Conversation started 1 July 2015, 11:44 a.m. E.T.
I’m very glad you agreed to chat with me about books and anything else that will come up. I know you are busy these days, so if it’s okay with you, I’ll begin with telling you a little bit about my childhood reading (and picture-gazing).
I didn’t own many books when I was little, but a few of the ones I did have were, and still are, very dear to me. My favorite were probably Else Minarik’s Little Bear series, of course in the Italian translation. My mother would read them to me, and they were the first ones I was able to read by myself. When I think about it, I still feel the warm, sweet melancholy those stories gave me. I spent hours looking at those Maurice Sendak pen & ink drawings: so beautiful and poignant.
Another important book, mostly but not only for the text, was Caro Bruco Capellone (Dear Long-haired Caterpillar), by Lucia Tumiati and illustrated by Tullio Ghiandoni.
Each page showed a little boy at his desk, writing or thinking, and above him, in big balloons, you could read and see his thoughts or the letters he was writing to a series of different recipients: his older brother; the fridge; a girl who rode her bike over his dog’s paw; a person in prison; and, of course, the long-haired caterpillar who, in one of the last pages, dies. I was about six when I received that book, but I kept going back to it for years. I was not what was considered a good reader (I couldn’t understand how my older brother could read those long adventures with so few pictures, or no pictures at all), so this book, being composed of many two- or three-sentence-long little stories, all illustrated, was perfect for me.
I’ll mention one more book: Bruno Munari’s Cappuccetto Verde (Little Green Riding Hood). I don’t normally love retellings and parodies, but Munari is special.
Comics were a huge presence in my childhood and well into my adulthood. I would read virtually anything in comic-strip or comic-book form. My favorites, through the years, were Peanuts, Popeye, Krazy Kat, and various comic books, mainly Italian. Marvel and D.C. super-heroes, very popular in Italy in the 70s and 80s, were by far my least favorite. I found them rather dull and way too earnest.
I was aware that in America people could read comic-strips every day (and in color on Sundays!), and felt very unfortunate that that was not the case in Italy. Did you read them? Were you excited to see how a story would develop day after day? What else did you read as a child?
I’m fascinated by the Caro Bruco Capellone book. I don’t think as a child I ever saw an American a book with as broad a representation of human experience. The book seems so full of vitality. I love that he writes to a fridge, too. A dada-esque moment. Wish I could read Italian!
I love Bruno Munari! His Zoo book is luscious. Never Content is a beautiful book, and wise, too.
I read some daily comic strips (Peanuts, Orphan Annie, Dick Tracy), and later comic books. My brothers were way into them. I liked Spider Man–Peter Parker was insecure and neurotic and seemed like a real person, not a plastic he-man.
My earliest book (that I still have) is Where Have You Been? by Margaret Wise Brown, illustrated by Barbara Cooney. A gift from my grandmother when I was two. She was a big reader and often gave her grandchildren books as gifts. She instilled a love of books in all of us.
(I love the battered artifacts that well-loved books become.)
My mom was always reading, and there were books all over the house. We had books from her childhood, too, like Lois Lenski’s The Little Family, 1932, which fascinated me because it was a glimpse into family life from days long gone. Washing machines with wringers! I still love her style—the simple forms definitely influenced my style.
One of my favorite picture books was The Animal Fair by Alice and Martin Provensen, an anthology of stories, poems and visual jokes. I loved looking at this page:
I felt like a detective when I noticed that the Provensens’ fishes recalled a Paul Klee fish in the art book on our coffee table. It was kind of a revelation to me, as a kid, that children’s book illustrators were influenced by art in museums. (Little did I know I would meet you one day.)
Paul Klee, Around the Fish, 1926
I used to read the cartoons in the New Yorker and think grownup life was incomprehensible. Dead-eyed people in offices. Yikes. I liked the Charles Addams and Gahan Wilson cartoons the best, because they told stories I could understand. I loved Saul Steinberg’s drawings, too, because he turned words into conceptual pictures. Still love his work.
I read constantly. I’m the oldest of 5 kids and reading was my way of making my own quiet in a noisy house, and a way to dwell in worlds I liked better than this one. I loved disappearing into books–especially books with magic in them. I was deeply disappointed that it was turning out that magic wasn’t real. The world we live in seemed seriously lacking.
The Little Bear books were a big deal in my childhood. I’ve always wanted to talk to you about them with you since I heard they were your childhood favorites, too. Like you, I remember being touched by the sadness that lurked beneath the surface of the pictures.
