There comes a time in every woman’s life when she is asked to interview a childhood idol.
Put another way . . .
There comes a time in my life, say every half a year or so, when I am asked to interview one of my own childhood idols. Most recently, that someone was Carle Honors honoree Chris Van Allsburg. You may know Mr. Allsburg from such books as Jumanji, Polar Express, The Mysteries of Harris Burdick, etc. For me, my favorite Van Allsburg’s include The Stranger (a perfect book for this time of year, don’t you think?), Bad Day at Riverbend, and most recently Queen of the Falls. The prospect of interviewing him at the Honors was daunting, to say the least, but I have a marvelous ability to turn off the muscle inhibiting awe-factor in my brain, so I was confident that I could do this thing. Semi-confident at the very least.
The Carle Honors, just to clarify, are a yearly fundraiser for The Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art. Now in their Eighth year, the honorees for 2013 included such luminaries as the aforementioned Mr. Van Allsburg (Artist), Lynda Johnson Robb and Carol H. Rasco of Reading is Fundamental (Angel), Phyllis Fogelman Baker (Mentor), and Barbara Bader (Bridge). If you able to go you are privy to a wonderful array of tiny food, magnificent company, and lots of lovely pieces of art that you could bid on if you happened to have a spare $2000 or so burning a hole in your pocket. My fantasy art piece that I would bid on if I suddenly won the lottery was a Jon Klassen piece featuring a sheep. It was a very Klassen-esque sheep. A dry, witty baa baa that would have made an excellent gift for my mother. Ah well. Next time.
Mr. Van Allsburg was not around when I arrived so I busied myself with small talk and some very successful attempts to cram large quantities of tiny food into my gaping maw. This plan, naturally, had to reach a conclusion when Mr. Van Allsburg entered the room. I was a bit too intimidated to accost. Fortunately someone else was perfectly happy to accost at will, and before we knew it we were seated at a small table with my audio recorder sitting between us. Here is what transpired. I will take pains to cut out all the times I had to politely refuse the tiny food offered to me by passing waiters. Apparently I’d set a precedent for myself that evening. They weren’t about to leave me alone without a fight.
Betsy: Well, first of all thank you so much for meeting with me. I’m a huge huge fan. I love The Stranger. If anybody has a one Chris Van Allsburg book that they choose, The Stranger would actually be mine. Particularly at this time of year it’s my favorite book.
Chris Van Allsburg: Where did you grow up?
BB: I grew up in Kalamazoo, Michigan.
CVA: Oh. Not far from where I grew up.
BB: Where’d you grow up?
CVA: Grand Rapids.
BB: Oh! Yeah, just around the corner.
CVA: That book usually finds more interest with those who grew up in the northern latitudes. Because down south the myth of Jack Frost doesn’t exist. They don’t know who he is. Never heard of him.
BB: If you’re going to have that picture of him clasping his hand to his head holding a leaf they’re going to say, “And that means what exactly?”
Now these days it looks like they’re rereleasing your books. I just got in The Wreck of the Zephyr.
CVA: Well they aren’t rereleasing them because fortunately I have not had a single title go OP [out-of-print].
BB: You’ve never had a single title? Really?
CVA: No, they’ve all just chugged along, year after year. So the new edition is not bringing it back into print. It’s a digital reproduction. So the quality of the pictures is much better because when it was first reproduced it was old analog stuff and it never looked that good to me. The color fidelity is better and it’s sharper. And there’s just things you can go in and do to fix it that you can’t do the old way.
BB: Now the covers, are they original covers that you’ve made or have they been taken from the book in some way?
CVA: In the case of Jumanji, that originally had a jacket that was an interior image, and so is the new one. It’s just a different image and it’s bled, which is kind of a less traditional way to jacket a book. I always had very old-fashioned ideas about taking a picture, putting a little white line around it and then putting a colored frame around it.
BB: The Polar Express . . .
CVA: Oh no, almost all my books were like that. The Widow’s Broom is actually different. But, for the most part, the jacket was laid out a lot like the inside with the addition of a little color. But these new jackets that they’ve placed on The Polar Express. . . . well that didn’t go bleed but Jumanji looks a little more modern and same with The Wreck of the Zephyr.
BB: Are there plans to do it for other titles in the series?
CVA: Well, I don’t know. It is hard to justify because there is some expense going back and doing all the production. And the rational, or at least, the sort of excuse for doing it. . . these last two books, Jumanji and The Wreck and the Zephyr, it’s because of their longevity. They’ve been in print that long and so they had birthdays.
BB: Now are they making a new Jumanji movie? There was a rumor about that at one point.
CVA: Well, they actually did make what I thought of as a new Jumanji movie. It’s called Zathura.
BB: *laughs* Well, yes.
CVA: Sony actually commissioned some market research to see what the kind of residual interest in Jumanji might be and, of course, years ago the residual interest in a 20-year-old film would be really tiny. But because of the way people consume entertainment now you can actually have a strong fan base for films that are long gone and that’s what they discovered. That there’s a lot of people out there who would be willing to buy a ticket to a new Jumanji.
