This is a blog featured on Writers Rumpus. Part II coming soon.
This is part 1 of a 2 part look at an amazing family of children’s book creators. This installment is about an exhibit and an interview with Ed Emberley and his wife Barbara, who started it all. The other half of this story will appear on Friday, April 7 and is an interview with Rebecca and Michael, who are the Emberley adult children, and Marie-Louise Fitzpatrick, an Irish author/illustrator who is married to Michael.
Ed and Barbara Emberley’s One Wide River to Cross was the sole runner up for the Caldecott Award in 1967. The following year, Drummer Hoff really fired the Emberley career off in style, when it won the prestigious Caldecott Award. The story’s message of peace and disarmament, published during the Vietnam War, is still as hopeful today as ever. Barbara Emberley’s story adaptation and Ed Emberley’s brightly colored block print artwork, which he developed in his…
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For the first time in its 120 year history the Worcester Art Museum just outside Boston is hosting an exhibition of a children’s book illustrator, and that illustrator is Michael’s dad, Ed Emberley. We went to see it in January with Ed and Barbara and some good friends.
Ed has written and/or illustrated more than a hundred books over his long career, working in various mediums and many styles, always experimenting and exploring. The exhibition in Worcester displays a wide variety of his art, rough sketches and finished pieces for some of his most iconic books, including Drummer Hoff (Caldecott Medal 1968), the best-selling and innovative Drawing Book series and many more.
The art for One Wide River to Cross (Caldecott Honor 1967) was created using woodcuts, some of which you can see pictured below:
Woodcuts are always carved in reverse so you can see the animals are marching in the opposite direction on the prints (below). This is final art marked up with instructions for the print run.
In the printed book there are colourful backgrounds, like so:
The art for The Story of Paul Bunyan (1963) was also created using woodcuts. Below is a print pulled from the ginormous woodblock Ed made as a promotion for the book – that’s the woodblock you can see to the left of the image. We all laughed when Rick stood in front of it, having unintentionally dressed the part!
Part of the joy of walking around the exhibition with Ed was being able to ask questions about the techniques he used. Here is a small selection of pieces from the exhibition – click on an image if you’d like to read how it was made. (You will need to roll down a bit below the image for the info, if you’re using a phone.)
We also heard some family memories. Barbara, Rebecca and Michael were often drafted in to help finish art and Barbara and Michael tried to recall who did what on which book. Most of Ed’s pre-computer book illustrations were created using the “pre-separation” process – a technique which involved using Ed’s original black line art combined with three additional paper overlays indicating colour placement. Michael explained that for a book like the ABC, he might have created the overlays on say, an alligator, Rebecca a bear, Barbara a cat. Meaning, with a felt-tip pen, Michael would have marked the areas which Ed intended for the alligator as yellow, red and blue, literally ‘colouring them in’ (on overlays) like a highly detailed coloring book. Yes, it’s confusing if you’ve never seen it done! Ed’s studio is in the family home, Barbara worked on many of the books and in more recent years Rebecca and Ed have created books together, so all the books are deeply woven into everyone’s memories.
It was really interesting to see Ed’s work explored in this way. He has created so many great books that it can be overwhelming, but the exhibition doesn’t try to show it all. Curator Caleb Neelon and Worcester Museum director Adam Rozen chose some favourites from across Ed’s work and the result is terrific.
And it was great fun going to see it with friends – Tom and Rick, Anne, Sika and Susannah. We made a party of it! The show runs at Worcester Art Museum (MA) till April 9th.
Bob fidgeted in his oak office chair. He glanced up from his typewriter at the clock on the wall. 3PM. Two more hours and he could leave. The holidays had just come and gone, but the usual joyous event had been celebrated under a cloud.
The papers that year were full of bad news. A massive war looked likely again in Europe. Germany’s new fascist leader Adolf Hitler had just announced in parliament his plan to exterminate all European Jews. Bob and his wife Evelyn were both Jewish. Germany would soon march its rebuilt army through Vienna, Prague and then into Poland, killing thousands of people on its way. Russia had invaded Finland, Franco’s Fascists had taken over the government in Spain. Britain was arming for war. America was watching nervously.
