everything grows with love

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

Archive for Harcourt

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!

Leo & Diane Dillon: The Heart with Wings

My love for Leo and Diane Dillon is so deep it is woven through the fabric of my entire being, and when I try to find words to explain it, I don’t know where to begin. My trust and faith in them is such a part of who I am that I don’t know if I could publish books without them. Leo died in May, and I have not accepted that yet. He was, with Diane, my mentor and soul mate for almost three decades. When I try to write about it today, the words elude me. I am reminded of the last page of Norman Maclean’s A River Runs Through It. “‘It is those we live with and love and should know who elude us.’/ Now nearly all those I loved and did not understand when I was young are dead, but I still reach out to them…. /Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world’s great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of the rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs./I am haunted by waters.”

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So I will begin at the beginning, on a cold New York City day in 1987, when we are supposed to meet at Cafe des Artistes, and I am running down a street in my short black skirt, ripped black sweatshirt, velvet-trimmed black wool coat, and an off-white scarf woven by my great grandmother that is really a shawl, and it is so long I wrap it around my neck and it still drapes down to my feet. My hair is long, and in my right ear I have earrings made of bones and beads, and in my left ear I have only three studs. That is the rock ‘n roll fashion. My black suede heels are from the 40s, from the same vintage shop as my coat, and I am terrified because I am dressed like the wife of a rock musician–which is what I am–rather than dressed like a publishing executive–which is what I also am. I have never met the Dillons, and I don’t think they will like the rockstar wife blowing into their lunch. They are hugely famous and distinguished in my field of children’s books. I desperately want to work with them on a particular project I’ve cooked up, and I do not have time to take a cab back to the Algonquin to change into more appropriate clothes. I am already on the edge of running late.

I give up on the Algonquin idea and decide this will just have to be another low point in my career, and they will think I am fluff and flighty, which goes with the fact that I live in Santa Monica with my guitarist/songwriter husband, Ira Ingber, who tours with bands like the Eagles and Rita Coolidge and writes songs for Bob Dylan and Bonnie Raitt and Joe Cocker, to name a few. I whoosh into the restaurant on the heels of a big gust of wind, and there, at a table against the wall, is Leo Dillon.

Click.

I know from the moment I see the man, from the first time I set eyes on him, that he will be one of the most important people in my entire life, and I am dead right about that. I sit down, apologize for the way I look, and without any pretty introductions, we launch into a discussion of what I can only describe as the many masks of God and the broad things people have dreamed up to try to capture God in words and stories, and it is a kind of Joseph Campbell investigation, and then Diane Dillon walks in the door and joins us. She, also, sends an arrow straight into my heart, and they will be my friends and partners in book creation as long as we live. Good times, joyful times, frustrating times, horrible times, we are connected for life.

How about that?

So it is fitting, in 1992, when I begin building the Blue Sky Press at Scholastic Inc., that the first people who join up are Leo and Diane–and Virginia Hamilton, who actually was the first. And when the company does not like Angel City Books, my name for the imprint, but agrees to The Blue Sky Press, I am OK with that name as long as the logo is a heart with wings. Because the heart with wings will say it all. And Leo and Diane draw the logo. I have their original drawing hanging on the door of my home office. If you look at it closely, it is clearly their work.

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By the time I start Blue Sky, we have already published Leontyne Price’s Aida and Nancy Willard’s Pish, Posh, Said Hieronymous Bosch at Harcourt.

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We launch Blue Sky with Nancy’s The Sorcerer’s Apprentice and will go on to publish a stunning and powerful body of work,

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including many books the Dillons will write themselves, such as Jazz on a Saturday Night and Rap a Tap Tap: Here’s Bojangles, Think of That! There will be collaborations with Virginia such as Her Stories and The Girl Who Spun Gold, a miraculous picture book that shows a broad range of art styles as it reveals the span of human emotion in To Every Thing There Is a Season, which for me is partially an attempt to make a book that can help people through grief. Leo and Diane helped me through the loss of my parents, as they help me through everything that happens in my tangled life. They still do. In my bedroom I have two black-and-white photographic portraits Leo took of me more than twenty years ago at their kitchen table, which is where we have shared endless meals and discussions that have gone late, late, late into the night, talking about life, death, love, family, politics, writing, and–most of all–art.

