everything grows with love

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

Archive for Virginia Hamilton

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

On the wings of time….

It’s difficult to believe that on May 26, two years have passed since Leo Dillon died. After more than twenty-five years of close friendship, what can I possibly say about that? And although many years have now passed since I lost Virginia Hamilton, I still find myself wanting to call her when some funny thing happens that would make her laugh. Suddenly, after 37 years of book publishing, I no longer feel that time is an endlessly renewing river. Suddenly those years of memorable moments are beginning to ask to be recorded. When I was working with Jimmy Buffett on A Salty Piece of Land, he said, “It feels as if time is flying by because it is.”  So here is a spot for me to share some snapshots of small events along my editorial journey. I started out this crazy career wearing snakeskin cowboy boots and ridiculously short skirts, and now I’m somebody’s mother…sitting quietly at a computer while my golden retriever sleeps on my feet. All these years of publishing, I have kept what Barry Moser called “day books,” and by now I have shelves of them. They are packed with quotes and snippets of conversations and pasted-in pictures and lots of contract negotiations. They are also overflowing with love. What I feel most today is gratitude. So I hope that comes across as I try to gather a morning here, a dinner there, and wrap my arms around these brilliant, generous, highly creative people who fill my life with such abundance.

June 4, 2012

IMG_5933IMG_5717     Photo of me 1992 by Leo Dillon, taken in the kitchen; and photo of Leo…

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Cover via Amazon

Virginia Hamilton: IN THE BEGINNING: An Editorial Afternoon

It is 1987, and my father is dying of lung cancer. I have taken a leave of absence as Editor-in-Chief at Harcourt to be here with him, in the home where I grew up. He is in the final stages of a brief but highly aggressive  illness, and while he is sleeping, I spread my work out on the family dining room table.

Today I am working on the last pieces of Virginia Hamilton’s In the Beginning: Creation Stories from Around the World, and the book is more profound and beautiful than I could have imagined. When we started this journey, we didn’t have any idea what her research would reveal, and every time I’ve had dinner with Virginia to talk about it, she’s been glowing with some new, wildly imaginative creation story she’s found. The tales are amazing, and they are from all over the world. It’s fascinating to see how people have explained their existence since the beginning of storytelling. She wants to cover tales from every corner of the planet, to keep it balanced and diverse. It is a trick for her to dig up stories from some of these places, and there are also stories that are so x-rated she can’t possibly include them. Some make her laugh. It is not an easy book to write, but it is endlessly fascinating. When she finally makes her choices of the stories she will include, I am stunned by the content.

Cover of

Cover via Amazon

We both see the book as a celebration of human differences as well as all we have in common, and that’s how I am hoping people will approach it. So I am deep in thought, working on the introduction and the flap copy. Virginia and I have been lobbying hard at Harcourt to have Barry Moser’s watercolor illustration of Ra on the jacket. There is quite a bit of resistance, but Virginia and I prevail, and we joke that this will be the first “heavy metal” children’s book cover. Pages of text and illustrations are spread across the big cherry table on this September afternoon, and I’m working away with my favorite pencil.

That is when my mother comes downstairs. Upstairs, in their bedroom, my father, who has always been a big, strong man, has been reduced to 80 pounds. The cancer has spread all over his body, although nobody talks about this. We have been watching the person we love most in the entire world get eaten alive in front of us.

My mother asks me what I’m doing, and I tell her about the book. I need to preface her reaction by telling you that my mother was an intellectual genius who read as many as five newspapers a day, and she did a great deal with her life to enhance the lives of others, primarily as a political activist. She was a woman with vision and courage. But today she is furious that I am doing this book. Livid. She doesn’t want me to work on it at all. When it becomes clear that I am not going to stop working on it, she tells me it is of critical importance that my name won’t be on it–she doesn’t want anyone to know I’ve had any part in it. She is shocked and recoils from the book and the concept, and I still don’t understand why.

