The little girl who asked me the question was a first-grader then. Assuming she is still alive, she's 36 or so, probably with children of her own.
But our paths crossed just the one time. That was in 1982, in Atlanta, Georgia. I came to her class as a visiting writer. So I know her only as a six-year-old, and only from one interaction. In my mind she is today exactly what and who she was then: an adorable, very solemn little girl, with light brown skin and black hair caught back with pink barrettes.
The reason she's in my mind today has to do with children books and their illustrations. I have a new children's book, All the Awake Animals (Are Almost Asleep), coming out about a year from now, which will be illustrated by David McPhail. I am so delighted with what I have seen of the pictures so far that I have posted a few of them on Facebook. Which prompted a comment that reverbed me back to that little girl's question.
All the Awake Animals is my first new children's book to be released in almost a decade (for reasons I describe on a video here, made at a talk I gave about a week after the book was accepted by Little, Brown… and in which I slip up in a ridiculous way at the end).
I am loving working with Little, Brown's Andrea Spooner, Senior Executive Editor of Books for Young Readers. She is one of the most attentive and respectful editors I have ever had; even when the discussion runs to, say, at what time of day and in what manner a vole, otter, lion, yak, walrus — shown here catching "forty wet winks" after "wading into the waves"— or an urubu actually sleeps. (An urubu is an African vulture; few animals start with "u".)
The book begins:
My little one,
Lay down your head
It's time for sleep
It's time for bed
You tell me,
"I'm not sleepy now,"
"Just try," I say.
You ask me, "How?"
After a few more exchanges, the mother takes the child on a slow, dreamy visit to 26 different animals, all in various stages of snooze or near-snooze. They go animal by animal, one for each letter of the alphabet, from Antelope ("asleep all the way to his antlers" ) to Zebra (who "just zzzzzzzs…") before returning to a final dozy reiteration of rhyme.
Andrea took a lot of time finding just the right artist, and she is taking a lot of time working with him, and me. In 40 years of working with different publishers, I can remember no other children's book editor who has ever involved me quite so much in the selection of the artist, and has engaged me so thoughtfully in discussing the pictures and my reactions to them.
Nor, for that matter, has that happened with any cookbook editor/art director (for non-photographic cookbooks, too, have 'spot art' and 'chapter openers' and while they are less essential than in a children's book, and though the reader may be only aware of them peripherally, these illustrations either do or do not enhance the words and recipes).
Yet this indirect collaboration I'm now experiencing with David is so good! It's so easy! It's so much fun! I wonder why, in general, there seems to be, in many editors' minds, a separation-of-church-and-state thing about writers and illustrators?
At any rate, I am deeply grateful. And, as I see the watercolors David is doing, I am delighted; exhilarated, even. Though perhaps that's not quite the right word, for the pictures are sleepy, cozy, dozy, soporific. You can hardly look at them and not start yawning, like yak is doing here: just what you want in a goodnight book.
Yet their perfection does exhilarate me. They are luminous and tender, but not anthropomorphic or cute. The textures — of the animals' fur, feathers, hides, tusks — are so vivid I can imagine children stroking the paper to feel them, and growing puzzled that they can see but not touch the softness or roughness. The backgrounds are soft, impressionistic dreamscapes, suffused with soft light; light which makes shadows, refracts on water, or pierces clouds.
As I say, I am so delighted with these pictures that I have been sharing a few of them, as they progress, on Facebook. First the sketches, now the almost-finished drawings / paintings. And my Facebook pals — many of whom are readers, parents or grandparents, or artists themselves — are also enthusiastic, and many have been commenting on them too.
It is in this context that Cathy Smith, who blogs marvelously at "Growing Curious", and who farms, cans and preserves at Curious Farm and sells at local farmer's markets in her area, just outside of Portland, Oregon, asked me
what is it like to have your story brought into the visual realm by someone else? since you're so comfortable in this publishing world, do you just go with the flow at this point, or does it stop your heart sometimes?"
