Archive for Ruth Krauss

Wild Things, I Think I Love You: Maurice Sendak, Ruth Krauss, and Childhood

Like his mentor Ruth Krauss’s fictive children, Maurice Sendak’s are emotionally liberated people.

Ruth Krauss and Maurice Sendak, A Hole Is to Dig (1952): "Mud is to jump in and slide in..."

That’s one of the points I make in my brief (5-page!) essay “Wild Things, I Think I Love You: Maurice Sendak, Ruth Krauss, and Childhood,” which appeared in PMLA 129.1 (January 2014).  In a belated recognition of the second anniversary of Maurice Sendak’s passing (May 8, 2012), I’m posting a pdf of the essay here and on Academia.edu.

Because I didn’t pay attention to the word limit, I wrote around twice as much as PMLA had space to print.  So, I repurposed what I’d cut for “It’s a Wild World: Maurice Sendak, Wild Things, and Childhood,” which appeared on this blog in October 2013. Someday, I would like to publish the essay as it was originally intended — with the cut sections integrated into the published (PMLA) version. Maybe, one day, there’ll be a Sendak essay collection where this might appear in full?

Anyway, do check out the Sendak section of the January 2014 PMLA.  There are lots of other good pieces there — U.C. Knoepflmacher, Maria Tatar, Amy Sonheim, Jan Susina, many others! Bonus: In the process of writing this post, I discovered that the full contents of all issues of PMLA since 2002 are available for free (no paywall), at the MLA’s website! Unfortunately, the journal is behind a paywall: I belatedly realized that I was accessing it via my university’s institutional subscription. If anyone wants the Sendak section, then email me and I’ll send you the pdf.

Image above is from Ruth Krauss and Maurice Sendak’s A Hole Is to Dig (1952).

More on Sendak (mostly on this blog)

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It’s a Wild World: Maurice Sendak, Wild Things, and Childhood

My fellow Niblings (Betsy Bird, Julie Walker DanielsonTravis Jonker) and I decided a few months ago that it’d be fun to coordinate some blog posts today in conjunction with the 50th anniversary of Where the Wild Things Are. It’s 50 years old, having been originally released in Fall 1963. After some research, we figured out that its release was in October of that year. Here’s my contribution.


Maurice Sendak’s work makes adults uncomfortable, and these adults then consequently worry about how children will feel. Will a Sendak book make children uncomfortable, too? they wonder. Or What sort of child does the Sendak book expect as its reader?  Or, even, What is a child? The Sendak book that got us adults asking these questions is Where the Wild Things Are, published 50 years ago, in October 1963.

Maurice Sendak, Where the Wild Things Are (1963)

In his infamous 1969 Ladies Home Journal piece, Bruno Bettelheim — who had not then read Where the Wild Things Are (1963) — worried about the book’s effect on “the child.” As he said, “The basic anxiety of the child is desertion. To be sent to bed alone is one desertion, and without food is the second desertion. The combination is the worst desertion that can threaten a child” (48). Yet, as Maria Tatar points out, Bettelheim shares Sendak’s view that reading stories about childhood anxieties can be potentially therapeutic, a way for children to (in Sendak’s words) tame wild things through fantasy. One of our foremost scholars of fairy tales (the darkest genre within children’s literature, and a genre originally not for children at all), Tatar herself wonders whether Dear Mili (1988) — Sendak’s version of a Wilhelm Grimm tale — is suitable for children. “There are good reasons why we do not start out stories with descriptions of widows who have lost all their children but one or end them with images of mother and daughter lying down and dying,” she writes, and then partially disavows this criticism in her next sentence: “This is not to say that children should be shielded from descriptions of material hardships and death, only that they are not necessarily better off when entertained with stories that reflect or take as their point of departure the social and cultural realities of an age other than their own” (220). Kenneth Kidd, Freud in Oz: At the Intersections of Psychoanalysis and Children's Literature (2011)In an essay on allegory in Sendak, Geraldine DeLuca considers In the Night Kitchen (1970) “true to a child’s experience” but Outside Over There (1981) unsuitable for children because “we — particularly children — are left at the end of this work with too much pain” (14, 22).  Kenneth Kidd, whose chapter from Freud in Oz (2011) is one of the sharpest analyses of Sendak, also codifies his notion of childhood in contrast with his assessment of Sendak’s. As he writes, “While Sendak neither romanticizes the child nor minimizes the child’s experiences with trauma, his makeover of monstrosity amounts to a kind of gentling of the child rather than a celebration of childhood’s radical alterity” (131). In other words, for Kidd, childhood is a state of radical alterity, but Sendak minimizes that, offering instead (as Kidd says later) “the domestication of wildness” (135).

While a good deal of literary criticism reveals as much about the critic as it does about the work, Maurice Sendak’s work is especially adept at calling forth our emotional responses. Or, to put this another way, the effect of Sendak’s art is affect. His books are good at making us feel. So, while appeals to emotion or to vaguely defined ideas of “the child” can mar scholarship of children’s literature, Maurice Sendak’s work actually requires us to venture into these potentially risky areas.

As I argue in an essay forthcoming in the January 2014 issue of PMLA, Sendak’s affective aesthetic derives from several sources. (What you are reading now includes only what I had to cut from that essay, plus a few new ideas.)

Part I. A Book is to Feel: Ruth Krauss’s Influence

A major source is Ruth Krauss. Sendak illustrated eight of her books between 1952 and 1960, often spending his weekends at the home of Krauss and her husband Crockett Johnson — a period of time Sendak has referred to as his apprenticeship into the world of children’s books. One thing he learned from her is to embrace the wildness of children. As Sendak told me in a 2001 interview, “Max has his roots in Ruth Krauss. You know, her phrase that kids were allowed to be as cruel and maniacal as she knew they were.  Studying them at Bank Street, she knew what monstrosities children are.”

advertisement for Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are, New York Times, 1 Dec 1963

Indeed, Ruth Krauss’s A Very Special House (1953) — the second of her books illustrated by Sendak — might be read as the first version of Where the Wild Things Are. As George Bodmer puts it, each book has “a solitary child who falls into fantastic adventures that spring up from his thoughts” (181). The unnamed child of A Very Special House climbs the chairs, jumps on the bed, and draws on the walls, allowing him (through his art) to bring home “a turtle / and a rabbit and a giant / and a little dead mouse / — I take it everywheres — / and some monkeys and some skunkeys / and a very old lion.” Though the boy wears overalls throughout, in one scene he dons a white smock and a “Valkyries” style horned helmet, a costume that echoes the horns on Max’s white wolf suit. In Where the Wild Things Are, Max is comparably transgressive. He hangs his teddy bear, hammers a nail into the wall, chases the dog with a fork, imagines his room into a forest, and sails off to the land of the wild things — who, like the giant and old lion in A Very Special House, are both much larger than he is and willing to be ruled by him.

