Early on in my children's book career, I was out in Greeley, Colorado attending the debut of a musical version of my book, The North Star. A local bookstore invited me to do a book-signing while I was visiting. I ventured to the shop which was located in a mall. I could tell it was a well-loved bookshop with narrow aisles packed to the gills with books. I ventured through the maze looking for someone in charge. I spotted an older woman who looked like she had been working -and perhaps living -in this shop for decades. Her eyebrow went up when she saw me.
"I'm Peter Reynolds. I'm here for the book-signing."
Her eyebrow lowered and her furrowed brow told me that she had no idea who I was or what book I might be signing. I was fairly new at all this and quite ready to help bring her up to speed. I mentioned a new series I was illustrating called Judy Moody. I told her about my book The North Star and how a local Greeley music teacher and an accomplished jazz musician, Tim Beckman, had transformed my story into a musical and how I had attended a performance of it at the Union Colony Civic Center.
I was telling her all this as she shuffled down the aisles in search of, I was guessing, copies of my books to sign. She stopped suddenly and picked up a small blue book and swung around. It was a copy of Mr. Popper's Penguins by Richard and Florence Atwater released in 1938.
She pushed it a few inches from my nose for me to get a real good look at it and said, "Now THAT is a good book."
After recovering from my bewildered state, I found the section with my books and signed.
Before leaving, I did one last thing.
I bought a copy of Mr. Popper's Penguins.
On the plane ride home, I read it.
She was right. It WAS a really good book.
One of Ed Koren’s cartoons that always makes ME laugh depicts a suburban street and off to the right of the street, on a large lawn, are 30 or 40 elementary school-age kids hanging out/goofing off, and to their left is a big road sign that reads: Slow: Ragamuffins and Urchins...
This is my humor, I get this...but...
Not "getting it" is a difficult situation to be in. It's unnerving, awkward and makes us feel lost. We all want to "get it" because if we don't, we are missing out, we are left behind and we don't want to be left behind, we want to be out in front, with the cartoonist, getting it.
Ed Koren has been asking us to "get it" for nearly half a century. He has been drawing his sublime furry (sorry) characters at a terrific pace. Working alone, with pencil or pen in hand, Ed has been sharing his keen wit with all of us...and that's not easy. Being a successful cartoonist is a damn difficult thing to do. I cannot tell you how many times I've heard, and I'm sure Ed can attest to this, people say "oh, you just draw pictures for a living, that's not really a job." Really? Okay, picture this:
Ed is driving his Saab one day, he stops at a traffic light, sees something going on - a couple at a flea market. He watches and studies the situation, then the idea comes, yes - the idea! Turning it over in his mind, Ed thinks, is it funny, relevant, timeless?
Ed continues driving and as he drives, he replays the scenario he has just witnessed and decides, yes, by God, it was funny, relevant, and timeless! Ed punches the gas pedal, he wants to get home quickly to flesh out the idea before it escapes him. He, like many great cartoonists, has respect for the integrity of the moment and must capture it.
Ed begins to worry that he may forget the idea. He reaches into the glove box for a pen and paper unaware of his right foot, which is now accelerating the vehicle. "What the hell did Curtis do with all my pens!" Ed asks slamming the glove box. With one hand on the steering wheel, Ed reaches into the back seat. His hand searches unsuccessfully for a pen "Jeezum Crow!" he yells. Nine plus miles to go and Ed fears his idea will vanish into the abyss of great cartoon ideas not written down in the moment. Steadfast and now with both knees on the steering wheel, Ed turns completely around to get a proper view of the back seat of the car while the Saab passes an Elementary School letting out. Perspiring in his frantic search for the elusive pen, he flips his fire fighters helmet off the seat, whips his son's snow shoes into the back of the car and accidentally throws a snow scraper out of the half open window...it hits a nearby squirrel, killing it instantly.
The car rides the shoulder, inching toward a quaint farm stand where an elderly Tasha Tudor look-alike in an Adirondack chair sits screaming. Ed turns around just in time to miss the woman but slams into an antique poker table with pints of maple syrup, various gourds and homemade pies. He pumps the brakes to a halt moments before a Vermont state trooper arrives on the scene.
Ed wipes the sweat from his brow, tells the trooper he's a fireman in Brookfield in hopes of avoiding a reckless driving ticket - no dice. The officer hands Ed a $300 ticket. "May I borrow your pen, Officer?" Ed asks. Ed scrawls out a rough sketch of his funny, relevant, timeless idea on a scrap piece of paper while the Trooper impatiently looks on. "What's that?" the officer asks. "Oh, well - when I'm not fighting fires, I'm a cartoonist. A ways back, before all this mess happened, I had a pretty good idea for a cartoon - like to get it down on paper before I forget it." Ed finishes and hands the officer back his pen. The Trooper leans forward, cocks his head and studies Ed's rough sketch. "I don't get it,” he says.
Now, a Vermont State Trooper is not exactly Ed's demographic, but I tell this story because it illustrates the sort of devotion Ed Koren has to the craft of cartooning.