I’ve spent an inordinate amount of time pondering my childhood reaction to them, trying to figure out why they stayed with me more than any other childhood stories and illustrations. I think my making picture books today is a response to an existential crisis prompted by reading Little Bear to my younger siblings.
I’m wondering if you’d be willing to go deeper into what thoughts you have about them now, and would parse what you felt when you looked at them as a child, too.
The first two stories in Little Bear troubled me for various reasons that I didn’t clearly articulate to myself. I met the first book at 10, right when I was starting to be more aware of the larger world and wondering what my place in it was going to be. So that’s the context for the following thoughts.
The first story, about Little Bear being cold playing in the snow, bothered me. How does taking off your clothes keep you warmer?
Is the bottom line that he’s OK without a coat because really he’s not a little boy, he’s a bear? Did his mom play along with giving him cold weather gear so that he would eventually discover for himself his own true state—that of a well-furred bear who could revel in the snow in beary nakedness?
Though that is a lovely conclusion, the story also suggested a more deeply troubling thought—that your mother, ultimately, cannot help you—that what she offers you is well-intentioned but useless. You have your own resources and that’s what you must rely on.
Maybe that’s why the story made me uncomfortable: I wanted to keep believing that my mom would always come up with the warm coat that fixed everything.
In the next story in the first Little Bear book, his mother appears to have forgotten his birthday. There’s another happy ending (she finally shows up with a cake), but the fact that a mom, for what seemed like a whole day, would let a child think they’d forgotten, was disturbing.
The fact that little bear must prevail upon his friends to help him celebrate, in the absence of his mother, made me feel lonely and abandoned. (Wow, I can really see how Maurice would relate to this story.) This was my takeaway: the world is a hard place and sometimes things are sad and unfair for reasons that no one is going to explain. So go make your own soup.
(Little Bear does not look happy, bringing that soup to the table. Sendak gives him a worried eye. Something is missing and we all know it.)
It’s interesting that the Little Bear stories I read over and over the most were the ones with the harsher subtext, the ones that left me feeling off-center.
I think as a child there’s this dichotomy: you naturally live in the moment, are spontaneous and blithe. But everything you do, even playing, is part of the very serious preparation for learning how to survive in the world. At some point on the continuum of childhood, this fact trickles up to conscious thought, and I think those two Little Bear stories triggered that for me.
The issues the Little Bear books brought up blended with another thought I was pondering. One summer night, when I lay on my back looking up at the summer sky full of stars, it struck me as crazy that people, like my dad, had to go to work all day in boring offices. How could day-to-day life be reconciled with this universe filled with countless galaxies? Here was infinity, staring us in the face.
As a child, the only thing I wanted to do that I saw grownups do was read and write. And those two things still feel like doorways to infinity.
OK, enough existential crisis on this bus.
I know Simone Martini is one of your artistic influences. How did you discover his work? As a child, in an art museum, at art school?
Did you always know you wanted to be an artist? When did writing enter the picture : ) ?
It was in my early teens, I think, that I discovered Simone Martini and other Italian painters of that time, especially the Sienese.
I remember visiting Siena’s Palazzo Pubblico and being impressed by his fresco of Guidoriccio da Fogliano and by Ambrogio Lorenzetti’s Sala della Pace. I must have been twelve.
I liked that those artists had their own personal way of depicting reality, which belonged to a different dimension. I knew that, to our eyes, the perspective was all off, as was the anatomy. But I didn’t mind that. I wanted to do something similar, I wanted to build my own imaginary world with its physical laws, which didn’t have to match the laws of the real world. I didn’t care for realistic representations, and I already knew that if I became an artist, I’d be like Simone Martini, or Bosch (my first love), or Charles Schulz, or George Herriman.
When I went to Assisi, I saw Giotto’s series of frescoes on the life of Saint Francis, and Simone Martini’s on the life of Saint Martin. After that, I would always look for similar cycles in churches and art books. What I loved about those series was the visual storytelling, how you could follow the characters from one scene to the other. Usually the subject was the life of this saint or that, and I loved the images of martyrs, with their absurdity: Saint Stephen with a stone balanced on his head; Saint Agatha holding her own cut-off breasts on a plate; Saint Bartholomew carrying his own skin on his shoulder.
All this, and comics, and picture books were a big inspiration for me. I knew that I wanted to tell stories with pictures, somehow, but I was not sure I could make a living with that. Like you, though, I didn’t see myself working in an office. I couldn’t stand being in a classroom for one day, imagine in a cubicle for a lifetime.
