everything grows with love

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

Archive for Bonnie Verburg: Journal Entry

PBS Video about My Sister JoAnn Verburg and Her Photography

I grew up with a camera in my face, and even during our family trips, in the back seat of the Rambler,   JoAnn was shooting pictures of me at close range. Our dad was an amateur photographer, and my childhood was filled with cameras. I’ll never forget taking the bus from Boston, when I was at Little, Brown, to see JoAnn’s first show at RIT in Rochester. And what a thrill the first time I saw her photos hanging on the walls of the Museum of Modern Art. It was an even a greater thrill to see her one-woman show at the Modern and to be able to share the experience of watching a show go up behind the scenes with my son, who was then eleven. My sister’s photos speak directly to my heart, and so I decided to post this video–which does a good job of capturing her approach to photographs and her thoughts about them. On another place on this site, there is a short story about a short summer vacation in North Truro–with my son, JoAnn, and her husband, poet Jim Moore.

Here is the video:


JoAnn was a guest of Polaroid at the Beverly Hills Hotel in 1980, but the hotel promptly banished us both from the property when she set up her camera. So this photo was taken across the street in a little park.

Artist: JoAnn Verburg Institution: Minneapolis Institue of Arts

Artist: JoAnn Verburg
Minneapolis Institue of Arts

And here she is in a self portrait after I sent her a copy of my 2011 picture book, The Kiss Box. (I love this photo.)

JAV and Kiss Box Book

The Man in the Arena: About Reviews

Perhaps because ALA Midwinter and the Caldecott/Newbery Medals will be announced this month, I have had an unusual flurry of emails about reviews and reviewers lately. I believe most editors are taught, as I was early on, to keep our lips zipped and to never respond to the slings and arrows of outrageous misunderstandings that appear in the reviews of our books. I worked with writer Cynthia Rylant for more than a decade, and at the time she did not read her reviews. She told me they didn’t help her writing, and she asked me not to send them to her. This was not arrogance on her part, and she was a very sensitive and careful writer. The reviews did not help her work, and when she began painting and illustrating some of the picture books herself, such as her splendid Dog Heaven, it was not helpful when, for example, an elementary school teacher had her entire class write individual letters to Cyndi asking her to please stop illustrating her books. The letters somehow got to her–I believe they had tracked down her address and sent them directly, because back then I had an assistant, and we went through the letters and would have filtered out anything mean spirited and hurtful. At any rate, as the years went on, I found that reading reviews became less and less meaningful for me, as well. I had a meeting with Jean Feiwel, who hired me to work at Scholastic, and I asked for her permission to stop reading the journals. In addition to taking up too much of my time, I didn’t think they helped my work, either. Would it be acceptable if I only read the reviews of the books I was publishing, rather than entire journals? She took it lightly and laughed. Then she told me that so many people at our company were glued to those journals that she didn’t think the editorial group would be losing anything if I wasn’t staying on top of them. And that gave me permission to drop all my subscriptions. Although I read every review I can find of the books I publish, I have not read a review journal in at least ten years, probably longer. Reading them doesn’t improve my work, it just makes me anxious–in an unnecessary way. And I don’t think it’s arrogance on my part, either, because I have a very, very heavy workload these days and almost no help. I’m told this is the case with most editors in book publishing now. It has been years since I’ve had a full-time assistant, and that means I do all the FedXing and photocopying and mailing myself along with all the other things an assistant used to do–so the end result is I publish fewer books and also have far more difficulty staying on top of the ones I’m doing. Again, I am told this is a result of our economic times, and as Arnold Adoff once remarked, “New York publishing is filled with empty offices.” I have enormous gratitude that unlike so much of the U.S., I am still able to do what I love and still get a paycheck, at least for now. Reading review journals isn’t high on the priority list.

The larger, and more painful issue about book reviews is how difficult it is when a reviewer misses the point of the book. I am finding this to be increasingly true, not only for the books I publish but for the books published by friends and colleagues where reviews are passed along to me, and I am often astonished at the lack of perception and education on the part of the reviewer. All of us who have been around for a while can talk about stacks of reviews we vividly remember that were insulting, rude, trivial, and completely missed the boat. In retrospect, when a book has become enormously popular and loved over many years, it can even be fun and funny to go back to those reviews that absolutely trashed the book when it was initially published. The first review of David Shannon’s beloved bestseller A Bad Case of Stripes warned readers not to order the book because it was psychedelic and would give children nightmares. Having published 29 of Dav Pilkey’s books, including The Adventures of Captain Underpants and The Dumb Bunnies, you can only imagine the book banning incidents across the country as well as the punishment individual children have had to endure at the hands of teachers who strongly dislike those books.  With regard to reviews, the sharp, dire criticisms expressed often fade into the mist, although–as it is with most writers and illustrators–we do tend to remember the nasty ones, don’t we?