Ed doesn't take short cuts, his drawings are spot on, crowded with all sorts of stuff to look at, but never too much, he knows when to stop. Ed is what my father called "artists in total command of their craft," a Pro. It's the highest compliment I can pay to an artist and Ed deserves this title with Capitol Letters.
I have loved Ed Koren's cartoons all my life and it is truly an honor to know him and be here with him tonight - in fact, tomorrow I will be officially changing the spelling of my first name to H-a-i-r-y in honor of Ed. It gives great joy to introduce a Pro, my friend and artist to whom the 2011 Burlington Book Festival has been dedicated...Ladies and gentlemen, Ed Koren.
Some of these questions are: where do you get your ideas?
How did you become a writer?
Did you always want to be a writer?
And: why do you write?
A few weeks ago, I was asked to answer a different sort of question, a very specific sort of question: What was in your lunch box when you were a kid?
I began my answer by saying what wasn’t there.
There were no Twinkies.
There were no Ding-Dongs, Ho-Ho’s or Suzy Q’s.
There were no Fritos, Cheetos or Ruffles.
There was no Peter Pan peanut butter. There was no Skippy. There was no Jiff.
There was no Marshmallow Fluff, no grape jelly, no strawberry jam.
And perhaps, worst of all, there was no Wonder bread.
My mother (bless her) was a health food nut before they learned to make healthy foods taste good.
What was in my lunch box?
Bread . . . earnest, heavy, dry whole grain bread, difficult to chew and even more difficult to swallow. It tasted like it had been constructed not of grains, but of twigs and gravel and sawdust.
This bread was spread with unsalted, un-homogenized peanut butter. On top of the peanut butter, there was a modest amount of (unsweetened, of course) apple butter.
My extras were: raw cashews, carrot sticks or dried apricots.
I remember sitting next to Mike Field in the lunchroom one day in third grade. I watched in fascination as he opened his bag of Fritos and then unwrapped his cookies (Chips Ahoy) and, finally, unveiled his sandwich: peanut butter and Marshmallow Fluff on Wonder bread. Mike held this work of art in both hands; and I stared, open-mouthed, as all ten of his fingers sank into the bread.
It was as if he were holding a cloud.
“What?” he said when he saw me staring at him.
I looked down at my sandwich
“What?” said Mike Field again.
I shook my head.
What I wanted to say was, “Where’d you get that bread?”
But I knew where the bread came from.
There was a Wonder bread factory in Orlando. We drove by it all the time, and when we did, the odor of white, fluffy bread being called into existence suffused the whole station wagon.
What I really wanted to know was not where the bread came from, but what life was like with Wonder bread.
I wanted to know who made Mike Field’s sandwich.
Was it his mother? His father? His older brother? What did their kitchen look like? What did the people in his house say to each other in the morning and at the end of the day?
I imagined the wallpaper on the Field’s kitchen walls, a pattern of chefs in tall white hats bearing platters heaped with food. I imagined the darkness of early morning and the light from the refrigerator illuminating Mike’s mother’s face when she opened the door to get out the Marshmallow Fluff.
I imagined his father coming into the kitchen, hitching up his pants and then turning on the radio and grabbing hold of Mike’s mother by the waist and twirling her around the room.
“Frank, would you stop?” she kept saying.
But he didn’t stop.
They danced around the wallpapered kitchen, laughing.
I imagined myself there, sitting beside Mike Field, watching his parents dance, and knowing that soon I, too, would get to eat a sandwich made on Wonder bread, spread thick with Peter Pan peanut butter and piled high with Marshmallow Fluff.
This is what you get to do if you write.
You get to go into other people’s houses and sit at their tables and imagine their conversations. You get to watch them dance.
You can rest your hand, for a minute, on their beating hearts.
You can construct a sandwich out of anything you want.
Why do I write?
I write because I was a hungry kid.
I was hungry for Cheetos, Fritos, Wonder bread, Marshmallow Fluff.
I was hungry for comfort.
I needed to wonder, imagine.
I still do.
Hi friends and colleagues,
It is decidedly one of the grandest honors of my life to introduce newly anointed Carle Angel Jeanne Steig to you tonight. Thanks to Nick Clark and Rebecca Goggins for asking me. I have had the distinct pleasure of holding Jeanne in my inner circle for the past twenty years. She is both an inspiration and a delight.
I became well-acquainted with Jeanne in the early 1990s, first when I visited her and Bill in Boston, to edit a picture book with Bill. Being in my twenties, with few responsibilities in the world, I was in the habit of sleeping as long as I liked. As the story goes, when Jeanne knocked on the guest room door at 9 or so the first morning, I said, “YOU’RE SO RUDE.” I do, in fact, vaguely remember saying it. But I more clearly remember the fact that it was never held against me. Rather, my morning routine was duly noted, and henceforth, I was not approached until I appeared at the breakfast table. Jeanne never judges—she simply embraces who you are, whoever you may be . . . And she finds humor where she goes. My comment was the point of many a laugh over the years.