“This is how people cope with their difficulties,” she says to me, breaking down. “This is where they get their faith so they can continue to live. And you are making fun of them!” She goes back upstairs to tend to my father. He stopped eating days ago and lies in bed, blinded by the cancer, unable to move or speak, mostly asleep or unconscious. Later, when I take a break and look in on him, my mother is gently holding his hand and reading from the Bible. Does he hear her? Can he feel her hand?

That night I call Virginia and explain to her that we need to change the introduction. And I need to change the flap copy. We need to change the entire approach to the book–the shape of the copy that pulls it together. Because my mother is right. To the people who believe these stories, it is the Truth. We must be extremely careful and respectful. And we must say this. We were never making light of any of the beliefs in the book, but we did not make the point my mother made. Virginia and I talk about it, and we agree, and as a consequence she changes the introduction so this point is made–and made forcefully enough that you can’t miss it.  (I will say, over and over, that one of the great qualities Virginia had as a writer was her willingness to listen, to consider, and to handle suggestions with sheer genius. She enjoyed being challenged and questioned, although she would never agree to make even a slight change if she did not wholeheartedly agree with it.)

At ALA Midwinter, one of the members of the BBYA committee contests the Mayan creation story, saying it can’t be accurate because the Mayans did not have enough wood to put it into their story. This is the kind of thing that is a real challenge, because I have all the research at home from Virginia, and I have all the visual research from Barry Moser. I call each of them and go over the research again, just to be sure. There it is, faxed to me at the hotel. And the nutty thing is this: Virginia didn’t make up this Mayan creation story. The Mayans did. Virginia didn’t put the creation of Wood Man into the story–she just collected it and retold it. But I am a guest, and my role is to listen to the committee and keep my lips zipped. They are kind enough to actually discuss the book a second time, but I leave the room with the clear sense it will be voted down because of this question about the Mayans. I walk back up to my hotel room and ask myself why I am wasting my time with this ridiculous career. I am exhausted, and my shoulders are stooped, and more than anything, I want to give up making books and go home. My beloved dad is dead, and I’m depressed anyway, and after I put the key in my door, there is a phone message that In the Beginning has apparently been chosen as a Newbery Honor Book. After the BBYA discussions, I don’t believe it.

The next morning at the announcements, I find out it is really true. If anything, I’ve been worried the book might be banned. Putting the Judeo-Christian creation story in a collection along with twenty-four other creation tales could be the end of my career, and that has worried me. So the good news is particularly sweet. It was a concept I asked Virginia to tackle, and I run to a phone bank. The committee has already called Virginia, and I call her, too. She’s pleased!  After I congratulate her, I call my mother. As soon as she answers, I burst into tears. “I want to tell Dad,” I sob into the phone. My mother is sweet. “I’m happy for both of us,” she says. She has forgotten the project and her objection to it. Sadly I will soon get a call that she has cancer, too–brain cancer. They will die a little more than a year apart.

And the book? I don’t have to worry that it will be banned. And despite my mother’s protests that day, my name did end up in the book–because it is dedicated to me. And tonight, as I write this so many years later, after both of my parents have been gone for decades, and Virginia has crossed over, too, I smile with the thought that a book with so many gods in it probably had a pretty safe place in the universe all along.

Barry Moser & Van Dyke Parks: JUMP! The Adventures of Brer Rabbit

 

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It is 1985, and I am fascinated by what my husband, Ira Ingber, can do with a guitar. He pulls music out of the air and bends notes into songs that will haunt me for the rest of my life. Today he is on his way to a recording studio in Hollywood, and he wants me to come. His friend, renowned composer Van Dyke Parks, has been commissioned by the North Carolina Symphony to create a body of music that is distinctly American. Parks, who hails from Mississippi, has chosen the subject of Brer Rabbit, and he has built a musical around the rascal trickster. I don’t know a lot about Brer Rabbit except for Disney’s Song of the South, which I saw as a child, but I am about to be educated.

