by Ed Emberley
Given at the American Library Association in Kansas City, Missouri, June 25, 1968. The Caldecott Medal for “the most distinguished American picture book for children” was awarded to Edward Emberley for Drummer Hoff (Prentice-Hall).
It was a cold, snowy evening back in January when I received a person-to-person call from Florida. We were entertaining some of our friends, so that in the confusion I missed some of the first part of the conversation. The part I did get was the name Mae Durham… We’ve met… California… I thought to myself… Mae Durham… Mae Durham. Who is Mae Durham? Then I heard, “I thought you would like to know that Drummer Hoff has been chosen as the Caldecott Medal book for 1968.” This news came as such a surprise that the only thing I could think of to say was “How do you know?” Needless to say, since then I have found out who Mae Durham is and how she knew.
I am, of course, honored, delighted, grateful — and petrified — to be up here speaking to you tonight.
Since the announcement of the Caldecott Award, my wife Barbara, and I have often been asked about the preparation of Drummer Hoff. How was the technique developed? What steps were taken to turn a simple folk rhyme into a picture book? How does the adaptation differ from the original? And, surprisingly, what does it mean?
The drawings in Drummer Hoff are woodcuts. They were drawn on pine boards, all the white areas were cut away, ink was rolled on the remaining raised areas, and a set of prints was pulled on rice paper. The colors were added by using a technique I first tried in One Wide River to Cross (Prentice). Although only three inks were employed — red, yellow, and blue — we were able to create the impression of thirteen distinct colors. This effect was accomplished by taking advantage of the fact that the inks with which most picture books are printed tend to be transparent. Therefore, by printing one ink over another, or “overprinting,” a third color is made. For instance, if blue ink is printed over yellow ink, the yellow ink shows through and turns the blue ink green. Blue ink printed over red makes purple, and so forth. A separate drawing has to be made for each of the three colors, to show which color went over which color to make what color.
Since both the method of making the black line drawings and the method of coloring them seem unnecessarily complicated and time consuming, you may properly ask: Why bother? Why didn’t you just draw the pictures instead of carving them and then just color them with water colors and send them to the printer?
Why I cut the pictures in wood instead of using a faster method like pen-and-ink drawing is hard to explain in a few words, but I suppose the most important reasons are that the pictures looked better and the method pleased me. It is easier to explain why we decided to use that particular method of printing the color. The sharpness and brilliance of the color in Drummer Hoff cannot be duplicated by any other practical printing process, including any “four color-full color” process.
You may have guessed by now that there is more to illustrating a picture book than knowing how to draw pictures. To an illustrator the picture on the drawing board is merely a means to an end. The end is the printed picture. An illustration could be defined as a picture that can be printed. A good picture is a bad illustration if it cannot be printed well.
And, of course, a bad picture is a bad picture no matter how well suited it is to the printing process.
I work in many different techniques when preparing illustrations — woodcuts, pencil, pen and ink. But as varied as they are in appearance they have one thing in common — the illustrations are meant to be printed. Although I am primarily an artist and not a printing expert, the necessity to be both dreamer and realist is what fascinates me most about picture-book making.
The original rhyme from which Drummer Hoff was evolved came from the Annotated Mother Goose by William S. and Ceil Baring-Gould (Potter). Entitled “John Ball Shot Them All,” the verse, which was about the making of a rifle, read as follows:
John Patch made the match,
And John Clint made the flint,
And John Puzzle made the muzzle,
And John Crowder made the powder,
And John Block made the stock,
And John Brammer made the rammer,
And John Scott made the shot,
But John Ball shot them all.
In the adaptation, we first turned the rifle into a cannon to provide a more dramatic center of interest. The change led naturally to others. Military titles were substituted for the name John, since the gradations of rank from drummer to general accentuated the cumulative pattern of the book. Also, military uniforms provided the opportunity to make full use of the bright colors which the technique allowed. John Ball shooting them all did not seem an appropriate ending to the tale, and so the refrain was changed to “Drummer Hoff fired it off.” The name Drummer Hoff was selected (instead of Private Hoff or John Ball) because of its rich sound, and the “KAHBAHBLOOM” was added just for fun, to give the book a good strong climax. The verse now reads:
General Border gave the order,
Major Scott brought the shot,
Captain Bammer brought the rammer,
Sergeant Chowder brought the powder,
Corporal Farrell brought the barrel,
Private Parriage brought the carriage,
But Drummer Hoff fired it off.
The book’s main theme is a simple one — a group of happy warriors build a cannon that goes “KAHBAHBLOOM.” But, there is more to find if you “read” the pictures. They show that men can fall in love with war and, imitating the birds, go to meet it dressed as if to meet their sweethearts. The pictures also show that men can return from war sometimes with medals, and sometimes with wooden legs.
The book can have two endings. Many people prefer to stop at the “KAHBAHBLOOM” page. And for some purposes that is where the story should end. But others prefer to go on to the next page, which shows the cannon destroyed. The men have gone, and the birds and flowers that appear to be merely decorative through the first part of the book are in the process of taking over — again. The picture of the destroyed cannon was purposely put on a half page to keep it in its proper place as a minor theme. The main theme of the book is, I repeat, a group of happy warriors building a cannon that goes “KAHBAHBLOOM.” The book’s primary purpose is, as it should be, to entertain.
After I had been working less than two years as an artist, I started on my first children’s book. I felt at the time that if I could inherit a million dollars on the condition that I stop doing art work of any kind, I could accept it with no regrets. As I started, I thought I was working at merely another job. Little did I know that I really had a tiger by the tail. For here I am, eight years and twenty-seven books later, not knowing who is the master, the art or the artist, and not caring. This change was brought about partially by the work itself and partly by the people I have met along the way.
I speak for Barbara also when I say thank you: first of all to the people at Prentice-Hall, past and present, whose infectious enthusiasm provided us with one thing all creative people need — momentum. And especially to Jean Reynolds, our editor, who gave us assistance, advice, and encouragement when we needed it; to Walter Ott and his staff for turning Drummer Hoff into a book — in time — and for giving us their patient cooperation when we needed it; to Bob Verrone and Mimi Kayden, who gave us counsel and friendship when we needed it; and to Eunice Holsaert, who gave us a push when we needed it. I would also like to thank Holt, Rinehart and Winston and Nonny Hogrogian, Thomas Y. Crowell and Elizabeth Riley, and Doubleday and Blanche van Buren for giving me work when I needed it. I would like to thank Little, Brown and Company, Jean Bates, and Helen Jones, who gave me a start when I needed it. Especially Helen Jones, who once said to me, “Don’t cheat the children. Give them your best. They deserve it.” A piece of advice I have taken to heart and passed on at the slightest provocation. And I would like to thank the rest of you whom we have met in person or through our books for your interest and for your obvious good will. I wish to express my appreciation also to Mrs. Durham and the members of her committee. My personal feelings about the Caldecott Medal and the tradition and the people it represents are best expressed in a poem that has been haunting me since that cold January night. It is Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.” Especially the last verse.*
The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.
*From “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” from Complete Poems of Robert Frost. Copyright 1923 by Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Inc, Copyright 1951 by Robert Frost. Reprinted by permission of Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Inc.
This article, originally published in the August 1968 issue of The Horn Book Magazine, is part of our Caldecott at 75 celebration. Click here for more archival Horn Book material on Ed Emberley and Drummer Hoff.