everything grows with love

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

Archive for Harcourt Publishers

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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More Talented than a Hurricane: Rodman Philbrick

I met Rod Philbrick at the Edgar Awards. I attended with Kathryn Lasky, who had been nominated for a book I published at Harcourt. Kathy introduced us, and a few months later I found myself carrying an unlikely first children’s novel home from the New York office in my book bag.

It was Saturday, and I needed to get my car fixed. Back in those days I lived in my hometown of Basking Ridge, New Jersey, in the house I’d grown up in—after both my parents died suddenly and unexpectedly.

*     *     *     *     *     *     *

     So I give the keys to my Honda Accord to my hometown mechanics on Finley Avenue, and they’re raising it high into the air as I sit down in a plastic chair and take the rubber band off Rod Philbrick’s manuscript. I’m not optimistic because Kathy has described it to me as a story about a dwarf and a giant, or something like that, but I am going to read it anyway.

I begin reading, and wild horses can’t drag me away from FREAK THE MIGHTY. When I get to page 11, I fish through the pages and find Rod’s phone number on the manuscript, and then I leave the mechanics to try to go find a pay phone. I finally find one at Ridge Pharmacy, and I put in my card. I am panic stricken. I need to talk to him immediately.

I get lucky because he answers. And I tell him this: I am reading your book and I have to publish it. I need for you to promise me you won’t submit it to anyone else.

He sounds a little startled, but he agrees.

And then I can relax, because no matter what, this has to be on my list.

FREAK THE MIGHTY required very little editing. Rod says he wrote it over a summer, and I believe him. He is honest and true and a beautiful human being.  The novel was based on real people, which makes it even more powerful to me—not just that a boy similar to Kevin existed, but the masterful way Rod has written about Kevin with such grace and dignity and respect. He has disguised the boy and his mom, both real, and he has made their battle and their victory timeless and unforgettable. I will read FREAK THE MIGHTY many, many times. And when the book has been out for twenty years and has sold more than three million copies without any major award, I will publish an anniversary edition with 32 pages of backmatter that are meaningful. By that I mean they are not just interesting facts; the material in the anniversary edition is pulled together, organized, and built to be a true contribution to the world of literature. We carve essays around letters to Rod from children. Some of them make me want to celebrate, while others bring tears to my eyes. And Rod tells about himself, and why he wrote the book, and what it has been like to get so many letters, and how hard it was to get published and to continue writing, despite many years of rejection. He is a remarkable person, and of course you can see that in all his fiction, but it shines in the essays of the 20th Anniversary Edition—so if you haven’t read them, you are in for a rare treat.

Freak the Mighty

This season, Spring 2014, I am publishing a different story, although Rod’s books always revolve around a central character of depth and substance who is put into an impossible situation. Rod says he had always wanted to write a story set in a hurricane, and I’m guessing that’s because he and his wife, Lynn (who died of cancer not long ago), have spent half of each year in Florida….hurricane country. After Katrina, it made sense to write about that one. So he did.

Originally titled HURRICANE ZANE, the novel is about a New Hampshire boy named Zane who lost his father before he was born. His racial background is mixed, with a blonde mother and an African-American father, but his mom has no ties to his dad’s family….until one day when she discovers Zane’s paternal great grandmother, Miss Trissy, through one of those ancestor-tracking websites. Zane’s mom sends him down to New Orleans to meet Miss Trissy—who didn’t know Zane existed—and Miss Trissy allows Zane to bring along his devoted mutt, Bandit.

Zane and the Hurricane

Timing is everything, and shortly after Zane and Bandit arrive, a hurricane named Katrina forms in the gulf. What follows is a page-turning, hold-onto-your-seat tale of survival—all based on fact. And as the editor, I had quite an education.

I signed the book up based on the idea, and I decided to stay away from any information about Katrina so I would have the fresh, blank-slate reaction of a young reader. I didn’t want any information or stories in my head to sway me about the hurricane, the behavior of the New Orleans residents, the reaction of the police and the government, or anything else. So when Rod sent along HURRICANE ZANE, my mind was open and unbiased.

