Sunday September 16, 2012
Books to toy with
TOTS TO TEENS
By DAPHNE LEE
IF you remember, I was going to write about the illustrators featured in Leonard Marcus’ Show Me A Story! Why Picture Books Matter: Conversations With 21 Of The World’s Most Celebrated Illustrators. I’ve been a little behind in my reading and not made much progress with the book, but today I read the conversation with Eric Carle.
I don’t know Carle’s work well, not even The Very Hungry Caterpillar, but I do like the seeming simplicity of it, and the colours, which are always very strong, very bright and very expressive. They really make a statement – they shout, but not angrily, definitely joyfully, sometimes a little manically, but usually just with a wonderful energy and exuberance.
Carle tells some wonderful stories to Marcus. My favourite is of the time he was a college student in Germany and the teacher who taught, inspired and shaped him as an artist. This teacher was Ernst Schneidler, who is known in the graphic arts world as the designer of a number of famous typefaces.
Carle talks about how Schneidler “discovered each student’s talent and nurtured it”, how he would “channel” the different talents. Just reading that gives me goose bumps. How rare and precious good teachers are, but a teacher, whether good or bad, leaves her mark.
I still remember all my favourite teachers – their faces, their gestures, the things they said. The thing is, I also remember the ones I disliked – like Mrs Raj, my Standard Five class teacher, who threw my Maths exercise book across the classroom because I couldn’t get a sum right.
Carle says of Schneidler: “ ... with his guidance a great many of us became strong and capable at one specialty or another.” Apparently, the teacher saw that he was bad at calligraphy, but instead of making him work at it, he said, “Don’t do that anymore, we don’t need more calligraphers.” (I wish someone had told me to stop doing sums: “We don’t need more mathematicians.”)
I know so many people who love The Very Hungry Caterpillar (including my daughter), which Carle talks about at length. He says the holes in the book are there because he approached the book as a designer. “I didn’t want just a plain sheet of paper,” says Carle, who likes the idea of creating books that are also toys. But of course!
Have you seen the way babies approach books? It’s not like, at six months or even 18 months, they sit quietly, turning the pages and paying attention to the words on the page. Books are stacked, knocked down, chewed, thrown, sat on. Carle tries to make them toys “you can read”, books “you can touch”. Even as an adult, the solid weight of a book is comforting to me.
I love the story of how Bill Martin Jr, whose book Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? (amongst others) Carle illustrated, thinks of the rhythm of his books first, before he comes up with the words. I also love the stories about his school visits.
And I find interesting what Carle says about Goodnight Moon appealing to children, and how he himself did not “understand (its) appeal”. So many adults tell me they can’t fathom why that book is so popular. Someone even told me that she found it creepy! (I love it although I do think it has a melancholy feel.)
Carle doesn’t know why children are drawn to Goodnight Moon, but he says that when he first started making books, it was children who liked them, not adults.
“That’s what Margaret Wise Brown and I have in common ... children have chosen us, not the professionals, not the librarians, or the teachers, or the grandmothers,” he says.
Still, if you’re an aspiring children’s book author/illustrator, I don’t think you can rely solely on the opinion of the dozen children of neighbours and relatives who you’ve been using as your beta readers. After all, Carle and Brown’s books were published by big publishing houses with savvy editors, so no, it’s not entirely true that it was the children who chose those books.
As some of you know, Carle has a museum in the United States, the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art, in Amherst, Massachusetts. One day I might make it there. One day, there may be a similar establishment in Malaysia. Well, there is no harm in dreaming, is there?