Let's leave aside the fact that I don't think I or anyone else is exactly "comfortable" in the publishing world. Which is not only changing at this moment with dizzying rapidity technologically, but which has always been at least anecdotally on the verge of collapse, for as long as I can recall.
I still remember my mother, the writer-editor Charlotte Zolotow, who was active during the period which, we can say in retrospect, truly was children's book publishing's golden age, muttering darkly and scornfully about Harper & Row being taken over by "the Harvard MBA's" and "the eleventh floor" — synonyms for management.
"Can you imagine?" she said once at the dinner table, indignantly, when I was young. "They want me to do something called an ROI!" "What's an ROI?" I asked; I was maybe 10 or 11. "I didn't know either, honey," said my mother. "It's — " she could hardly splutter it out — "It stands for return on investment!"
"Well, what's that?" I asked.
And thus, in what was said and the tone in which it was said, and what was not said, I learned business 101; and that it was implicitly in conflict with art, beauty, and purpose. I'm still trying to undo the imprinting on that one. I would like to break the paradigm/archetype of the impoverished artist or writer who lives in the garret. I would like to think that Mammon and the Muse can sit down and have at least an occasional cup of amicable tea, and some hot buttered scones, together.
Don't worry, I'm getting back to that little girl in Atlanta.
My fourth or fifth picture book, Katie in the Morning, was given to a very young artist who had never illustrated a book before. This was in 1982/ Full-color illustrations were rarely done at the time; instead, colors were made using transparent overlays, a very tricky business, and in the hands of someone who didn't know what they were doing, could very easily result in muddied, unsatisfying hues. This artist's inexperience showed, and did not, I thought and still think, do justice to its text.
But justice… who are we, finally, to say what it is and isn't? For, here's a remarkable thing about the present era's access to information: I'd forgotten the name of the woman who did those illustrations, so I went downstairs to get a copy of the book (and, yes, the pictures seemed every bit as unappealing to me as they always had).
But… I Googled her. And there she was: Betsy Day, Illustrator. And my-oh-my has she ever matured as an artist! Take a look at those dancing chickens, for example, on her website. She does gallery work, too, and she's written and illustrated one title, Stefan & Olga, left and above.
But, though I didn't care for her work on Katie in the Morning back in 1981, on reflection it is good that Harper & Row (this was before they were Collinized, as I like to say) took a chance on Betsy. Their doing so helped enable her to develop into the artist she has become. That is, one might say, a truly good ROI, with, perhaps, a whiff of "justice" in a cosmic sense. Yes, I wish they'd asked her to redo Katie, or … Well, but I've lived long enough, now, to know that I haven't a clue as to the really big picture. I've kissed the dream of understanding why fully, about much of anything, goodbye.
Here's a slightly expanded version of how I answered Cathy Smith, on Facebook: I told her that when I had disliked the art that had been chosen for me, and about which I'd had no say,
… it was, and sometimes is, pretty unhappy-making. Some editors ask for and welcome feedback which they transmit, politely and kindly, one hopes, to the artist. Some do not. If I can have a beneficial effect and help improve, from my perspective, the fit of the art to the text, I do… If not, and I truly dislike the art, generally what I do is get very disturbed and unhappy about it, cry some, and then live with it. I get over stuff pretty fast. There are only a couple of books where I feel the pictures were truly disastrous; after all, the publisher, too, wants the books to be good as a whole and they do try hard, if sometimes misguidedly, to get the appropriate illustration. There was also one in which I really didn't like the mood of the pictures, though they were good — just so not what I would have chosen.
That book was Bat in the Dining Room, well-executed by S.D. Schindler in a funny, cartoony style. These pictures are charming in their own way, I think now; I probably would have enjoyed them in someone else's book, or even a different one of my own. But in this one, I so wanted the mystery and wonder of night, such as Jerry Pinkney had created so rapturously in my Half a Moon and One Whole Star, and later, in his own recent retelling of Twinkle Twinkle Little Star. Though I never truly loved the pictures in Bat, I eventually came to peace with that one more easily than I did those of Katie in the Morning, which made me wince, and still do.
