Let me say for the record, though I feel sure it’s been said many times before, that Leonard Marcus is a national treasure.
A world-renowned and highly acclaimed author, historian, critic and speaker, Marcus is responsible for some of the most beloved books in children’s literature. It’s not likely, for instance, that you’ll run into someone who studies and cares about children’s books who doesn’t own a much-loved, spine-battered, oft-referenced copy of Dear Genius: The Letters of Ursula Nordstrom, complete with too many dog-eared pages to count. This comprehensive bibliography at his site could serve as the Must-Read list for any children’s lit 101 course, as well as a reading list for the most well-versed in the field. Marcus has something for all readers.
Read more new and notable children's books this April.
This April he asks the question, why do picture books matter? In Show me a Story!, he interviews 21 illustrators from all over the world. I interrupted his research to ask a bit about this book, as well as what’s next for him.
You write in the introduction to Show Me a Story! that in these interviews you were on a "mad quest for the vital thread that links an artist's life story to the stories and images for which he or she is known." Did any one story really surprise you?
Well, many things surprised me. In my most recent conversation with Maurice Sendak, he was much more open about his early childhood loves and hates than I’d ever heard him be before. It felt as if finally, at 82, he was ready to tell his story.
Talking with the English illustrators John Burningham and Quentin Blake about their beginnings as picture book artists in the 1960s, when it was just becoming possible for illustrators in the UK to work in color, I realized that they had done for children’s books something like what the Beatles did for pop music—they completely lit things up in a country that was still reeling from post-World War II shortages and gloom, as in, here comes the sun!
It surprised me that Chris Raschka had planned to be a doctor, and that it was on the eve of his first day of medical school that he changed his mind.
Did you leave these sets of interviews with any revelations about the contemporary picture book landscape?
The artists I spoke with know and care about the tradition in which they work. No matter how engaged they are with new technologies, it is as important to them as ever to know how to draw.
Nearly all of the younger illustrators I interviewed set out quite deliberately to be picture-book artists. In contrast, most of the older ones fell into it by chance. The status of the picture-book artist has definitely risen and for all the chaos in contemporary publishing, there has never been a time when more people with talent were clamoring to make picture books.
In the (wonderful) interview with Lisbeth Zwerger, you note that she wonders about the future of the book, given a neighbor "who appears to do nothing but play video games all day.” I'm curious to know your thoughts on the future of the picture book, given the rise of digital apps and e-books.
I think that picture books will co-exist with digital formats. Each format will apply creative pressure on the others to do what each does uniquely well. Traditional picture books, unlike screen-dependent digital books, can, for example, be designed in any size and shape. Used expressively, this is one of their special strengths.
The original Babar books were huge—elephant-sized—which made them all the more fun. For the youngest ages, the tactile aspect of books isn’t incidental, either. In fact, it’s key to the way toddlers and early preschoolers learn. So, books on paper do still have value. Have you seen the Pat the Bunny app? What were they thinking?
Digital books will likewise have to prove that they’re more than a glamorous gimmick. If the dog’s tail wags, there had better be a good reason for it. Otherwise, children will be left bored, as well they should.
What's next for you? Working on any titles or research you can talk about?
My book Listening for Madeleine: A Portrait of Madeleine L’Engle in Many Voices will be published this November. In it, 50 people who knew Madeleine L’Engle discuss their memories and impressions of her. Readers will get to decide for themselves just who this remarkably complex writer and woman really was.
And now I’m writing a book about Randolph Caldecott, the funny, globe-trotting and amazingly talented young 19th-century English artist who invented the picture book—and who was, as I’ve come to know him, “the man who could not stop drawing.”
Julie Danielson (Jules) has, in her own words, conducted approximately eleventy billion interviews and features of authors and illustrators at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, a children's literature blog focused primarily on illustration and picture books.
Photo credit: Elena Seibert.