This month I designed a baby card for a friend I met in Rome. She also happens to be the daughter of the woman who taught me my profession while I was in college and who encouraged me to become a professor. Honestly, I had never been good at presenting. I had famously destroyed a presentation on Napoleon and Francisco Goya in my Spanish Cultural History class, to the point where the teacher assigned presentations again the following year to give me a second chance. I nailed the second one, refusing to admit defeat. But this professor was wonderful. She was enthusiastic, intelligent, kind, and most importantly, was genuinely interested in her students. I gave a presentation in her class on the medieval sculptures of the Church of La Madeleine in Vezelay, France, and tried to channel her enthusiasm. I had learned from her that I could incorporate anecdotes that would make a lesson seem like a story. Indeed, I still teach like that today. After the presentation, she asked me if I had ever considered becoming a professor. In God's honest truth, I had never once considered it. I was an art major. Within the year I was a dual major in art and art history, and the rest is, well, art history, I suppose.
I had the good fortune to meet her daughter who was a few years my senior during my year abroad in Rome. We had a really nice, rustic Roman meal and enjoyed some outdoor cafes and late-night art. How pleased I was that she now has asked me to design a baby card for her. She wanted elephants as a theme for her baby boy, who is due in the coming weeks. I incorporated two textiles that she had in her home from her travels, and added a bit of my own flair as well. It will be printed into cards on lovely cotton tree-free stock for her to use as thank yous for all of the sweet gifts her little bambino will receive to welcome him to this world.
This past Saturday, my favorite little shop in all of NYC, Books of Wonder, hosted an event for the 2012 Caldecott and Newbery winners and honorees. We arrived a little late and so missed some of the panel discussion, which was a shame, but what we did hear was pretty entertaining. The authors spoke of their working habits, their insecurities when it comes to their writing and illustration (good to hear for a beginner like me), their inspirations, etc. They were all very nice and quite humorous and submitted to a long line of questions and autographs with grace.
The winners and honorees from this year were all there except one. The Newbery Prize went to Jack Gantos for "Dead End in Norvelt." I'm only about 1/4 of the way through it but it's absolutely delightful. It's so nostalgic for America of the 60s, and the protagonist is about the same age my mom and dad would have been. Young Jack is an intelligent, curious, innocent, humorous child trying to escape the punishment of his parents while working with a old neighbor, Ms. Volker, who writes the local obits. It smacks of a simpler time when imaginations were bigger. Gantos has managed to capture the range of emotions children have, along with the flights of fancy that accompany that age. It makes me want to be a kid again, or to write books. Either way, it's great so far and it's distracting me from other work!
The Caldecott Medal for best illustrated book went to Chris Raschka for "A Ball for Daisy." It's a wordless book that tells the story of a dog who loves his red ball. One day, another dog at the park pops the ball accidentally. The range of emotions that Raschka captures in his simple pictures shows his skill as an illustrator. I even found myself howling at one point, like Daisy, mourning for his ball. Maybe I shouldn't admit to that, but it speaks to the power of the drawings.
The Newbery honoree was Eugene Yelchin for his heartbreaking story of a little boy growing up in Communist Russia under Stalin. Called "Breaking Stalin's Nose," the book is about the disillusionment of the boy, who had once idolized Stalin, after a series of events opened his eyes to the terrors of that regime. I read this book on Saturday night in two sittings. It's heavy material for a children's literature, but he doesn't edit the parts that are scary. During the panel, Yelchin said that he had tried to find a way to make a happy ending or for the boy to still find some good in Stalin, but it wouldn't be true to the spirit of the book, and I agree. What makes it so powerful is that it reads as true, though it is a fictionalized account. Yelchin himself fled Communist Russia as a young man and his parents lived through the time of Stalin. I only wish I had read the book before I met him, because it really was quite beautiful, albeit very sad. It reminded me of the years we spent in Germany before the fall of the Berlin wall.
I'll list the Caldecott nominees in no particular order. Patrick McDonnell's book, "Me...Jane," was based on the childhood of Jane Goodall, as she learns to dream of a bigger life, one that can help animals. Her stuffed monkey that accompanies her on her adventures in her backyard gives a hint of a life to come. My favorite sequence from the book shows Jane sitting in her tree in her backyard with Jubilee, the stuffed chimp. She is reading a copy of Tarzan. Turn the page, and her house is now in the middle of the African jungle. It's so cool. The end of the book is good for little girls (and boys, but it was touching to me that a male author would make his young heroine so intelligent and curious) to read, because it shows her dreams coming true. McDonnell is active in the protection of animals in his own life and so this book makes perfect sense.
