Looking Back, Looking Forward: 60-Plus Years Illustrating and Writing Books for Children

Last winter I gathered more than 60 years of my children’s book texts, illustrations, note-books, galleys, color separations, etc., both published and unpublished, to send to the de Grummond Children’s Literature Collection at the University of Southern Mississippi in Hattiesburg.

Some of the many books I illustrated have been forgotten, including by myself, some not, and one—The Pink Motel by Carol Ryrie Brink—has become a longtime favorite. My drawings for the book’s first edition were recently reprinted in an article published in Buildings and Landscapes: Journal of the Vernacular Architecture Forum, on the lasting effect of mid-century children’s books and illustrations.

In 1956, just out of college, I took my portfolio of drawings to show Russell Lynes at Harper’s Magazine. He offered me an article to illustrate and sent me over to see Ursula Nordstrom in children’s books. Before it was Harper and Row or HarperCollins, both the book and magazine offices were housed in a building on East 33rd Street, an elevator ride apart. Susan Carr, now Hirschman, offered me a book of children’s poetry to illustrate. It was an amazing day, and though I never had another like it, it changed my life.

For 15 years I illustrated books, both for children and adults, written by other authors. Then with the encouragement of Ann Diven, an editor at Grosset and Dunlap, I began to write the books I illustrated. Over the years I have illustrated many books of other authors and 30 of my own, including young adult novels, pictures books and early chapter books, the Rosy Cole series among them. The Rosy Cole books, edited by Melanie Kroupa, not only gave me the opportunity to create humor and character by juxtaposing text with illustrations, but allowed me to vent opinions on competition, sexual precocity, materialism, conformity to peer pressure, and more.

I have been privileged to work with some of the finest editors of their time: Melanie Kroupa, Linda Zuckerman, the late Frances Foster, and, for one of my two most recent books, Bonnie Bader. Along with my agents, Harriet Wasserman and Jennifer Unter, these editors believed in my work, and with insight and talent they helped to shape and refine manuscripts, making them into stories I wished to tell.

At times an editor not only shaped a manuscript, but inspired it. When Melanie suggested I write a Rosy Cole book with a New York City theme, it became the 10th in the series. Years before, when Melanie left Little, Brown and her replacement let me know the Rosy manuscript we were working on was “the last,” I was inspired to write four more.

The changes in trends and content were fast-moving. One year my agent urged me to try my hand at a new genre called “Young Adult.” A few years later she said YA was “a glut on the market” and hard to sell. Soon after, the glut ended and YA was back, suddenly popular again. My agent and friend Harriet Wasserman was fond of saying, “Everybody wants what everybody wants and nobody wants what nobody wants.”

In 1956, as an illustrator I was told “children like three strong colors.” As a writer I was told “fantasy and stories in rhyme are hard to sell.”

Now I wonder if there’s a “sell by” date on vampires, zombies, and robots.

Soon enough, when technology made it possible to dispense with awkward pre-separated color, pastel shades were popular, along with gremlins, witches, elves, and little people. It seems to me the pendulum has swung with dizzying speed. Readers clamored for Sweet Valley High and then Gossip Girl. Suddenly word went out: editors and agents were all looking for ”edgy,” which I assume is material that goes right up to but does not cross the line of acceptable.

Along with fads and fashions that came and went, due to the efforts of courageous authors and publishers, books with new subjects—sex, illness, and memoir—were published. Minorities, long invisible in children’s books, have begun to take their place on the shelves of bookstores and libraries.

Since I never worked in a publishing house, my observations of changes in them over the years are those of an outsider. When I started in 1956, children’s books did not go out of print. “There are always new generations of children to read the books,” we cheerfully assured ourselves.

Was it because books for children were found to be profitable that in the mid-1990s so many more books were published that warehousing older books became too costly and, like running shoes, new models were needed every season and old ones tossed?

Was it because children’s books were found to make money that they began to be “launched” with the kind of hype and fanfare reserved for the adult market? Was it because of the rise of the chain bookstore that series targeting specific age groups and grade levels, the better to shelve, became popular and numerous? Was it for these reasons there were calls for author appearances and interaction with readers?

Though book packaging (The Baby Sitters Club, Gossip Girl, etc.) goes back to the Stratemeyer Syndicate (The Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew, et al.), I worry that today’s packagers—some of whom refer to illustrations and text as “product,” illustrators and authors as “product producers,” and the books they produce as “merchandise”—have affected the way an individual author’s work is dealt with. How would the books I love have evolved in the hands of packagers and merchandisers?