Ruth Krauss and Maurice Sendak, A Very Special House (1953)

Contemporary reviews also noted both books’ celebration of rule-breaking. The Atlantic Monthly’s reviewer praised A Very Special House’s “unorthodox” qualities and suggested that, while it is “no handbook for deportment,” “in the blowing-off-steam department, it deserves an award” (qtd in Nel 137). Wild Things’ reception was more mixed, but, writing of Max’s “fantasy of rage,” the New York Times noted that the book “projects, releases, and masters a universal experience for the child” (qtd. in Lanes 107). Though neither child faces punishment for his unruliness, there’s more conflict in Wild Things than in the earlier book: in A Very Special House, “NOBODY ever says stop stop stop”; in Wild Things, Max’s mother sends him to bed without supper, though ultimately relents — Max finds “his supper waiting for him” at the end.

Ruth Krauss: Harper advertisement, 1954

One reason that people respond to Max as if he and his adventures were real is that Sendak also learned from Krauss to “keep it real.” As he said, Krauss’s “The Carrot Seed, with not a word or a picture out of place, is dramatic, vivid, precise, concise in every detail. It springs fresh from the real world of children, the Bank Street world of listening to children and recording and re-creating their startling speech patterns and curious, pragmatic thinking processes” (“Ruth Krauss and Me” 286). He’s wrong about the book’s composition: The Carrot Seed (1945) derived from Krauss’s imagined conversation with a 5-year-old neighbor. But he’s right about Krauss’s compositional methods during the period she worked with him. Beginning with A Hole Is to Dig (the first book of hers that he illustrated), Krauss used children’s spontaneous utterances in her books.

As Kenneth Kidd has pointed out, Sendak’s own experience in psychoanalysis (which he entered at roughly the same time he began working on Krauss’s books) also played a role in his art’s realism, as it helped him both access his childhood emotions and use them in his work: “His books also resemble the child-adult playwork practiced by child analysts, which is hardly surprising since Sendak imitates some of their techniques. Sendak, in short, is the consummate picturebook psychologist” (105).

Ruth Krauss and Maurice Sendak, A Hole Is to Dig (1952): "Mud is to jump in and slide in..."

Krauss, who also saw a psychologist, also taught Sendak not to repress his emotions. As he told me in that same 2001 interview, she taught him how to curse. Most interviews with Sendak excise the cursing, but his use of profanity was fluent, even exuberant. His and Krauss’s child characters don’t say “fuck” (as Sendak did), but they do shout at us.  In A Hole Is to Dig, a two-page spread of sixteen muddy children inform us: “Mud is to jump in and slide in and yell doodleedoodleedoo!”  In the Krauss-Sendak collaboration I’ll Be You and You Be Me (1954), an older child stands between two warring smaller children, and asks one “Is there something you want to say to Dickie?” With his fist raised and an angry eyebrow slanted downward, Dickie answers, “Yes! I want to put him in the garbage can.”  In his own work, Sendak also conveys the understanding that using a large, loud voice can be a small person’s main source of power. Where the Wild Things Are alleges that Max tames the wild things “with the magic trick of staring into their yellow eyes without blinking once,” but that “trick” begins with Max’s voice.  He shouts, “BE STILL!”  And they obey.

Maurice Sendak, Where the Wild Things Are (1963): til Max Said "BE STILL!" and tamed them with the magic trick

The impulse to draw from real children also grants Sendak access to a wide range of childhood experiences. Though Max has come to symbolize the Sendakian child, there is no single Sendakian child, no unified field theory of “childhood” that emerges in his work. Nor is there any unified style — in part because Ursula Nordstrom (his editor) and Krauss insisted that he try different approaches. As he told me, “I had to keep changing styles, and this is something Ruth did too.  Beating me over the back not to become a stylist.” I replied, “Don’t fall into a rut.” He said, “Yeah. Don’t get a style where you’re always recognizable.” So, as Leonard Marcus notes, for Sendak, “the visual manner and medium of a book mattered far less than the emotional truth it had to tell” (19).

Part II. The Emotional Landscape of Childhood

Though drawing on his own early childhood, Sendak managed to create books that resonated (and continue to resonate) with readers’ sense of their own childhoods. He understood that, as Mo Willems observed just after Sendak’s death, “However life changes for children, and how childhood is defined over generations, there’s still an inner life. Everything that you do as a child is for the first time. So, when you fail — even by walking and tripping — that’s your first failure.  And it’s massive” (Andersen). Amplifying parts of his own particular experience, Sendak was able to convey something from this shared “inner life,” something that felt universal. This feeling is one reason why critics tend to read his work as saying something definitive about “the child” or childhood. We recognize experiences from our childhoods in the art inspired by Sendak’s.

Maurice Sendak, We Are All in the Dumps with Jack and Guy (1993)Granting us access to that “inner life,” the faces of Sendak’s characters telegraph their emotions. In Where the Wild Things Are, Max’s face conveys a full range of emotions — anger (at his mother), joy (as he sets sail on the boat), imperiousness (as he becomes king of the wild things), and melancholy (when he longs for home). When he gets home, his light smile and half-closed eye conveys contentment. But many of Sendak’s later books do not end quite so happily.  As the rat tries to carry him off stage right, the “poor little kid” in We’re All in the Dumps with Jack and Guy (1993) has a black eye, and his mouth open to cry out — likely the word “help,” the sole thing he utters in the book (five times in all). To the left of him, “THE MOON’S IN A FIT”: an angry-faced moon has lifted Jack and Guy up by their newspaper robes; their feet dangling over the ground and their mouths downturned, the boys’ eyes look out at the reader, uncertainly. Just left of them, the other homeless children flee off to the left of the page, defying the typical left-to-right movement across the page.  It’s an unsettling scene in a book that ends with children only temporarily safer, sleeping in a sidewalk shantytown. The ending of Outside Over There is ambivalent at best. Armed only with a “wonder horn,” Ida travels into “outside over there,” defeats the goblins with her music, rescues her younger sister and brings her home to mother. However, as playwright Tony Kushner observes, “The reunion of Ida and her sister with their mother at the end of Outside is reassuring, though … Sendak has taken pains to limit that comfort”: the baby is tearful, and Ida and her mother “look resigned rather than joyful at the news that their absent husband/father will return ‘one day,’ which is not, of course, especially reassuring news — when, exactly?” (The Art of Maurice Sendak Since 1980 22).

Of course, as Sendak observed, “Children know about death and sorrow and sadness” (Zarin).  And attempts to protect them from books that address dark subjects may underestimate them.  Sendak again: “We should let children choose their own books. What they don’t like they will toss aside. What disturbs them too much they will not look at. And if they look at the wrong book, it isn’t going to do them that much damage. We treat children in a peculiar way, I think. We don’t treat them like the strong creatures they really are” (Lanes 106).