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Cover of The Girl Who Spun Gold

Cover of

Cover of To Every Thing There Is A Season

Today I will call Diane and check in with her to say hello and see how she’s feeling. We both have birthdays coming up. Last week she sent me the last pieces we needed to discuss for If Kids Ran the World, which is the picture book she was working on with Leo when he had to pause to have his unexpected surgery. The paintings are fanciful and light-hearted, and they leave me breathless. Leo caught a staph infection in the hospital after his surgery, if you are wondering why he died. Do I sound angry? I am.

Cover of

Cover via Amazon

When things have been rocky, Leo always said the same thing. “Just do the work.” It is a refrain that has enabled me–and countless others, I’m sure–to drop my resentment about the sticky mess of corporate encounters and instead push it aside so I can focus on the books in front of me. They are ultimately what feed my soul, not the clapping of critics or the encouragement of some publishing executive. It always comes back to the books. Always. The Dillons have always been Teddy Roosevelt’s “Man in the Arena,” and in everything they do, they dare greatly. Which is not to say that critics understand it. A lot of the time they don’t. “Just do the work” is an antidote for the people who will always feel more comfortable with the art on Hallmark cards than they do with a multicultural book that challenges

Cover of

Cover via Amazon

the reader the way To Every Thing There Is a Season inevitably does.

There is no tidy way of ending this essay by putting my relationship with Leo and Diane into a neat little gift box to display, and there is so much more to say about the limitless genius, kindness, and generosity of these artists that I will continue to write about them. More than anything, I feel enormous gratitude for the opportunity and the blessing of having them beside me all these years. Together and apart, they are the rock foundation upon which everything else has been built…my roots, my heart, my wings.

Art from the book Leo & Diane Dillon were finishing up last May; I'll be publishing this in Fall 2014.

Art from the book Leo & Diane Dillon were finishing up last May; I’ll be publishing this in Fall 2014.

NANCY WILLARD: The High Rise Glorious Skittle Skat Roarious Sky Pie Angel Food Cake

When Nancy Willard picks up a pen, wings flutter in Heaven, and a circle of delighted angels begin quilting with their magic needles. What is spun out into the world through their collaboration with Nancy is lighter than air. I love many, many books by Nancy–all of them, in fact–and one of my favorites is a story she sent me when I was editing and publishing books at Harcourt: The High Rise Glorious Skittle Skat Roarious Sky Pie Angel Food Cake.

Cover of

Cover via Amazon

In this perfectly written story, a girl wants to make her mother a birthday present, and although she has some earthly ideas, she remembers the tale of a unique cake baked by her grandmother in childhood–a cake her mother loved and has always longed to eat again. In addition to its heavenly flavor, a golden thimble is always found in the cake. But where to find the recipe? The girl goes to great lengths to follow clues until she indeed finds the mysterious recipe in order to give her very nice mother a very special birthday gift.

She carefully gathers the ingredients and follows the recipe’s directions–which include writing EVOL in the sugar with her finger, something I still do when I’m making pancakes for my son. Behold, as the cake is baking, the kitchen is scented with a fragrance so delicious the moon must certainly tilt in its orbit. What happens is unexpected, but the scene is written so flawlessly that it rings completely true. Three angels appear in the girl’s kitchen, drawn by the scent of the baking cake. And to the girl’s dismay, they each gently but firmly want a slice–a substantial slice–of that High Rise Glorious Skittle Skat Roarious Sky Pie Angel Food Cake. (How do you say no to three angels?)

I’m not telling the story well–my pen is not guided by angels tonight, and writing about Nancy’s flawless fiction feels lumpy and inadequate. But in the end, after the angels have devoured the entire cake with great happiness and satisfaction, the girl wakes up with no present to give her beloved mother. She only had enough ingredients to bake one cake. With great angst and disappointment she watches her father give a satisfactory gift to her mother, but now it is her turn, and she is empty handed.

That is when the scent of a baking cake flows out of the kitchen, and to the girl’s surprise, a heavenly cake is in the oven, ready to be sliced and eaten. Her mother is delighted beyond words. As they all are amazed and thrilled by the delicious High Rise Glorious Skittle Skat Roarious Sky Pie Angel Food cake, the girl finds the golden thimble has been tucked in her slice of cake. Somewhere in Heaven the angels are surely fanning their wings with pleasure…to have Nancy Willard tell their story so well.

