Monthly Archives: May 2012

Ellen Levine and Leo Dillon

It has been a tough few weeks. In addition to the loss of so many bright lights of the children’s literature world, a colleague who came to my school the same year I did, passed away yesterday after a very brief illness.

I was fortunate enough to have met Ellen Levine several times as we both lived in New York City and our paths would occasionally cross at children’s literature events. But I knew her work long before that as so many books of hers are staples in my 4th grade classroom. Favorites that I use yearly include If Your Name was Changed at Ellis Island, I Hate English, and Henry’s Freedom Box. What a loss of a remarkable woman. Here are some obituaries and remembrances I’ve come across:

And then there is the loss of Leo Dillon. I remember first encountering the work of Leo and Diane Dillon with their second book, Ashanti to Zulu: African Traditions and then was always delighted when I came across another of their works either as a fully illustrated book for children or as a book cover. Their style was unique, gorgeous, and remarkable.  And so it was quite wonderful when I met them in person at the A is for Anansi conference at couple of years ago and was able to express my admiration directly. Here are some of the many obituaries and tributes I’ve come across:

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The World of Children’s Literature Has Just Lost Another Great One, Peter D. Sieruta

The Internet is many things, one of the best being the way we can get to know people virtually, people who may be far from us physically, but close to us in terms of interests and ideas.  I’ve gotten to know many wonderful people this way, one of them the incomparable Peter D. Sieruta who passed away yesterday far too soon. I remember first coming across Peter via some witty articles* in the Horn Book Magazine, perhaps his 2005 piece, “10 Things that Piss Me Off!” in which he nailed many still-festering problems we see today in children’s book publishing (say supersized books). And so I was delighted when he started his own blog with the simple title, “Collecting Children’s Books,” a title that only touched upon the range, wit, and intelligence that was within. I learned to wait eagerly for Peter’s Sunday Brunches, his April 1 posts, and his many others that addressed topics at a level, degree, and length no one else could do. Having seen the depth of his knowledge and  passion for children’s and YA literature I eagerly awaited his book with Betsy and Jules. Now I do more than ever (and am incomparably saddened at their loss as well as the loss Peter’s friends and family is experiencing) as it will be a way for even more to appreciate and admire this remarkable man. As one small way to memorialize Peter through his own work here are a few links to some of my favorite blog posts of his. Perhaps other faithful readers of Peter’s blog would like to contribute their own favorites here in the comments or elsewhere. His voice will live on.

* ETA Sherry in a comment below pointed us to this delightful 1998 HB piece of Peter’s, “Dear Clueless: The Rejection Letters of Edna Albertson.”

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Interview with Elizabeth Wein

I’ve an interview with Elizabeth Wein, author of the spectacular Code Name Verity, over at the Huffington Post today.  (My review is here.)

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Craft and Commas

I admit that commas flummox me. They feel unduly fussy to me and so when in doubt I leave them out which is probably not a great strategy. And so I’m always interested in anything that can help me use them more effectively, say these posts by English prof Ben Yagoda over at the New York Times’s Draft blog: “Fanfare for the Comma Man*” and “The Most Common Comma Mistakes.”

* Love the correction for this post: “An earlier version of this article misstated the length of time E.B. White wrote for The New Yorker as five centuries.”

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The Irma Black Award

Last Thursday I was checking my various social media sites as I’m wont to do at this hour (early morn) when I came across Bank Street College uber librarian Lisa von Drasek expressing her excitement for that morning’s Irma Black Award ceremony. Despite living nearby I’d never attended because I was always in school, but I happened to be home that morning getting ready for a journey out-of-town and realized with much delight that I could go at last. It was a lovely ceremony and I realized just what a wonderful award the Irma Black is, thoughtfully designed and developed to be truly child-centered. Here’s how the College describes it:

The Irma S. and James H. Black Award is given annually to a book that exemplifies excellence in text and illustration together. The four finalists have been chosen by 3rd and 4th graders from a semifinalist list selected by a committee of educators. The winner receives a gold seal and the other three finalists become honor books with a silver seal.

And now the process is no longer limited to children at the Bank Street school, but can be children from anywhere. Details on how you or your school can participate for the 2013 Award are here.  An excellent curriculum featuring this process is available here. This year Lisa blogged about the selection process at SLJ:

In “How Do We Get to the Four Finalists Part I” she describes how the books are submitted, how she and Kristin Freda, the Bank Street Library Director, read them all, and then how they narrow down the list to approximately 80-100 books.

In “How Do We Get to the Four Finalists Part II” Lisa describes the committee’s process in presenting, considering, debating, and finally voting for sixteen books. These then go to children for the final selection.

The award ceremony on Thursday was lovely.  Paul O. Zelinsky gave a delightful keynote after which the awards were given.

The 2012 winner is:

What Animals Really like, written and illustrated by Fiona Robinson; published by Abrams Books for Young Readers.

The three honor books are:

You Will Be My Friend, written and illustrated by Peter Brown; published by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers.

I Want My Hat Back, written and illustrated by Jon Klassen; published by Candlewick Press.