Parks is in the studio and seems to be torturing the singer. She must sing a very challenging song over and over and over and over. She is singing from the point of view of Miss Molly Cottontail, one of Brer Rabbit’s “neighbor ladies,” and that’s probably all you need to know. At any rate, Mo Ostin at Warner Brothers Records is making an album from it (yes, this was the era of albums and record companies, and JUMP! was actually one of the first CDs), and I watch Van Dyke coach the singer to get it exactly the way he wants it. He is hilarious, although he doesn’t seem conscious of that. She is a real pro and keeps belting out this impossible song, and Parks is pacing and saying things like, “I’m not making one dime from this!” in that funny, unforgettable voice of his, and you really have to know him to imagine what I am describing here.

I have just taken the position of Editor, Children’s Books at Harcourt Publishers in San Diego, and I find myself very interested in Parks’s JUMP! The Adventures of Brer Rabbit. (I may be wrong about this, but I think it was Parks’s pal Harry Nilsson who came up with the name Jump! for the project–I’ll have to ask Ira if he remembers. Of course it is the perfect title.) And the music is astounding. I go home thinking that this might be a very good book to create and to publish.

My first stop is the San Diego Library. Harcourt is located in San Diego in 1985, and I am commuting from Santa Monica where I live with Ira to San Diego so I can acquire, edit, and publish children’s books. I ask the librarian if they have a copy of Joel Chandler Harris’s Uncle Remus: His Songs and His Sayings, the famous collection of Brer Rabbit stories, and she hunts it down for me. It is a massive book, and the copyright page says it was published in 1881, although that is not entirely accurate. The librarian looks at the paper glued in the back of the book and tells me it has not been checked out for eight years.

During the Civil Rights Movement, which was during my era, Brer Rabbit was one of the babies thrown out with the bath water, and there are good reasons for it. But the stories themselves are absolutely wonderful. I stop by two bookstores on my way back to work, and I ask the buyer at each store if he would consider buying a book of five stories about Brer Rabbit. “Absolutely not!” they both tell me emphatically. The Rab, as Parks calls him, is persona non grata. He has become a symbol of racism. And the more stories I read, and the more I learn about Harris and how he collected them after the Civil War, and how they came with slaves from Africa who brought little more than their stories…well, it is all very powerful, and storytelling is one of the best ways people communicated in those days. If they wanted to make a comment about someone, that person might come out as a character in a funny animal story told for the amusement of the community. As well, storytelling was the source of entertainment–and Brer Rabbit is the good guy, the little, oppressed character who outwits the bigger animals in every single tale but one.  Brer Bear and Brer Fox are always after him, but Brer Rabbit wins again and again, usually making it clear that his adversaries may be large, but they’re no match for his smarts.

Harris is both applauded and deeply criticized for the way he gathered the tales, wrote them in his own interpretation of African American colloquial speech (to use Virginia Hamilton’s phrase), and created a warm, “uncle” slave storyteller who told the tales to a white boy. By doing so, he made these remarkable stories acceptable and popular to a broad white audience, who loved them. Those who admire him are also grateful that he recorded stories that might have disappeared during post-Civil War times, thus preserving an important page in American history to say nothing of world literature.  One of the complexities of the Brer Rabbit stories told in Harris’s voice (where he tried to mimic the speech of the original teller) is that you cannot talk about slavery without talking about shame. The fabric of the tales, the blood and pain that shaped them, is steeped in human suffering. All of this, and much more, must somehow be fed into the book. Van Dyke asks his friend, book critic Malcolm Jones, to help with the project and to write an introduction that addresses these issues in a way that will inform children and their parents without weighing down the exuberance of the stories.

Van Dyke and I work on the manuscript. We sit on his front steps or in his living room in Hollywood while his two children run around. It’s a fun and funny and extremely interesting project and process. We decide to choose five of the best stories for the book, but we will leave out the most famous one, the story about the Tar Baby, because it has too much luggage, and if we are lucky enough to do a second book, we can publish it there.

