I’ve yet to meet author/illustrator Elisha Cooper in person, but I imagine him as a quiet man, one who doesn’t require a lot of attention in a room, but who watches and listens more than he talks.
In his picture books, Cooper finds the extraordinary in the ordinary, beauty in simplicity and big worlds in the little details. That can only come from someone centered and observant enough to truly take in what the world has to offer. That he turns around to write and paint about it with such grace is lucky for child readers—and picture book fans of all ages.
His latest picture book is the fictional tale of a “literary mutt” (more on that below), named Homer. Unlike most picture books you’ll read, this protagonist doesn’t have a grand adventure. That’s right: He lies dormant during most of the book. He’d rather stay in his comfy home, thanks very much, and watch those he loves all around him, who are having their own respective adventures.
And, in doing so, Homer makes a statement—not a saccharine one (Cooper would never stand for that), and one I find very moving—about the meaning of home and the abundant rewards of a family who lives with love.
I chatted briefly with Cooper about this book, one of my favorite picture books this year, and I thank him for taking a break from painting to answer some questions.
I think this wonderful story transcends pets. It makes me think of the happiness children can feel in a family that notices and loves them, and it even makes me think of the wisdom in not hyper-overscheduling one's children. Do you think I'm seeing things, or did you intend such parallels?
Oh, I’m so glad you saw this, as Homer sort of says in the book!
On its face, this is a simple book. A dog sits on a porch. His family comes and goes. The end.
But, yes, I hope something more is happening here. The children head out into the world—one girl explores a field by herself, one explores the beach by herself—before returning to the security of their family. They are bold, then safe—with unscheduled space, as you say, to pick flowers or collect shells. This freedom fills them up. Maybe it’s the paradox of parenting. How, if we let children go, they come back stronger.
When I was painting the book, I’m sure I was thinking about my daughters. They were heading off to summer camp before returning to me at the end of their day. But in some larger sense, I knew they were also heading off into their lives. This letting-go stuff still sort of kills me.
But I know it’s important. If we create space for those we love, then love will come into that space.
Maybe I’m getting a little deep here. And who can say what a book’s intentions are, least of all its author. But this is what I was thinking about when I was painting Homer.
I love the dog's name. Why "Homer?”
Homer was my dog when I was a boy. We grew up together, and then he became a great old dog.
The Kirkus review of Homer mentioned Odysseus’s dog, Argos, waiting patiently at home for his master’s return. I have to admit I’d completely missed that connection. And I love that story! It must have been hanging around in my subconscious. I’m even more embarrassed because I loved Greek and Roman history, growing up. I even named my goats Aeneus, Dido and Ovid.
But the name Homer just seemed to fit this story. It’s soulful. And it has the word “home.”
Do you ever model any of your book's characters after people—or, in this case, dogs—in your own life?
The girls in Homer are modeled on my daughters. They don’t think I captured their likenesses, and they’re probably right.
The mother is my wife. She swims in the ocean, which is fitting. The father is me, though in real life I’m swarthier. And that’s my bike on page 12!
I write mostly nonfiction children’s books, and characters are often compilations—with Farm, a bunch of Illinois farms became one farm—so the dog here is also a mix of dogs and goats I’ve known and loved over the years. A literary mutt.
What's next for you? Are you working on anything now you can talk about?
Oh, I can talk and talk.
I’m painting a children’s book on trains. I’m pretty excited. It’s the story of a cross-country journey.
But what I’m really excited about? This week I’m going to be at our local library in the Village, painting late into the night. Six huge canvases, 5-feet by 5-feet, covered with animals. They will cover the walls of the children’s room. Come by [Jefferson Market Library, corner of 10th St. and 6th Ave., in New York City]!
Children’s books can get so small. This is my chance to work big—and dream that I’m Picasso. I’ll be sweaty and exhausted and covered in paint. I’m sure my family will be thrilled.
HOMER. Copyright © 2012 by Elisha Cooper. Published by Greenwillow Books, an imprint of HarperCollins, New York. Image reproduced with permission of Elisha Cooper.
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.