(If you should read this, Betsy, I'm sorry. Truly, I am. But I'm guessing you wince, too, as I do over some of my own early work. I hope we both accept these things as part of the process; impersonal, implacable, difficult, with exuberance and disappointment in something like balanced measurement. We must, though maybe it's presumptuous of me to say so: but we're both working artists, who've been at it awhile. And if we didn't get that this is how it is, often uncomfortably, we would've surely given up, no?)
Katie had come out around the time I paid the visit to that first grade class in Atlanta. Though I think children in 3rd, 4th, and 5th grade get much more out of a writer's visit than those kids in earlier grades (who still aren't too clear on the whole concept of "author" generally — and why should they be, they're in the psychedelic, improbable mystery of being so young that anything… could turn out to be anything!), of course schools always want you to at least pop in and read a book to the youngest students.
And of course I always ask if there are any questions; though at that age, there usually aren't. It's more like, "Does anyone have any questions?" and a small face will look up earnestly and say, "I have a cat."
But that particular morning, that little girl in Atlanta did have a question. A real question, and, as I have said, she asked it with solemnity and gravitas. Her manner made me wonder later if she, literal as all children are, had perhaps been puzzling over it for weeks, as I remember puzzling over why "witches" were in the Pledge of Allegiance. ("And to the Republic, for witches stand…")
"Do you believe," that little girl asked me, "that it's true that you really can't judge a book by its cover?"
This was a question I had never been asked before, or for that matter since.
I thought about it.
"Well, " I finally said, thinking of Katie, "I wrote a story once that I really liked, but I didn't really like the pictures. So I guess, if you picked up that book, and you looked at the cover, and you put it down without reading the words because you thought the cover was ugly, I think you would have judged the book by its cover and made a mistake. So, yes, I think it is true that you can't judge a book by its cover."
Judging. These days I try to replace judging, and certainty, both of which are fixed and static, with curiosity and inquiry, both of which move, change, and flow. As life itself does, and with it, our perspective.
I would have sworn, based on those long-ago illustrations of Katie in the Morning, that Betsy Day had just called it quits. I am so deeply glad that this not the case, that she has grown into her talent, and her talent continues to grow.
And I am glad that I tell students in Fearless Writing that every piece of writing is essential to the writer, regardless of whether it works as a piece or not: because this is true. Seeming unsuccess is as important as seeming success in our lives, as artists and as human beings.
And I love the mysterious fact that somewhere, out there, is a 36-year-old woman who has no clue, no clue at all, that she lives forever as a child in the mind of a woman of whom she almost certainly holds not the faintest memory.
And I am glad my mother, now 96, who has now completely forgotten Harper & Row, was once so deeply passionate about books and art.
And I am glad that I neither accepted nor rejected her scathing views on ROI's, but continue to wrestle with them (a match I think is now taking place on the international level, with the Occupy Wall Street movement, by the way; in essence, can there be enlightened, good for people-planet-and-profitable capitalism, or not? "People" presumably including artists and writers and those who self-nourish from seeing or reading their work.)
And I am glad to be witnessing David McPhail's illustrations move from sketches to completion: more flow and process. This is the best part of "what is it like to have your story brought into the visual realm by someone else" — the art doesn't just 'illustrate' what you've put there but expands the story, in a way that is both compatible and surprising. I am amazed and delighted to see David's insertion of what my mother used to call "a visual sub-plot" — in this case, the animals creeping to the now-sleeping child's bedroom window and peeping in.
Why are they there, those animals? To listen to the story the mother is telling, about them? Because, to them, a little boy is exotic and strange? Or perhaps they are not "really" there; perhaps the sleepy child is "only" imagining them. Who knows? I don't, and neither will the book's young readers. And this isecond story is what the artist has added, layering what I wrote with his own, subtly mysterious and charming.
And what expression is on the faces of those animals as the gaze into the window of the sleeping human child, jaguar hanging upside down to do so? Perhaps they gaze with longing? Perhaps curiosity? Maybe.
But, I think, certainly not with judgment.
You can't judge life by how it looks and feels at any given time; that is only its cover.
You have to open it up.