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Journeys of Imagination & Memory: Talking With 3 Iconic Children’s Book Illustrators

Detail from THE WALL by Peter Sís

Peter Sis, Jerry Pinkney, Ed Young. Three men between 66 and 85 years old. They live and work in the Hudson Valley region of New York. They are famous, prolific, Caldecott-Medal winning writers/illustrators of children’s books—books that millions of people grew up with, love, and share with their own children and grandchildren.

They recently got together to speak about their lives and work at “Artist Conversation: The many places we call ‘Home’: Journeys, Imagination and Memory,” a program sponsored by RiverArts, a nonprofit that supports local artists, holds workshops, and produces events such as studio and music tours.

I knew I wanted to meet these guys, but had no idea what to expect. That afternoon, I learned that their lives really have been improbable journeys of imagination and memory. And that a magic carpet ride that takes you from difficult circumstances to success doesn’t have to be a fairy tale.

Christina Ha, Peter Sís. Jerry Pinkney and Ed Young at the Masters School in Dobbs Ferry, NY. Author/ event photos by Ellen Crane.

The panel—moderated by Christina Ha, a RiverArts board member who hosts a weekly “NYC Arts” program for the PBS station WNET/Thirteen—had a story line itself: Three refugees from Czechoslovakia, the People’s Republic of China, and the wrong side of the tracks in Philadelphia overcome great obstacles to become masters of children’s literature.

These days, there are many obstacles to getting a children’s book published—which it seems everybody wants to do—lack of access to agents and editors, too much competition, recalcitrant marketing departments. But these guys had different kinds of obstacles: war, communism, learning disabilities, racism. What was most fascinating was that each described himself as a naive and reluctant entrant to the field, nearly begged by editors and others to publish his work.

Following are edited excerpts from the RiverArts conversation:

Christina: The theme of this afternoon is ‘home.” Can you each tell us about home and what it means to you?

Ed: To me, home was Shanghai and my journey back to Shanghai as an adult. Home is a place where you were born, but it’s also about coming back to the place that’s inside yourself. I love retelling the Chinese stories I loved as a child.

THE HOUSE THAT BABA BUILT. Written by Libby Koponen and Ed Young; illustrated by Ed Young; Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, 2011. Against the background of World War II, Young’s father builds a house in Shanghai for his growing family. Soon it holds not only Young and his four siblings but also friends, relatives, strangers. Planes fly overhead, but in this memoir that features foldout pages illustrated with photos, drawings, and collage, Young remains full of joy and imagination as shares childhood memories of how the house his father built is transformed as a haven in which he could play and be safe.

Jerry: For me, home was a dead-end block in Philadelphia in a segregated world. I wasn’t even allowed to use the public swimming pools.

Peter: I was a refugee from a country that doesn’t exist any more.

Christina: From those kinds of circumstances, how did each of you get into picture books?

Ed: I didn’t even know picture books was a field! I worked in advertising and would have my lunch at the Central Park Zoo and sketch animals on paper napkins. Someone suggested I take them to a publisher. I went up to a publishers’ office with a stack of napkins and they thought I was delivering Chinese food for lunch. Then they wanted to publish my book.

Peter: I was in Hollywood working on a short film about Bob Dylan for MTV, and then Maurice Sendak called about doing a book together. I didn’t know who he was.

Jerry: I always loved to draw, but people used to say to me, “If you’re a person of color you might want to think otherwise.” A career in art seemed out of my reach. Then I took some classes at Philadelphia Museum School, where my mind was changed. And I’ve been able to illustrate books like The Legend of John Henry by Julius Lester. That was a really important book for me. It represents everything I needed in my childhood.

JOHN HENRY. Written by Julius Lester and illustrated by Jerry Pinkney; Puffin Books, 1999. John Henry is stronger than ten men and can dig through a mountain faster than a steam drill. Julius Lester’s folksy retelling of a popular African-American folk ballad has warmth, tall-tale humor, and boundless energy. Pinkney’s watercolors, rich in detail, convey the superior strength and warm sense of humanity that make John Henry a more down-to-earth character than other tall-tale figures. The paintings’ muted earth tones add a realistic touch, bringing the character alive. (Booklist).

Christina: Please tell us about your creative process. What is it like?

Jerry: I don’t have a method. Every book starts differently. Sometimes I get bored. I always want to do everything exciting and new. I don’t want to be limited to any one way of telling a story. I’m always experimenting. Even in the days when we got a $500 advance for a whole book and then a 5% royalty of the $2.50 price, it didn’t matter. I always go to town, find a way to tell the story. My studio is complete chaos when I’m in the middle of making a book.

Peter: it’s about the whole flow of the experience. Before I go to sleep I see the book in my mind, the pages one by one. But this is not a solo profession. You need an editor and the other people who are part of the process.

Ed: Peter and Jerry are masters of the craft. When their hand touches the paper it knows exactly what it wants to do.

Christina: This is quite a love fest, isn’t it? You all have children of your own. How has parenthood influenced or inspired you?

Jerry: We have a family room where art materials are laid out—with no instruction. We all just come together to do a project. Back in the 60s it was difficult to find books where my children were mirrored. Now I see myself as bridge in a multicultural world bringing people together.

Peter: We were in a different world in Czechoslovakia. All around us the wall was coming down, the Soviet Union was splitting up. My life under Soviet rule is depicted in The Wall. When I got here I didn’t know baseball and apple pie. I was just drawing and my daughter said, ‘Dad are you going to publish this? This is art.’ So I went up to Doubleday but I didn’t know who Mrs. Onassis was. But she wanted to publish my book.

THE WALL: GROWING UP BEHIND THE IRON CURTAIN. Written and illustrated by Peter Sís; Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007. “A powerful combination of graphic novel and picture book,(Booklist),” this book illuminates the conflicts Sís experienced growing up in Czechoslovakia under Soviet rule. The palette of black, white, and Communist red threatens to swallow up young Peter’s freely doodled, riotously colored illustrations that depict how he struggles to keep his artistic identity and independence after the Communists take control of his school and Russian-language classes and joining the Communist youth movement are compulsory. “I just had to draw,” Sís writes. “Sharing the dreams gave me hope.”

Christina: How have things changed in publishing since you began working in the field?

Peter: The support systems we had in place seem to be gone. It’s hard to have a conversation with an editor and present ideas. Still, magic is made and they’re always looking for something fresh. But you’ve got to have a ‘sthikh,’ like going on a book tour with hats and umbrellas.

Jerry: You have to look to new ways to publish. People are self-publishing now, which not a bad thing and may result in more creative work being done by more people.

Ed: Now I’m working on books without a contract. I may never get a contract again! And these days they want to see sketches, but I don’t work like that. I want to be completely open. In my studio I have many projects going at once, each on a different table. I may work on something for years without a contract. But you’ve got to trust yourself, promote it yourself, trust that somebody will see it. If it’s good it has to get out there. One book I showed an editor and she rejected it. Twenty years later she looked at it and said, ‘Why didn’t you show this to me then?’ Keep the faith!

#childrensbookpublishing #bookillustration #JerryPinkney #ArtistConversation #EllenCranephotographs #RiverArts #ChristinaHa #EdYoung #PeterSis