Lane Smith's book "Grandpa Green," another Caldecott honoree, was a flight of horticultural imagination. It tells the story of a little boy telling a story about his great-grandpa. But it's not what you'd think. The story takes place outside in a fanciful garden. Or inside the child's imagination, it's up to you. But just as one of the first pages says, "He was born a really long time ago, before computers or cell phones or television." The book keeps us outside playing with the boy who is content to play alone, because his imagination is fertile: like kids had to be in the time before computers, cell phones, and television. It reminds me of those spring nights when the sun stayed up a little longer and we could play until the tips of our ears were cold and our lungs were hoarse from running, hiding, and finding each other in the twilight. Smith's illustrations take us from topiaries that render books Grandpa read, like the Wizard of Oz, to exploding cannons in WWI. As you might expect, green is the predominant color. It's just great. Don't miss this one.
The last honoree was John Rocco for his book, "Blackout," which told the story of the NYC blackout a few years before I moved here. I remember it on the news and I remember thinking that the blackout we had in NC lasted for several days in the winter of 2002. I had no power for nearly 3 days and some for as many as 10. John Rocco takes this event in NYC, a city of lights, and indeed, excessive lights, to tell a gentle story of a family and a neighborhood coming together. He plays on the concept of light and dark and shadows in a really interesting way. My favorite scene was when the family ascends to the rooftop and there's a party in the sky, but better still, they can see the stars. That's the one thing I miss most in NYC are the stars. The light pollution is simply too strong to ever make out more than the moon and maybe brightest Jupiter if you're lucky.
Rocco was nice enough to also take the time to chat with my about putting together my first portfolio for children's book publishers. It's the kind of invaluable advice that I didn't expect to get, and made me really glad I went.
My nephew Ranald came along because he's also a big fan of Rick Riordan's Percy Jackson series (as was I, and I'm so sorry my brother Josh couldn't have made it, too). Rocco illustrated the covers for those books, as you can see if you look on the back wall. He's sitting in front of a series of prints of his own work, how cool. He was good enough to sign "The Last Olympian" for Ranald.
This fairy tale, another dark masterpiece of the Brothers Grimm, is the favorite of my little sister. As I noted below, it has all of the elements of a good yarn: a fairy, a magical horse, a girl separated from her mother. The princess is cast down by her maid, who takes the true bride's place on her intended's arm. The true princess is forced to become the goose girl to make her way, and the false princess kills the girl's horse, the only tie to her homeland. Of course, deception never pays, and the king realizes the goose girl, resplendent in her beauty, is the true bride of his son:
"But the old king begged so hard, that she had no peace till she had told him all the tale, from beginning to end, word for word. And it was very lucky for her that she did so, for when she had done the king ordered royal clothes to be put upon her, and gazed on her with wonder, she was so beautiful. Then he called his son and told him that he had only a false bride; for that she was merely a waiting-maid, while the true bride stood by. And the young king rejoiced when he saw her beauty, and heard how meek and patient she had been; and without saying anything to the false bride, the king ordered a great feast to be got ready for all his court. The bridegroom sat at the top, with the false princess on one side, and the true one on the other; but nobody knew her again, for her beauty was quite dazzling to their eyes; and she did not seem at all like the little goose-girl, now that she had her brilliant dress on.
When they had eaten and drank, and were very merry, the old king said he would tell them a tale. So he began, and told all the story of the princess, as if it was one that he had once heard; and he asked the true waiting-maid what she thought ought to be done to anyone who would behave thus. ’Nothing better,’ said this false bride, ’than that she should be thrown into a cask stuck round with sharp nails, and that two white horses should be put to it, and should drag it from street to street till she was dead.’ ’Thou art she!’ said the old king; ’and as thou has judged thyself, so shall it be done to thee.’ And the young king was then married to his true wife, and they reigned over the kingdom in peace and happiness all their lives; and the good fairy came to see them, and restored the faithful Falada to life again."
I looked to the end of the tale, and imagine a scene not told by our Brothers Grimm: when she reenters the city with her geese and with her horse, Falada, who had watched over her even in his death. I followed the pattern I set forth in my "Self Portrait with Fairy Tale" (see earlier post), with a decorative border as part of the actual image itself. I'm inspired by the richness of medieval tapestries and the constant juxtaposition of pattern that can be found on them.