All the Way to America, written and illustrated by Dan Yaccorino; published by Knopf, Random House Children’s Books.

Want to involve a class of 3rd or 4th graders in a thoughtfully and carefully developed award process?  If so, the Irma Black Award is one to consider.  Congratulations to all involved this year: creators, adult  specialists, and the children most of all!

 

 

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Michael Patrick Hearn on Maurice Sendak

It was at one of the wonderful Children’s Literature New England conferences that I saw Gregory Maguire in conversation with Maurice Sendak, someone who had been so incredibly important to me growing up as a reader (my iconic Sendak childhood works are the Little Bear books), as an aspiring children’s book illustrator (I studied and studied his masterful use of crosshatching), and as a lifelong member of this world of children and their literature (I followed all his work and commentary and learned more every time even if I didn’t always agree with him). It was at another of those conferences that I met children’s literature scholar Michael Patrick Hearn; when he recently expressed to me his own profound sadness on the passing of this man who meant so much to him I offer to post anything he might wish to write. And so here without further ado are his thoughts on Maurice Sendak:

I don’t know why I’m so sad.  I knew it would happen–and soon.  Maurice had not been well for a long time but he somehow survived triple bypass, pneumonia and probably a dozen other ailments that would have been immediately fatal to anyone else.  It was a stroke that did him in.  He even survived The Colbert Report.  He was not going to take any guff and seized control of that show through sheer will. Nobody was going to upstage him!  He always had to be the center of attention.
 
But it was all a performance, a final Oscar-worthy stunt.  I could hear in his voice on the phone how frail he was getting.  Not in his thoughts, never in his thoughts and opinions, just in the articulation.  His mind was as lucid and barbed as ever.  I suspect we got along over the years because I actually listened to him.  Almost every conversation began with the kvetching.  Oh the kvetching!  It was not a word I really knew until I met Maurice Sendak.  He was constantly upset with this and that, with that person and this person.  His anger fueled him.  Look in the dictionary under the noun kvetch and you will find:
  1. A chronic, whining complainer.
  2. A nagging complaint.  
  3. Maurice Sendak, American picture book artist-author.
But once he got that off his chest, he was the funniest person you could ever meet.  Another reason why we got along was we could laugh together.  Not everyone shared his peculiar sense of humor.  Many people took him too damn seriously.  They bored him.  Often he took himself too damn seriously too.  But when he felt comfortable he would say the most outrageous thing and wait for a reaction.  He could not do that with everyone.  He was constantly testing his friends and colleagues and many came up short.
 
It is extraordinary the outpouring of affection for him and from so many people who really did not know him.  Could anyone really know him?  He was so complex and complicated.  His neuroses were endless and fed his art.  He ran hot and cold.  He was constantly making and breaking friendships.  He thought nothing of tossing anyone aside who had unknowingly offended him in some unidentified way. He was in constant fear of betrayal. I never could keep up with all the people he was currently feuding with.  I was never part of the Inner Circle.  I will never know exactly what he thought of me.  Maybe I do not want to know.  I am sure his opinion changed with the weather.  From time to time I would hear second hand the most bizarre things he told others about me.  And I never thought I was that important to him for him to bother gossiping about me.  He loved gossip and to gossip.  Not about himself of course.  I had to be careful with some of the wild stories he related. Many were only to produce an effect, maybe some discomfort or shock.  He loved being the provocateur.
 
He was emotionally needy.  His vast ego demanded constant nurturing and I have never been a master at that.  Maurice was difficult.  God knows he was difficult!  And yet he had the uncanny habit of making complete strangers feel like he was their oldest and dearest friend.  His last self-lacerating conversation with NPR’s Terry Gross is almost unbearable to listen to. He bared his soul to her and she hardly knew him.  He told her such intimate details that I am not sure he was always aware that he was speaking live on the radio.  You can hear in her voice how taken aback she was but she handled it beautifully.
 
He often told me things that were not really any of my business.  He once stopped himself in mid-sentence, “You know I don’t really know you very well.”  Of course that was nearly twenty years after we first met. But knowing me or what I felt or thought was never really an issue with Maurice.   It was always all about him.  Yes, he did want to know my opinions and we often exchanged information.  He was well aware that I wrote on children’s books and he obviously brought me into his confidence to tell me personal things for the record.  A few years ago I went backstage after one of his public presentations to congratulate him and he greeted me with a tirade against another children’s book illustrator in front of everyone else crammed into his dressing room.  He was furious at what the other artist had said about him in The New York Times.  I am not sure why he felt he had to express his outrage to me in particular and in front of all those people.  I was not the other illustrator’s most intimate friend.  Evidently he thought I was.  Maurice continued to stew over the matter and several weeks later he called me up out of the blue to tell me to never, never repeat what he said.
 
Maurice was a connoisseur of illustration and an avaricious collector of original art by artists he admired.  He also envied those he most adored and shamelessly took from them whenever it suited his mood. I was one of the few people he knew who could talk with him about all the obscure illustrators he reveled in.  Awhile back I was offered some unpublished preliminary sketches by Randolph Caldecott for The Queen of Hearts.  I could only afford one so I showed the others to Maurice. “I’m too old to buy anything more,” he moaned.  But he fell in love with a little drawing of the Knave running away with the tarts. He just could not resist it and bought it anyway. 
 