I was profoundly affected by the two TED talks given by Texas researcher Brene Brown about human connection, vulnerability, and shame. In her second talk (available on YouTube), she quotes Teddy Roosevelt’s famous speech that has come to be called “The Man in the Arena.” It is an excerpt from a speech given in 1910 in Paris, and this past season I emailed it to all the writers and illustrators on my list who had books coming out in the fall. It explains, better than I can, my attitude about critics and reviewers, and what I hope writers and illustrators will feel about their own work and its inherent value–which is not diminished by what people say. “Do people understand how much time and work goes into making these books?” a very seasoned writer/illustrator asked me at lunch last week. “Do they understand how many decisions we make, and how much thought we put into everything we do?” This particular person has been creating bestselling, award-winning books for decades, yet it’s rare that a book comes out that does not get completely misread by somebody in a very public way. And that’s true about everyone I publish–and has been the truth these past three decades. I’m not forgetting the critics and reviewers and bloggers who enthusiastically do understand the beauty of a book or it’s enormous contribution to the world of children’s literature. Those people and their good spirit far outweigh the lone librarian off in Connecticut somewhere who misses the point so completely you think she could only be getting review assignments because her sister works at one of the journals, right? We’ve all had a review from that misguided soul, wherever he or she is located.

Anyway, here is “The Man in the Arena” by Theodore Roosevelt, an excerpt from the speech “Citizenship in a Republic,” delivered at the Sorbonne, in Paris, France, on 23 April, 1910:

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly….

Thinking about this makes me want to thank some of the great supporters of the writers and illustrators I’ve published: Ginny Moore Kruse, K.T. Horning, Michael Cart, Rudine Sims Bishop, Ron Jobe, Amy Kalman…. It’s a long list, but the encouragement has made all the difference in the lives and careers of so many people. You know who you are. Thank you, from all of us.

May 26, 2013: Journal Entry: Everything grows with love

Today is May 26, the first anniversary of Leo Dillon’s death. It’s Sunday, and I wake early with an unusual sense of peace. The moment I open my eyes, I know the date and its significance. Even before I make coffee, I light a yarhzeit candle in the kitchen. It will burn and flicker all day. As I strike the match and say a prayer, I am aware that as the years go by, I am lighting more and more of these candles.

Tomorrow is Memorial Day, and the church service opens with the announcement that a little boy in our congregation died this week of cancer; he was almost eleven. The sermon is called “Is Healing Still Possible?”  Across the sanctuary, people are wiping their eyes, sneezing, and coughing.

“We are all healing,” Dave Carpenter says. Later he adds, “If we are able to let go and trust, then not only will God take those things that weighed us down in our past, but God will make new things, living things, beautiful things.”

As I drove here to church this morning, I tried to think of a friendship that has given me this level of unconditional love and constant support. I have had many, many wonderful friends, but nobody like Leo. The loss has been profound, although I have not allowed myself to truly accept it. Maybe there is nothing to accept?  Because everything he gave me is permanently lodged in my heart, and it isn’t going anywhere simply because his physical body is gone. I also know he would never, ever want me to feel fear or loneliness or grief. I imagine the strength of his hug, the genius of his hands, the knowing twinkle in his eye, his humor, his frustration, his stubbornness, his thinking machine. And cigarettes. Many, many cigarettes. I have a lighter he gave me tucked under one of the paintings in my living room. It props up the painting so it won’t topple off the mantle. The painting is from Pish, Posh.

The choir sings, “You make beautiful things out of the dust,” and I think about the beautiful things Leo made out of nothing with his mind and hands. Stories, drawings, paintings, sculpture, ideas. Pish, Posh. A good thing to say to death today.  And this weekend, with all its Memorial Day offerings, is a good time to remember the gifts that people give to us: courage, strength, a belief in ourselves, the knowledge that we can do difficult things that shouldn’t be possible. A sense of purpose. A sense of direction. Hope. Love.

Somewhere in my memory there is a story or a fable about a bird who did not believe she could fly until someone gave her a magic feather. As long as she held the magic feather, she could soar. And then one day, she dropped it. I seem to recall that as she went crashing downward out of the sky, she somehow came to see that she was capable of flying without it.

So when I was young, and I did not know what I could or could not do, Leo Dillon gave me a magic feather.

He is gone now. But not really.

I believe in the spirit world, and so does Leo. “There is no such thing as coincidence, kid,” he has told me for three decades. And today, the entire church service has been about him…to the letter. He is here with me now, sitting in the pew. Reminding me that I can fly without the feather. That if I crash and burn, it will be my own choice.

The thought makes me smile. It is so Leo.

At the end of the service, the minister asks us to use a scrap of paper and write a story about a burden we are willing to give up–so we can heal. One by one we walk to the front and drop our folded pieces of paper inside a huge flower pot. Then Dave places a large, blooming hydrangea on top of them and fills the rest of the pot with soil. God has taken our sorrow and is now ready to make something beautiful spread its leaves and flower from the ashes of our sadness.

The Talmud says that “Every blade of grass has its angel that bends over it and whispers, ‘Grow, grow.'”


Because everything grows with love, doesn’t it?

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