everything grows with love

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

Archive for The Bunyans

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.

Cover of

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.

Cover of

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

Cover of

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….

Cover of

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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