everything grows with love

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

Archive for Children’s Books

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.

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     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….

Lois Ehlert: Growing Vegetable Soup

I am very new at my editorial job at Harcourt, located in San Diego, and I am in New York, making the rounds to meet people. One of the stops on my list is Kirchoff & Wohlberg, and we have a nice conversation while I look at portfolios. I am almost out the door when a young agent named Liza Pulitzer asks to show me one more thing. She comes back with a bright red dummy that has been made out of that sticky, neon-colored paper that has a really, really strong scent of adhesive.

On the center of the cover, boxed in red, is a tomato. The artist has done something with the colors–a slight contrast of the reds and greens, I’m guessing–that makes the cover seem to vibrate the way optical illusions sometimes do…the ones that make your eyes water. The book is called Growing Vegetable Soup, and the graphics are arresting. I love it.

The dummy is complete–an entire book, finished–and the writer/illustrator’s name is Lois Ehlert. I am told she lives in Milwaukee. I can see the book is going to have to be rearranged a bit, and some things will have to change, but I am enchanted. The bright colors, the bold, sunny graphics, the simple language…all of it speaks directly to my senses. A child and parent are going to plant a vegetable garden, and the artist walks us through the preparations, the care of the plants, and the harvest. Then it’s time to make vegetable soup! My entire childhood, my dad and I planted a vegetable garden every spring. Among other things, I was in charge of keeping the lines of seeds straight, but inevitably when the lettuce came up, the line zig-zagged in a crazy way, and it was a task to keep the rabbits out. I know I will have great fun with this book, and so will children and parents and teachers.

It is the second book I acquire for Harcourt, after Jump! The Adventures of Brer Rabbit, which is the first. Later I will find out that this lively little book has been rejected by something like eight different publishers, and that is a testament (like Harry Potter) to the fact that editors and publishers have wildly different taste in books. It’s legend now that a dozen or more editors rejected Harry Potter, but one, Barry Cunningham, liked it and published it. “No” is terribly discouraging, but it only takes one “yes”–and how critical it is that writers find editors and publishers who are passionately in love with that writer’s work. I am a writer, too, now, and I am currently learning this from the writer’s side of the desk…another story for another day.

I fly to Milwaukee to meet Lois Ehlert. She is warm and highly creative, and she is dressed like her book–in bright colors that are unexpected but add up to a feeling of energy and good spirit. It turns out she loves gardening, and this will lead to other books on the subject: Planting a Rainbow, which will follow Growing Vegetable Soup, and later, when my parents die, a book I will always connect to them, to the land where I grew up, and to my childhood filled with trees: Red Leaf, Yellow Leaf. That will be my last children’s book season before I leave to work at Scholastic. My friend and colleague (and former editorial assistant) Allyn Johnston will become Lois’s editor, and it is a match made in heaven for both of them.

But back to Growing Vegetable Soup. So Lois, I come to discover, goes around Milwaukee like a spy and secretly plants bulbs in the city. Then, in the spring, they pop up in their bright colors and surprise everyone. She is the Robin Hood of tulips and daffodils, as filled with promise, hope, and optimism as spring itself.

She is unusual in many ways, but it is extremely helpful that she cuts and pastes a complete dummy and sends it in that way. It’s a lot easier to work on the book having such a clear road map.  I get to see her studio, and the big sheets of blank paper where she is drawing the outlines for the finishes. She has an exhaustive collection of that sticky colored paper in every possible color, and she constantly experiments with how one color changes the dynamic of the color next to it as well as the entire page. I know it will be some trick to reproduce this complex level of collage, because the separator wraps the art around a huge metal drum to shoot it, and that creates shadows with collage. (Again, it was a long time ago, and we had many constraints–such as the size of the art itself–which do not exist in this digital age of PhotoShop and instant art reproduction. To get those neon colors that gave Lois’s books so much zing, we sometimes added fluorescent inks–which, I was told, would fade over time, although the basic color would not. I doubt if those inks are even legal now because of possible contaminated substances, a consideration that would not have even occurred to us back then.)

Throughout my career, I have had single books I call “trouble magnets” because if something can go wrong, it will go wrong with that particular book. Growing Vegetable Soup is something of a trouble magnet in-house in that weird and bizarre things happen with it. Nothing that involves Lois, but events that set my hair on end. For example. the designer pastes up type with uneven letter spacing and word spacing. We are not in the era of computer design; everything is cut and pasted on mechanicals by hand. Type is generated and purchased, and I guess that day the type machine went whango. The result is a set of mechanicals with some words jammed together and others floating along with too much space. We have decided to enter the modern era and send the book to print in South China rather than in the U.S. where we are doing all our other books, so the schedule moves up dramatically, and I am told I will have to live with this horrific type because there is not enough time to change it. I pitch an absolute fit that gets me sent down to Human Resources for a lecture on cooperation, but my fit is insistent enough that the spacing is corrected. Then, on the way from South China, a boat sinks, and an entire print run goes down with the ship. Can you believe it?

The response to Growing Vegetable Soup is immediate and very positive. Lois Ehlert’s sunny little book instantly sells out its modest first print run of ten thousand copies, and then it’s out of stock and backordered for what seems like forever.

It’s a sweet book to publish, with a very sweet author. Looking back (I haven’t worked at Harcourt for more than two decades), I’m guessing cumulative sales of that book must be in the millions. Which makes me smile. I have my own tattered first printing, and it was always one of my favorite books to give as a gift. Lois continues to write and illustrate books that delight children, and many years later, after I’ve moved to Scholastic, I still get to see her popularity in the book clubs and book fairs–which means thousands of teachers and children are celebrating Lois Ehlert every time the book box arrives in their classrooms.

Cover of "Growing Vegetable Soup (Voyager...

Cover of Growing Vegetable Soup (Voyager Books)

Growing Vegetable Soup. It makes me happy–and hungry–just thinking about it!

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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