everything grows with love

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

Archive for Encounter

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.

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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.

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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.

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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…..

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David Shannon: NO! NO! NO, DAVID!

It is 1992, and artist David Shannon has agreed to publish some of his books at my fledgling imprint, the Blue Sky Press. I’ve been working with him since his second book, Encounter, by Jane Yolen, and I’m so pleased I’ll get to continue to work with him. He’s enormously talented and can tell an entire story within a single painting as few people can. On my second Blue Sky list, I get to publish the first picture book he writes himself: How Georgie Radbourn Saved Baseball.

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Cover of How Georgie Radbourn Saved Baseball

He’s highly original and a natural storyteller, so I am thrilled when Dave tells me that  the books he writes himself will be published by Blue Sky. Wow! Part of what makes him such great company is his ability to tell a tale–about anything–so vividly I can see it. He describes the guy who comes to his house to locate whatever dead animal is stuck in a vent somewhere, and you swear you can see the guy–and smell him. Or he tells about the time his family was invaded by head lice, and you laugh so hard your Perrier almost comes out your nose. Maybe it’s from growing up in Spokane with all those Paul Bunyan tales, or maybe it’s from a lifetime of fishing trips where I imagine the guys sit around the campfire at night telling wild lies about the big ones that got away.

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Dave’s imagination is not like anyone else’s imagination. Unique doesn’t even come close.  it’s fascinating and fun to watch him develop the story and pictures for A Bad Case of Stripes, for example. Among other things, he is determined to create a book cover with a striped spine, and I love that about him. He points out that the book will spend much of its life spine-out on bookcases, and the stripes…well, they will be something we will notice. He tells me this with a twinkle in his eye, and he’s right–it’s a great idea.

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Cover of A Bad Case Of Stripes

I’m nuts about the whole book, and when Camilla breaks out in stars and stripes, I think stories don’t get any better than this.  Dave and I disagree that lima beans are something kids dislike–because as a kid, I always liked them. Turns out he is right, as usual. Kids generally don’t like lima beans. In it stays.

Despite one of the most ridiculous reviews I’ve ever read (“psychedelic” and “will give your children nightmares”), the kids immediately love the book, and so do the parents, and in the end it will be one of David Shannon’s strongest sellers ever. He is a very funny guy, and as he publishes more, he is increasingly unleashing his limitless sense of humor into his books…which is so much fun.

Still, his recent books continue to have many portraits and landscapes. I am lucky enough to have the splendid title page from Audrey Wood’s The Bunyans (the painting with Ansel Adams and his camera tucked into

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Cover of Bunyans (Scholastic Bookshelf)

the side of a scene that looks to be Yosemite) hanging in my living room.

I dive into it every single day. With this in mind, on this sunny California afternoon, I am stunned when he calls and tells me his new book idea. It will be, he says, an entire picture book of a little boy doing things he isn’t supposed to do. And on every spread will be the words, “No, David!” and “No, no, no!”  I can hear how excited he is about the idea, and he’s still rolling it around in his mind. I can hear that, too, over the phone.

Now, I have been taught, in my career, that it is pure poison to have a negative title, and “No!” is something to be avoided at all costs. Children’s books are supposed to be positive. I take a deep breath and tell him that it sounds very interesting, and I’m sure it will be terrific. He’s the genius, after all, and my bread and butter has been encouraging geniuses to do what they do best…with as little interference as possible. The phone call is so surprising that all these years later, I vividly remember exactly where I was standing in my dark little office when he told me the idea: I am next to a tall filing cabinet, and I don’t move during the entire conversation.

Shannon is the kind of person who constantly challenges me to step out of the circle I’ve drawn around myself, and this is no exception. His popularity is building.  Will a picture book about “No!” find an audience? I decide not to worry about it right now, but then a few days later, Dave calls me again with more news. He has decided to illustrate the “No” book with stick figures.

Stick figures.

David Shannon is well on his way to rivaling Winslow Homer, and with every book, his skill as a fine artist is stronger. Stick figures?

Yes indeed. The kind of stick figures little kids make when they are learning to draw. I can hear the gears turning, and he is rolling this idea around in his head, too. “Sounds really interesting,” I say with enthusiasm. But when I get off the phone, I am wondering what he sees in his mind’s eye. What people want from him are his divine landscapes and portraits. He is a fine artist whose paintings belong in museums. Stick figures?  I am really surprised!

You already know the point of this story. 

If you are an editor, or a publisher, or someone in a position to make decisions about what will and what will not get published, I hope you have a combination of good taste and an extraordinary ability to trust that talent will always take care of itself. I am not the queen of children’s books, but this is one thing I know to be absolutely true: The greatest obstacle to good publishing is fear. Good books can’t be published by people who are afraid to take risks. And if you aren’t failing some of the time, then you aren’t doing a good job. Because when you take risks, sometimes you fail. That’s how it works. For me, for David Shannon, for every editor and writer and artist I admire. Risk, fail. Risk, succeed. Risk, succeed. Risk, succeed. Risk, fail. There you go.