Bob wanted to get a something nice for his wife, who was terribly ill with cancer. It was snowing outside on the streets of Chicago, but working for Montgomery Ward, one of the biggest department stores in the city, he could shop by taking the stairs up to the ladies department without going outside.
Bob glanced at the clock again. 4PM. One more hour. He hit two keys at once and his typewriter jammed. He cursed just as a bell rang and he was called to the phone. He crossed the room, wiping deep blue ink from his fingers as best he could before he picking up the inter office line.
“Bob? How’s it going? Not busy are you? Good. Listen, gotta job for you. Boss wants to get started on this year’s Christmas campaign early. Macy’s is killing us. He wants a promo piece, yeah, something for the kiddies. Something happy. Uh huh, ‘first 200 customers through the door gets one free’ kinda thing.”
Bob glanced at the clock again – 4:45.
“Nope. Boss wants you. You’re always doing those funny little poems. And Bob, the boss wants to see some ideas tomorrow. Christmas will be here again before you know it. You on it? All right. See you, 9AM, sharp.”
It was already dark outside, the holiday lights still up, blazing in the store windows, gathering crowds of post-holiday shoppers. But deep in the basement offices of the advertising department of Montgomery Ward department store, there were no windows. Just the glow of a green desk lamp.
Slumped at his desk, Bob aimlessly sharpened a pencil with his pocket knife. How was he supposed to work on something happy for kids with all the madness going on in the world?
He tried to focus. Other young Jewish American artists at that time, also engrossed by the horrors unfolding across Europe, were creating new kinds of superheros – comics artist Bob Kane and writer Bill Finger created Batman the same year, writer Jerry Siegel and artist Joe Shuster created Superman just the year before.
But Bob would invent his own, quieter character. Small, persecuted, an outsider – one of Santa’s reindeer. A little deer with a big nose – an all too common antisemitic caricature of the time. Rudolph. Rudy the Red-nose. Bob began to type, typed some more. The nose became the key to the story. Soon the clock showed 2AM. But he’d done it. He had his hero.
It’s impossible to know the exact genesis of any creative idea. But some facts are clear, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer was undoubtedly born on a dark day in January, 1939, in the mind of Robert L. May, at a small desk in the advertising department of the Montgomery Ward store in Chicago, amid very personal, unimaginable grief and inescapable daily accounts of inhuman global turmoil, cruelty and suffering.
Sadly, before the work was completed, Robert L May’s wife, Evelyn, died. Robert was told he needn’t finish the project but he chose to work through his grief, eventually completing it in August of that year.
The rhyming poem was an instant hit. 2.4 million copies were given away during Christmas 1939. The hopeful tale of a plucky little deer with the big red nose was just the antidote to the gloom of world events.
The little book slept during the war because of paper shortages. Then after the war, another 3.5 million were printed. In 1946 Robert asked his boss if he could have the rights to Rudolph. In an act of unusual generosity, his boss agreed.
A few years later, Bob’s brother-in-law, a struggling songwriter named Johnny Marks, proposed writing a song about Rudolph. He was convinced it would boost Rudolph’s name around the world.
He was right. The song was indeed a hit, becoming the best-selling record in America for over 30 years. The May and Marks families have been caretakers of Rudolph ever since – almost 80 years. The two families need to agree on most projects, deciding what is best for the famous little deer, who is practically part of the family.
I personally became involved in Rudolph’s world when a local Boston area publisher, specializing in quality reproductions of historical literature, Applewood Books, contacted me to illustrate a second, less known and never fully illustrated story about Rudolph, titled Rudolph’s Second Christmas. They had already reprinted an exclusive edition of the first book with the original illustrations by Montgomery Ward staff artist Denver Gillen, with great success.
I met Robert May’s daughter, who at the time was managing the family Rudolph business. She told me 99% of her job involved chasing bootleggers who were using Rudolph’s image to make illegal t-shirts, coffee cups and toys. Many of the Rudolph toys you see are actually black market contraband.
I agreed to illustrate the book, and its success led to a second book project, a new edition of the original story, Rudolph, The Red-nosed Reindeer. It was published in 1994. No, I didn’t get rich. I was paid a one-off fee. You never own anything relating to a license character. I’ll never see the art again but I knew this before I started.