In addition to the facts about Katrina—what happened at the Super Dome, the shocking statistics, the Ninth Ward, shootings on the bridge, no food or water or medical care for residents who did not have the means to leave New Orleans as the storm approached—Rod has woven an extremely powerful narrative about race and kindness and selfishness and cruelty, all seen through the eyes of a boy who is visiting. Zane’s observations, emotions, fears, and gratitude all ring true, and for me the characters and story are unforgettable.

I didn’t dive into research until I finished reading the manuscript a number of times. I did my first-pass edits on the characters and plot, not on the setting. And then, as I began searching for Katrina facts, the tsunami of information swamped me and threatened to overwhelm the book in my mind. How in the world did Rod know to sift through all the films, news articles, footage, statistics, and first-person accounts to even build a story? I watched all the documentaries, read all the nonfiction books I could find, and played with interactive maps that showed me how the hurricane approached, the timing, and which parts of New Orleans were affected and when. I learned the difference between a levee and a storm wall, and I learned how completely vulnerable the city was to complete flooding and destruction. I studied the ethnic charts and statistics about migration. I watched hours of testimonials by people who didn’t have cars or money to leave the city, and I came to see how the New Orleans government deliberately did not prepare to shelter citizens because they did not want poor people getting too comfortable. I learned about the migration of the poor away from New Orleans after the flood, and I was fascinated by learning how the financial aid was distributed or not distributed. I charted Zane’s journey from the Ninth Ward past the Super Dome and across the bridge to Algiers. All of Rod’s research was precise and accurate.

“How on Earth did you write this book?” I asked him. With so much information, I am still amazed he could manage to sew together a patchwork of people and events to create a reality that captures the corners and shadows of this horrific, historical event so vividly. I could smell it, taste it, and feel the heat. I was dripping with sweat, covered with mud, bitten by mosquitoes, and scared to death of gunshots in the night and snakes in the water.

“That’s one of the reasons it took me so long,” he explained. “So much has been written about it, and from so many points of view.” And of course he’d come at it the opposite way I’d approached the editing—he’d sifted through acres of reference material, found his own storytellers, and read the books and periodicals before he wrote it and mapped his way through the Katrina experience. I am still baffled that anyone could carve such a stunning book out of so much conflicting information—and make it seem effortless, as if the writer just had an adventure and then wrote it down.  Good fiction does feel effortless; I guess all good books do.

One of Rod’s points, when he was revising the manuscript, was that so many people experienced Katrina that there is not just one story but hundreds of thousands of stories, and this will continue to be the case as long as people live to tell them. Zane’s story is one of them, and at the end of the book, Rod suggests that others tell their stories, too. I like that.

Rod directed me to maps to include in the beginning of the book and also at the end. I wanted to see a clear map of New Orleans so I could get my bearings, and I also wanted to see the larger picture of the hurricane, because it affected so many additional places outside New Orleans.

I have been blessed to edit FREAK THE MIGHTY; THE FIRE PONY; MAX THE MIGHTY; THE LAST BOOK IN THE UNIVERSE; REM WORLD; THE YOUNG MAN AND THE SEA; THE MOSTLY TRUE ADVENTURES OF HOMER P. FIGG; and now ZANE AND THE HURRICANE: A Katrina Story. (I think I’ve listed all of them—a small but very powerful list of novels!)

The Last Book in the Universe

The Mostly True Adventures of Homer P. Figg

The Young Man and the Sea

The Fire Pony

I do not understand how Rod writes, or how he is able to write so well, or where he gets his ideas, or how he manages to always make me love his main character so deeply and completely. And his books always have humor woven into them—wry wit that again holds my attention and gives even more depth to the tale. I cry every time I read FREAK THE MIGHTY, even after all these years. There is such courage in that book, and so much inspiration. I was very excited, when I moved from New Jersey to Santa Monica, that FREAK THE MIGHTY was on the Santa Monica Public School Summer Reading List.

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Seeing Rod accept a Newbery Honor for THE MOSTLY TRUE ADVENTURES OF HOMER P. FIGG was absolutely thrilling, and Lynn and I took lots of pictures. The three of us walked around Washington, D.C. and played tourists during ALA. I have a really nice photo of them in front of the White House.