Going back to Little Bear: I still adore those books as much as I did as a child, and they still make me feel comfortably melancholic. I’m not sure why. It might partially have to do with the colors: that combination of blue and sepia in the first book is one reason for sure. But the thought of a mother who forgets her child’s birthday is indeed excruciating. Little Bear wisely carries on and makes the soup for his friends, but you can tell from his expression that he is deeply disheartened. When the mother comes in with the cake, he is obviously relieved. But after a day like that, something must be irremediably lost.
May I change subject completely? I’m curious to ask you, when you are working on a book, or even at a drawing, is there anything that worries you?
Saint Agatha looks remarkably calm for someone carrying her own breasts on a plate. I guess that’s why she’s a saint.
I can see in your work the blending of influences–Bosch and Martini and Charles Schulz. No one else in the world has whipped those up together!
I grew up in Pasadena, Ca, at the time, a town with a great modern art museum. I was exposed to contemporary art of time before I knew a lot about classical art. I just remember Rembrandt etchings, and of course there were Gustav Dore’s illustrations for Dante’s Inferno. We weren’t supposed to look at them—supposedly too disturbing for children, so of course that made them even more fascinating.
This image is not the most gruesome, but it’s the one that stuck in my child-mind the most:
Gustav Dore from Dante’s Inferno: Dante addresses Pope Nicholas III
In college, I developed a fondness, as you did, for the wonky perspective in medieval and early Renaissance paintings. That engaging combination of earnestness and innocence. And I was really fond of annunciations, too. Angels kneeling in rooms with tiled floors!
I like that your work has an overtly Italian flavor. You are bringing something to the party that no one else here is. I know everybody is obsessed with your patterned floors, and I am too. I get lost a bit, gazing at them. They’re not only beautiful, but define space in such a satisfying way.
Now I’m ready to talk about worry: What person who makes things and puts them out in the world doesn’t worry? I worry about making deadlines, of course. With each new book, I worry that I won’t accomplish what I set out to do.
And there’s always the worry that even if you do accomplish what you intend within the form, the world won’t get it. A book is a communication, and of course I want that communication to be received and understood.
When I work, I always intend to be carefree and loose through the whole illo process, but hardly ever get there. I end up obsessing over every detail and never stop editing, fixing and adjusting till they rip the files out of my hands, because I’m worried things aren’t perfect. Which they never are.
So my biggest worry, I think, is that I have this wild passion for the picture book form and I worry that I won’t be able to do everything in and with it that I long to do. But I don’t suppose any person in a creative field has ever accomplished all that they hoped to.
So, what worries you? I mean, besides the state of the middle east, global warming, and stuff like that.
Of course I also worry about the same thing, that I won’t be able to do my books as perfectly as I wish. But more than trying my best, and worrying, I cannot do much about it!
But there is something else going around these days, especially in the often oversensitive world of children’s book publishing, that worries me. It’s this generalized tendency to overanalyze and morbidly second-guess the intentions of authors and illustrators, particularly when dealing with race and gender. I think that if a book is good, well written and well illustrated, and honest, it cannot be harmful. But sometimes, while writing and drawing, I find myself anxiously anticipating what other people might be seeing in my work, and I have to fight back that feeling in order to work freely and not censor myself.
(We should probably wrap it up soon, as Phil might have already forgotten about us. Unless you have anything to add, of course!)
(EDITOR’S NOTE: Thanks Sergio, but I never forget anything. Ever.)
I don’t think it’s just the world of children’s publishing that’s sensitive–we’re in an era when the basic assumptions of white privilege are rightfully being questioned. All this discussion and parsing is necessary, I think, to get us past taking things for granted that shouldn’t be taken for granted. The fallout can be that well-meaning people get caught in the cross-fire. Because periods of consciousness-raising are challenging. But hopefully we can all cut each other some degree of slack, and not see evil intent where there isn’t any. Which doesn’t mean we shouldn’t each talk about how various books affect us from our own reasoned points of view.
Yes, as picture book makers we have to balance being sensitive to others’ different life experiences with being true to our own life experience. But, hey, meshing world-awareness and self-awareness, though sometimes uncomfortable, hopefully expands our mental horizons and our compassion.
I’ve enjoyed ruminating with you over these months of our correspondence.
SERGIO: Thank you, Antoinette! This was good.
Conversation ended 7 January 2016, 9:39 a.m. E.T.
EDITOR’S NOTE: I just have to say, Antoinette’s dissection of Little Bear has been one of my favorite moments of Number Five Bus so far. Little Bear has a special hold on Erin as well. I offer to you, Exhibit A:
Thank you Sergio. Thank you Antoinette. And thank you all for reading. Now go make your own soup…