One of the first decisions is to get rid of the framework Harris invented to tell the Brer Rabbit stories. That was the character of an African American slave, Uncle Remus, who happily told these stories to a young white boy. It is the seeming cheerfulness of the slave that is offensive and unrealistic in 1985. Without it, the Rab is back to belonging to the original tellers. So we peel off the framework, and Parks steers me through the stories, staying true to the voices and also drawing upon his Mississippi childhood to know, absolutely, what to keep in and what to take out. He likes the word “segatiate,” and he insists on keeping it in. He likes it so much, in fact, that I write it into the front flap copy. It becomes an asset, not a liability. And the whole manuscript goes that way, with the stories flowing in Van Dyke’s rich Southern voice, and their beauty protected by his deep understanding of the red earth in that place where he was a child.

65587._SX67_SY100_ Mister Van Dyke Parks

As we are working on the manuscript, the “book” for the Broadway musical is also being written, and Tony-Award winner Lewis Allen, who produced Annie and I’m Not Rappaport and a host of Broadway hits is supposed to develop it and bring it to Broadway. I meet Lewis many times in New York, and we have dinner and drinks, and he invites me back stage to various shows, including I’m Not Rappaport, and I bring Virginia Hamilton with me back stage so I can introduce her to Ossie Davis and Hal Linden, who are starring in it. But the project keeps stalling, and Lewis explains to me that this business of Broadway plays is not for New Yorkers or people like me; it is for tourists and visitors who are coming to New York from out of town and want to see a show. That’s who goes to see Annie. He has said he is going to try Jump! out at a small New England theatre, but time passes, and I have the brains to publish the book alone, as its own entity, without tying it to the musical in any way.

Backtrack to the manuscript as all of this is going on, because I need the perfect illustrator. One always does. I start my search with Maurice Sendak because I know he loves theatre, and Lewis says there is a possibility of having Sendak design the sets for the show. I send it to Sendak, and (this shows you how long ago it was) in doing so, I go to a place where they send documents using something called a fax. I fork over the manuscript, and the gentleman behind the desk feeds the pages into a machine. I don’t recall why, but it is imperative that Maurice Sendak must get this manuscript on this particular day, not a day later. And I keep questioning the gentleman about the newfangled machine. “You mean you put it in there, and then it magically shows up in Connecticut?” I keep asking. A courier will pick it up at another fax machine in Connecticut and drive it over to Maurice’s home. The man is patient with me and assures me that yes, this is precisely what is going to happen. And I believe him, and sure enough, Maurice gets the manuscript, and I continue to be baffled about how it all happened.

Yes, he would like to illustrate the book if he can also do the sets for the show. But again, Lewis is stalling. I am very young, and I do not know how difficult it is to get a Broadway show produced–how much money and commitment it takes, and how rarely it actually happens, despite many good intentions. So, as the months pass, I have to give up on Maurice Sendak. And when he and I have the conversation that he is going to move on, I remember feeling so depressed at my San Diego desk, with this wonderful, funny manuscript in front of me, and no idea who could visually bring it to life. Maurice suggests a number of people who are similar to A.B. Frost, who made the original engravings, but alas, Maurice tells me, they are all dead.

It is Maria Modugno, the manager of Children’s Books at Harcourt at that time, who shows me the wood engravings of Barry Moser. She shows me Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, which has won the National Book Award, and an editor of adult books, who ran the paperback publishing program at Harcourt at the time, is her friend and is very hot on Barry Moser. She is not suggesting him for this book. She just thinks I might be interested in Moser’s wood engravings, and she is absolutely right. To illustrate this lively, funny, Southern collection of Brer Rabbit tales with wood engravings in our children’s picture book form would be the kiss of death.

I look at Barry Moser’s work, and it is exquisite for a thousand reasons. His use of space, his design sense, his acute sensibilities, and his dark side might be perfect for a new telling of “Beauty and the Beast,” I am thinking. So I get his number from the adult editor, and I give him a call.

