I got to take a road trip to Connecticut a week ago to attend a picture book conference at Yale. Sorry to say, I was not able to get to all of the sessions, but Roger asked me to write up what I could.
The event was a fundraiser for the Edith B. Jackson Child Care Program, a Yale University-affiliated center celebrating its 40th anniversary, so there were a lot of speakers connected with education rather than book creation. I went for two reasons: an optional tour of the Betsy Shirley children’s lit collection at Yale’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, and a panel about using picture books in the classroom. Also, Rosemary Wells was giving the opening talk and Megan Lambert the final talk, so the event would be bookended by people I worked with several years ago while curating at the Carle Museum.
The Beinecke visit was the highlight for me, but I suspect most of the attendees got a lot out of the panels. And I would have, too, 20 years ago. This is not to say that there were not some flashes of brilliance during the sessions—and a moment during Rosemary Wells’s talk that got Megan and me sitting up very straight and writing notes to each other: “Rosemary Wells = Republican???” (Megan told me later that she is not. A brave soul asked her at the VIP dinner that night.) A central part of Rosemary’s talk concerned the difference between childhood in the 1950s and now, and how wonderful it was then to have more freedom—playing outside all day without supervision—and less parental fear. Food for thought.
While I didn’t learn anything new at the panel about using books in the classroom, I loved Glory Smith’s presentation and her answers to questions. An experienced teacher and family child care owner/director (Morning Glory Early Learning Center in New Haven), she had so much common sense and practical information that I felt good looking around at all the young teachers in the audience. I hope they were taking notes! Smith must be a favorite with the kids she teaches because she truly loves picture books and understands what makes them work, both as books and as experiences for children. Christopher Korensky, who followed Smith in the panel, covered the Every Child Ready to Read approach which combines good advice with a soupçon of educational jargon like “phonological awareness.” ECRR, a caregiver education program used at public libraries, reminded me a lot of Reach Out and Read, our downstairs neighbors at the Horn Book office.
The most exciting part of the weekend for me was getting an up-close look at items in the Betsy Shirley collection at the Beinecke. Curator Timothy Young took about 40 of us around a large room containing tables of early children’s books and art from some more recent books by well-known names in the field. What surprised me most was that Shirley also collected art and books made by kids. While this falls outside my usual area of interest, it brought a sense of time passing in a way that the books themselves sometimes don’t. Images of these pieces were floating in my mind later that evening during Rosemary’s talk about changes in childhood.
As an archive junkie, I was in heaven as Young’s fellow Beinecke librarians held up some very rare books and carefully flipped through the pages for us. There were a couple of editions of the Orbis Pictus, said to be the first illustrated book printed especially for children. I was careful not to drool directly onto the pages.
Most of the pieces in the collection had stories behind them, like a Maurice Sendak drawing for The Hobbit. Due to a misunderstanding, Tolkien had nixed the publisher’s proposal to let Sendak illustrate a 30th anniversary edition of the book. The two men were scheduled to meet in London to clear up the misunderstanding, but Sendak suffered a heart attack the day before the meeting. Ah, what might have been!
What I enjoyed most about the visit was seeing preliminary work by well-known illustrators from the past 100 years, like Ludwig Bemelmans, Dorothy Lathrop, Palmer Cox, William Roscoe, Ingri and Edgar Parin d’Aulaire, and Maude and Miska Petersham. There were color separations and proofs from stone lithography, too, which Rosemary Wells was able to explain from her perspective as a practitioner. And the librarians once again flipped through pages. The dummy for The Castle No. 1 by Bemelmans (retitled The Castle Number Nine when Viking published it in 1937) was my favorite.
While I love picture books in their finished form, I tend to get even more excited about preliminary work. Sometimes it is fresher and closer to the spirit of the story than the final version. Or perhaps it’s the voyeur in me, enjoying a look at the thought process that went into creating a book. Lately I’ve become fascinated by the nest cams at Cornell’s website, watching parents sitting on eggs, eggs getting “pips” or cracks, and finally seeing the babies emerge. This is why I like archives so much. It’s like traveling back in time to watch a nest cam of the birth of a book.