Archive for Remy Charlip

27 Words + 18 Watercolor Pictures + 2 Mice = 1 Great Book

Sergio Ruzzier, Two Mice (2015): coverSergio Ruzzier’s Two Mice (Clarion, 2015) exemplifies the elegant efficiency of the picture book. Illustrate just the right moments in the narrative, add a few well-placed words, and you can create an engaging, imaginatively rich story.

Well, I say you. But, most likely, you can’t. Most of us can’t. I certainly can’t. Remarkably, Sergio Ruzzier can. He makes it all look effortless, too.

As Maurice Sendak once observed, a picture book most resembles a poem (Caldecott & Co. 186). Like the poem, the picture book is a compact form, requiring precision, and careful management of all its many parts — artistic style, color palette, layout, design, typeface, diction, pacing,… all of it. As if this weren’t challenging enough, Ruzzier has limited himself to twenty-seven words, created a concept book that also tells a story, and repeated the same numeric pattern —1-2-3, 3-2-1 — precisely four times.

In its precise balance of words and pictures, Two Mice’s narrative unfolds with perfect economy. Before the title page, Ruzzier shows us “One house” — a cozy cottage. On the title-page spread are “TWO MICE” in their beds; the white one is asleep, and the spotted one is just getting out of bed. Their light green bedroom is far more spacious than the house’s outside view (from the previous page) suggested it might be. On the right-hand page, a small mouse hole in the baseboard offers a wink at the common but unacknowledged paradox of those anthropomorphic animals who populate so many children’s stories. (If these mice are stand-ins for people, then what are their mice?) The next page depicts “Three cookies”: in a warm yellow kitchen, both mice are seated at a light blue table. The mouse who rose first is eating two of the cookies; the mouse who rose second has only one cookie, and looks on grumpily at his (or her) housemate.

Sergio Ruzzier, Two Mice (2015): Three cookies.

Initiating the descending numeric pattern, the next two-page spread also launches the mice’s adventure, as they arrive at a dock where there are “Three boats” and “Two oars.” Like Remy Charlip’s Fortunately (1964), Two Mice follows a “reversal of fortune” narrative, in which nearly every two-page spread revises the expectations of the previous two-page spread. The promise of adventure, suggested by the un-spotted mouse, as he (or she) gestures towards the three boats, instead yields — on the next two-page spread — an unfair distribution of labor. There is “One rower”: the spotted mouse rows, while his (her) un-spotted housemate rests. As the story progresses, the narrative intrigue increases. I don’t want to spoil the surprises, but I will divulge that two more of the book’s twenty-four nouns are “shipwreck” and “escape.”

Two Mice is a brief master class in the picture book form, an engaging narrative, an elementary counting book, and a pleasure to read and re-read. So. Read it to the young people in your lives. Or, to borrow Ruzzier’s idiom…

One reader.

Two children.

Three cheers!

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Remembering Remy Charlip (1929-2012)

Remy Charlip. Photo by Paul Chinn, SFC / SF

As you may have heard by now, Remy Charlip has passed away at the age of 83. The author of Fortunately (1964), Arm in Arm (1969), Thirteen (1975) and many others, Charlip was also a dancer, choreographer, and the model for Brian Selznick’s rendition of Georges Méliès in The Invention of Hugo Cabret.

He was also one of many people I interviewed for the biography of Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss.  He knew them both, and illustrated two of Ruth’s books — A Moon or a Button (1959) and A Fine Day For… (1967).  During our interview (23 March 2003), he told me about working with Ruth on the first of these two books.

Philip Nel: Well, let’s see.  Maybe we should just start with when you first remember meeting them — or meeting Ruth.

Remy Charlip: OK.  Well, actually Ruth sent me a fan letter.  She saw my book that I did of Ruth Krauss’s [Margaret Wise Brown’s] called David’s Little Indian.

PN: Mmm-hmm.

RC: Do you know that book?

PN: I don’t know David’s Little Indian, no.

RC: Anyway, it was published after Margaret Wise Brown died, and it’s a story about a little boy who finds a little Indian and together they name the days.  So, she said she loved the book, and I don’t remember the letter very well, but I do remember that either she asked me to get in touch with her or I got in touch with her.  I don’t know.  I knew her books — I think I knew A Hole Is to Dig and I’ll Be You and You Be Me.  And I’ll Be You and You Be Me is a very — one of my favorite books of Ruth’s.  She influenced me in writing.  I think Arm in Arm actually came as a direct inspiration from her work.

