Weekend Heller: I Accept!

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The following is my acceptance speech from last Wednesday’s Eric Carle Award ceremony where I received the Carle Museum’s “Bridge” award, “individuals who have found inspired ways to bring the art of the picture book to larger audiences through work in other fields.”


Photo: Johnny Wolf (jwolfphoto)

When Leonard Marcus informed me that I was a recipient of this year’s Eric Carle award, I was thrilled. But also perplexed. Do you recall the 50s TV series ‘The Millionaire: philanthropist John Beresford Tipton gave away $1 million to some random soul. That was kind of how I felt: “What have I done for the children’s picture book field that is so deserving of this wonderful recognition.” Of course, I didn’t say this to Leonard, for fear that maybe it really was indeed a mistake.

Truth is, however, I was directly associated with only one children’s book which I helped produce with my best friend and brilliant children’s book artist/author, Seymour Chwast. It was great project, a classic – disaster. But that’s a long story.

On the other hand, illustration and illustrators have been a major part of my life for five decades, especially for over three of them as art director at the NY Times Oped and Book Review, where I gave lots of my heroes work and many unknowns their jump starts. But rather than a BRIDGE I was sometimes more like Chris Christie, blocking lanes on the bridge of creativity, to keep crafty illustrators from filling the Times with hidden symbols and messages.

However, since many of those artists have done many of the terrific illustrated books, artists like Peter Sis, Steven Guarnaccia and Henrik Drescher, I am proud to have played even a tangential role. Actually, I want to give credit to one artist who is here tonight who has placed a huge number of artists into the picture book field — Marshall Arisman, founder of the School of Visual Arts MFA Illustration as Visual Essay, who hired me to teach in his program 30 years ago, even after he expelled me from the school for not attending classes.

Initially, my passions leaned more towards comics than children’s illustration –but look how much that gap has closed. My respect and love for children’s books increased as I befriended some of their greatest makers. Maurice Sendak, Tomi Ungerer, Fritz Eichenberg, Maira Kalman, Paul Rand among them. I happily recall one night, Leo Lionni came over for dinner and actually made a little paper Frederick the Mouse for my son, Nick. We still have and treasure it.

I also owe my involvement with children’s books to two people who are no longer with us: Eden Ross Lipson, kids book editor of the Times, with whom I art directed dozens of Children’s Book sections. And Jim Fraser, librarian and an editor of Phaedrus: An International Journal of Children’s Literature Research, who taught me about the political and ideological power of propaganda through kids books — lessons I’ve passed on to my students at SVA.

One last thing: I owe my literacy to one children’s book in particular: Anatole by Eve Tituts and illustrated by Paul Galdone. My ever so patient grandmother, taught me to sound out the words and it was the first book I learned to read with a Yiddish accent. I also loved Eloise. But who didn’t want to live in Kay Thompson and Hilary Knight’s Plaza Hotel.

I’ve gone beyond my alotted single page. But indulge me for 30 more seconds: Thanks to David Rhodes, president of SVA for giving me the opportunity to be a BRIDGE for students. Respect to the artists who have shared with me their remarkable imaginations and talents. And many thanks to my friends and collaborators here tonight: Notably to my wife, the extraordinary designer Louise Fili; and to my co-chair at SVA Design, Lita Talarico; my Times boss and dear friend, chief creative officer Tom Bodkin; my book partners Seymour Chwast, Mirko Ilic, Gail Anderson. My wonderful friends Marshall and Dee Arisman and Debbie Millman. And, of course, to the great Eric Carle, Leonard Marcus, the Eric Carle Awards committee and its incredible support staff for making me feel like I’ve made a contribution, of which I am very proud.

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About Steven Heller

Steven Heller is the co-chair of the SVA MFA Designer /Designer as Author + Entrepreneur program, writes frequently for Wired and Design Observer. He is also the author of over 170 books on design and visual culture. He received the 1999 AIGA Medal and is the 2011 recipient of the Smithsonian National Design Award.View all posts by Steven Heller →