everything grows with love

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

Archive for Bruce Wood

The Limitless Imaginations of Audrey and Don Wood

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Surprise!  Don actually answers.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Duffy reads his new book.

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

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

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

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

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

Aloha and Hibiscus

Aloha and Hibiscus

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