I’ll never suggest I suffered the mental turmoil Robert did, but somehow it seemed fitting that the color work on the first book was completed with my drawing-hand in a cast (due to an untimely broken wrist), with the help of a good friend -a skilled artist- and a lot of painkillers.
It was a rewarding experience overall, illustrating such an iconic character of American children’s literature. I grew up watching the beloved TV version. Too bad I didn’t get a chance to draw my favorite character from that animated version – one Robert L. May never imagined Rudolph would meet – the abominable snowman.
All illustrations by Michael Emberley © Robert L. May Company. Strictly copyright protected.
Make Way for Ducklings by Robert McCluskey is a classic American picturebook set in Boston. The statue commemorating the book is in Boston Public Garden and I took this photo in May, a few days before Michael and myself met one tenacious mammy duck and her two plucky ducklings in downtown Ipswich Mass. What followed was a pretty amazing set of coincidental sightings, as we anxiously followed their attempts to get back home.
Day one: we paused on our way back from morning coffee/work to look upriver from the bridge over the weir (A).In this photo the water is quite calm but that morning it was very turbulent and we were alarmed to see a duck leading her two tiny babies into the tumbling water, attempting to scale the weir.
Once we began watching we couldn’t look away. Over and over, Mammy Duck went into the foam, and over and over, the ducklings tried to follow her. After approaching the falls head-on multiple times, she led them to the right where a tree trunk was lodged, but the water there was particularly rapid so they couldn’t reach it. She gave up and brought them all the way over to the left where there’s a salmon run, but again it was too difficult for the little ducklings.
Every now and then she’d drop back to the stones in the corner of the photo above to let the babies rest, before starting all over again. The ducklings were tiring and it seemed only a matter of time before one or both of them was swept away. It was a huge relief to us when Mammy finally decided to give up and let the current bob her and the babies under the bridge we were standing on, where she led them onto a sandy bank mid-stream.
We went home, exhausted from watching. I googled ducks as soon as we got back to Ed and Barbara’s, and every article described how strong a mother duck’s instinct is to get back to her nest. We thought we had just witnessed one (sensibly) give up!
Day two: still on Irish time, we headed off early to Zumi’s for coffee.
After a few hours writing we again took the river route home, stopping as soon as we reached the water (1) to check for Painted Turtles. There was a duck swimming below us, with two small ducklings.
‘It can’t be the same one?’ Michael said.
‘This is right where we last saw her,’ I said. ‘And every other duck we’ve seen has four or more babies.’
The duck began to swim to shore and got up on the bank in front of us. We thought she was taking the babies out to bask in the sun. It took a minute to realise we had arrived just in time to witness the beginning of another attempt by Mammy Duck to get her family home.
The day before Michael had suggested that the only way the duck would get her ducklings upriver again was by land, but given the built-up nature of the water at this point he’d figured she’d have quite a way to go. He’d pointed to exactly where they were coming ashore right now as the nearest logical starting point.
This morning it seemed Mammy Duck had reached exactly the same conclusion.
We watched her lead the ducklings across the path towards a carpark. It was railed off; we couldn’t follow. Instead we walked along the river path, watching as Mammy and babies appeared between parked cars, hugging the walls of the buildings as they went.
From the bridge (A) we watched Mammy Duck lead her babies out across another wide expanse of concrete until we lost sight of them. A woman crossing the concrete stopped and turned, as if she was watching them too, then came out onto the bridge through an employee gate.
‘Did you see the ducks?’ we asked. ‘Where did they go?’
‘Up towards the street,’ she said.
We felt sure they were going to walk around the big red brick building (B) and re-enter the river on the far side of it, so we sat down on a bench and waited. When nothing happened we decided to walk to the riverbank opposite the building for a better view.
But still, no sign of the ducks.
We gave up. It was half an hour since we’d last seen them. They’d obviously slipped into the water and we’d missed it. We decided to walk the dirt track along the river anyway. I kept glancing at the bank opposite, just in case. At one point (C) I looked across and stopped. That would be a good spot to re-enter, I thought, if they haven’t already. I hung around for a bit. Then I thought I saw something – movement under the wheels of the car parked behind the pole.
