Elizabeth Orton Jones’s Caldecott acceptance speech

by Elizabeth Orton Jones

*Read at the Awards Luncheon when the Caldecott Medal was given to Elizabeth Orton Jones for her illustrations in Rachel Field’s Prayer for a Child (Macmillan).

prayer for a child cover Elizabeth Orton Joness Caldecott acceptance speechThere was once a little girl who found it very puzzling to say “thank you.” The words were too small for the feeling, the feeling too big for the words. She would slip away — crawl under the piano or under the dining room table and sit there in silence, with the big feeling inside her…Oh, to crawl under a table right now! The feeling is very big — thank you!

Much of the big feeling is that I am in no wise worthy. The Caldecott Medal — full-sized — for me? Surely it should be in miniature, for me! I do not consider myself an artist. Not yet. The very word “artist,” to me, carries with it a little vision of the state of having arrived. I think of being an artist as an achievement I may work toward my whole life and even then not arrive. Though I should like to be able to say, right out loud to myself, on the morning of my 99th birthday, “Old girl, you are an artist!” The same applies to the word “author.” And as for “author-artist”…! Whenever I am asked, point blank, what my profession is, I carefully avoid those words and answer, “I draw pictures. I write stories.”

I suppose I could answer, “I make books — for children.” But would the person to whom I was giving the answer understand that that little statement works both ways, that the reverse of it completes the truth? I make books—for children. That’s only half the truth. For as soon as a book I have made is in children’s hands, they shoot back into my hands the makings of another book. It’s very like a game of “catch” — a magical, never-ending game of “catch.” I make books — for children: children make books — for me. There’s the complete truth.

In a sense, I am standing before children at this moment as surely as I’m standing before you. In another sense, I am talking to children through you. What do they think of all this? Is it with their consent that I receive the Caldecott Medal, full-sized, and the full-sized honor that goes with it?

It would be difficult to talk directly to them about the honor. The meaning of honor is singularly lacking in their particular way of looking at things. And, for the most part, the extent of their knowledge of reward is finding it in the doing. As for the medal itself, if I were to pass it around among them, they would be interested, of course. Very interested. They would look at it, feel of it, turn it upside down and rightside up. They would say, “It’s pretty!” And then they would say, “What’s it for?” It would be difficult to talk to children about the use of the medal. In fact, it is difficult to talk to children — period! — unless what you say has something to do with something they know about. Has the Caldecott Medal something to do with something they know about? Of course it has. Drawing.

It is not difficult to talk to children about drawing, for they are fellow-indulgers, all. To them, drawing is as natural a part of everyday life as eating or sleeping or washing your neck — far more natural, usually, than the latter. To them, drawing is not tied and bound to talent, nor to theory, nor to technique, nor even to subject matter. To them, the possibilities of drawing are by no means limited to things visible. To them, it is no more unusual to sit down and draw a picture of God than it is to sit down and draw a picture of a potato. To them, drawing a picture of how happiness feels on a bright sunny morning doesn’t present any more of a problem than drawing a picture of Daddy’s blue overalls hanging on the line.

When the manuscript of Rachel Field’s Prayer for a Child came to me in the mail, one bright sunny morning, with Doris Patee’s suggestion that I draw pictures to go with it, I knew at once that I should like to try.

I sat down with the little prayer. It was not new to me. I had already read it in the Memorial Horn Book for Rachel Field. I already loved it. There is a difference, though, between reading something to take into yourself to keep and reading something to take in and then give out again through your own interpretation.

I remembered, the first time I read it, how it seemed to breathe — as things written for a particular child often do. Rachel Field wrote the prayer for her little girl, Hannah. It was Hannah who had caused it to breathe.

I wondered. Who was I to make pictures for Hannah’s prayer? I didn’t know Hannah. I had never met Rachel Field actually — only through her books. What kind of pictures did she see when she first read the prayer to Hannah? What kind of pictures did Hannah see as she listened? What kind of pictures was I going to draw for Hannah and other children to look at?

For a long time I sat with Hannah’s prayer.

“Bless this milk and bless this bread.” — I thought of my old silver cup and how it used to feel to my hand, heavy with milk and cool and shiny.

“Bless this soft and waiting bed…” — I thought of the blue and white patchwork quilt made by Mamie, with pictures from Mother Goose and from Æsop on it. I got my old silver cup out of the cupboard and polished it. I got the blue and white patchwork quilt down from the shelf and unfolded it.

“Through the darkness, through the night, let no danger come to fright my sleep…”…I ran to the window seat and knelt there, to feel again how it used to feel looking out into the dark sky.

I had no little girl. The little girl closest to me was the little-girl-I-used-to-be.

“Bless the toys whose shapes I know;”I got out the toys I had kept and put away in cardboard boxes.