 

I confess I was hoping THE YOUNG MAN AND THE SEA would be a Newbery Honor Book, and I heard that it had been discussed, for that is another astonishing story that, for me, took hold of my heart and imagination and never let go. But readers always seem to find Rod’s wonderful books, Newbery or not—and at last count, THE LAST BOOK IN THE UNIVERSE had sold more than half a million copies, again without any major award. It’s just a great book, and word of mouth—word of teacher, word of librarian—keeps leading young readers to it.

Rod grew up in Maine and belongs to a very big family that settled there in the 1600s, so the Philbrick roots are deep. He knew he would become a writer at an early age, but as he wrote and tried to establish himself, he also worked as a carpenter, roofer, and longshoreman among his many jobs.  He is one of those rare writers who knew his calling and answered it with unceasing energy and dedication. Again, the 20th Anniversary Edition of FREAK THE MIGHTY tells a lot about the path that led him to finally get a book published, and how he managed to get through the rough times with the help of Lynn.

It is a thrill to meet a teacher or librarian or bookseller and to hand him/her a copy of a new novel by Rod Philbrick. It was very, very exciting for me to attend NCTE this past November in Boston and to pass out copies of the bound galley of ZANE AND THE HURRICANE. So far it has received three starred reviews, which is a wonderful affirmation of his accomplishment. I say that because no matter how much I love a book, and no matter how impressed I am with the fiction, there is just no way to know if others will share my enthusiasm.

It was a coincidence that ZANE AND THE HURRICANE was published ten years after Katrina, and I hope that anniversary will bring people to the book. Where does New Orleans stand now that ten years have passed? Does the devastation still haunt the city? How has it healed—or not healed? And what have we learned? Soon the book will be released in hardcover, and Rod will begin getting letters from young people with compliments and criticisms, and some of them will tell him true stories of their own about Katrina.  Maybe one of them will be from you?

 

(May 22, 2014: ZANE AND THE HURRICANE has been received with great enthusiasm, and the book has earned three starred reviews. Congratulations, Rod! Here is a photo from NCTE in Boston, where he read a few passages from the book.)

 

Rod Philbrick at NCTE 2013

A Pen, a Princess, and a Lot of Rock Music: Snapshot of Robin McKinley

I met Robin McKinley a million years ago when we both had long hair and wore snakeskin cowboy boots. She was into “goth” and I was into “new music,” and she was writing The Outlaws of Sherwood, although I don’t know what the manuscript was called at that time. She simply referred to it as “Robin Hood.”

She came out to Santa Monica from Maine and stayed with my rock-musician husband and me for a while. In those days, we spent a lot of time hanging out at Skyline Recording Studio way up on Old Topanga Canyon Road, and I don’t recall what records Ira was working on back then, but there were parties with Bob Dylan and sessions with Joe Cocker and concerts where Ira played with all kinds of great rock musicians. We went to clubs and showcases and wore our outlandish clothes and crazy jewelry. She was the princess of goth. And of course Ira was writing and recording his own tunes, some with Britt Bacon and Carl Sealove and a lot of other talented people. Ira had a recording studio in our small home, so he was making music all the time, and Robin and I had a great time with all of it. Everything in my closet was either black or white, and I never combined the colors. One day I bought an unconventional sweater from a catalog–completely not my style. We were walking along Main Street after breakfast one morning, and she gave me a puzzled look. “You’re OK with that?” she asked. She pointed at my sweater. “Wearing pink?”

I fell head-over-heels in love with Robin’s books when I read The Blue Sword and The Hero and the Crown. Unlike most people back then, I read Beauty afterward.  She wrote books I could not put down, and sometimes I didn’t get my night’s work finished because I was reading something new by Robin. And in those days it was rare for me to work fewer than 80 hours a week.

Every morning Robin would go into my home office and work on the book. It was a tiny room someone had attached onto our tiny home–very dark and crowded. She explained her writing ability by telling me that she had a crack in her skull, and the words and stories came in through that crack. Since then, I have heard other people explain their brilliant writing in a similar way, but that is how she described her writing process, which was very mysterious to me. It was a mystery to me that anyone could write that well.

I don’t know how old we were, except that I am in my 50s now, so we had to have been close to thirty, but not much older than that. She had achieved highly unusual success for someone her age, and it was troubling her. She told me she felt tremendous pressure, and I don’t know what that was like for her. She had written Beauty, and it had been a wildly successful novel that knocked the socks off fantasy readers. Her second book was a Newbery Honor, and her third book won the gold. I’m sure it must have been enormously exciting to have that level of affirmation, but on the other hand, that is pretty heady for a younger person.