‘It’s them,’ I called to Michael, who’d gone ahead. ‘Quick, quick! Here they come!’
She turned her head and looked straight over at us for a few seconds before she headed upstream. I’m sure she was checking us for danger but it felt strangely like a salute.
We followed through the trees till we reached a fence (D) and then watched the little family swim out of sight, thrilled to know they had made it home. We were amazed – at the tenacity of Mammy Duck, at the bravery and hardiness of the wee ducklings, at the serendipity which had allowed us to witness the whole thing.
So we were asked recently by a good friend living in Galway, “How would you like to house-sit for a month while I’m away?”
“Sounds good!” we replied. A chance to get away. Do a bit of writing. Perfect. We’re on.
“Oh, and you’d just need to keep these two little old grey-haired ladies company – Ellie and Dinah. Feed them, take them for walks, oh, and, they’ll need to sleep in your bed at night…”
So Ellie and Dinah are dogs, not aunties. Mel has owned several dogs in her life but I’ve never owned one, let alone slept with one. And I’ll admit I’ve been overheard making disparaging remarks about yipping “toy” dogs. So the idea of two noisy, hairy things keeping me up all night for four weeks was a potential deal-breaker. But I agreed. We committed.
Once committed, an “instruction” sheet arrived, outlining fine details like baths, feeding times, psychological history, plus post-walk towel drying and daily arthritic joint massages…
But as you can see by the photos, after four weeks, I fell for the old gals, their sad history of abandonment and rescue from shelters, their snuffling and twitching at night, their distinct complex personalities. I became so good at sore leg massages they’d fall asleep, and so efficient at a wash and blow dry I could apply for a salon job.
In short, my innate dog cynicism was broken down by these two little old ladies. I got less writing done than I thought, but now we’re home again I still occasionally wake up expecting to hear them snoring softly…
If a wordless book gets picked up by a foreign publisher there’s nothing to translate, right? Nope! There’s the title. The chosen title may sound strange or awkward or just plain dull when translated directly, so books can end up with completely different titles in different countries.
I love the sound of Owl Bat Bat Owl – the roundness of ‘owl’ and the abruptness of ‘bat’ fit the story perfectly, and the lack of punctuation helps to keep the emphasis even and flowing. As a title it encapsulates the beginning of the book when the bats are refugees ‘invading’ the owls’ perch, and the end, when they are friends and intermingling.
I love the look of it too – two three-letter words repeated in reverse: Owl Bat/Bat Owl. The word shapes look pleasing together and I was delighted when the designer at Walker Books stacked the words like so:
But the very elements which please the ear and eye in English may get lost in translation so each publisher will make a decision to keep the original title or change it to something which works better in their language.
The Danish publisher chose to translate directly, and you can see how visually different it looks, though it still sounds good (to my ear). The type size has been reduced quite a bit to accommodate ‘flagermus’ and it was set in upper and lower case with some wave action on the words to keep the effect soft.
In the Taiwanese edition the title is Owl Bat without the repeat – the two words take up all the available space. The Taiwanese publishers also requested a change to the cover to allow some text on the left, so I moved the owls over to the right for them.
The Dutch publisher also used this version of the cover and changed the title completely to My Branch! My Branch! Those exclamation marks add vehemence. Much to my delight they flipped the second ‘My Branch’ upside-down. Publishers are usually resistant to flipping text in a title – I know, I’ve tried to get them to do it a few times!
The Italian title reverse translates to something like ‘head up, upside down’, which sounds clumsy in English but looks good and sounds melodic in Italian. When I told my Italian-speaking sister the Italian version was called ‘something su, something gu’ she correctly guessed, ‘Testa in Su, Testa in Giu,’ immediately.
I don’t know what the Japanese title translates as but it’s obviously not direct:
I wonder what it says?*
*Thanks to Mio Debnam and Kris Tsang I now know this translates as ‘Owl Family, Family Bat’.
Like all my picturebook ideas Owl Bat Bat Owl began super-rough…
…before progressing to more coherent roughs, coherent enough for a publisher to decide they wanted it. Actually, I didn’t think this version was ready to be seen but I was visiting Walker Books to talk over an idea and Michael insisted I bring Owl Bat with me too.
