*Given at the meeting of the American Library Association, Kansas City, Missouri, June 25, 9957.
by Marc Simont
When I first received the news of the Award I was stunned. When I recovered from the shock, I did what I believe any other person would have done in my place — I celebrated. When all the legitimate reasons for celebration were exhausted, I thought up some less legitimate ones. Then, with the idea in mind that I’d have to write a speech, came the sobering up.
At first I thought of the many fine children’s books that are done every year, how the choice must be nip and tuck as to which is the best and how lucky I was that mine happened to be chosen. When I began to prepare this speech, I was almost moved to tears at the sound of my own humble eloquence. Then it was as if someone tapped me on the shoulder and said, “Simont, you are a phony — you know jolly well that the reason you’re feeling so good about this is because enough members of the Children’s Library Association thought you’d done the best picture book of 1956 to merit the Caldecott Medal.”
It seems appropriate to me that I should have received this medal for a Harper book because Harper’s, and specifically Ursula Nordstrom, constitutes my longest and most consistent association in the field of children’s books. Of course, all I’ve been doing during the last few months hasn’t been just celebrating. For one thing, I’ve had to answer so many requests for my life history that my biography is beginning to sound as if it were about somebody else. Then there are all the requests I’ve received for my views and theories on art and books. It seems you have to be up against a situation like this to become aware of your deficiencies. It isn’t that I haven’t had plenty of theories in the past, but I have very few of them going. Theories seem to supplant one another, and I can’t remember what the others were. That lapse of memory, incidentally, has the advantage of cutting down this talk by at least two hours.
Although we are forever amazed at the beautiful pictures children can make, still, their intention is not to make a beautiful picture at all, but to tell a story. You’ve seen them, huddled over a piece of paper with crayon in hand, muttering fantastic doings to themselves — “and the lion comes running down the hill, and the cowboy is galloping on his horse, and he’s shooting at the lion, and the Indians are hiding behind rocks, and…” All their intent is in realistic storytelling, but the end result is closer to the abstract.
Considering the astounding results they get, it would be taking coals to Newcastle to aim solely at making beautiful pictures. What one can do, however, is offer pictorial clarification of a story. This can be done because of two things: one, because art with the illustrator is a craft, and the other because, having lived longer, we have accumulated more information about things they want to know.
After children go through a picture book, the chances are they won’t remember very many facts about it. But they will retain an impression, and if the book has been presented to them with clarity and taste, it’s reasonable to assume, that the impression will have been a good one. That, it seems to me, is as much as an artist can hope for.
The reason a person writes a story is that he is touched by something he has experienced, and consequently, if it’s a good story, those who read it will be touched in the same way. Unless the artist feels this when he reads a manuscript he shouldn’t undertake to illustrate it, because in this field there’s no room for cynicism or tongue-in-cheek. If it turns out to be a good story with bad pictures, or a bad story with terrible pictures, in either case the result is a bad book.
For the artist, then, the most important factor is for him to be completely sympathetic with the basic idea behind a manuscript; all the rest, by comparison, are details. Once the artist undertakes to illustrate a story, psychologically it becomes his story — this is a risk an author must take. When the artist makes the story “his own,” so to speak, he is free to invent without getting out of character, and thus his pictures will complement — or establish harmony with — the text. Otherwise the pictures will merely supplement, which is like saying the same thing twice.
In A Tree Is Nice, Janice Udry had given me everything an artist could Want in a picture-book manuscript. The idea of A Tree Is Nice is so fundamental and uncluttered that when I first read it, I said to myself, “Now, why didn’t I think of that? “ Well, that’s what they said about Columbus’ voyage to America. The trouble was it only occurred to them after he’d gotten back. A Tree Is Nice had a solid basic idea presented with simplicity and charm; all I had to do was keep pace with it.
Where technique is concerned, an illustrator’s viewpoint is always changing. The only time it must stand still is when he’s working on a specific job. But it is impossible to arrive at “the” solution for all illustration situations. Every job he starts must be approached as if it were his first.
I consider your awarding me the Caldecott Medal as your approval of this point of view and, with thanks to you and Mr. Melcher, accept it as your vote of confidence for the work that lies ahead of me.
From the August 1957 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.