Jeanne’s artwork astonishes me to this day, and I often look at the pieces I’ve acquired over the years—they always seem brand new—they never fail to make me feel pleased with the world because there is a backbone of joy and exuberance in all of them. That’s because Jeanne Steig has a rare talent for happiness and that rare talent is (literally) visible in each of her works.
I love the story of how she began making art. Jeanne was in a big writer’s block (and what a fine writer she is with gorgeous works such as Alpha Beta Chowder, A Handful of Beans, A Gift from Zeus, and her latest, the wonderful essays you’ll find accompanying Bill’s art in the book just published by Charlie Kochman at Abrams: Cats, Dogs, Men, Women, Ninnies, and Clowns: The Lost Art of William Steig—it is a must read!). Anyway, Jeanne was having trouble writing, and Bill said to her, “I love being with you, but you can’t write all day. It’s not healthy to sit on your ass and write all day. You have to do something with your hands.” And thus began Jeanne’s junk art, in which she uses at turns wood, metal, paper, and whatever she finds on the street that catches her eye.
I remember my satisfaction one year at coming up with the perfect gift for her. We were getting a new roof on our house, and these marvelous pieces of black tar-like stuff were all over the driveway. Who but Jeanne would love to receive a giant box of roof pieces. And she did. I’ve taken my own children as well as my nephews on Junk Hunts, and we’ve mailed our exquisite findings to Jeanne, knowing that each little piece would be studied as if it were the finest Venetian glass. Like Bill, she always finds something extraordinary in the ordinary. Like Bill, she always finds something worthy, but is not afraid to acknowledge the unworthy.
Jeanne taught me something incredibly important, about art and life. She told me that if you love the pieces you own, they’ll be happy together. I was at the time making a gallery of artwork in my stairwell, which is two stories high and about fifteen feet across. How right she was—you can’t go wrong when you surround yourself with those you love, whether people or works of art. The fact that you love them is the thread that holds them together—nothing is ever out of place when you’re true to what you love.
And I surely love Jeanne. So much so that I always bring her Jewish rye bread, with seeds, not sliced (if it’s sliced, Fuggeddaboudit), and I forgive her for only offering skinny toast with jelly for breakfast (she is a little bit stubborn sometimes). From our work at HarperCollins, to our work at my agency, Pippin, to our walks with Bill all around Boston, to their joint exhibits from Provincetown to the Norman Rockwell to the wonderful Carle, to our thrill for each hour we find to share, she has always been my fairy godmother, she has always looked forward, her heart must be enormous for all that it holds, and the world is a far richer place for having her in it.
Received wisdom has it that humanity is divided into two types, those woebegone glass-half-empty folks and the gleeful ones with the glass half-full. This always makes me question in which camp I belong, and the answer is I don’t relate to either one; I’m a person who is just glad to have a glass with anything in it at all.
Since I was 15 I’ve had the feeling, every day, that life might be snatched away from me suddenly. This is not pessimistic on my part, just realistic; I almost did die from cancer at 15, so I guess I might say I know whereof I speak. This feeling of the tenuousness of life has lent some urgency to my creative output. My studio is decorated with replicas of happy skeletons (bought over years while visiting Mexico,) as a memento mori, a reminder that I should not waste a moment of the time I’ve got.
To anyone who finds worth in this attitude and hopes to adopt it for themselves I can’t in good conscience recommend a near-death experience. I’m sure there are other, safer and just as convincing routes to a productive life, but that is what befell me and all I can talk about is my own experience, warped as, perhaps, it was.
As an author and illustrator of children’s picture books I’m frequently asked by parents and teachers how to encourage creativity in their children. There, again, my experience has been unique and somewhat bent, but that hasn’t prevented me from being free with my advice. I once recommended to a mother who thought she had a creative son and wanted to cultivate that side of him that he should be locked in a dark closet several times a week. I told her I had five very good reasons for this:
1. It would engender fear, always a great motivator.
2. It will make him sit still for long periods, laying ground for self-discipline.
3. It will cause him to focus on his own thoughts, introspection being a prime ingredient in creative production.
4. It will spark his imagination. (Darkness tends to do this.)
5. Lastly, the unfairness of his imprisonment should develop his tendency to rebel against authority, non-conformity being the goal. Most good artists and writers are notoriously independent thinkers.
I laughed as I said this, though the young mother did not join in my merriment. Perhaps she could tell that, on some level, I really meant what I was telling her.
I would never lock up a child, of course, but I do think some adversity is necessary for artists to develop into adults with something meaningful to say. But here again, I can only go by the empirical evidence from the lab in which I, as a young rat, was raised.
Really, I have no worries about the perpetuation of creativity in our culture. Life itself –especially in these times—will provide all the adversity needed. What parents and teachers need to provide is the love, support and encouragement to our young people to go out there and face it.
We cried 'Godspeed, little Hong Kong container ship!' and it brought the books over the stormy ocean and safely to our shores. They were harried thence to the shelves of your favorite book retailer, where they await your timely attentions.