I’d have to pretend. I’d pretend that I and the little-girl-I-used-to-be were two separate people. I’d pretend we both lived in my studio. She would go to sleep and wake up, get dressed and undressed, think thoughts and dream dreams in my studio. While I drew.

“Bless the lamplight, bless the fire…” — I would try to draw the quiet, comfortable happiness a child feels at bedtime. I would try to draw the change of thought that comes softly as a change of breeze at the end of a day — when everything in the outside world begins to fade, and everything that means home, especially what is a child’s very own; begins to shine with nearness and dearness and familiarity.

“Bless the hands that never tire in their loving care of me.” — I would try to draw security.

“Bless my friends and family.” — I would try to draw companionship.

“Bless my father and my mother…” — I would try to draw love.

Bless other children far and near, and keep them safe and free from fear.” — I would try to draw the feeling of fellowship that exists, without the necessity for a San Francisco Conference, among all children.

“So let me sleep and let me wake in peace and health, for Jesus’ sakeAmen.” — I would try to draw the confidence a child feels in being sure of the presence of God.

All this I would try to draw.

I couldn’t actually see all this, of course. Not with my eyes. I couldn’t actually see the little-girl-I-used-to-be. So a real little girl came to pose for me. Her job was to pretend she lived in my studio. She pretended very well. There was no milk in the cup; the piece of bread was a pad of paper; she had to get undressed and go to bed at eleven o’clock in the morning. But such things are not at all puzzling when there’s a reason. And pretending is as good a reason as any.

I found that the toys whose shapes the little-girl-I-used-to-be knew were simply too worn out to pose. So I put them back in their cardboard boxes and administered anesthetic in the shape of more moth balls, to insure their well-earned rest. I went uptown and looked around in the stores. But I couldn’t buy what I was looking for; not for any amount of money. Only after a long life of being much-slept-with does the real character of toys begin to show. I gave voice to my need one day while taking tea with a friend. The children of the house happened to be present, but seemingly paying no attention. After a while, however, the little boy who lay on his stomach on the floor, drawing, left his picture and ran upstairs. His sister followed. In a very few minutes they were down again, and my lap was filled with what I had been looking for. Their most cherished toys — the ones always taken on long trips — the ones always slept with — were hereby offered me to take home to keep as long as I needed them. I got up in the night, that night, I remember, and went into the studio and lit the lamp. There were the toys, patiently waiting out the first night they had ever been separated from their owners. Prowlie, the teddy bear, had his arm around Abigail, the rag doll, in whose lap sat Salisbury, the rabbit. Gentle patience and utterly selfless loyalty showed, if anything ever showed in Prowlie’s shoebutton eyes, in the smudge which was Abigail’s nose, in the patch which covered Salisbury’s whole behind. Prowlie seemed to be saying, “Of course they’re all right, Abigail. Don’t worry! Whatever this is, we’re doing it because they want us to, remember. Whatever is expected of us, we must do it well.” With a feeling of truly humble respect, I went back to bed.

Drawing is very like a prayer. Drawing is a reaching for something away beyond you. As you sit down to work in the morning, you feel as if you were on top of a hill. And it is as if you were seeing for the first time. You take your pencil in hand. You’d like to draw what you see. And so you begin. You try.

The result depends on a good many things. On how much you know about drawing, for one. If you don’t know much, the picture isn’t very good. Good or bad, however, it is never what you tried to draw. The picture is never what you saw from the top of your hill. Never. But if somebody — a grownup or a child, a little old beggarwoman or a king — anybody! — can, by looking at your picture, catch a glimpse of what you saw…if somebody — anybody! — can in that way understand what you tried to draw, then — likening drawing to a prayer again—your prayer has been answered.

I have a picture — or, rather, a postcard print of a picture — at which I am very fond of looking. It is a picture of a whole countryside of little hills, with a wide blue sky above. And on top of each little hill sits a child, singing. I like to look at that picture and think: Every child in the world has a hill, with a top to it. Every child — black, white, rich, poor, handicapped, unhandicapped. And singing is what the top of each hill is for. Singing — drawing — thinking — dreaming — sitting in silence…saying a prayer.

I should like every child in the world to know that he has a hill, that that hill is his no matter what happens, his and his only, for ever. I should like every child in the world to know that what he can see from the top of his hill, when he looks down and around, is different from what can be seen from the top of anybody else’s hill — that what he can see when he looks straight up is exactly what everybody else, looking straight up, can see, too.

 

I should like, if you don’t mind, to accept the Caldecott Medal, and the honor that goes with it, as a trust. I should like to try to express my gratitude for that trust on every page of every book I’m ever to make — for children.

 

This article, originally published in the July 1945 issue of The Horn Book Magazine, is part of our Caldecott at 75 celebration. Click here for more archival Horn Book material on Elizabeth Orton Jones and Prayer for a Child.

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