And how do you follow that?

Everyone (and I include myself ) was on pins and needles, waiting for Robin’s next miraculous novel to sweep us off our feet. Robin’s editor at the time was the legendary Susan Hirschman at Greenwillow, who had also been Virginia Hamilton’s editor (along with Janet Schulman and Ann Beneduce) most of Virginia’s career.

I met Robin because a new illustrator friend, Katie Thamer Treherne, had surprised me by bringing me all the finished picture-book illustrations for The Light Princess by George MacDonald, which he had published in 1864. They were intricate, gorgeous, and highly detailed, but in order to publish Katie’s art as a picture book, the original manuscript by MacDonald had to be cut. I decided to ask a “master” fantasy writer to tackle the job of cutting/editing it–not revise it or re-tell it, but edit it for length.

My first choice was Robin, and she agreed to do it. Of course she respected the writer and did a beautiful job.  I didn’t think her involvement with the project stepped on anyone’s toes, but it allowed an engaging, delightful picture book to come into existence (Harcourt) and bring that forgotten, light-hearted story back to contemporary bookshelves.

Along the way, I got to know Robin. And I state for the record that I did not understand Robin, and I never have, and I never will.  I’m not sure it matters, except I do not want to present a misconception that we were best friends. Everyone is different, every writer is different, every relationship with a writer is different, and this is no exception. Still, she is a genius, and this is a small collection of essays about my experiences with brilliant writers…and that includes the mysterious, complicated, wildly talented and unpredictable Robin. There you go.

At any rate, if you have read a few of the essays in Everything Grows with Love, you have seen that in my life, the process of publishing books is very personal. I have very personal passions for people and their individual visions, and it is usually a familial kind of thing for whatever reasons. Most of the time that works out well–meaning better books–and sometimes it backfires or goes south or drifts away into distance as is true with close relationships in the lives of most people. As well, I’m not saying this is the way editors and publishers should approach bookmaking. They should approach it however it works for them. This is what works for me. It has been at least two decades since I gave a rat’s ass how anyone else makes a book. This is how make books, and I don’t care what anybody thinks about it.

Meanwhile, back at the Robin McKinley snapshot (smile–I think Robin would like that little outburst, being the rugged individual and the maverick she undoubtedly still is)….  Robin taught me one of the greatest lessons I’ve learned about writing and publishing, and it has been invaluable these twenty-five years since. Some days she would go into my little study and come out feeling she’d written good fiction. Other days she would come out feeling she’d written terrible fiction. But what she said about it was this: At the end of the book, I can’t tell which parts were good writing days and which were bad writing days.

I always urge writers (and myself) to keep everything, no matter how bad it may seem. Because how you feel about your writing on Monday may be extremely negative, but in fact it may be the best writing you’ve ever done. I guess that’s true about a lot of things in life, right? You wake up after an argument with your sister, and the work you try to do that day feels wrong and inefficient and lousy. In fact, it may be the best work you’ve ever done. Why should it be any different with writing?

Robin kept the good and the bad and kept on writing The Outlaws of Sherwood every morning. She said it was taking her a lot longer to write this book because she felt the public’s expectations were deafening–my words, not hers.

People have told me that it is easier, emotionally, to win a Caldecott or a Newbery Medal after publishing a lot of books so you are better prepared for the celebrity and sudden fame and high expectations. I have known a zillion winners of those awards, and like their work, they are each individuals and very different.  But in Robin’s case, I think those medals were wonderful, and she so deserved them, but it may have made the rest of her career more difficult and challenging. I don’t know.

Katie Thamer Treherne, who created the paintings that led me to Robin, married a man she’d met on a pilgrimage, and they moved back to his ancient family home in Sussex, England, where she is probably now the mother of several grown children who have children of their own. Robin married the celebrated writer Peter Dickinson and moved to England with him. The last time I saw her was at a New York party given for them by her agent at the time. Robin and I stayed in touch for a little while, and the last photograph she sent me from England was a picture of herself with a tractor, in a beautiful British rose garden. She told me she was happy and very proud of the flowers in the photo. And I had to smile to see that like her own Beauty, she had become a lover of roses, and I hoped she was cherished by a prince of her own.