Although he is painfully polite in terms of his Southern manners, Mr. Moser is not remotely interested in “illustrating a juvenile,” as he puts it. He almost spits the word out. “Jew-ven-eye-al,” he says, enunciating every syllable and coating it with his distaste. I thank him, and I am thinking this is the end of the conversation when he snaps at me, “The only Jew-ven-eye-al I would be willing to illustrate is one that no one will ever publish.”

“What book is that?” I ask.

“Brer Rabbit,” he says.

Pause while I almost swallow my tongue. Even now, decades later, I have to pause when I recall that conversation. I DO NOT WANT WOOD ENGRAVINGS IN THIS BOOK. Yet I feel as if God’s pointer finger has parted the clouds and is directed at the manuscript that is planted in the middle of my desk.

“Mr. Moser, I know you have won the National Book Award, and many, many other prizes. You are internationally famous, and I feel like such a loser asking you this question. I beg for your forgiveness to even ask such a thing, but do you ever paint in watercolors?” I ask.

“I’ve been painting with watercolors my entire life,” he says.

“Because,” I go on, “I have a wonderful manuscript in front of me, and it is by a composer named Van Dyke Parks, adapted from the Joel Chandler Harris tellings of Brer Rabbit stories. It is connected with a Broadway musical that may or may not happen, and the music is being made into a record album by Warner Brothers. But the five stories in this book have to be illustrated in color,” I tell him. “And I feel the size of a worm to ask someone of your accomplishments and stature to do a sample piece of art for me–I am so embarrassed. But I have to see a watercolor to know this is going to work. Again, I am so sorry.”

To make a long story short, I send Barry Moser the manuscript. He loves it. He sends back a watercolor that brings me to my knees. Why? Because I have been researching Harris, and the tales, and the slaves who told them, and their history, and Moser has nailed it to the wall. Bull’s Eye. This is the real deal. It is a colorful character sketch of the rabbit, so perfectly suited to this book and to Harris and to Van Dyke Parks that I almost can’t believe what I am seeing. Brer Rabbit is in suspenders, and he is sitting on a log, and he is holding a fishing pole. A cigar hangs out of his mouth, and a bottle–moonshine, no doubt–sticks out of his pocket.

The Rab. In all his glory.

The Book Angel has spread her wings and circled above this project and made impossible things happen. Van Dyke is beside himself when I show him. He’s not sure about the sample wood engravings, but the sample watercolor art is utterly convincing, and Parks is a visionary. He knows.

From start to finish, JUMP! will be one of the most important books of my career and one of the most joyous events of my life. And so begins my long and rich friendship with the remarkable Barry Moser, who turns out to be a gentleman in every way, one of the warmest, kindest people on the planet, and a true friend for life.

There is more to this tale, and one of the great things that happened was the reception to the book that held those stories that had been banned for so many years. The critics loved it and showered it with starred reviews, it was an ALA Notable Book, and it sold like hotcakes. The Rab was back, and suddenly a flurry of Brer Rabbit stories cropped up from various publishers.  Barry and I took a trip to “Wren’s Nest,” Harris’s house in Georgia, and I got to see the red clay dirt and the hanging moss and places where these stories were translated by slaves into African American folklore–where the African animals were changed into local animals like foxes and bears and terrapins, and, of course, the rabbit.

Not every book is a miracle. But in my blessed career, a great many of them have been. And JUMP! The Adventures of Brer Rabbit was a startling, thought-provoking journey that sparked so many new and wondrous fires I can’t begin to count them.

For years, I had this quote in a frame over my desk, and now it hangs over my sink at home, where I read it every day. It is the original piece of paper I enlarged and photocopied and hung up at Harcourt while I was working on this book:

“Brer Rabbit say, sezee, ‘Dey’s allers a way, ef not two.’

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.

Cover of

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.

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