Maurice Sendak, Where the Wild Things Are (1963): That very night in Max's room a forest grewSendak was wise to defend the right to tell stories that may upset us and Bettelheim was unwise to criticize a book he had never read. (Sendak never forgave him for that, either. In conversation, he referred to him derisively as “Benno Brutal-heim.”) However, Bettelheim is also not wrong to suggest that Where the Wild Things Are may upset young readers. I was one of those children who found the book terrifying, though not for the reasons Bettelheim mentioned. The book frightened me because I knew it was true: The boundary between real and imagined worlds was perilously fragile. When the lights went out, my bedroom could very easily turn into a jungle, bringing me far too close to the land of the wild things, who “gnashed their terrible teeth and rolled their terrible eyes and showed their terrible claws.” As an adult, I realize that the wild things’ googly eyes make them look more goofy than threatening. As a child, I focused only on their size, their talon-like claws, and their sharp teeth. As a result, I read Where the Wild Things Are once. After that, I kept my distance. Mine may be a minority opinion. During his childhood, Mo Willems thought it “an empowering book” (Andersen). The vast majority of my students recall enjoying the book during their childhoods. But the book does have the power to frighten.

Maurice Sendak, Where the Wild Things Are (1963): the wild rumpus

However, that power is what makes Where the Wild Things Are such a great book. That power is what has made it endure, and is what helped to establish Sendak not just as one of the great artists but as one of the great interpreters of childhood. Sendak understood the sometimes scary complexities of being a child. He had the courage to convey those truths both in his work, and in his role as spokesperson for both children’s literature and children themselves. As Kidd points out, by the middle of the twentieth century, the picture book author-illustrator began to assume the role of “something like an expert on childhood, even a lay child analyst,” whose expertise “came from proximity to childhood” (123).  For example, those who do not study, read or write children’s literature were a little scandalized by Sendak’s appearance on the Colbert Report, during which the author suggested that the mouse of You Give a Mouse a Cookie “should be exterminated,” claimed that “Most books for children are very bad,” and conceded that it was “a miracle that I have lived this long without having destroyed a person.”  But those of us who do study, read, or write children’s literature laughed and applauded Sendak’s grumpy wisdom. We thought: That “Mouse” book is so relentlessly average — good riddance! And: Children’s literature is art! And: He speaks for us!

Whether we knew him personally or not, he was a giant. He had come to define the field of children’s literature.  So, when Sendak passed away in May last year, we all gathered on the web to mourn his passing and celebrate his work.  As Daniel Handler (best known by his pseudonym Lemony Snicket) said, “It’s almost impossible to overstate his importance. He’s a North Star in the firmament of anyone who makes children’s books, in particular for his dark and clear-eyed view of the world that was kindred to me when I was in kindergarten and kindred to me now. He gives neither the comfort nor the horror of sentimentality” (Italie). Novelist Gregory Maguire, graphic novelist Art Spiegelman, picture-book legend Tomi Ungerer, scholar Maria Tatar and dozens of others all wrote or drew tributes. Neil Gaiman wrote two. As Kenneth Kidd noted at the time, “my Facebook newsfeed is a virtual wake” (“Goodbye, Maurice”).

Sendak has sailed off on the journey from which none return, but his books continue to provide safe passage for us to explore the land of the wild things. The creatures of his imagination speak to the realities of our world — a world in which children shout at adults, get lonely, and dance the wild rumpus. A world in which they are misunderstood, frightened, and (we hope) loved by their caregivers.  It’s a wild world, and it’s getting wilder every day.


Works Cited

Andersen, Kurt. “Mo Willems remembers author Maurice Sendak” Studio 360 with Kurt Andersen 13 May 2012 <http://www.pri.org/stories/arts-entertainment/books/mo-willems-remembers-author-maurice-sendak-9853.html>.

Bettelheim, Bruno. “The Care and Feeding of Monsters.”  Ladies Home Journal Mar 1969: 48.

Bodmer, George. “Ruth Krauss and Maurice Sendak’s Early Illustration.” Children’s Literature Association Quarterly 11.4 (Winter 1986-87): 180-183

DeLuca, Geraldine. “Exploring the Levels of Childhood: The Allegorical Sensibility of Maurice Sendak.” Children’s Literature 12 (1984): 3-24.

“Grim Colberty Tales, Part 1.” The Colbert Report 24 Jan. 2012. <http://www.colbertnation.com/the-colbert-report-videos/406796/january-24-2012/grim-colberty-tales-with-maurice-sendak-pt–1>.

“Grim Colberty Tales, Part 2.” The Colbert Report. Comedy Central. 25 Jan. 2012. <http://www.colbertnation.com/the-colbert-report-videos/406902/january-25-2012/grim-colberty-tales-with-maurice-sendak-pt–2>.

Grimm, Wilhelm. Dear Mili.  Translated by Ralph Manheim with pictures by Maurice Sendak.  New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux (Michael di Capua Books), 1988.

Italie, Halel. “Writers Remember Maurice Sendak.” Chicago Sun-Times 10 May 2012: <http://www.suntimes.com/entertainment/books/12430172-421/writers-remember-maurice-sendak.html>.

Kidd, Kenneth B. Freud in Oz: At the Intersections of Psychoanalysis and Children’s Literature.  Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 2011.

—. “Goodbye, Maurice. And Thank You.” University of Minnesota Press Blog. 10 May 2012: <http://www.uminnpressblog.com/2012/05/kenneth-b-kidd-goodbye-maurice-and.html>.

Krauss, Ruth. A Hole Is to Dig. Pictures by Maurice Sendak. 1952. New York: HarperTrophy (HarperCollins), 1989.

—. A Very Special House. Pictures by Maurice Sendak. 1953. New York: HarperCollins, 1981.

—. I’ll Be You And You Be Me.  Pictures by Maurice Sendak.  1954.  HarperCollins, 1982.

—. The Carrot Seed.  Illustrated by Crockett Johnson. 1945.  New York: HarperFestival, 1993.

Kushner, Tony. The Art of Maurice Sendak: 1980 to the Present. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 2003.

Lanes, Selma G. The Art of Maurice Sendak. 1980. New York: Abradale Press/Harry N. Abrams, 1993.

Marcus, Leonard S., editor. Maurice Sendak: A Celebration of the Artist and His Work. New York: Abrams, 2013.

Nel, Philip. Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss: How an Unlikely Couple Found Love, Dodged the FBI, and Transformed Children’s Literature. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, September 2012.

—. Telephone interview with Maurice Sendak. 22 June 2001.

Numeroff, Laura Joffe.  If You Give a Mouse a Cookie.  Illustrated by Felicia Bond.  New York: HarperCollins, 1985.

Sendak, Maurice.  In the Night Kitchen. 1970. HarperCollins, 1995.