I think of Robin tonight and the people we were back then, and how we had no idea of what was before us. It was a unique time, kicking around those recording studios and being in publishing yet rejecting the stuffy rules of the business. We took great pleasure in drop kicking as many rules as we could out of the park.

Snap your fingers, and flash, more than twenty-five years have passed. What was once an irresponsible night on the town is rapidly becoming a ghost of a memory, and you want to catch it on your laptop before it vanishes. You gave up your cowboy boots long ago and have become a woman with a grown child, a publisher overflowing with stories, and a gardener with roses of your own.

Ah, the rose…that ancient storytelling symbol. Its entrance and its exit–and the people who cross over during that magical, transformational moment–can alter your life forever….

Debra Frasier: On the Day You Were Born

I have two sisters, and one of them is JoAnn Verburg. If you know photography, you may have seen one of her shows. My son and I were over the moon when she had a one-woman show at the Museum of Modern Art, but even more exciting is the work itself which speaks directly to my heart. I joke that of course I love her photographs because we have the same DNA, but to me they are very beautiful and capture the essence of the people and places she photographs.

I am telling you about JoAnn because she is married to poet Jim Moore (another Guggenheim winner), and they live part of the time in their home in Italy and part of the time in Minneapolis. This story takes place about 25 years ago. In fact, it must have been in the very late 1980s because during the project in question, my father had just died, and my mother was about to be diagnosed with lightning-fast, terminal brain cancer. That’s one of the ways I locate places in time. Anyway, scroll back, and I am Editor-in-Chief at Harcourt, and of course my sisters know this, and I am sitting on the floor at home in Santa Monica one day, talking on the phone to my sister, and she casually mentions her friend Debra Frasier, who is married to JoAnn’s closer friend the photographer Jim Henkel. Surely I remember Debra from JoAnn and Jim’s wedding in Minnesota because Debra made the gorgeous, Matisse-like banners hung in the church for the ceremony.

I do remember the banners (and it was also at JoAnn’s wedding in 1984 that I met Stephen Gammell, who would become a friend). Jo mentions that Debra has made a children’s book, and a sales rep at Crown Publishers has seen it and sent the dummy into the home office, and they are very interested, and now it looks as if Debra is going to publish her book at Crown. Isn’t that great?

“Why didn’t you tell me about it?” I ask.

“You? Would you want to see something like that?”

“Yes.”

“OK, I’ll give her a call.”

A few days pass, and Debra graciously sends me a copy of the dummy, although she is pretty much committed to Crown at this point. She hasn’t signed a contract yet, but she’s planning to sign one. The book is called On the Day You Were Born, and she is pregnant, which is what spurred her on to create the book. She says it has happened very organically with the pregnancy–and I find all of this very exciting.

I look at the dummy, and it is one of those projects that has my name all over it. Which is not to say it doesn’t have another editor’s name all over it, but come on–she made the banners for my sister’s wedding, her husband is one of my sister’s best friends, the art and the story are precisely my cup of tea, and I’m sorry that JoAnn, for whatever reasons, didn’t think I’d want to see it. It’s nothing personal; she probably assumed I was too busy to look at anything new.

The problem with the book, and I tell Debra this, is that there is too much science on the spreads. I want to keep the text to a minimum–keep it poetic–and move the science off the spreads and into the back of the book. I have had an idea for a long time about reproducing all the spreads in a book like this and putting them at the very end in a visual glossary so children can go right to the spread with the picture they recognize and get the science and the picture without having to flip back and forth through the book, which for a child can be so burdensome it doesn’t ever happen. (Later I will do this visual glossary again in Leo & Diane Dillon’s To Every Thing There Is a Season at Blue Sky.)

Debra and I talk about the book, and this science issue, for hours. I like her very much, but I will not budge on my opinion that most of the science needs to go in the back. Her writing voice is very beautiful and poetic, and I am feeling that this lovely poetry is getting bogged down by the science. It is getting lost.

Even now, more than twenty-five years later, I get goosebumps thinking about the text for that book. Now that is saying a lot about its power. And that power is what I want on the spreads, not the distractions of the explanation of the science of migration, for example.