I usually tried to read some (or most) of an author’s work before I interviewed him or her. In this case, I did not: I had grown more aware of the mortality of my interviewees. So, as soon as I had his telephone number, I gave him a call.

RC: Well, one thing I learned, for instance, was we did — I decided — she started to, after a while — let’s see, what was the first book that we worked on together?

PN: Well, A Moon or a Button?

RC: A Moon or a Button.  OK, so, we did that, and (Laughs).  And this is very interesting.  She brought me up to see Ursula Nordstrom, and Ursula would have no truck with me at all.  I made full-color paintings for that book, and the first thing Ursula said to me was, “Black-and-white separates the men from the boys.”  It was a total insult, and a total, you know, particu — you know.  Um.  I don’t know.  Maurice used to call her “the” — and you can’t print this —


(I’ve cut Maurice Sendak’s occasional nickname for Urusula.)

RC: And, so, I think what Ursula really resented was that in Ruth’s generosity, she would always work with people who were younger, who were inexperienced, and who she thought had some talent and would like to help them — and as well as to work with people that she thought [their] work was exciting.  So, let’s see — so, she got very upset.

PN: Ruth did.

RC: Yeah.  At Ursula.  And, she took my paintings, she kind of gathered them up from the desk in her arms and hands, and threw them up in the air, and ran out, crying, to the ladies room.  Ursula ran after her.  And I sat there thinking, “The children’s book business is much more exciting than I thought.”  (Laughs.)

PN: (Laughs.)

Discussing Ruth’s poem, “The Song of the Melancholy Dress,” he told me:

RC: And anyway, I asked her where she got the idea for the melancholy dress, and she said, “Oh, I overheard somebody say something at a party, and the woman said that she bought a melon-colored dress.”  And, so, a lot of her ideas came from misunderstandings, and I love that because I found that very helpful when one is working, you know, that you –.  And that’s really creativity, when you use something as something else.  And so, when I did the Paper Bag Players, which is a children’s theater, the costumes were all made out of common-place household objects and material — like, say, a shower curtain for the water, a box, big box, for the costume of a soldier — you know, that kind of thing.

PN: Mmm-hmm, mmm-hmm.

RC: And, or a lampshade as a hat, lace curtains for a dress.  So, the Paper Bag Players was all about how you can — so, that’s another thing that I actually learned from her — in another way, I mean, I also had friends who were, like Lou Harrison, for instance, who one day said, “I’m going shopping up in the Bronx.  Would you like to come with me?”  And I said, “Sure.”  And we went up to an automobile graveyard, and had a little meter with him, and he was hitting brake drums to get the sound that he wanted, a particular note. And he was very — it was very urgent that he do it because they were now not making the break drums in the same way that they were.  They made thuds instead of boungs.

PN: Ahh, I’ve gotcha.

RC: So, it was probably something at the time, where I myself take things that you ordinarily look at one way, but then you can look at it in another way.

PN: And that’s a good description of what Ruth does.

It’s also a good description of what Remy did.

For an example of that (and of his sense of humor), you might take a look at this excerpt from his It Looks Like Snow, which I posted back in March of 2011.

Photo by Paul Chinn, from the San Francisco Chronicle‘s obituary.

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It Looks Like Snow

Remy Charlip, It Looks Like Snow (1957): coverAs winter continues its assault, let’s turn to a classic book about winter: It Looks Like Snow (Greenwillow, 1957), Remy Charlip‘s picture-book tribute to John Cage.  Like Cage’s 4’33” (1952), Charlip’s piece makes the audience’s experience the subject of its experiment.  The primary difference of course is the specific sense through which we apprehend the art — eyes for Charlip, ears for Cage.  So.  Are your eyes ready, then?  Good.  Let’s begin.

The story starts like this:

Remy Charlip, It Looks Like Snow (1957): first two-page spread

And then:

Remy Charlip, It Looks Like Snow (1957): second two-page spread

After which, of course, we meet the protagonist:

Remy Charlip, It Looks Like Snow (1957): third two-page spread

And the protagonist’s pet:

Remy Charlip, It Looks Like Snow (1957): fourth two-page spread

And on it goes … for a total of 24 pages.  Ah, the beauty of the avant-garde!

If you enjoy books that defy expectation, check out Curious Pages: Recommended Inappropriate Books for Kids, the lately dormant but still very cool blog maintained by Lane Smith and Bob Shea.

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