—. Outside Over There. New York: HarperCollins, 1981.

—. “Ruth Krauss and Me: A Very Special Partnership.” The Horn Book Magazine 70.3 (May-June 1994): 286-90.

—. We Are All in the Dumps with Jack and Guy. New York: HarperCollins, 1993.

—. Where the Wild Things Are. 1963. HarperCollins, 1988.

Tatar, Maria.  “Wilhelm Grimm/Maurice Sendak: Dear Mili and the Literary Culture of Childhood.” The Reception of Grimms’ Fairy Tales: Responses, Reactions, Revisions. Ed. Donald Haase. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1993. 207-229.

“Uncensored — Maurice Sendak Tribute & ‘I Am a Pole (And So Can You!)’ Release.” The Colbert Report 8 May 2012. <http://www.colbertnation.com/the-colbert-report-videos/413972/may-08-2012/uncensored—maurice-sendak-tribute—-i-am-a-pole–and-so-can-you—-release>.

Zarin, Cynthia. “Not Nice.” New Yorker 17 Apr. 2006. Literary Reference Center. Web. 2 July 2013.


A different variation on the argument presented above will appear as “Wild Things, I Think I Love You: Maurice Sendak, Ruth Krauss, and Childhood” in PMLA 129.1 (Jan. 2014).


The Niblings on Where the Wild Things Are at 50


More on Sendak (mostly on this blog)

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Crockett Johnson & Ruth Krauss & Adrian Tomine

Cool! My biography, Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss: How an Unlikely Couple Found Love, Dodged the FBI, and Transformed Children’s Literature (2012), has a cameo appearance in Adrian Tomine‘s Optic Nerve #13.  (Click on the strip to see a larger version.)

Adrian Tomine, from Optic Nerve No. 13

Appropriately, the context is an affirmation of — and some nostalgia for — print culture. If you don’t have a copy of the biography (and would like one), then my advice is to avoid the ebook and buy the paperback.  Only the paperback edition has Chris Ware’s full cover.  The hardcover truncates it, and the ebook has only the front cover.  Also, the 88 illustrations look much better in print than they do in the ebook version.

A hearty thank-you to Adrian Tomine for mentioning my book in his work!  In the spirit of a strip later in this narrative (after you click on the link, scroll down), I’m going to handwrite him a thank-you note now.

Also, check out:

Finally, thanks to Dave Ball for calling my attention to this!

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“If I like what I’m doing, the kids will like it, too”: Marc Simont (1915-2013)

Marc SimontWhen his roommate, Robert McCloskey, wanted to study ducklings for his next book, Marc Simont let him adopt a whole group of them. McCloskey followed them around their small Greenwich Village apartment, sketching each one from all angles — work that would help make his Caldecott-winning Make Way for Ducklings (1941) a classic.  Simont would win his own Caldecott for A Tree Is Nice, written by Janice May Udry (1956). He won two Caldecott Honors, one for Ruth Krauss’s The Happy Day (1949) and the other for his own The Stray Dog (2001).  And he illustrated so many other classic children’s books (over 100!), from James Thurber’s Many Moons (1943) to Marjorie Sharmat’s Nate the Great series (1972-1998).

According to the New York Times, Simont passed away on July 13th. He was 97.

When researching my biography of Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss (published last year), Simont was one of the first people I spoke to —  back in July of 2000.  At that time, I thought it was only going to be a book about Johnson, and so I didn’t ask him as much about Krauss.  But we did talk a little about her.

Marc Simont: … Of course, Ruth, as I say, was somebody I knew much better.  She was a difficult writer to work for…

Philip Nel: Because…?

MS: For instance, she interfered a lot.  I say “interfered” because I don’t like people to get to close to me when I’m working.  And she would have none of that.  In other words, she wanted to see roughs.  And every rough, she would have comments to make.  And it was very funny.  But, you know, thinking back on it, she was quite good.  She had made a real study of children, very intellectual, being emotional at the same time.  She wasn’t cold about it.  But she really got into it.  She had gone to Bank Street, and they had a course there, they had a place where they brought the kids and they couldn’t see they were being observed — a kind of voyerurism.  And she was quite good.  And I could see how she and Maurice Sendak would hit it off very well.  Because he was very much a children’s artist and author.

PN: You mean, in the way he observed children, and got the details of their movements down….?

MS: I knew Maurice when he started – we had the same publisher, Ursula Nordstrom.  He would talk about the kids in his neighborhood in Brooklyn, and how he watched them.  One little girl – she was the boss, and she ran the show, and all the kids played together.

PN: You can really see that in the illustrations he did for Ruth’s books — especially A Hole Is to Dig, Open House for Butterflies.  The personality really comes through.

MS: Exactly.  A lot of them, in my case, I don’t do any of that at all.  I go by the fact that I used to be a child myself, and there’s something always left, and if I like what I’m doing, the kids will like it, too.

Of working with Ruth, he later elaborated:

MS: … They [Krauss and Johnson] were people that I saw, I was delighted to see them when I saw them, but we weren’t really that close.  With Ruth, of course, professionally.  And, most of the time, I was put off by her.

PN: Well, she seems like she was fairly difficult to work with, from talking to people but also from reading — I was reading her letters at HarperCollins a few weeks ago.  I think she required extra maintenance on the part of those who worked with her.

MS: But, as I say, as I look back on it, she was very sound.  Her remarks were very good.  The thing is that anybody trying to hold my hand, even if they’re on the right track, if they try to hold my hand while I’m working, causes me to want to shake, to shake [them] off.  And, she also had a little bit of the political correctness thing.  I remember once I did an illustration of a primitive guy, and I had a beard on him like a Stone Age man, and she said “well, no we can’t have that because that implies that he was Stone Age, that he was primitive, that he wasn’t intelligent.”  I couldn’t believe it that she would say things like that.  And now people are saying it all the time.

PN: She was a bit ahead of the curve on the political correctness issue, I guess…

MS: Yeah, that’s true.

PN: That’s interesting.

MS: I’m sure she was ahead of her time on the feminism, too.  I’m sure she was.

Ruth Krauss and Marc Simont, The Happy Day (1949)In addition to The Happy Day, Simont illustrated three other Krauss books: The Big World and the Little House (1949), The Backward Day (1950) and the new edition of A Good Man and His Good Wife (1962; originally illustrated by Ad Reinhardt, 1944).

He was extraordinarily kind to me.  After our chat, he FAXed me copies of correspondence with both Johnson and Krauss, including Krauss’s typed manuscript for The Happy Day, with her notes on where the text should be placed on each page!  Indicative of his generosity, along with this correspondence, he took the time to amend what he said about Ruth: “I was glad to look through my correspondence and find the letter I remembered as criticism which wasn’t at all.”