She tells me that Crown has agreed to publish the book the way it is. So why wouldn’t she be better off going with Crown, where she can do the book exactly the way she intended it to be.

And this is the out-of-body editor part of the story. For the life of me, I do not know where this certainty comes from, and sometimes I watch the words float out of my mouth, and I am shocked by my own absolutely unwavering opinions. Again, I am always willing to listen, and I am willing to be wrong. But I always voice my honest opinion despite the problems that may result. This I do. In very strong language. In fact, I tell her this: You may very well decide to publish the book at Crown and put all the science on the pages, but I will promise you that the reviewers are going to comment on it, and they are going to say that you should have taken the science and put it in the back of the book. And on the day the reviews come out and say this, I am going to call you up, and I am going to tell you that “I told you so.”

In this way my sister JoAnn and I are very similar. We are Dutch, and we are extremely stubborn. Where others see ocean, our people see farmland. Then we create dijks and pumps and suck the ocean away and plant crops. When I visited our small town in Zeeland the first time, I was told that the people from this particular area in Holland are reputed to be the most stubborn people in the world. But at least I will know that Debra has seen this streak in my sister, and I come by it honestly.

She decides to think about it, and I am happy to say she agrees to sign the book up with me, and we take the science out and put it in a visual glossary at the end of the book. And it will be a book I adore. After the interior was edited and the design completed, my mother was diagnosed suddenly with terminal brain cancer, and I left for home on a leave of absence to move in with my mother and take care of her until she died three months later. Meanwhile, I turn the book over to my assistant, Allyn Johnston, who also loves it, and she does a great job while I am away.

After my mother dies, and I close up the house, I come back to my office in San Diego. Allyn is really crazy about the book, and she doesn’t want to give it back to me, but I insist, and she reluctantly agrees. That night after work, we are both standing at the elevators to go home, and when I look down at her book bag, On the Day You Were Born is in it. Even though she has given it back to me, I see she is still taking it home to work on it.

“You really love that book, don’t you?” I ask.

She nods, embarrassed. “I do.”

“And you want to keep it, don’t you.”

She does.

“You know I love it, too?”

“I know.”

“And I want to keep it, too?”

“I know.”

I think about it. I look at Allyn. In many ways we are very different, but in other ways we are very similar. Our publishing will be very similar, it turns out, over the decades to come.

“OK,” I say with great difficulty. “You can have it.”

__________________________

That was hard.

It was the right thing to do, but it was hard.

Anyway, Allyn and Debra do a fantastic job on the back matter, which is very complicated, and they are a great match. I leave the company not too long after, and Allyn continues to edit Debra’s books. It’s hard sometimes to leave your backlist behind when you go to a new publisher. And On the Day You Were Born becomes a classic bestseller, and it never occurs to me that anyone knows I had anything to do with the book at all…except my sister, of course, who is ultimately responsible for Debra coming with me to Harcourt, which was the right move.

It must be twenty years later, because it is some big anniversary of the book, and I am at an event, which I am thinking is the BEA Children’s Book Dinner. And the guest speaker is Debra Frasier, who is there with her beautiful daughter, Calla, to speak in honor of this anniversary of her very, very popular book.

I am quite sure that the role of the Verburg sisters will not be a part of the story, when she completely surprises the audience. She tells the story of how she was pregnant and was driven to write the story, and then make the pictures, and how she created the dummy for the book. She tells the large audience that her husband, Jim Henkel, was close friends with a photographer named JoAnn Verburg–and she has to stop because of the huge intake of breath on the part of the audience. I mean, it really is quite an interesting connection. She tells them that JoAnn Verburg’s little sister was a children’s book editor, Bonnie Verburg, and there is another one of those big sounds of a huge group of people expressing great surprise. And she finishes up the journey of the book by telling about how the book eventually ended up in the able hands of her talented editor, Allyn Johnston, who has been working with her ever since.

It’s nice because it is so unexpected, and because I can call my sister and tell her about it.

Books come together in strange ways, and if you have read a few of the entries here, you have already heard about the Book Angel. She was surely the guardian of this enterprise, and she surely wanted this book to be born, as Calla was born, and my son was born, and all the babies were born who had the gift of this splendid, loving book being read to them by their very, very loving parents.

Cover of "On the Day You Were Born"

Cover of On the Day You Were Born

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.

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