Illustrators are notoriously good at giving speeches. When they decide to get into illustration, it is secretly because they know how good they are at public speaking, and they can’t wait until the day when they win an award so they can finally show a room full of literary people how great they are at it. Thank you for giving me that chance.
I’d like to start by thanking the judges for picking us out of all the great books they had to choose from this year, and for including us on a list with the other authors and illustrators here — we are in very flattering company.
I’d also like to thank our publisher Balzer + Bray at HarperCollins, and our agent, Sir Steven Malk, who is no small part of why this book got put together. And I’d like to thank Mac [Barnett] for writing this book for me to illustrate. I’m not sure you can pay an illustrator a higher compliment than writing a book with that person in mind, and it’s a truly lucky thing to get one from an author who understands how to give the illustrator a lot of favors and make him look good.
Before I was lucky enough to get into doing picture books full time, I worked in animation studios, which is another lucky job to have. My job there mostly was to help design sets and props that they would build in 3-D for the movie. One time we were having a meeting to go over ideas for a set we had to do of an old dusty bar, and we were talking about other old dusty bars we’d seen that we could reference.
One of the guys said, “You know which movie had a great old bar kind of like the one we want? There Will Be Blood. There’s a scene where he brings his brother to a brothel and it’s this big, dingy place made of gray old wood and it’s dimly lit and not too ornate” And we all are nodding, going, “Yeah, that WAS a great bar — old mason jars and no rugs on the floors or anything, just like what we’re going for.”
So we all agree this warrants a screening of that part of the film, and we meet up later and put it in the DVD player, notepads on our laps and everything, and we get to the scene, and it’s one shot. It’s a close-up of the main character leaning against a barely visible wall, the sounds of a bar and glasses and crass laughing in the background, and it lasts for about twenty seconds, and it’s done. That’s the whole bar scene.
We couldn’t believe it. Collectively, we had built in our minds a five-minute-long scene and an entire bar set around twenty seconds of close-up footage. I bet if we had been asked to draw the bar we had in our heads before we re-watched the movie and saw that there was actually no bar, we would’ve come up with almost the same place.
Later that same year, I got offered my very first picture book illustration job. I was excited, and decided to go look at all the books that I liked best growing up, not to research or anything necessarily, but just to sort of celebrate that I was going to get to do one. All of them gave me the exact same feeling we’d had with the bar scene. It’s not that they weren’t as good as I’d remembered, but it’s that they were so much simpler in almost every way. I’d built huge night landscapes around P. D. Eastman’s Sam and the Firefly that were actually just very vague patches of pencil shading over one color (dark teal), and I’d built entire forests around Frog and Toad’s houses when the illustrations are actually small vignettes in which you rarely even see the whole shape of a plant from bottom to top.
In the stories we seem to remember most, we’re given a certain set of ingredients to start us off, and then we’re let loose to build on them and let them affect us and use what we know and what we’ve felt, and we tie the whole experience together into one thing, without a separation between what the story gave us and what we ourselves brought to it.
Where this gets the most interesting is when the things being suggested aren’t landscapes or dusty bar sets but emotional experiences. I’m not sure Extra Yarn has a point, but if it does, I think it can be found on two isolated pages near the middle of the book.
Annabelle has been knitting sweaters for everybody indiscriminately, and the book is showing everybody wearing them and feeling generally pretty good about it.
Then it shows a man named Mr. Crabtree, who apparently lives outside and wears nothing but shorts and stands around in the snow. He refuses a sweater, not angrily, but calmly, on some principle he’s built for himself that isn’t explained.
The second page shows him wearing a hat that Annabelle made him instead, to coincide with his wishes. It’s the only close-up on anybody we have in the book, and Mr. Crabtree is smiling a small smile wearing his new hat. Nothing is said in the text about his emotional state, and I can’t explain exactly why this spread is the most important one, but I know I was more nervous drawing his smile than any other part of the book, which usually means you’re onto something good.
Picture books are so good at this kind of thing because the story itself happens between the two elements that make it up. It is, by its nature, a suggestive medium. Neither the author nor the illustrator is ever actually working on exactly what is going to be taken away by the reader. The negative space between them, the shape of that, is the story, and it exists only when it’s being put together by the reader as they go through it. This idea that readers put these things together themselves seems like a bit of a lonely one.
The less explicit a story is, the more it counts on us to bring our unique experiences to it in order to fill it in. This seems to mean that everybody’s impression of a story must be different, and nobody’s really seeing the same thing. But I keep running into examples where it’s much less lonely than that. That the bars we thought we saw in the movie but were never shown are actually a lot alike, and the way we all think Mr. Crabtree might feel is actually pretty universal.
When I finished the roughs for Extra Yarn, I e-mailed them to my parents to show them how things were going, and my mom wrote back and told me she loved them and that they brought back memories of books she’d read us when we were little, and also told me that I am a good boy, and also how is the cat. Ordinarily the part about them reminding her about books we used to read would be a pretty standard comment, but I called her and we talked for a long time about which books she meant.
I told her that when I read Mac’s text for the book, it reminded me a lot of this memory I’d had of a disparate bunch of books she would read to us. They had a few things in common — a couple of them were about kings and castles and riddles and children, but they were by different authors, and different illustrators, and the only thing holding them together was the fact that we’d read them together around the same time. But the memory they made together, that I thought I’d made alone, was something my mom had seen, too. Not only that, but she recognized it in the roughs of this new book. It was like she was describing to me a dream I thought I’d had by myself, but it turned out she’d had it, too.
This medium works best when it’s most suggestive, when it gives us the freedom to walk around and fill in these things on our own. But what’s amazing about this is, given all that freedom to be on our own and make these stories personal to us alone, we end up meeting each other anyway. We can’t help it, and there’s something hugely hopeful about that.
Getting a chance to work on these things that people use to meet, in places like the ones my mom and I used to meet, is a massive privilege, and to be recognized for it by people who value that is a huge, huge honor. Thank you very, very much.
This speech was originally delivered on September 28, 2012, at the Boston Globe-Horn Book Awards Ceremony at Simmons College. Click here for author Mac Barnett’s acceptance speech for Extra Yarn.