He was also an astute critic, but he was never comfortable with it. He preferred to make art rather than to write about it.  Drawing was a joy.  Writing was a chore.  I tried to encourage him to write his memoirs or at least sketches of the many people he knew throughout his eighty-three years.  He was not in the least bit interested. Writing what he remembered would just bore him, he said.  Yet he never hesitated to talk about them.  We knew many of the same people so I was one of the few people left who could talk with him about many now sadly deceased mutual friends. 
 
Where the Wild Things Are is of course his masterpiece and most enduring work.  But it proved to be a burden as well as a blessing.  In a sense he was always competing with its enormous success.  No matter how many other directions he went into and how far he grew as an artist, everyone wanted another Wild Things.  Once a book was published, he was through with it. He did not go back.  He never wanted to repeat himself.  He was constantly evolving.  He called Wild Things the first in a trilogy that also embraced In the Night Kitchen and Outside Over There.  But their artistic connection is dubious.  What they did have in common was that Maurice was working out his therapy through them.  The traumas of his childhood came out as metaphors.  The books are fraught with Freudian symbols. He did produce a sequel of sorts.  He told me he had always wanted to illustrate Ruth Krauss’ Bears, originally published in 1949 with pictures by the long forgotten Phyllis Rowand.  Maurice finally got around to it in 2005 when he invented a new challenge for Max to conquer in one of the most delightful of Sendak’s books in many years.  Then it was almost universally ignored by the reviewers and the public.
 
He was constantly frustrated with his publishers and the children’s book business in general. He finally  took a semi-sabbatical from picture books in the 1970s and early 1980s to design for the stage.  He was appalled by the general lack of care in the writing and illustrating of all the kiddie books then being spoon-fed to little girls and boys.  “Who is out there making a real difference?” he demanded. “Well,” I said clumsily, “there’s Chris van Allsburg and–”  “Who’s out there making a real difference?” he repeated.  He was frustrated with HarperCollins, the successors to his old house Harper & Row, and under the thumb of Rupert Murdoch.  “No one knows me there any more,” he complained.  Of course that was not entirely true, but they did not kowtow to him as had his editors in the old days.  He told me last fall that HarperCollins rejected his latest picture book.  They told him that “it was not for children.”  “Well, what the fuck did they think I’ve been doing the last sixty years!” he fumed.  I tried to assure him that he would have no trouble getting it published elsewhere.  He said he didn’t care.  He told me he had put it aside and immediately started another picture book.
 
I saw him less and less in the last few years because his declining health discouraged him from leaving his beautiful house in Connecticut except on rare occasions.  He was perfectly content just to work at home and to walk his dogs.  Maurice mellowed considerably during that time. I have to admit now that he proved to be exceptionally warm, kind and generous to me.  Of course I could never tell him that!  He would not allow it.  But whenever I asked him about something or to do something, he just did it.  No kvetching, no negotiations, no strings attached.  He just did it. He was a mensch.  After all those years I think he finally realized that I was not there to betray him. Our conversations on the phone usually went on for an hour at least and he always ended by saying, “Goodbye, my friend.”  Goodbye, Maurice.

Michael Patrick Hearn
May 16, 2012

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Debut Children’s Book Author Stephen Colbert’s Book Signing

Even the most famous artists and writers have to cope with those who shamelessly demand that they weigh in on their own feeble creative efforts. Say the late great Maurice Sendak who, this past January in a wonderful two-part interview (available here and here), said of Stephen Colbert’s attempt to write a children’s book,  I Am A Pole (And So Can You!), “The sad thing is, I like it.”

It being Stephen Colbert, the book was snapped up by a publisher (no doubt causing much envy among those still trying to get their first effort noticed) and a scant few months later I Am a Pole (And So Can You!) is out in stores, among them the venerable children’s book emporium, The Bank Street Bookstore where Colbert recently did a book signing.

I arrived half an hour early to find a line out the door and down the street being efficiently handled by a security guard, something I think may last have happened at midnight before the final Harry Potter book was released. But while those waiting for Rowling’s finale were both children and adults, those waiting for Colbert were almost exclusively adults, many of whom I’d venture to guess had never been there before. As the line wove into the store I was entertained by attempts by grownups who came in saying they weren’t there for the signing, but just wanted to browse –upstairs (where the signing was). Smart bookstore staffers politely ask them what they were looking for, that they would get it for them and it was amusing to listen to the vague responses — a book for a kid, for someone who was seven…er… six…er….liked…er animals.  At least they didn’t ask for a book about a pole!

Before long I saw a seriously scary body guard and then there was Stephen Colbert himself genially waving at all of us and thanking us for coming.  We were efficiently moved through, Stephen scrawled his signature on books at a clip, and we were allowed to take photos from afar. Here’s my less-than-stellar Iphone effort:

As I left I saw this lovely display of Maurice Sendak books. He would have, I like to think, delighted in the irony of it all.

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