It has been many, many years since I published that story, and Richard Jesse Watson’s beautiful but unconventional paintings added just the right splash of quirky energy to a tale that defied illustration, as most of Nancy’s stories do. (Who can illustrate the writing of an angel?)

This week, when my employer insisted I empty my storage space, I spent three days sifting through publishing memories I wasn’t expecting, and one of them was opening a dusty box that was filled with carefully wrapped, fragile gifts made for me by writers and illustrators over the years. I carefully removed brown paper from a small, hand-painted oven made by Nancy, with a glittering cake inside, of course. Her kindness, generosity, and sheer genius are so powerful they bring me to tears. This is the deep, razor-sharp pain I feel about children’s book publishing these days. Big publishing corporations no longer acquire angelic books of this nature because they assure us they can not sell them, and the loss to the world of children’s literature is devastating. Nancy WIllard’s extraordinary books all deserve to be in print and deserve to be delighting audiences, from her Newbery Medal-winning A Visit to William Blake’s Inn (which I did not publish) to The High Rise Glorious Skittle Skat Roarious Sky Pie Angel Food Cake; Pish, Posh, Said Hieronynomous Bosch; The Sorcerer’s Apprentice; Cinderella’s Dress; Beauty and the Beast; An Alphabet of Angels; and The Flying Bed, which I did publish. I suppose it is a miracle that any intelligent book stays in print these days when the public is clamoring for TV tie-ins, and I’m guessing the word “poetry” nowadays sends people running away in fear. (It certainly sends publishers running.) Let’s face it, today so much depends on having the “right” cover and a mesmerizing topic that doesn’t take any risks or chances. How do we keep the light alive in ourselves and in our children? How do we protect and preserve the books that shine the light we need as a healthy, loving culture?

But back to the miracle of this wonderful book, published back in the time when such a unique, unconventional story was one of an ocean of highly creative books that were  embraced and marketed enthusiastically…and sold lots of copies and got into the hands of people who read and treasured them. This book was applauded and was chosen by Walden Books (one of the three big chains at the time) as one of their two “favorite children’s books to sell” of the year.

I see, as I write these pieces, that each book is inevitably tied to my own personal experiences during the time I was working on the project, and that is true of The High Rise Glorious Skittle Skat Roarious Sky Pie Angel Food Cake. The night before my mother had brain surgery, I had the manuscript of this book in my bag in her room at the hospital. I read her the story, and of course she loved it, with the part of her brain that could still listen to stories–she always loved poetry, especially. The next day, after the surgeon left–quietly and impersonally telling my sisters and me that the cancer he’d found in Mom’s head was the “astro” kind, called that because it grows so fast–I kissed my mom and gave her the good news that the doctor had found something very surprising in her head. It was the golden thimble in Nancy’s story. At first she looked confused, but then she laughed. Thank you, Nancy Willard.

I have the painting of the golden thimble in my dining room, and tomorrow I will carefully fix the cracked leg on the magical oven Nancy made for me all those years ago. It belongs in a place where I will see it every day. If nothing else comes from the sadness of having to give away 36 years of books, the joy of finding Nancy’s lost oven will make up for it.

Nancy Willard, Leo & Diane Dillon, David Shannon, Mark Teague, Molly Bang, Jane Yolen, Rodman Philbrick, Don & Audrey Wood: You are the light. You are not the lamp or the electricity or the bulb. You are the light. 

What a fearsome beauty and responsibility it feels this late night to have been given the gift of being one of the guardians of that light.

In eight days I will celebrate my 58th birthday. I think I will ask my son to help me make an angel food cake. After all, it has always been my favorite. Who knows? The Book Angel hangs out in my back yard, and miracles happen every day. We will read Nancy’s picture book, and I will tell my son about the grandmother he never had the good fortune to meet, and the golden thimble. I will have a loving day, but at the end of it, I will be sure to begin this new year of my life with my favorite lines at the end of a different story by Nancy Willard:

“He whose face gives no light will never become a star.” –William Blake

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