BB: I would. It’s absolutely true.
CVA: It can be so many different things. It can be a remake, it can be a sequel, it can be a prequel. So Sony still plays around with that idea but they haven’t committed themselves to anything.
BB: One of my favorite recent books you’ve done was Queen of the Falls. Are you going to be doing any more nonfiction in the future or was that sort of a one-off?
CVA: Well, I’d actually set on the idea of doing nonfiction before I set on the idea of Annie Taylor. Just as a way to create new challenges and do something different. So I decided the specific kind of nonfiction book I wanted to do was inspired by the old biographies I read when I was a child. The biography of Babe Ruth, etc. So I was casting around for what I thought was a worthy subject. You know, someone’s whose life would be filled with events that would be interesting to children. There are a lot of, I suppose, characters that might apply. Lion tamers and things like that. Magicians. But I read about Annie Taylor and I didn’t remember her name, but I read about her probably in the early 70s. I can remember, I worked in a little factory and they had a lunchroom where there were stacks of old Sports Illustrateds and I would read them at lunch. And I remember one lunch hour reading this piece called “Daredevils of Niagara Falls”, and I read about a number of characters but when I read about her I was amazed because she was the first person to go over the falls . . . and she was a she!
BB: And she wasn’t young!
CVA: And she was over 60. So I thought, that’s such a peculiar thing. Such a peculiar event in American history. I mean it’s not an epic event that changed the course of the world but it’s still so strange to me. I thought it was odd that it wasn’t more widely known. Because if you asked people no one could have named her.
BB: No. No one can name the first person to go over Niagara Falls, which seems a little strange!
CVA: So I was bewildered right from the beginning because I could remember reading about this character but I couldn’t remember anything else about it besides from that. And I thought that was such an obscure piece of knowledge, not having heard about it for 30 or 40 years, I thought it was still buried somewhere and I would have to do some really deep research. I’d really have to work hard. And I thought maybe I would even have to, y’know, contact Time-Life and ask if I could go into their archive.
BB: Had an adult biography ever been made of her?
CVA: Nothing. I didn’t even know her name so I didn’t even know exactly how to search. But I was contemplating maybe, as I say, calling Time-Life and asking if there was a microfilm library of old Sports Illustrateds and I’d find it out that way. But then it occurred to me, because this was only a few years ago, I could just go Google “woman”, “Niagara Falls”, “barrel”. Which is all I had to do. So I went in and there was a fair amount of information about her but I was pleased to discover that no one had written a picture book biography and the closest thing to a biography was actually a monograph. It was a very kind of limited publication available only in a handful of libraries. There was a long lyrical poem about her.
BB: Well I don’t want to keep you too long. I know you’re the star of the evening here.
CVA: No, I’m not. There’s other people here. Jon Scieszka’s here.
BB: *laughs – sorry Jon* Can you say what you’re working on next?
BB: What are you working on next?
CVA: Well, sort of in the spirit of trying to work outside of what I think of as my strike zone, which is fantasy, I’ve written a book which does have some improbable action in it but not fantastic. It is inspired by events in my own family’s life. It’s the moment in time almost all parents face when their children beg and plead to bring into the home a small furry creature which lives in a cage and which they will shower with affection and attention. And so we did that, but the outcome wasn’t what they promised. Even though, I think in my family, we actually sort of emphasized the need to live up to that idea of nurturing this little creature, it didn’t work out that way and the creature had various places it went to after it left our home. So I’ve written a story about the misadventures of a small furry creature who lives in a cage and has a succession of owners.
BB: Picture book?
CVA: Oh yes.
BB: I wasn’t sure. Maybe you’re suddenly doing chapter books.
CVA: Well it’s interesting. When I sort of figured out that was what I wanted to work on, it occurred to me that usually when you write a book for kids that has a tiny animal in it, the tiny animal is a surrogate for a child. Is a proxy for a child because, children (small, powerless, not masters of their destiny) when they see little animals that are vulnerable like that, they always identify with the animal. I’m the animal. I’m Peter Rabbit. But the interesting thing about this is that there is a little animal and it has the kinds of misfortunes that a child would be inclined to identify with but the characters who are visiting some of those misfortunes are children, which is another character in the book we don’t usually identify with: the children. So I’ve kind of cast the children, not as villains, but I suppose to a degree as a kind of antagonists.
BB: Yes. I remember in Queen of the Falls that it was straight up nonfiction but people still said, “Oh there’s a mysterious shot of the barrel in the water.” They really wanted that mystery.
CVA: Well there was a postscript in there where I mention the fact that for most of my career as a writer I’ve been attracted to fantasy and thought I’d do something different but as I learned more about Annie and learned more about the Falls which I visited a few times I really discovered that there’s truly kind of fantastic and surreal about things like that when human beings want to seize the golden ring, when they’re sort of untethered from reason and logic and do something big.
BB: It’s a truly American book. No one else would think, “I know how I can make money! I’ll throw my body over the waterfall.”
CVA: She would be an early example of too of somebody. There wasn’t a media that would make that happen. But there were enough newspapers that she believed that she could make it big.