One more anecdote, since it got cut from the bio.:

I remember once we went to a party in Greenwich Village, where a group of young men were doing a farewell party for Truman Capote.  And big signs saying “Caio” and so forth and so on.  And Truman Capote didn’t show up.  (Laughs.)  I think Ruth and Dave took me to that thing.  But I know I never kept up with any of the people at the party.  It was just a one-evening thing.  If it hadn’t been for that detail of the party for Truman Capote and Truman Capote didn’t show up, I probably wouldn’t have remembered it.

Marc Simont, The Beautiful Planet (2010)The “Dave” in the above reminiscence is Crockett Johnson (his given name was Dave). I guess my editors thought it superfluous to mention a farewell party for Truman Capote at which the guest of honor failed to show. And they may be right.  I, of course, thought it was funny. And so did Simont.

It seems that, every month, another giant from the field of children’s books leaves us. That said, Simont evaded this sad inevitability for longer than most. 97! And still working in his final years, too. His most recent picture book, The Beautiful Planet, was published in 2010. Remarkable. My thanks to him for his gifts to the art of children’s books, and to lending a hand to a neophyte biographer. Godspeed.

More about Marc Simont:

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The Purple Crayon’s Legacy, Part II: Picture Books

In the 58 years since its publication, Crockett Johnson’s Harold and the Purple Crayon has appeared in 14 languages, and inspired many artists.  This blog (which takes its name from a line in the book) presented The Purple Crayon’s Legacy, Part I: Comics & Cartoons… nearly three years ago.  It is at last time for Part II: Picture Books.

Anthony Browne, Bear Hunt (1979)

Anthony Browne, Bear Hunt (1979)

As Harold does, Bear goes for a walk. As Harold does, Bear carries something to write with (a pencil instead of a crayon). And, as is the case with Harold, what Bear draws becomes real.  It’s true that, graphically, this is a very different book. Browne’s jungle scenes — all in color — recalls those of Henri Rousseau. Also, where Harold both creates and solves his problems, Bear’s problems — two hunters who want to shoot him — are not imagined. Fortunately, his pencil proves more powerful than their guns. I’m tempted to say that, in the book, the power to imagine a better reality trumps the power to kill. However, Browne handles this story with such a light touch that, while it may suggest such morals, that’s not the focus.

Jon Agee, The Incredible Painting of Felix Clousseau (1988)

Jon Agee, The Incredible Painting of Felix Clousseau

Felix Clousseau’s art looks ordinary, but it’s not.  His painting of a duck actually quacks. However, “that was only half of it,” observes Agee’s narrator as the duck leaves the painting.  This is one of the book’s sly jokes (if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck…), which include comic names of rival painters (such as Felicien CaffayOllay), several Magritte references, and the pun on the final page. No, I won’t give away the ending. Read it yourself.

Chris Van Allsburg, Bad Day at Riverbend (1995)

Chris Van Allsburg, Bad Day at Riverbend (1995)

In his Caldecott acceptance speech for Jumanji (1981), Chris Van Allsburg actually thanked “Harold, and his purple crayon.” He has elsewhere spoken of the book as the one he “remember[s] most clearly” from his childhood. Van Allsburg loved its theme of “the ability to create things with your imagination,” which, he says, is “a fairly elusive idea, but [the book] presents it so succinctly through these simple drawings that it registers very clearly.”

May of Van Allsburg’s books traverse (or blur) the line between imaginary and real, but Bad Day at Riverbend seems the most explicit homage to Johnson’s book. Rendered in coloring-book style, the people of Riverbend face a “greasy slime” that sticks aggressively to whatever it assaults. We readers recognize the “slime” as crayon scribbles, which (spoiler alert!) the book’s ending reveals to be true.  The townspeople are … the victims of a child with a crayon.

Thacher Hurd, Art Dog (1996)

Thacher Hurd, Art Dog (1996)

As Harold does, Art Dog creates art that changes physical realities. He also has his artistic adventures at night, beneath the moonlight. On one of the pages, he paints a somewhat goofy purple (with green spots) bird who reminds me of Harold’s drawings. Above the bird, on the wall, he has painted falling stars reminiscent of the one that Harold rides home in Harold’s Trip to the Sky (1957).

Some years ago, I wrote to Thacher Hurd to ask whether he or his parents (Clement Hurd and Edith Thacher Hurd) had known Johnson or Ruth Krauss. He said that they may have, though he had no memories of them. During our very brief email correspondence, I said “I’ve often thought that Harold would get along very well with Art Dog.” He responded, “Yes, I did put in a subtle aside to Harold and the Purple Crayon in Art Dog. I love that book, and loved it as a kid.”

Régis Faller, Voyage de Polo (2002: English translation: The Adventures of Polo, 2006) and its many sequels

Régis Faller, Le voyage de Polo (2002)

Wordless (save for the occasional sound effect), Faller’s Polo books have an associative narrative logic that’s evocative of the Harold stories’ structure.  In Voyage de Polo (The Adventures of Polo), he opens the door of his island tree home, walks over to a tightrope, and then starts carefully to make his way along it — shades of Harold’s tightrope act in Harold’s Circus (1959). The tightrope suddenly becomes stairs, which Polo then climbs — reminiscent of the stairs in Harold’s Fairy Tale (1957).  Beyond those direct visual allusions (or, at least, they feel like allusions), the story’s art manages to link each panel to the next, and then to the next.  You don’t quite know where Polo is going, but he’s traveling with a purpose, and fun to accompany for the duration of his journey.  More than anything else, the chain of associations most strongly reminds me of Harold’s stories.

Delphine Durand, Bob & Cie., (2004; English translation: Bob & Co., 2006)

Durand, Bob & Cie (2004): cover

A small book that begins with “a blank page” and then waits for “the story” to get underway, Durand’s Bob & Cie. (Bob & Co.) pursues the metaphysical implications of Harold’s predicament. Except, in this story, it’s Bob’s predicament. It’s hard to summarize. By turns whimsical and profound, Durand’s absurdist metafiction is about faith, narrative, the universe, beginnings and endings. It’s one of my all-time favorite books. Someday, I’d like to write (a blog post? an essay?) about Durand’s work.  Her sensibility and sense of humor appeal to me.

Patrick McDonnell, Art (2006)

The creator of the comic strip Mutts creates a story about a boy named Art who creates lots of art.  This conceit inspires many puns on the name, and, well, lots of art (and Art).  About a third of the way in, the book moves explicitly to Harold’s territory, when Art draws a house and then stands on the doorway in order to draw the roof.

from Patrick McDonnell, Art (2006)

Deborah Freedman, Scribble (2007)

Deborah Freedman, Scribble (2007)

When Emma insults her younger sister Lucie’s drawing of a kitty (“It looks like a scribble”), Lucie defends herself: “It’s a special scribble-kitty!” In retaliation, she scribbles all over Emma’s drawing of the Princess Aurora. Emma storms off.  Then Scribble, Lucie, and the sisters’ real cat step into the drawings — which is the moment that the book enters Harold’s realm. It’s telling that only the younger sister crosses the boundary from real to imaginary worlds. Perhaps Freedman is suggesting that only the youngest children — Lucie, Harold — can make that leap, and fully believe it.  Freedman’s second book, Blue Chicken (2011), also plays with the boundary between art and life.  But, this time, a chicken is the artist.