Once Walker took the book I had to decide how I was going to make the final art. Because Owl Bat is a silent/wordless story the art needs to be very easy to read and the characters need to be front and centre of all images, their faces and eyes communicating a huge amount of story. I basically designed the images so the branch the owls and bats are on is a stage and the reader’s visual POV never changes. I wanted to use a very simple style and have easy control of the palette so I decided I would colour the art digitally – the first time ever. I did initially think I’d create the line by hand so I tried a few different things, beginning with scraperboard, then trying ink, then pencil:
In the end none worked. With my back against the wall and time ticking I began messing about on the computer, having a go at ‘painting’ the way I paint in acrylics, laying down a rough ground, then over-painting. I used a ‘brush’ that gave me a nice textured look and wielded it in my normal way, using quick slap-dash strokes, and suddenly it all began to work and feel like it was mine.
I also realised I could create a digital palette by referencing images from my previous books, which was a relief as I am a compulsive colour mixer, never using paint as it comes from the tube, always adding at least a smidge of something else to achieve the shade I want. It took a couple of weeks to get used to using an Intuos pad and pen while looking at the screen, then I was away.
The art took as long as it would have to paint on paper but I had much more control. Digitally it’s so easy to redo details without messing up the whole piece, easy to change a single colour, to lighten/darken single elements, and for these illustrations (because of the way I designed the images) that control was really important. Ultimately I think I’d have had to paint the images very large to have the same control on paper and many many images would have hit the bin along the way.
There were some heart-stopping moments when I thought it had all gone wrong and I wondered what the hell I was thinking trying to learn to make digital art ‘on the job’, but I got there, with some hand-holding from Audrey, Maria and Andrea in Walker Books. Will I be painting with pixels again? Absolutely!
Owl Bat Bat Owl is published by Walker Books tomorrow. Happy Birthday, little book!
The spark for my new picturebook Owl Bat Bat Owl came from this Christmas card Michael made for me:
One day as I looked at it I thought, ‘bet it would really horrify those owls if another creature moved in on their branch,’ and the idea was born.
As soon as I began sketching my little owls and bats I realised I was riffing on a familiar theme, one I’d explored before in The Long March (1998) and also in I am I (2006), and I was directly referencing this Native American symbol I had come across when making The Long March:
For the Choctaw this is a river symbol*. Gary Whitedeer explained to me that the Choctaw say that just as you cannot stand on both banks of a river at once, you cannot belong to two cultures, but sometimes the river narrows, the banks come closer together and you can reach across and touch someone on the other side.
This idea really resonated with the story I was writing in The Long March.The Choctaw had been through the awful trauma of displacement, which had resulted in huge loss of life through hunger and disease. In 1847, the worst year of the Great Famine, they sent aid to Ireland, reaching across an ocean to help another people going through what they had experienced.
When I came up with the idea for I am I (2006) I quickly realised that I was referencing that river symbol again. The two boys in the story are divided by a river, each yelling about who owns their valley, each full of ego and pride and hate, but when they see the damage their words have done they ‘reach across’ to each other in empathy.
In Owl Bat Bat Owl the river is replaced by a branch. The resident owls are horrified when a family of homeless bats turn up seeking refuge in their tree, but then the wind blows up a storm and the two families experience near catastrophe…
I told the story of The Long March with several thousand words and detailed realistic illustrations. I only used a few hundred words in I am I but those words morphed and twisted into barbed wire, a dragon, birds, making it very much a story told visually. With Owl Bat Bat Owl I have dispensed with words completely and the whole story unfolds through images alone.
It is my first wordless book, my first all-animal book and the first time I’ve illustrated a book entirely with digital art, but for all its difference and newness it is indeed ‘the same old story’. I am writing again about displacement, difference, empathy, friendship. The river symbol which Gary Whitedeer showed me in 1996 has run through my work, gifting me story after story, or the same story reimagined. The three books look very different but that river runs through them all.
Owl Bat Bat Owl (Walker Books) will be available on October 6th.
*some Native American tribes see this as a snake symbol.