Among the magazines for which I illustrated, a favorite was Gourmet. I loved the old offices in the attic of the Plaza Hotel, permeated with delicious cooking smells emanating from the test kitchen. A few years ago, just before the printed magazine folded, an editor, Jane Lear, asked permission to reprint my drawings along with the article they illustrated. At lunch we talked about the unhealthy eating habits of American children. It was a subject close to both our hearts. I asked if she could write a children’s book to express her thoughts. When she said she didn’t write for children, I remembered that I did.

While discussing the book that resulted, Bossy Flossie: Biz Whiz, I was told by the editors that the situation I’d created, in which an older brother uses his rats in a science experiment to show that the rat eating high fructose corn syrup blows up to twice the size of the one eating plain sugar, had to be tempered lest it give children the impression that they can use their pets for experimentation. In the second book, Bossy Flossie’s Secret to Success, editors felt a class effort to raise money to help pay for a child’s surgery was unacceptable due to HIPAA (patient privacy) laws. Neither of these considerations would have occurred to me in the past.

I chose the title character of these books (Flossie) having noted the popularity of rhymed titles such as Fancy Nancy and Judy Moody. I wanted a bossy character, hence, Flossie. Now I wonder how far this goes. Ditsy Mitzie, Crazy Maisie, anyone?

In the ’50s, along with taboos on profanity, sex, and provocative ideas, I was told not to draw a mother wearing slacks. Now mothers in illustrations can wear whatever they like, but one needs to be sensitive to scores of issues lest they give offense to any and all groups, known or unknown. In Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, would the grandparents who lay in bed all day be considered ageist? Would the Brothers Grimm with their tales of evil stepmothers and girls awaiting princes to save them have made it through the door?

A few years ago Linda Zuckerman gathered a group of writers and publishers she had worked with over a long career. Two of us, poet Mary Ann Hoberman and I, reminisced about a dinner we attended for P.L. Travers given by Harriet Wasserman. Harriet told us we could bring our old tattered copies of Mary Poppins, but not to ask Pamela to sign them until she gave us a signal to do so. Ms. Travers was not a fan of book signing. At an event arranged by her agent and publisher to test her interaction with children before a planned book tour, she told a boy his question was “the stupidest” she had ever heard. Needless to say the book tour was scrapped. I don’t think anyone loved Mary Poppins the less for it. The era of author websites, blogs, visits, workshops, and intense interaction with readers had not yet dawned. As a child I never wanted to know about or see photos of authors of the books I loved. The books themselves were what I found real. A person pulling the strings behind the scenes made them less so.

The cozy book-lined mid-century children’s book department has been replaced by cool corporate spaces. Lunches, letters, and long conversations with editors are replaced by email. In the archive I sent to de Grummond, letters between editor and author included family and vacation news. We knew one another. An editor worked with one assistant, not a team overseen by another team, overseen in some cases by someone unnamed “further up the corporate ladder.” When did sales determine the fate of a manuscript? When did the corporate model that has infused every aspect of our society achieve such a profound effect on the publishing of books for children?

In 1986, when Texas schools were flush with money to spend on author visits, I was invited to a school district outside Houston. With no background in teaching or public speaking I had little idea of how to address groups of children. Every morning at seven, a mother or teacher would pick me up and drive me to schools where I stood awkward and bleary eyed in large auditoria and small classrooms without a clue about what to say. At the end of the day, I was dropped back at the clammy, vacant-seeming Hilton or Marriott for dinner and hopes of sleep.

On the last night of my stay, the event hosts gave a dinner with The Two Other Authors staying at the hotel. After our hosts departed, the three of us couldn’t wait to commiserate. “Why didn’t they tell us about each other?” Sid Fleischman wondered. “We could have had dinner together. We could have talked about the day. Why do we do this in the first place? It’s grueling. Thank goodness I’m a trained magician and can put on a show. Otherwise it would be impossible.”

“A show?” I asked.

“We’re performing,” Sid said.

After I got home, I called my good friend Karla Kuskin, who was often on the road giving presentations and conducting workshops. When I asked her how to make a show, she responded, “You can draw, dummy. Get a pad, an easel and magic markers.”

With a pad, easel and magic markers I would become a performer myself, starting to draw a wordless story about blowing bubbles for children to complete. I showed an animated film based on my series of bubble pieces that had been published in Cricket Magazine, along with the flipbook made from my animated drawings. I took my show on the road.

Whether shared on the road or at home, on a screen, paper or tape, over time, imaginative tales well told will endure, if not on the shelf, in the hearts and minds of young readers who experience them.

Fingers crossed.

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