Allan Ahlberg & Bruce Ingman, The Pencil (2008)

Ahlberg and Ingman, The PencilA pencil (which appears itself to have been rendered in pencil) draws a boy, a dog, a cat, a house, a road, and a park.  As in Harold and the Purple Crayon, all things the pencil draws are real. The book departs from Johnson’s book when the pencil draws a paintbrush, who in turn colors everything the pencil draws. The decision to add color bends the narrative logic (how can a grey pencil draw color?), as does the decision to add an eraser (how can an eraser remove watercolors?). But the eraser proves a valuable antagonist. Just as the pencil draws enthusiastically, so the eraser embraces his function — threatening the world that pencil and paintbrush have created.  I wonder: what would have Harold done with an eraser?  He does cross things out (the witch in Harold’s Fairy Tale, the whole picture in A Picture for Harold’s Room), but he never erases.

Matteo Pericoli, Tommaso and the Missing Line (2008)

Pericoli, Tommaso and the Missing Line (2008)The line of the hill disappears from Tommaso’s drawing, which shows “a house on a hill, / a tall tree and some mountains. / And two people — / him and his grandma.”  So, of course, he goes off in search of it. On the right-hand page, Pericoli uses black ink for everything, except his character’s drawing and specific lines that Tommasso finds — those are all in orange. On the left-hand page, Pericoli places white text on an orange background. The orange at left makes each orange line at right “pop” out of the picture. Visually, it’s very effective.

Sure, Tommaso is also an artist, but, you ask, is there a more particular connection to Harold and the Purple Crayon?  There are several, first of which is that Tommaso does find his line — “as real as he always remembered it” — out in the world. So, as in Johnson’s book, art can become real.  Also, though Pericoli’s line is not as tight as Johnson’s, the pen-and-ink drawings on white pages evoke Johnson’s aesthetic sensibility.  Just as Harold’s purple line does, Tommaso’s orange line has as powerful a visual presence.

Any obvious (or not-so-obvious) books I’ve missed? I realize there are many other metafictional books (Scieszka and Smith’s The Stinky Cheese Man, Barbara Lehman’s The Red Book, to name but two) or aesthetically comparable books (Lehman, again, Newgarden and Cash’s Bow Wow series) or books about artists (Lionni’s Frederick, McClintock’s The Fantastic Drawings of Danielle). My list may be too narrow, but its idiosyncrasies will I hope inspire discussion.  So, let the discussion begin!

Related Posts:

(And, yes, I do plan further parts in this series — with luck, they’ll appear more swiftly than Part II!  Indeed, the blog has been quieter for this past month because, this summer, I’ve foolishly taken on more writing than I can cope with.  I’m struggling to keep my head [nearly] above water.)

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Antonio Frasconi (1919-2013)

Frasconi

Antonio Frasconi, woodcut artist and children’s-book illustrator, died on January 9th at the age of 93. I heard about it this morning, but I’ve yet to find a full obituary (apart from this brief notice by Joey of Purchase College). So, I’m writing a few words.

He was born in Buenos Aires, to Franco Frasconi (a chef) and the former Armida Carbonia (a restaurateur), both of whom had emigrated from Italy during World War I.  Young Antonio grew up in Montevideo, where, by age 12, he had become a printmaker’s apprentice and, by his teens, was seeing his satirical cartoons appear in local newspapers.

In the 1940s, he began working in woodcuts, producing work which won him a scholarship from the Art Students League in New York.  To study there, he emigrated to the United States in 1945.  By 1948, he had his first exhibit — at the Weyhe Gallery, also in New York.

But the reason I know about him are his beautiful illustrations for children’s books. He married fellow artist Leona Pierce in 1951, and the birth of their first son, Pablo, in 1952, inspired him to create work for young people. As Frasconi noted in a 1994 Horn Book interview, “the happiness he brought, both as an inspiration and as an audience for my work, made me think in terms of using my work as part of his education.”  Frasconi observed that, with his accented English, his own reading to Pablo was different than his wife’s reading to Pablo. He went to the library, looking for bilingual books, and, finding none, decided to create his own.

The result was the groundbreaking and beautiful See and Say: A Picturebook in Four Languages (Harcourt, 1955). It presents a series of objects, each named in in English (printed in black), in Italian (blue), French (red), and Spanish (green).  Illustrated in bright woodcut prints, the book is a great “first words” book for young children, and language education for any age. Though not the first children’s book Frasconi illustrated, it was the first one he both wrote and illustrated, and I highly recommend it. Used copies are not too hard to find, but this book (attention, New York Review Children’s Collection!) really ought to be brought back into print.

Antonio Frasconi, from See and Say (1955)

Antonio Frasconi, from See and Say (1955)

The images above come from The Ward-o-Matic‘s post on See and Say.  Visit the site to see more.

Back in 2000, I spoke with Mr. Frasconi because he was a very close friend of Crockett Johnson. Both men leaned left, had artistic influences that extended beyond children’s books, and held each other’s work in high regard. Indeed, Antonio’s political leanings inspired him to move — along with his family (Leona, Pablo, and Miguel) — to Village Creek, a planned integrated community that is directly adjacent to Rowayton, Connecticut, where Johnson and his wife Ruth Krauss lived.  That was in 1957.  The family met Johnson and Krauss soon after moving there, and quickly became friends.

photo of Antonio FrasconiThere were regular spaghetti dinners at Ruth and Dave’s house (Crockett Johnson’s real first name was “Dave,” and friends called him “Dave”).  Antonio illustrated Ruth’s The Cantilever Rainbow (1965), her greatest avant-garde children’s book.  When the Berkeley Free Speech Movement (1964-1965) got television coverage, Dave phoned Antonio so that he could come over and see it (at that time the Frasconis didn’t have a TV). So, the family went over and watched the protests. When Dave started serious painting, the Frasconis were among the first people he showed them to. As Miguel Frasconi recalled, Dave was “so excited,” as he explained to Antonio “the geometric properties of these pictures — like he had discovered something totally new.” At the time, Miguel thought: “this is an adult, and he’s as excited as a little kid.”

While my own brief acquaintance (one interview, really) with Antonio Frasconi and his family derived from work on my biography of Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss (2012), Frasconi’s work is well worth getting to know in its own right.  He illustrated and designed over 100 books, including collections of poetry by Langston Hughes, Walt Whitman, and Pablo Neruda. He created Los Desparecidos (The Disappeared, 1984), a powerful collection of woodcuts that tells the story of those tortured, imprisoned, or killed under the Uruguayan dictatorship.  He created art for children’s books.  He was a great teacher, artist, and humanitarian.

