going on, because I need the perfect illustrator. One always does. I start my search with Maurice Sendak because I know he loves theatre, and Lewis says there is a possibility of having Sendak design the sets for the show. I send it to Sendak, and (this shows you how long ago it was) in doing so, I go to a place where they send documents using something called a fax. I fork over the manuscript, and the gentleman behind the desk feeds the pages into a machine. I don’t recall why, but it is imperative that Maurice Sendak must get this manuscript on this particular day, not a day later. And I keep questioning the gentleman about the newfangled machine. “You mean you put it in there, and then it magically shows up in Connecticut?” I keep asking. A courier will pick it up at another fax machine in Connecticut and drive it over to Maurice’s home. The man is patient with me and assures me that yes, this is precisely what is going to happen. And I believe him, and sure enough, Maurice gets the manuscript, and I continue to be baffled about how it all happened.

Yes, he would like to illustrate the book if he can also do the sets for the show. But again, Lewis is stalling. I am very young, and I do not know how difficult it is to get a Broadway show produced–how much money and commitment it takes, and how rarely it actually happens, despite many good intentions. So, as the months pass, I have to give up on Maurice Sendak. And when he and I have the conversation that he is going to move on, I remember feeling so depressed at my San Diego desk, with this wonderful, funny manuscript in front of me, and no idea who could visually bring it to life. Maurice suggests a number of people who are similar to A.B. Frost, who made the original engravings, but alas, Maurice tells me, they are all dead.

It is Maria Modugno, the manager of Children’s Books at Harcourt at that time, who shows me the wood engravings of Barry Moser. She shows me Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, which has won the National Book Award, and an editor of adult books, who ran the paperback publishing program at Harcourt at the time, is her friend and is very hot on Barry Moser. She is not suggesting him for this book. She just thinks I might be interested in Moser’s wood engravings, and she is absolutely right. To illustrate this lively, funny, Southern collection of Brer Rabbit tales with wood engravings in our children’s picture book form would be the kiss of death.

I look at Barry Moser’s work, and it is exquisite for a thousand reasons. His use of space, his design sense, his acute sensibilities, and his dark side might be perfect for a new telling of “Beauty and the Beast,” I am thinking. So I get his number from the adult editor, and I give him a call.

Although he is painfully polite in terms of his Southern manners, Mr. Moser is not remotely interested in “illustrating a juvenile,” as he puts it. He almost spits the word out. “Jew-ven-eye-al,” he says, enunciating every syllable and coating it with his distaste. I thank him, and I am thinking this is the end of the conversation when he snaps at me, “The only Jew-ven-eye-al I would be willing to illustrate is one that no one will ever publish.”

“What book is that?” I ask.

“Brer Rabbit,” he says.

Pause while I almost swallow my tongue. Even now, decades later, I have to pause when I recall that conversation. I DO NOT WANT WOOD ENGRAVINGS IN THIS BOOK. Yet I feel as if God’s pointer finger has parted the clouds and is directed at the manuscript that is planted in the middle of my desk.

“Mr. Moser, I know you have won the National Book Award, and many, many other prizes. You are internationally famous, and I feel like such a loser asking you this question. I beg for your forgiveness to even ask such a thing, but do you ever paint in watercolors?” I ask.

“I’ve been painting with watercolors my entire life,” he says.

“Because,” I go on, “I have a wonderful manuscript in front of me, and it is by a composer named Van Dyke Parks, adapted from the Joel Chandler Harris tellings of Brer Rabbit stories. It is connected with a Broadway musical that may or may not happen, and the music is being made into a record album by Warner Brothers. But the five stories in this book have to be illustrated in color,” I tell him. “And I feel the size of a worm to ask someone of your accomplishments and stature to do a sample piece of art for me–I am so embarrassed. But I have to see a watercolor to know this is going to work. Again, I am so sorry.”

To make a long story short, I send Barry Moser the manuscript. He loves it. He sends back a watercolor that brings me to my knees. Why? Because I have been researching Harris, and the tales, and the slaves who told them, and their history, and Moser has nailed it to the wall. Bull’s Eye. This is the real deal. It is a colorful character sketch of the rabbit, so perfectly suited to this book and to Harris and to Van Dyke Parks that I almost can’t believe what I am seeing. Brer Rabbit is in suspenders, and he is sitting on a log, and he is holding a fishing pole. A cigar hangs out of his mouth, and a bottle–moonshine, no doubt–sticks out of his pocket.

The Rab. In all his glory.

The Book Angel has spread her wings and circled above this project and made impossible things happen. Van Dyke is beside himself when I show him. He’s not sure about the sample wood engravings, but the sample watercolor art is utterly convincing, and Parks is a visionary. He knows.

From start to finish, JUMP! will be one of the most important books of my career and one of the most joyous events of my life. And so begins my long and rich friendship with the remarkable Barry Moser, who turns out to be a gentleman in every way, one of the warmest, kindest people on the planet, and a true friend for life.

There is more to this tale, and one of the great things that happened was the reception to the book that held those stories that had been banned for so many years. The critics loved it and showered it with starred reviews, it was an ALA Notable Book, and it sold like hotcakes. The Rab was back, and suddenly a flurry of Brer Rabbit stories cropped up from various publishers.  Barry and I took a trip to “Wren’s Nest,” Harris’s house in Georgia, and I got to see the red clay dirt and the hanging moss and places where these stories were translated by slaves into African American folklore–where the African animals were changed into local animals like foxes and bears and terrapins, and, of course, the rabbit.

Not every book is a miracle. But in my blessed career, a great many of them have been. And JUMP! The Adventures of Brer Rabbit was a startling, thought-provoking journey that sparked so many new and wondrous fires I can’t begin to count them.

For years, I had this quote in a frame over my desk, and now it hangs over my sink at home, where I read it every day. It is the original piece of paper I enlarged and photocopied and hung up at Harcourt while I was working on this book:

“Brer Rabbit say, sezee, ‘Dey’s allers a way, ef not two.’

%d bloggers like this: