At Night: Author/Illustrator Jonathan Bean’s 2008 BGHB Picture Book Award Speech

First of all, I want to say what an honor it is to be here this evening. I have been drawing ever since I can remember. At some point I realized that by becoming an illustrator I could get paid to draw all day. I thought if I could get myself that job, my happiness would be complete. What I hadn’t considered was the pleasure of being able to share my work with so many people. This is a great joy, and I want to thank all of you, especially the members of the Boston Globe–Horn Book Award committee, for receiving At Night so warmly.

Every once in a while, especially when I am having trouble solving a writing or drawing problem, I am reminded of another activity I enjoy — bird-watching. Ideas behave kind of like birds. There’s no guarantee of seeing a particular bird; I can’t make an appointment and mark it in my planner. I might know some of its tendencies — a general area, a type of tree, a particular season. Beyond that, what’s needed is patience, alertness, and quiet. I also like to remind myself of what I call the Carelessness Principle. When I’m really having trouble, there’s nothing like putting down the binoculars and giving up that invites birds to fly in and sit on the nearest branches.

It was during one of these happy moments of carelessness that a girl in a bed on a roof in the city first appeared in my sketchbook. I was in my second year of a master’s program at the School of Visual Arts and had been looking anxiously for an idea that would become a thesis proposal. Suddenly, one day, while in the middle of careless doodling, there it was! This small sketch prompted me to begin asking questions, the biggest of which was, Why is a girl in her bed on a roof in the city? It was a good question and one that I decided needed answering.

I was very fortunate at this early stage to have as a thesis adviser the artist and writer Lloyd Bloom. He wisely directed me away from what might have become simply a series of nice images and, during our discussions, encouraged me to consider more carefully the character of the girl. What might her motivations be? What was she thinking? Was being on a roof creating or solving a problem? If so, what? This led me to think more about my own childhood and in particular my bedtime experiences.

I had about as calming a bedtime routine as any child could hope for. There was the bedtime story, the tucking-in with a prayer and a kiss, and, finally, the good-night song sung to me and my sisters by our parents. For years this did the trick, putting me right to sleep. My problems began when I started going to bed around the same time as my parents. Before this I was rarely the last person awake and could hear the comforting rhythm of downstairs domestic noises as I fell asleep. Those noises were the heartbeat of the home, and so the quiet following the new bedtime was unsettling. My greatest fear was that I would be the last one to fall asleep. Unfortunately, my response was to turn falling asleep into a kind of race. Of course, all the skills required to win a race (such as quickness and intensity) were the very things that assured I would often lose mine. As my anxiety increased, the possibility of sleep became more and more remote.

The girl in At Night finds herself in that same lonely landscape of a sleeping home. She stares wide-eyed from her bed at cave-mouth doorways and looming walls and can’t move. The quiet, steady breathing of her family tells her that she is the only one awake, left alone with her thoughts. Then a small breeze from her bedroom window breaks the suffocating stillness and helps the girl find the courage to walk through dark doorways and up stairs to a rooftop garden. From a makeshift bed she looks out over the city and the country and the world, and realizes the world is not entirely asleep. There is a breeze, the moon, lights in distant windows, boats on a river. Thinking about these things, she is comforted, forgets herself, and falls asleep.

My favorite part of bedtime was story-time, and one of my favorite books was The Little House by Virginia Lee Burton. As a child growing up in the country I appreciated all the details Burton included in her rural images. I also identified with the Little House, sharing its anxiety as the seasons passed, the roads widened, the suburbs and then city slowly swallowed her. It was distressing to see her neglected under the railroad tracks in a gray and dirty city. Happily the Little House is rediscovered and returned to the peace of the country, where the value of proximity to nature is affirmed. I was very happy with this ending, knowing that the Little House is happy and the chaos of the city is once again far, far away. My reaction to that story probably reveals some of the suspicions I held of the city. They were suspicions that, years later, remained largely intact when I decided to move to New York City for school. What I discovered was that the city is chaotic, sometimes dirty, filled with busy people, and — incredibly exciting! I was meeting other artists, going to shows and concerts, eating bagels for lunch, and enjoying the community of art school. I also discovered that the city was not as devoid of nature as I had thought. Whether it was a community garden next door or a botanical garden in the Bronx, the quiet of an avenue shut down by a blizzard, or owls in Central Park, there were many cracks in the concrete through which grass could grow.

In At Night it is a breeze from an open window that invites a city girl to leave her dark cubical of a room for an experience with nature. In her makeshift bed that sits among the plants of her family’s rooftop garden, she encounters the cool night air, the glowing moon, the radiant sky. She sees a vision of the beautiful city, not detached from but connected to the country with its hills, fields, and towns. All of this is a part of the world awake around her. I hope that in some small way this story can serve as an invitation not only to experience nature but also to be open to the possibility for adventure even when it appears as a bump in the daily — or nightly — routine.

I would like to thank my editor Wesley Adams for all his invaluable advice and for helping me turn this school project into a publishable picture book. I would like to thank my thesis adviser Lloyd Bloom, whose comments had much to do with the initial shaping of the story. I am indebted to all my friends and professors from the School of Visual Arts and the Illustration as Visual Essay program. In particular, I would like to thank my classmates Shadra, Lauren, and Taeeun — illustrators with whom I could share my love of picture books. Finally, I would like to thank my family, who had more to do with the shaping of this book than I can say. Thank you, Mom and Dad, for being like the mother in At Night, for watching over but not preempting my childhood adventures even when it meant me climbing the tallest tree I could find.

Thanks again to all of you!

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