Thanks for sharing your recollections with me.  And rest in peace, Mr. Frasconi.

Works Consulted:

“Antonio Frasconi.” The Annex Galleries. <http://www.annexgalleries.com/artists/biography/739/Frasconi/Antonio>

“Antonio Frasconi.” Contemporary Authors Online. Detroit: Gale, 2003. Literature Resource Center. Web. 13 Jan. 2013.

 “Antonio Frasconi (Uruguay).” North Dakota Museum of Art. <http://www.ndmoa.com/Exhibitions/PastEx/Disappeared/Frasconi/index.html>

Goldenberg, Carol. “An interview with Antonio Frasconi.” The Horn Book Magazine Nov.-Dec. 1994: 693+. Literature Resource Center. Web. 13 Jan. 2013.

Nel, Philip. Telephone interview with Antonio Frasconi. 12 Oct. 2000.

—.  Telephone interview with Miguel Frasconi. 2 Dec. 2007.

—.  Telephone interview with Pablo Frasconi. 28 Nov. 2007.

Sources for images: Facebook post from Miguel FrasconiWard-o-Matic blog post on See and Say, and “Artist and Professor Antonio Frasconi, 1919-2013” (at Jane Public Thinking).

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Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss: a mix

Front cover by Chris Ware for: Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss: How an Unlikely Couple Found Love, Dodged the FBI, and Transformed Children's Literature (forthcoming from UP Mississippi, Sept. 2012)Here is a mix to celebrate the publication of my new biography, Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss: How an Unlikely Couple Found Love, Dodged the FBI, and Transformed Children’s Literature (2012).  Its official publication date is today (Sept. 1st), though it’s actually been available for a few weeks now. Given my own interest in music, it’s curious that I know relatively little about the musical tastes of Johnson and Krauss. So, while this mix does include some music they liked, it’s organized more by themes — each of which can be explored more fully in my book.

1)     Take the “A” Train  Duke Ellington (1941)      2:56

Crockett Johnson listened to Duke Ellington, and so did Mr. O’Malley. In response to a strip in which Barnaby’s Fairy Godfather enjoys an Ellington record, the composer himself wrote to PM (the newspaper where Barnaby first appeared) to express his admiration for the strip. Johnson owned the LP set The Duke.

2)     The 59th Street Bridge Song (Feelin’ Groovy)  Simon & Garfunkel (1966)            1:43

Johnson was born in 1906 at 444 East 58th Street, a block south of where the 59th Street Bridge was under construction. Though this song (like many on this mix) was released long after his childhood, Simon’s lyric makes me think of the imaginative, dreaming boy who became Crockett Johnson.

3)     Baltimore Fire  Charlie Poole (1929)      3:12

In February 1904, the Great Baltimore Fire destroyed more than 1500 buildings in the city’s downtown business district. Ruth (who turned 3 that year) and her family were far enough north to escape the flames, but memories of the blaze stayed with her. She had a life-long fear of house fires, and kept her manuscripts in the freezer (as a precaution).

4)     Violin  They Might Be Giants (2002)      2:27

When she was growing up, Krauss played the violin. She was a creative player, but not exactly an accomplished one. Her avant-garde poetry (from later in her career) makes me think that she might have enjoyed this song’s Dadaist sense of humor.

5)     If I Had a Boat  Lyle Lovett (1987)      3:09

The sense of humor and associative logic of “If I Had a Boat” might also appeal to Krauss; the other reason for its inclusion is Johnson’s love of sailing.

6)     I Sing I Swim  Seabear (2007)      3:40

Krauss enjoyed swimming. Johnson sometimes joined her. The bio. includes a photo of the two of them, in bathing suits, on a beach — perhaps just before a swim?

7)     Did You See Jackie Robinson Hit That Ball?  Buddy Johnson (1952)      2:18

Both Ruth and Dave (Johnson’s given name, and the one his friends used) supported civil rights for African-Americans. Johnson, a sports fan, joined the End Jim Crow in Baseball Committee in 1945. In 1947, Jackie Robinson joined the Brooklyn Dodgers, becoming the first black player in the American Major Leagues.

8)     A Cup of Coffee and a Cigarette  Jerry Irby (1947); intro. by Bob Dylan (2006)            3:26

Both Ruth and Dave drank coffee, and he smoked.

9)     Coffee in the Morning (Kisses in the Night)  The Boswell Sisters (1933)            2:57

He probably needed the coffee a bit more than she did: he was nocturnal, often working until sunrise, going to bed, and then getting up for breakfast at lunchtime.

“The Midnight Special” and other Southern Prison Songs, performed by Leadbelly and the Golden Gate Jubilee Quartet10)  The Midnight Special  Leadbelly and The Golden Gate Jubilee Quartet (1940)      3:08

Johnson and Krauss had the LP set, “The Midnight Special” and other Southern Prison Songs, performed by Leadbelly and the Golden Gate Jubilee Quartet.

11)  Talking Union  The Almanac Singers (1941)      3:06

An active supporter of labor unions, Johnson would likely have known this song.

12)  The House I Live In  The Ravens (1949)      3:04

An anthem of the Popular Front (and a hit single for Frank Sinatra in 1945), “The House I Live In” was certainly known by Johnson and Krauss. It was written by Earl Robinson and Lewis Allan (pseudonym of Abel Meeropol) — Meeropol/Allen was a leftist better remembered today for writing the anti-lynching song, “Strange Fruit,” which Billie Holiday began performing (and first recorded) in 1939. Though I have found no evidence of it, I would not be surprised if Johnson knew Meeropol: they shared a political outlook, and moved in some of the same New York circles.

13)  Homegrown Tomatoes  Guy Clark (1983)      2:59

Barnaby isn’t the only one who had a Victory Garden. Johnson did, too. After moving to Connecticut in the early 1940s, he enjoyed gardening. By the 1950s he began to favor other pursuits.

14)  Mr. O’Malley and Barnaby  Frank Morgan & Norma Jean Nilsson (1945)            0:07

This, the first of several adaptations of Barnaby, appeared on the 12 June 1945 Frank Morgan Show.

The Carrot Seed (art by Crockett Johnson)15)  The Carrot Seed  Norman Rose (1950)      5:36

The classic adaptation of Ruth Krauss’s 1945 picture book (with art and design by Crockett Johnson).

16)  You Be You and I’ll Be Me  The Free Design (1969)      2:42

The Free Design’s song title seems too close to Ruth Krauss and Maurice Sendak’s I’ll Be You and You Be Me (1954) to be a coincidence, but it of course may well be just that.

