Brian Alderson on the life, career and books of a distinguished American illustrator
In this issue of Books for Keeps there are, I suppose, about 90 notices of current picture books. They go to join the hundreds that have appeared over the last twelve months, and the thousands over the years since the magazine was founded. Much of the notice-writing has been appreciative in a descriptive sort of way, but rarely, if ever, have reviewers sought to probe the source from which the idea for a picture book might come, or trace what may well be its switchback progress towards completion as a printed book. Perhaps the very smoothness of today’s technology may help to give the impression that picture books are easy.
But easy they are not – and something of the complications that attend their creation has been brought home to me in the last few years as I have worked on a study of the American illustrator, Ezra Jack Keats. He is not now a figure so well-known to English children’s-book aficionados as he would have been 20 years ago; nor is he a figure whose work automatically appeals to my own critical faculties. But in 1989 I was given an unusual opportunity to look closely at a large portion of his creative work, and it seemed to me that the very exercise of getting behind the print on the page of the finished book would be an enlightening experience. Perhaps it might offer, too, some general insights about the making of picture books.
The job came about in accidental fashion, for which my peculiar association with the University of Southern Mississippi is to blame. This university is not one that springs readily to mind when the great academies of the West are under consideration, but it has for many years played an energetic part in the field of children’s literature. I got involved with it through its annual British Studies Course (coming to England to avoid the steamy South) and later became a regular attender at its Children’s Book Festival, where a Silver Medallion is awarded each year to the great and the good ‘for distinguished services to children’s literature’. There, too, I discovered the University Library’s deGrummond Collection which turns out to be one of the finest assemblages of original manuscripts and illustrations for children’s books in the whole of North America.
It so happened that in 1980 Ezra Jack Keats was awarded that Festival’s Silver Medallion, and when he visited the University to receive it (he, a New Yorker, in such unfamiliar territory!) he was deeply impressed by the scale and the highly professional curatorship of the deGrummond Collection. He expressed a wish that his work might eventually have a place there, and, after his death in 1983, the Foundation that bore his name negotiated the handing over of his whole archive to the Collection. (Eventually the Foundation donated many of his paintings, too.) At the same time, provision was made for the promotion of Keats’s work in various ways and for the establishment of an Ezra Jack Keats Lecture as an annual event at the University. The first of these lectures was billed to be given by Keats’s friend, Selma Lanes, the author of that majestic volume The Art of Maurice Sendak. A special mini-festival was organised for the occasion and, since I happened to be in the USA at the time, and since I too was a friend of Selma’s, I was asked to come along and do the introductory honours.
Well – at the last moment Selma unfortunately fell ill, and the Introducer suddenly found that he was going to be giving the lecture. Towels soaked in iced tea (the local beverage on a dry campus) were the order of the day; much call was made on the resources of the deGrummond Collection; the lecture got given – and repercussions began. The President of the EJK Foundation, Keats’s boyhood friend, Martin Pope, got the notion that the hapless lecturer would be the chap to tackle a catalogue of the Keats archive at Southern Mississippi and debates were held to see if that could be done.
Now Martin Pope (who is a very distinguished bio-chemist) and his wife Lillie (who is a very distinguished child psychologist) are persuasive people. They talked the University into making provision for the writing of a catalogue; they offered substantive help in New York – Keats’s stamping-ground – with visits to bashed-up bits of Brooklyn and introductions to a host of Keats’s friends and associates. And by a series of neat double-shuffles they guided the innocent cataloguer into a position where he would not only prepare a detailed account of the deGrummond holdings, but would write ‘The Life and Works’ as well.
So began my stint in the Ezra Jack Keats archive – all 165 boxes of it, to say nothing of outside material stored in a plan-chest and on special shelves. By great good fortune these boxes had been organised and given a hand-list by Dee Jones, the deGrummond curator, who is not only a superb librarian but also a bibliographer, so she was well aware of the need to group things in a significant, as well as an orderly, way. My job, in compiling the extended catalogue, was to refine this preliminary piece of organisation in order to elaborate as best I could the working-life of the artist. The catalogue necessarily had to precede the discursive study, so I set about opening up the boxes.
Half a lifetime was there. Thanks to Dee Jones’s careful sorting I found personalia (family papers, appointment books, passports, etc.); correspondence (most importantly, with publishers and with the film-makers, Weston Woods, but also, in 17 boxes, letters and objets from schoolchildren); records of journeys and celebrations – for Keats had not only won the American Library Association’s Caldecott Medal for his ‘breakthrough’ book The Snowy Day in 1963, but from that time on he had been fêted around the nation (a library was named after him in Ohio, a Keats procession took place in Portland, Oregon – and indeed, his book Skates inspired the citizens of a Japanese town to get themselves a roller-skating rink and he went there to open it).