So yes, I am going to publish this book about “No!”  And yes, I have very good taste, and I have complete trust in David Shannon’s vision and his talent. Sink or swim, we will do it together. And when the dummy comes in, it is wonderful. Very, very, very funny. The stick figures are what make it work. Bull’s eye. He is right on target.

I’d like to say that I knew it it would be a hit all along, but how could I?  Yet the moment I saw Dave’s sketch dummy, I immediately got it. And by now the story of No, David! is famous…even the small details such as how his dad used to work in an x-ray lab and brought home lots of leftover orange paper so Dave could draw. And he drew an entire book when he was five–a book filled with pictures of himself doing things he wasn’t supposed to do. On every page were written the words: “No, David!” He says that’s because they were the only words he knew how to spell.

I have seen that orange book that his mother, Martha, saved all those years until Dave was an established children’s book writer and illustrator, and then she showed it to him. That book from childhood inspired the new one, and like all revolutionary picture books, not everyone loved it right off the bat. But most people did.

I invited a local librarian, Michael Cart, over to my dark little office in Santa Monica to take a look at my new books. Along with No, David! I was publishing Leo & Diane Dillon’s masterpiece To Every Thing There Is a Season, and Michael has tremendous knowledge of children’s books and really knows the full range much better than I ever will. And when Michael saw No, David!, he was the first person to look at it. He couldn’t stop laughing. When I walked him out to his car, he was still laughing. Thank you, Michael, for the first review….

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Cover of No, David!

As I write this, I take a break to open a window, and I look down at a postcard of the double-spread cover of Jangles, one of the most magnificent books I have ever had the good fortune to publish. It is David’s most recent book, and the oil paintings–his first book in oils–literally made me weak in the knees the day he first showed them to me in his studio. These paintings in Jangles…. I would fight my way from another incarnation to be the publisher of this book. And if anyone else had published it, truthfully I would have been extremely jealous. Not in a nice way.

No, David! quickly became a classic, and it was chosen as a Caldecott Honor Book. The librarians on the committee were witty and interesting and had a lot of questions. I remember that one of them was disturbed that the character’s nose was slightly crooked throughout the entire book. “But your nose is crooked!” she said happily. And at the Newbery Caldecott dinner, when Dave’s mom, Martha, quietly left her seat at our table and followed him up to the front of the ballroom where he was to receive his award, he didn’t know she was right behind him. The entire audience knew it–and Barbara, the chair, was up at the podium in a drop-dead gorgeous dress, trying not to laugh. But she couldn’t help it. The entire, massive ocean of librarians and publishers broke out into hilarious laughter as Dave turned and saw Martha, right behind him, as if she’d won the award herself.

I don’t know how Dave felt about that, and because he’s so gracious he just made a joke about it. In the receiving line he said he was going to call his next book “No, Martha!” But it made history, and those of us who attended that dinner will never forget the time a Caldecott Honor Artist’s mother followed him up to the podium. After all, isn’t that what mother’s do?

Not long ago, I listened to an NPR interview with a physicist who had won the Nobel Prize. The interviewer wanted to know what the physicist’s mother had said when he called to tell her he had won. “She said, ‘That’s nice. But when am I going to see you?'” I can imagine her following her son up to the podium as he goes to get his Nobel Prize…and then tugging at his suit and saying, “And when are you coming over for dinner?”

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Dave in front of my “Rent a Wreck” truck–a bashed-up clunker to haul one of my Habitat for Humanity projects–in front of the posh Beverly Hills Hotel. Oops, I forgot to swap the dented, spray-painted truck back for my car before an early meeting with an eBook executive. But seeing the horror on the valet’s face when I drove up was worth a million dollars….

We started on the second David book before No, David! won all those awards and prizes, so it’s a good thing it did. Better still is to have another book about David for children to read again and again and again. I started writing this because I wanted to write something about David Shannon, but I see I haven’t captured him at all. As is true with everyone I have published, he is a complicated, brilliant artist who sparkles like a Tiffany diamond and has a hundred times the facets. So I’ll sign off by saying I have been very, very fortunate to have had the honor and delight of publishing so many of his unforgettable books. This season, the 20th anniversary of the Blue Sky Press, we’re taking our newest risk on a very funny book about the hysteria caused when a boy comes home with head lice. It’s called Bugs in My Hair! and we promise it will make you itchy.

Once again, David Shannon breaks the sound barrier.

KABOOM!!!

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GREAT NEWS! This week BUGS IN MY HAIR! received its first review: a STAR in KIRKUS. Congratulations, Dave! xxoo  (June 11, 2013)

(May 21, 2014: BUGS IN MY HAIR! turned out to be a big hit! And last week, in New York, it was voted Book of the Year by the Children’s Choice Awards–a huge honor. According to the article in Publisher’s Weekly, “Either this means that a lot of kids liked the book or that a lot of kids have head lice,” said Bugs in My Hair! author David Shannon while accepting his award. He also gave a special shout-out to school nurses (“I want to thank them in particular”).

Here’s a new portrait of Dave:

Portrait of David Shannon

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