I’m glad to be here tonight in your company, and I’m glad that our book is in the company of this year’s honorees and the winners of years past. It’s a thrill. I want to thank my agent Steven Malk, an always-trusty advisor, and Balzer + Bray for publishing our book. And I want to thank Jon Klassen: at a time when it is standard practice to keep authors and illustrators separate, and collaborators often don’t meet or even speak to each other, it means even more to be accepting this award with one of my dearest friends.
And now, since we know each other pretty well, I want to tell you about a date I went on. It was a first date, and we were at my house, and the conversation was lagging, so I said she should look at my friend Jon’s website. (Now you see what we picture book authors are reduced to: “Come back to my place so I can show you Jon Klassen’s etchings.”) Anyway, as I was clicking through images, I saw a piece I hadn’t noticed before. A girl and her dog were walking through the snow wearing identical sweaters. I loved it, and right there I started telling my date the first bits of the story that would become Extra Yarn: a girl in a small town finds a box of colorful yarn. She takes it home and knits a sweater for herself, and when she finds she has some extra yarn, she knits a sweater for her dog. She still has extra yarn and so she knits sweaters for people, and animals, and mailboxes, and houses, and —
Here my date interrupted to finish the story and said, “And she covers the whole earth in yarn, and then everyone is wearing the same sweater, and then there’s peace.”
That was our last date.
I’ve read books like that before. I hate books like that. Her story line was not just uninteresting to me: it was fundamentally dishonest. There was no surprise, or mystery, or failure, or darkness, or strangeness, or any of the complexity that makes stories and life rich. Her story was all loveliness, but it wasn’t even convincingly lovely. Too often we tell kids pleasant stories devoid of truth, and stories without truth are not good stories. Our audience deserves more from us.
I started telling stories to kids when I was in college and worked at a summer camp for four- to six-year-olds. It was a sports summer camp, and I was in charge of the four-year-olds, and four-year-olds can’t really play sports, which is good, because neither can I. I would actually learn things at this camp. I would come home and say, “Did you know that when you sprint you’re supposed to run on the balls of your feet?” and my best friend would say, “Everybody knows that, Mac, and that’s why you run funny.” That part of camp was very painful.
But the good part came when my campers would get a soccer ball and aimlessly dribble through some cones before getting tired and heading for the shade, where I was already sitting. And I would tell them stories. I started out with autobiographical serials that would begin on Monday and continue through Friday. The stories always opened the same way: Last Friday night I got home, and I was very tired and looking forward to relaxing when the phone rang. It was the Queen of England, and she asked me for a favor. I had to go on a mission for her.
Soon something strange started happening. I realized that the kids believed me. Campers I’d never met before would come up to me and say, “Aren’t you the guy who spies for the Queen of England?” — which is a question I’d been waiting my whole life to be asked. (In my dreams the person asking was a svelte Russian woman, but I had to take what I could get.) But I began to realize that in a very particular way, my stories were real for these kids.
There was one little girl, Riley, whom I’ll never forget. She would get cantaloupe in her lunch every day, and she hated melon, so she would just throw the fruit away in the ivy. She was eating just the junk in her lunch, and, as a camp counselor, I felt like it was my responsibility to step in. I said, “Riley, you can’t just throw your cantaloupe in the bushes. If you do that, the place is going to be overrun with melons — we’ll have a real melon problem. So eat it.” Really, it was not a very good nutrition intervention at all, but that’s what I told her. She didn’t listen. So, on the last day of camp, I went to the grocery store, and I bought the biggest cantaloupe they had, and that morning I hid the melon in the ivy.
At lunchtime I said, “Riley, I think you should look in the bushes and see what you’ve done.” And Riley went trudging into the ivy and poked around for a little while, and then her face lit up, and she reached down and pulled up a cantaloupe the size of her head. All the campers ran over to see the melon. They crowded around her and were universally wowed. (Except for one kid; he asked, “Why is there a sticker on it?”)
I said, “See, that’s why I tell you to make sure you throw away your fruit stickers in the trashcans. When you just toss them in the ivy, they ruin nature.” Everybody seemed very satisfied with that answer.
And for the rest of the day, Riley, who was tiny, walked from activity to activity cradling this giant melon in her arms, so proud that she’d grown it herself.
I think about Riley a lot, still, because a little girl hauling around a cantaloupe is, to me, an image of the ideal reader. Children can comfortably exist in the overlap between fantasy and reality — Riley knew she didn’t grow a melon, but she also knew that she really did. Kids can make believe — truly make themselves believe; suss out the rules that govern a fantasy and fully experience it, intellectually and emotionally. This is what all fiction asks readers to do, become invested in made-up worlds, and kids are better at it than adults. They’re great fiction readers. So we who write for them need to create great fictions.
The picture book is uniquely positioned as a storytelling medium. The great divide in fiction is between the commercial and the literary. Commercial fiction first must entertain, while literature should provide some insight about what it means to live. That distinction is usually rigorously policed by writers and critics and readers and marketing departments.
But in picture books, that border is more porous. It’s a popular art. A picture book must be entertaining, but it is also expected to convey some truth. Books that try too hard to please can end up pandering. Books that strain for meaning can end up moralizing. The best picture books, though, meet this dual obligation. We get to write literary fiction that lots of people actually buy. (What a world!)
Some of the most challenging, most exciting, and most interesting picture books that have ever been written are also the most widely read. Sendak, Silverstein, Brown, and Hurd: some of our boldest pioneers are still our bestsellers. The tradition of the picture book is a tradition of experimentation.
There used to be a strong conviction that one way to make people want to read a picture book was to make it unlike anything else. Today it often feels the prevailing wisdom dictates that the best way to make people want to read a picture book is to make it a whole lot like another book that has sold well. The same plots get trotted out. Great ideas are given buzzcuts and lined up on the bookshelf.
I’m not a deluded nostalgist: I know that there have always been bland picture books. There have always been bland people, and bland children — I know a couple. But it’s the bold books — the experiments — that drive our form. And when too many books on the shelf start to look the same, it creates the illusion that the picture book has nothing to say, that our art is hidebound, vapid, foundering. It is not.
I’m bullish about the future of the picture book. I love good picture books with strange stories, shaggy stories, books full of mysteries and surprises. These books are still being written. But they need to be read, and loved, and faced out on a bookshelf so you can see their beautiful covers.
And so I’m particularly honored that our book has received this award, which, as Roger Sutton says, often recognizes “unusual” books. Thank God for unusual books!
There are no formulas, there are no dogmas. There are no rules except for this: Try to write books that are honest and good. I am trying, and I will keep trying. Thank you.
This speech was originally delivered on September 28, 2012, at the Boston Globe-Horn Book Awards Ceremony at Simmons College. Click here for illustrator Jon Klassen’s acceptance speech for Extra Yarn.