This sequence was removed from the final version of my book because Stitches is my story, not my mother's. At 15, I understood nothing about the reason for her blackouts. I only knew that she was doing crazy things in the middle of the night and felt that my life was in jeopardy. To have explained her physical problems would have implied a wisdom I gained only in hindsight, and an open-mindedness as well.
I did, in the Afterword, include a page on Mother's medical history, hoping to give the reader a more sympathetic insight into the woman.
The art is shown in color because, at a certain point, I was considering doing the book's dream sequences all in blue. In the end I decided not to use any color at all, making my life's dream and waking sequences fit seamlessly on the page. Many of us tend to see our dreams as being unrelated to our waking lives. I do not. Hence this choice.
I’m certain my editor at Dial, Lauri Hornick, recalls the day when, several months after signing contracts on One Cool Friend, I called to say that I had misread the manuscript and discovered it was impossible to illustrate. The pause on the other end of the line represented, I presume, a lot of eye-rolling before Lauri managed to politely ask, “And why is that?”
I explained. I had signed based on a quick read. The bizarre situation and odd characters, the language and the perfect comic timing of Toni Buzzeo’s text had drawn me in. I loved the idea of a kid popping a penguin into his backpack and stealing it from the aquarium. (Was this the first picture book where crime actually paid off? If so, I wanted to be part of it!) I also liked the idea of a single-parent family where the other parent—in this case the Mother—is never even alluded to. That seemed so moderne.
I had not overlooked the book’s crowning joke, that Dad keeps a giant sea tortoise in the house. (It might be supposed, Dad himself had stole the tortoise from the aquarium when he was a boy, making this the tale of two related, nerdy, animal-loving thieves or—one might spin it—two heroic animal liberators.)
What I had overlooked was the problem this tortoise posed for the illustrator: how to hide in plain sight a giant reptile and extend this game over the course of 32 pages? More importantly, how do you do this so that, on the final page, when the tortoise is revealed, it won’t seem like a dope-slap to the reader? (The reader should never be made to feel stupid.)
Lauri, in our conversation, seemed confident this could be solved in the pictures. “A can of turtle flakes on the kitchen sink?” she suggested. That idea I quickly batted down with the energy of the determined self-defeatist. “We’re not talking here of a cute little painted turtle in a bowl. We’re talking a huge Galapagos-style tortoise. Those babies don’t eat turtle flakes, they eat six or seven heads of cabbage at one meal.” I took a breath. I went on, “ I saw this at the zoo once, at feeding time, and I remember it so well because I was on LSD. (It was the 60’s.) I’ll never forget how, bit by bit, that ancient head came out of its shell, opening its maw like a steam-shovel in slow motion … the power of those ragged jaws as they locked onto a cabbage head …”
“Great!” said Lauri. “I can tell that at least you’ll be able to draw a perfect turtle!”
If Lauri had any more suggestions they were totally eclipsed that day by the panic I felt. (Panic, plus the conviction that any project is impossible, being part of my process.)
It’s an odd fact, but true, that when contracts have been signed you suddenly find in yourself a new energy. For someone like me, who is basically very lazy, having a flame-thrower aimed at your ass is a good thing. I stopped focusing on failure, stopped whining to my editor, to my good wife, to the UPS delivery man and to whomever was left who would still listen to me, and got busy.
Lauri’s suggestion of turtle flakes was a good one, just undersized. I began throwing in visual hints of turtles everywhere I could. I even gave Dad a box of Turtles candy to nibble on, (an entirely appropriate product placement, sadly without reward from the Turtles Company, those ingrates.) I made the turtle connections so obvious that, when all is revealed in the end, readers feel not that they were unintelligent, not that they had had their pockets picked, but –as with a good magic trick—that they have simply overlooked the obvious.
Sharpening your readers’ perceptions, showing them what’s been there before their eyes all along –that’s a fun read. To get a kid to re-read a picture book, going back to find those things they missed, couldn’t be better.
And what I find so wonderful about the collaboration between artist and a good editor is, when things seem impossible, she offers a way out, the book turns out wonderfully, and I get total credit.
Thank you, Lauri!
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.