Crucially, though, alongside all these papers, there were boxes that contained the preparatory and finished material for 35 of the 84 books illustrated by Keats. That may not seem an altogether satisfying percentage, but, like many freelance artists, Keats had taken on a host of commissions in his early years for which the artwork was bought outright by the publishers and hence not returned to him. With his discovery of his metier in the 1960s however – initially with My Dog is Lost! (1960), a book never published in Britain – he began to save material, and the period of his prominence is marked by holdings of material that can document almost every step in the making and printing of his books.
Let me give one example: the tough struggle over Apt.3, which was published in New York in 1971 and in London, by Hamish Hamilton, in 1972 (the correspondence shows that the publishing problems associated with costing this book caused Keats’s usual English publisher, the Bodley Head, to decline it, with the result that he moved to Hamish Hamilton for several of his later picture books).
Apt.3 is a book that meant a lot to Keats: an atmospheric, Keepingesque study of two boys mooching through a decrepit apartment block and discovering friendship with a blind harmonica-player who lives at No. 3. The archive reveals a succession of manuscripts that show Keats’s difficulty with his text (at one point it seems to be related to the stories about Peter and Archie than began with The Snowy Day, but eventually it emerges as an independent, ‘one-off’ picture book). At the same time, Keats is working at the images that will form the basis for his illustrations. There are no fewer than 196 photographs from which he will derive both backgrounds and the broad features of his two boy-characters, and there is a profusion of separate sketches and story-boards which show him planning the progress and relationship of the book’s endpapers, title-page, and 16 double-spread illustrations. And finally, there is the array of finished artwork that will become these illustrations: paintings in acrylic on board, which was to become Keats’s favourite medium, although there is one tiny patch of collage which is the technique for which he is most renowned.
The paintings, even when muted as in Apt.3, and the collages bear witness to Keats’s genius as a colourist (he was a wonderful paper-marbler, too) and many of his original illustrations now tour as dramatic subjects in their own right. Nevertheless, for all the privilege of being able to work with this material over a long period, I found that the most exciting part of writing the two books was the opportunity to watch ideas germinate and allow themselves to be shaped into the straitjacket imposed by picture-book formats. What happened with Apt.3 recurs time and again but always under the governance of the ruling idea for each story. Paper mice modelled for Dreams, a gorgeous green-faced puppet for Louie.
Against such evidence of creative energy, however, there was always the disheartening suplement of post-publication responses. Here and there in the 165 boxes would be folders with carefully preserved clippings of book reviews and these, together with ones that I added after a trawl through specialist journals, gave a fairly depressing picture of the level of contemporary critical thought. Ignoring Hicksville notices that talked about ‘Mrs Keats’ or ‘Ezra Jack Yeats’, and leaving aside an unedifying attack on the artist by the Council for Interracial Books for Children which showed primitive politicisation at its worst (his chief critic mistook Willie the dog for Peter the boy) the degree of thought applied to his work – even in the pages of the main specialist journals – was negligible.
Obviously, one does not expect reviewers to know the tussle that may have gone into making a particular book (although an awareness that tussles exist may help). Obviously, extensive reviewing may be precluded by the number of books queuing up to be noticed. Nevertheless, the disparity between the artist’s effort to get words and images working together through the pages of a book and the reviewers’ failure even to perceive that such a thing needed to be assessed was striking.
Fortunately, the happy enthusiasm with which Americans greet their most popular authors meant that the faiblesses of critics were not reflected among those who work with children. The mountains of children’s letters in the archive (by no means all of them ‘class exercises’) were evidence of this. And, supported as they were, by other correspondence, by films and by news of such things as Keats’s paper-marbling sessions, they revealed an artist as endearing as he was dedicated.
Brian Alderson’s book, Ezra Jack Keats: Artist and Picture Book Maker (1 56554 006 9), from which the illustrations on these pages are taken, is published by Pelican and costs £35.00.
Sadly, none of Ezra Jack Keats’s books mentioned in this article are currently available in the UK. The Snowy Day is due for a reprint by Puffin in November this year.
The Art of Maurice Sendak by Selma Lanes is published by Harry N Abrams.
Brian Alderson, who is a technological drop-out, wrote his two-volume work in pencil on sheets of yellow paper. These were deciphered and typed onto discs by a graduate assistant.
Note: The Silver Medallion ‘for distinguished services to children’s literature’ usually, but not always, goes to North Americans. In 1984 the recipient was Quentin Blake.