The Snowy Day

‘Tis the season of snow in my hometown of Chicago, and in tribute, I present one of my all-time favorite books: Ezra Jack Keats’s The Snowy Day. (Observant readers will notice that I have Peter doll–Peter is the boy in this story–on my book shelf.)

This is one of the loveliest children’s books ever–so simple and so perfect in its description of a child’s first snow. It also illustrates the magic that can happen when someone is both an artist and a writer. Keats (and his editor) knew how to leave room in his words for the pictures, and knew how to let his images carry the weight of the story. But never mind the analysis. Just enjoy the wonder:I have two versions of The Snowy Day on my shelf: an over-sized board book, and the version in Keats’ Neighborhood, a tribute book that includes 10 stories, fantastic behind the scenes information–including the photo from Life Magazine that was the inspiration for Peter–and this nugget:

“The Viking editor of The Snowy Day, Annis Duff … paid careful attention to each word chosen for the spare text. After seeing the first dummy, she encouraged Keats to create the entire book in full color–rather than color alternating with black-and-white pages, as had been the original plan. … [S]he obviously knew this decision would be very expensive.”

And this:

“Proudly, Duff presented to the world the first major full-color picture book to portray a black child–often featuring it as the first book in Viking advertisements–although neither the ad copy nor the text of the book ever mention Peter’s race.”

So much wrapped up in this one little book!

Keats’s Neighborhood also includes homages from other beloved illustrators like Jerry Pinkney, Eric Carle and Simms Taback.

For all its goodies, Keats’s Neighborhood is essential to my collection. But its treatment of the 10 Keats stories–including Goggles!, Whistle for Willie and Jennie’s Hat— leaves much to be desired. For example, in the original edition of The Snowy Day, Peter finds a stick……pokes at a tree branch……and suffers the consequences.Aside from the joy of seeing these images large and full-page, there’s so much going on here in terms of pacing, timing and consideration for page turns. The next page in this sequence is this:

But sadly, it doesn’t appear in Keats’s Neighborhood, except to punctuate the end of the introduction.

What does appear in Keats’s Neighborhood is this:Such a different experience! What would Annis Duff say?

Speaking of experiences, there is a traveling exhibit featuring Keats’s work called The Snowy Day and the Art of Ezra Jack Keats. I can hardly wait to see it.

All images from The Snowy Day written and illustrated by Ezra Jack Keats, ©1926. Published by the Penguin Group.

Keats’s Neighborhood first published in 2002 by the Penguin Group.


Rhythm of the City

I bought Symphony City–by illustrator, graphic designer and self-proclaimed “indie rock obsessive” Amy Martin–because it is beautiful.

Unfortunately, one sentence makes for a very short post, so I’ve spent several days considering this book, working out what more there is to say. And it’s this: I love Symphony City as a work of art. As a work of story, not so much.

Symphony City‘s narrative–about a little girl lost in the city–feels incidental, a way to tie the images together. In fact, the type is so slight it nearly blends into the page, secondary to the art. I almost wonder whether the book could have been wordless, allowing readers to find their own story.

I sat with this book on a Sunday morning while listening to an NPR program about music. Trombone Shorty was being interviewed, and he talked about the street sounds of New Orleans. (As a young boy, Shorty–born Troy Evans–played trombone in the Treme neighborhood, and now, at the ripe age of 25, is a crowned prince of jazz, hip-hop and funk.) It was the perfect context in which to think about Symphony City. It got me thinking about rhythm.

I don’t think people consider rhythm in writing enough. Sometimes it’s hard to identify when not accompanied by rhyme. For me, it’s that thing that makes the written word just feel right when read out loud. It can also be a pattern that repeats. It’s often tied up in voice and tone, and all of those things we learned in Composition 101. And it can truly make or break a children’s book.

Because it is a book about music, I want Symphony City to have rhythm. And once it gets going, it does:

it comes from the street

and fills the sky

it pours in waves

through open windows

and expands

it starts as a sprout

and bursts into a forest

The pattern is repeated: The music is small, then grand, then finally altogether quiet. Which is, of course, sometimes the way symphonies work. And sometimes the way cities work too.

Martin’s illustrations have rhythm as well. When the little girl is bored at home, her world is a cardboard gray. But the world outside is full of color. Even she–in her yellow jacket–is part of the music.

The visual rhythm falls apart somewhere in the middle of the book when the pages start to feel more like individual spreads than part of a whole. At this point, the art becomes more about design, color and mood than supporting the story.

In fact, one spread stands out so much, I wonder whether it was the jumping off point for the whole book. Night has fallen, the sky is dark, but suddenly there’s a riot of color as the girl dances to the music of an electric guitar. Blazing pinks, oranges and yellows fill the sky, nearly blotting out the moon and cold of the spread before. (This image has also been turned into a poster on the inside of the dust jacket, and the circle motif is repeated on the endpapers.) It is clear that of all the music she has heard today, this is the little girl’s favorite.As I said, this book is a work of art. A lush, evocative, thoughtful work of art, right down to the use of pulpy brown paper and the golden birds on the cover. It is not a book I will read and read again, but I will most certainly revisit the pictures.

Images from Symphony City written and illustrated by Amy Martin, © 2011. Published by McSweeney’s McMullens.

The Art of the Matter

One of the things I love most about being an editor of books for children is the artwork. It’s always a good day when the art comes into the office.

I once worked on a book with a French illustrator who painted on linen. When the art came in, each piece was tightly rolled and much smaller than I was expecting. (I later learned that the artist worked smaller than actual size so that when the art was scanned and enlarged, the texture of the fabric became part of the composition. A gorgeous touch.) When we unrolled the art, the pieces practically exhaled cigarette smoke, and while I’m certainly not fond of that scent, it added another layer to an already somewhat enchanted experience.

Every now and then I work with an artist who is kind enough to give me a piece of original work. Even doodles on postcards are precious things.

Which brings me to the Children’s Book Council’s charity auction. Every year since 1919, the Council has commissioned a children’s book illustrator to create an original work of art commemorating Children’s Book Week (May 7-13 in 2012). The CBC has put five of these works up for auction to benefit their literacy foundation, Every Child a Reader.  (Here’s a write-up in Publisher’s Weekly, in case the auction site is down by the time you’re reading this.)

I’m coveting this piece by Don Freeman. Corduroy and A Rainbow of My Own are two of my childhood favorites (and they’re on my shelf, so expect to see them in this blog). Wouldn’t it be amazing to have a piece of Freeman’s art of my own?

A Happy Discovery

I started this blog to give myself a regular writing exercise and to force myself to engage with the books on my shelves. So imagine my delight when I discovered that the first book I pulled from the pile–There Was a Wise Crow by Joseph Low–is a work by a significant figure in children’s illustration.

I bought my tattered, yellowed edition at a flea market several years ago. I’m sure I was attracted to the small trim (about 4″x6″) and charming illustrations, but the strange, cheeky rhyme is what sold me.

Cheeky! And probably something that would be passed up by editors today. Unless the creator won a Caldecott, or something. And as it happens, Joseph Low did.

Reading Low’s obituary in the New York Times, I learned about his incredibly rich creative life, his time in Chicago–where I’m from–and his studies very near where I grew up.

Who knew I had such a little treasure sitting on my shelf?



Images from There Was a Wise Crow by Joseph Low © 1969. Published by Scholastic Book Services.