“Fumpseeitattwee!” my then–2-year-old daughter said to me imploringly.
“What’s that?” I asked.
She clearly wanted something badly, but I was darned if I knew what it was. She pestered me with the same request over the course of an afternoon and evening. Finally, in a stroke of delayed parental genius, I had it: “Thump! She hit that tree.” It was a line from the one of her favorite books, Zomo the Rabbit, by Gerald McDermott.
We’d read that book so many times that I could (and probably did) recite it in my sleep, and my daughter could, too (kind of). There was something about this book that enraptured her. Was it the glorious, jewel-toned illustrations? The folkloric repetition that sees trickster Zomo through a series of three tasks? The delirious slapstick with which he accomplishes them? That line—“Thump! He hit that tree”—drives Wild Cow’s horns so deep into a tree it is stuck. Prior to this, Zomo mortifies Big Fish by causing him to dance until his scales all fall off (“Big Fish was naked”), and after, he causes Leopard to crash into a rock, knocking out a tooth.
Doesn’t matter—whatever it was, McDermott had her number.
He died on December 26, 2012, at the age of 71, but the news has only just begun to reach the children’s literature world. I had recently had the honor of briefly making contact with him, for an essay on the Caldecott Medal that will appear in Children and Libraries, the publication of the Association for Library Service to Children, this coming spring. He wrote to me that he’d initially pursued a career in animation because “there were stories to be told, and I wanted to reach a wide audience. That audience increased a hundred-fold when I began to illustrate picture books and they received the imprimatur of the Caldecott Medal. Suddenly my studio was filled with the spirit of a multitude of readers, eager to read the next story, see the next image.”
We were some of those readers. My daughter loved all his books we could find: Anansi the Spider, The Stonecutter and the Caldecott-winning Arrow to the Sun, and so many others. They all shared that folkloric sensibility and McDermott’s strong graphic sense of storytelling.
But of all his characters, Zomo was her favorite. Our copy—we actually bought one, to save having to continually check it out of the library—was so battered that by the time she’d moved past it, there was no way we could have donated it to anyone. Not that we’d have wanted to—it was too special.
Thank you, Gerald McDermott. Our lives would have been poorer without you.
Vicky Smith is the childrens & teen editor at Kirkus Reviews.