17)  What a Dog / He’s a Tramp  Peggy Lee & Oliver Wallace (1955)      2:25

Johnson loved his dogs, and was quite content to let them be their doggy selves.

18) Dog  Bob Dorough (1966)      3:27

19) Onomatopoeia  Todd Rundgren (1978)      1:35

Krauss had a great ear for the sound of words, something you see (and hear) both in her books based on the spontaneous utterances of children and in her later verse.

Crockett Johnson, Merry Go Round (1958)20)  Carousel (La valse à mille temps)  Elly Stone, Wolfgang Knittel (1968)            3:30

Johnson and Krauss owned the LP Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris, on which this song appears. I expect it was more her choice than his. I’ve also included the song in tribute to Johnson’s least-known (and most experimental) book, Merry Go Round.

21)  Get Happy  Art Tatum (1940)      2:46

Mr. O’Malley wasn’t the only one who enjoyed boogie-woogie piano. Johnson liked it, too. He owned the LP Decca Presents Art Tatum, which includes this song.  “Happy” also has a nice resonance with The Happy Day (1949), Krauss’s collaboration with Marc Simont.

22)  Comic Strip  Serge Gainsbourg (1968)      2:12

I don’t have a recording of “Mr. O’Malley’s March,” and so instead here is a playful tribute to the comic strip medium.

23)  Pies for the Public  Zoë Lewis (1998)      4:57

“So he laid out a nice simple picnic lunch. There was nothing but pie. But there were all nine kinds of pie that Harold liked best.”

24)  The Books I Like to Read  Frances England (2006)      2:13

This tribute to picture books begins with Where the Wild Things Are (written by Johnson and Krauss’s friend) and name-checks Harold and the Purple Crayon.

Carole King, Really Rosie (art by Maurice Sendak)25)  Alligators All Around  Carole King (1975)      1:54

In recognition of how important Maurice Sendak is to the biography, here is a song based on his book of the same name.

26)  Wake Up (Where The Wild Things Are version)  Arcade Fire (2009)      1:39

It’s impossible to stress enough Maurice’s role in this — both in their lives, and in mine. I wish I could thank him once more.

27)  Neverending Math Equation  Sun Kil Moon (2005)      2:53

During the last decade of his life, Johnson painted tributes to great mathematical theorems and even worked out a couple theorems of his own.

28)  Garden of Your Mind  melodysheep feat. Mr. Rogers (2011)      3:07

The works of Johnson and Krauss inspire us to think and to imagine.

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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 –

PN: OK.

(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’s here, in hardcover and paperback.

Greetings, faithful readers. I am pleased to report that Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss: How an Unlikely Couple Found Love, Dodged the FBI, and Transformed Children’s Literature — a book that was twelve years in the making — now exists in both hardcover and paperback.  I received my author copies today, which means that it should be available for shipping from warehouses in the next few weeks (the official publication date is September 1st).

Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss: How an Unlikely Couple Found Love, Dodged the FBI, and Transformed Children's Literature (hardcover). Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss: How an Unlikely Couple Found Love, Dodged the FBI, and Transformed Children's Literature (paperback).
The author poses with the hardcover. The author poses with the softcover.

It’s already available on the Kindle, Nook and SONY Reader, but I find the ebook’s absence of book design a little disappointing.  So, I recommend purchasing the paperback. First, it’s cheaper.  Second, only the paperback has the full wraparound cover (designed by Chris Ware).  The Kindle version supplies only the front cover.1 On the hardcover, the artwork wraps around the spine and onto the back cover, but, since there is no dust jacket, the cover ends at the vertical edges of both back and front covers.  The paperback also has no dust jacket, but does have folded flaps that mimic a dust jacket  — they fold in along the vertical edges, tucking in between front cover and first page, and between last page and back cover.  Thus, the paperback allows you to view the full wrap-around cover.

Chris Ware's cover for Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss: How an Unlikely Couple Found Love, Dodged the FBI, and Transformed Children's Literature

The only other ways to see the full cover are on this blog or in the poster versions.  The generous Mr. Ware has designed a version of the cover — sans blurbs, UPC symbol, etc. — that is currently being made into posters.  I plan to sell them at book events. (I’m selling them rather than giving them away because I’ve underwritten the cost of this endeavor, and I’d like to make back my investment.)

Anyway.  My point is that the book is now officially real.  For me, a book is not a book until I hold it in my hands.  It doesn’t matter that I’ve signed the contract, delivered the manuscript, edited the manuscript (many times in this case), obtained rights to reprint the images (88 for this one), checked the page proofs, or seen the image for the jacket.  The book is only real for me at the moment I actually see a physical copy for the first time.  For this book, that moment was late this afternoon.

My biography of Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss is now real.


1.  I haven’t seen the Nook or SONY Reader versions. I assume they look much as the Kindle version does, but cannot verify that assumption.

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Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss: Chris Ware’s cover

Front cover by Chris Ware for: Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss: How an Unlikely Couple Found Love, Dodged the FBI, and Transformed Children's Literature (forthcoming from UP Mississippi, Sept. 2012)

Graphic genius Chris Ware designed the cover for my Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss: How an Unlikely Couple Found Love, Dodged the FBI, and Transformed Children’s Literature (due this September from the University Press of Mississippi). The front cover is above.  The full, wrap-around cover is below.  Click on it for a larger image.  Trust me: you’ll really want to see all of the detail.  It’s beautiful.  It’s perfect.  I’ve never been happier about one of my book covers.  And for those keeping count, there are six previous books (two co-edited), all of which have striking covers.  The other designers were no slouches.

But Chris Ware is a genius. And no, I am not overusing that word.  But, yes, perhaps we should add a few more words to describe the cover itself. Clever. Detailed. Vivid. Art.

Full, wrap-around cover by Chris Ware for: Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss: How an Unlikely Couple Found Love, Dodged the FBI, and Transformed Children's Literature (forthcoming from UP Mississippi, Sept. 2012)

He’s done the cover in the style of Crockett Johnson.  In the case of the girl dancing above Krauss’s typewriter, it’s Mary Blair filtered through a Crockett Johnson aesthetic; for the boy sliding own her back, it’s Maurice Sendak filtered through Johnson. (The girl is from Krauss‘s I Can Fly, illustrated by Blair; the boy is from her A Hole is to Dig, illustrated by Sendak.)  Finally, Ware transforms all of these styles into something uniquely his own.

Fans of Johnson and Krauss: Are you getting all of the references here?  Would you like some help?  I could fully annotate this cover, but I wonder if that would detract from the pleasure of exploring it yourself.  The academic in me wants to proceed with the annotations, but the art lover wants to stay silent, so that your eyes can linger on Ware’s art, looking slowly, experiencing it on its own terms.  And… the art lover wins.  (No annotations.)  Enjoy!

And: Thank you, Chris Ware!

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