Yesterday at the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art I saw a screening of a documentary that’s been showing around the country. Ted Dalaney and Steve Winthrow, the creators of Library of the Early Mind: A Grownup Look at the Art of Children’s Literature, were on hand and explained that the title came from New Yorker writer, Adam Gopnik.
In the film we hear over 40 illustrators, writers, librarians, booksellers, editors, and critics speak from studios, libraries, or offices: once in a while, we even get to watch over a creator’s shoulder. The film starts with an image of a locomotive and words we soon learn are spoken by Chris Van Allsburg about the origin of The Polar Express. Much as C.S. Lewis worked from a lamp in the forest he’d dreamed years before for The Chronicles of Narnia, Chris Van Allsburg took a recurring mental image and asked if he was a child with a train that could take him anywhere, where would it go?
There wasn’t much more discussion of work’s origins in the film, but others touched on how this is a literature written by adults for children, sometimes for the child they had been or, as Anita Silvey remarked, often trying to create the childhood they wished they had. We hear David Small talking about Stitches, his graphic memoir about a miserable childhood written for teens and adults. Natalie Babbitt, author of Tuck Everlasting, speaks of how between the ages of six to twelve, we learn good things and “some not good things…The questions we ask as children are hard questions, which some adults forget,” and want to protect children from.
We hear from illustrator Jerry Pinkney and his son, Brian Pinkney, on growing up in a household where writing and illustrating was part of the day. Brian tells of going to his studio and playing drums before getting down to work. “I always knew play was part of making art, keeping my mind wide open and creating from there.” And “Smaller stories help children understand the bigger stories. One story is in books, the bigger story is the world.” Other of my favorite observations are from illustrator Brian Selznik on working from an author’s text. “You’re opening the words.” An illustrator is considering “the best materials, lines, colors, style to tell the story that needs to be told.” Mo Willems said, “Drawing is a physical form of empathy… and if there’s anything this world needs, it’s empathy.”
There was quite a lengthy interview with the cheerful Nancy Garden about her groundbreaking novel for young adults, Annie on my Mind, in which two girls fall and remain happily in love, and a shorter interview with writer Leslea Newman on the picture book, Heather Has Two Mommies. And some allusions to the business side of things. Norton Juster, author of the Phantom Tollbooth, seemed disturbed about gatekeepers who want only what children already know. Lane Smith spoke of rejections of The Sneaky Cheese Man, which went on to delight millions. Jane Yolen spoke with heart about the two sides: “there’s literature with its great history, with a breath (or was it breadth?), and it’s a business.” Her tone flattened on that last word, and I couldn't help wishing I could hear what she might be saying beyond the cut. Writer-illustrator Grace Lin remarked that if you thought about all the people who had to consider a book before it reached a child, you could go crazy.
And of course there was lots more, including Richard Michelson speaking about picture books crossing cultures and Jack Gantos showing pages from his notebooks with journal entries on one side and fiction on the other. My apologies if I misheard words in any of the quotes above. Here’s a taste from the trailer. You can click on this link to see where the documentary will play next.