everything grows with love

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

Archive for About Publishing

Anniversary of Virginia Hamilton’s Passing

On this day, February 19, 2002, the blazing spirit of magnificent Virginia Hamilton, friend, mentor, writer, confidante, and kick-around girlfriend, took off with the power of a comet and left this world for the next. Virginia was–and still is–the most distinguished writer of books for young readers in the world, and she was given every major award in her field, including some that had never been given before, such as her MacArthur (genius) Fellowship. As her longtime editor and pal, my life has been blessed more than words can say. And I don’t want closure. I want every door and window and drawer she opened inside my heart and mind to STAY open. Virginia, I miss you every day. You go, girl. You go…. You reconfigure the stars in the sky and keep on shining.

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Arnold Adoff: A Rememory of Walter Dean Myers

 This r e m e m o r y of Walter Dean Myers

That word: r e m e m o r y is one coined by Virginia [Hamilton] and you must know I always feel since her death thirteen years ago . . . that she should still be here . . . and Walter should still be here . . . and Leo [Dillon] and Fred [McKissack] and others gone too soon.

Walter and Virginia were warriors . . . literary warriors . . . with that glinting consistency of effort and excellence. . . we were friends and comrades and fellow travelers . . . actually coming together only a few times a year to participate at a conference or speak at a convention . . . but always connecting over the years and decades as we published and spoke and struggled to break down the walls . . . open some of the musty rooms of youth literature . . . presenting images and stories to many thousands of young people of the post–(first) civil rights movement . . .

We first met after Virginia had published her first novel, Zeely, in 1967, and was receiving a Nancy Bloch award from the downtown community school. Bradford Chambers was one of the moving forces behind these early efforts at inclusion . . . and he and others formed the Council on Interracial Books for Children . . . their oversized bulletin devoting its back page to photos and bios and examples of work . . . and one day there was Walter . . . and a taste of his efforts . . . and his beginnings in our world.

So much of my anger is as much disappointment as it is a kind of negative rage. To have to revisit the Voting Rights Act—the way we’ll soon have to revisit the Roe v. Wade decision—kicks in the solar plexus . . . especially as my gut is far more tender than it was in struggles past . . . although no less keen. Some of what I write is simply and complexly to point out that the emperor is not even wearing a shred of silk around his sizable metaphoric rump.

“Walter and Virginia were warriors . . . literary warriors . . . with that glinting consistency of effort and excellence”

But, I also think of this new generation of writers and artists working to create excellence, and the academics and parents who study inclusion and multicultural youth literature, the Children’s Book Council Committee on Diversity and the Diversity Matters/We Need Diverse Books Now initiative, and the fine people making those open-eyed and openhearted efforts.

That’s why I mention Brad Chambers and his group of dedicated educators creating the Council on Interracial Books for Children—fifty years ago. And I mention now an organization begun several decades ago by Walter Dean Myers and Virginia [Hamilton] and [Leo and Diane] Dillon and Pat Cummings and Nicholasa Mohr and myself and Sheila Hamanaka . . . the Center for Multicultural Children’s Literature.

Working out of a small office donated by Scott Foresman/Harper’s and with a small budget from them as well, we were able to employ a part-time grad student to do preliminary reading of manuscripts and art portfolios from people around the country who needed those connections and an opening of the door to enter our field.

We did two more things: 1) writers and artists would be paired with many of us already publishing for some communication and mentoring and encouragement 2) editors and art directors were encouraged to be in touch with the center as they sought writers of color from all ethnicities and cultures as well as artists to illustrate manuscripts, and so on . . .
Finally, unlike these previously mentioned, an institution which is still flourishing at Kent State University after more than thirty years of annual conferences: the Virginia Hamilton Conference on Multicultural Literature for Youth. This is the oldest conference of its kind functioning annually as other worthy ones have been disbanded—Columbus, Boston, and San Francisco to name a few. This year the conference, which takes place on April 9 and 10, will feature keynote speakers David Macaulay, winner of this year’s Virginia Hamilton Literary Award, Rita Williams-Garcia, Newbery Honor winner, and Grace Lin, Newbery Honor winner. A host of others will speak and run workshops. Awards will be announced for academic articles and grants for those teachers and librarians who are working with multicultural materials on projects with their students.

Please go to their website at Kent State and you will find dozens of participants black, white, Hispanic, Asian, female, male, young, and old . . . year after year representing that grand metaphor of inclusive emperor dressed in the deepest and hippest outfits.

Of course Walter [Dean Myers] was the first recipient of the Virginia Hamilton Literary Award for the body of his work in 1999, just as a few years ago in 2010, Walter Dean Myers was honored at the Coretta Scott King/American Library Association conference with the inaugural Virginia Hamilton Lifetime Achievement Award.

Finally, you should know I write some of these posts periodically—as the compulsion takes over—just to remind myself of positive efforts, accomplishments, frameworks, templates, and foundations.
Besides—as my son Jaime taught me years ago—you bop ’til you drop.
The struggle continues.

—Arnold Adoff

virginia hamilton Virginia Hamilton

Fred McKissack Fred McKissack

Leo Dillon  Leo Dillon

Walter Dean MyersWalter Dean Myers

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….

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.

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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

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….

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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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