BB: And then the manager hired another woman, was it, to pretend to be her?
BB: . . . and it wouldn’t look like their grandmother. Did they ever find the original barrel? I know that the original barrel just got taken and they never found it? That’s a pity. For all you know there’d be Annie Taylor Societies around.
CVA: Well when I went on my tour that’s who they set me up with. I spoke in the library on the Canadian side and then an auditorium space on the American side and there was a woman who evidently works the close precincts of the falls dressed as Annie Taylor.
CVA: And she came to lunch.
BB: Well, I think that’s pretty much all I had. Oh. Just one last question I suppose. Is there any one of your books that you feel should get more attention? It’s one of your favorites and you’ve always really loved it and it’s never been one of the ones that people constantly talk about. Is there any one of your books that’s closer to your heart than any other? I know, it’s like choosing amongst your children. Which one do you love best?
CVA: You know, it’s always the same answer from me. It’s posed differently as “What’s your favorite book.” And I’ll say it’s the one I’m working on. For an artist you’re almost required to feel that way because if you thought it wasn’t quite as good as the one you did years ago, you wouldn’t keep working on it.
BB: Or they’ll say their first book because it was their first.
CVA: No, I don’t feel that way. But you asked . . .
BB: Which one do you feel just doesn’t get enough attention?
CVA: I suppose if I could take all attention I’ve gotten a redistribute it amongst my books I might take a little attention from The Polar Express and sprinkle a little of that on A Bad Day at Riverbend.
BB: I love A Bad Day at Riverbend! All right. Well so much for meeting with me!
So that was that. Fun stuff. After that it was back to the tiny food (round two) as well as the actual dinner. I found myself at a truly lovely table with Ted and Betsy Lewin alongside Jennifer and Richard Michelson. Here are some photos taken of the event that might amuse.
Then the bells rang and we were shuffled upstairs to the actual awarding of the awards. Since Jennifer had to leave before the speeches, Rich was nice enough to let me borrow her seat upstairs! Awfully nice of him.
Our hosts for the evening were Angela and Tony DiTerlizzi.
And we were off! Barbara Bader, if you do not know, was a longtime contributor to the Horn Book and wrote the seminal scholarly book, American Picturebooks from Noah’s Ark to The Beast Within. She was quick and to the point. Usually folks at these awards are.
Next up, the daughter of Lyndon Johnson. I honestly had no idea that Lynda Johnson Robb, Reading Is Fundamental’s Founding Board Member and Chairman Emeritus, held that distinction. She was introduced by Paul O. Zelinsky and then proceeded to inform me of a variety of facts, none of which I had known.
Carol Rasco, President and CEO of Reading Is Fundamental, is someone I knew far better. Check out that awesome necklace while you’re at it. Good stuff!
Next up, Rosemary Wells. *check program* Rosemary Wells? Well, yes. She was introducing Phyllis Fogelman Baker, editor and publisher, and someone who apparently had a thing for high high heels.
Unfortunately, Ms. Baker couldn’t make it. Fortunately, it was decided that Julius Lester would do the honors. Unfortunately (this is turning into a Remy Charlip book here) he couldn’t make it either. Fortunately, Jerry Pinkney was on hand to read Mr. Lester’s own tribute to Ms. Baker. And I must say, he did it like a pro. Yes, the words “pubic hair” did consist of part of the speech, but Pinkney read on like it didn’t even matter.
Fun Fact: Do not read the words “pubic hair” aloud if your next presenter is Jon Scieszka because by GUM he’s going to find a way to incorporate it into his introduction. Indeed, Scieszka was there to introduce Van Allsburg. His decision then was to construct a false narrative of Mr. Van Allsburg’s past (in keeping with the tone of his books), incorporating all the various oddities folks had mentioned about the previous honorees. It was mildly brilliant.
You will notice that I have a penchant for picking the photos where folks spread their hands. I cannot lie. I really prefer them. Here is Mr. Van Allsburg doing the deed. By the way, doesn’t he look EXACTLY the way you’d expect Chris Van Allsburg to look? I don’t know why but somehow, this is perfect. And in the course of his speech he included the line I’ve made the title of today’s post. I’m still turning it over in my mind.
Ah, but the night was not done! A final award was to be bestowed by our hosts and it was none other than the golden bow tie award. These went, I believe, to Roger Sutton and Mr. Van Allsburg (one must assume in lieu of Timothy Travaglini, who was not present at the time).
Then on to desserts . . .
. . . and goodie bags . . .
And the night was done. For the record, that little Stinky Cheese Man puppet is a blast. When you stick your fingers down his legs to make him run, his head bobs in all possible directions like crazy. It’s incredibly amusing. As for the bow tie, I know a nice pit bull who appreciated it. This is true.
Many thanks to the folks at the Carle who made all of this possible. I believe they wanted me to mention on their behalf, “We thank everyone who came out to support The Carle in its 10th anniversary year!” And for my part, thanks too to Alexandra Pearson for setting up the Van Allsburg interview.
For more info on the 2013 Honors be sure to check out this website as well.