While doing the research for my article Arrow to the Sun and Critical Controversies (Sept./Oct. 2013 Horn Book Magazine), I came across several references to author Gerald McDermott’s first children’s book editor at Holt, Rinehart & Winston, George Nicholson, and the role he played in McDermott’s move from films to picture books.
A longtime children’s book editor, George now works as an agent with Sterling Lord Literistic. He is a font of knowledge about the children’s book industry, past and present (see Leonard Marcus’s March/April 2007 Horn Book Magazine interview), so I sent him an email to ask some clarifying questions about which came first with Arrow to the Sun, the book or the film? That led to a lively exchange about his early work with Gerald McDermott, first at Holt and then at Viking.
Kathleen T. Horning: How did you first become aware of Gerald McDermott’s work as a filmmaker?
George Nicholson: In the early 1970s there were occasional short feature film festivals at the “art theaters” in Manhattan that largely showed foreign-language films. I went to one and saw Anansi the Spider and The Magic Tree, both created by Gerald McDermott. I was staggered at the physical beauty of the films and the stateliness of the images. There was a unique musical accompaniment and the sound of a remarkably lulling, clearly African, voice narrating the stories. The rhythms of the music and sounds and the voice of the narratives were particularly trenchant.
KTH: How did you and Gerald McDermott meet?
GN: I was so overwhelmed by the films’ beauty that I made an effort to introduce myself to their creator, who was present at the showing. We went for a quick drink, I filled with praise for the films. It turned out that both of us had grown up in Detroit. Gerald had been a child actor on radio programs that originated in Detroit in those years (The Lone Ranger and The Green Hornet). We bonded, and I asked him if he had ever thought of converting the films into books. I was at that time the publisher and editor at Holt, Rinehart & Winston.
KTH: How did you go about turning the films into children’s books?
GN: In some primitive way, both Gerald and I thought we would simply pick images from the films, lay them out in a thirty-two-page format, and, bingo, we would have a book. Gerald was delighted at this thought but soon found that echoing the movement of the film had to be handled entirely differently in book form. So all the art was redrawn and recalibrated.
KTH: As I understand it, Anansi the Spider was first a film and was later adapted into a picture book, but with Arrow to the Sun, McDermott created the film and the book simultaneously. How did the two processes differ — or did they?
GN: By the mid-1970s I had moved from Holt to Viking, and Gerald came with me. The development of Arrow to the Sun was very different from the beginning because he had two books under his belt by then. He was working on the film simultaneously, but the needs of that media were so different, it was really like working on a totally separate project, despite the similarity of the core images.
KTH: The chair of the Newbery–Caldecott committee made reference to the film version of Arrow to the Sun in the committee’s official statement, so the committee was obviously well aware of the film, and perhaps some members had even seen it. Do you recall any discussion of eligibility issues for the Caldecott Award, vis-à-vis the official definition of “original work” as “the illustrations are presented here for the first time and have not been previously published elsewhere in this or any other form”? Did that play into the decision to develop the film and book version simultaneously for Arrow to the Sun?
GN: Much of the work on the film of Arrow to the Sun was well on its way by the time Gerald came to Viking. So the film was ready to be shown at approximately the same time that the book was completed. I was not privy to any public discussion of the definition of “original work.” Though I have never done a careful study, no exact image in the book is precisely the same as in the film. Frankly, it was something at Viking that we never considered as a potential conflict.
KTH: Many of our most innovative picture book artists today started out in animation, including Mo Willems, Jon Klassen, Laura Vaccaro Seeger, and Peter Sís. What skills do artists develop through work in animation that serve them well if they make the move to picture books?
GN: This question interests me because many of the classic illustrators in children’s books also began in animation. The most prominent were Alice and Martin Provensen, who worked at Disney and Lantz studios in the 1940s. (They also did a great deal of work in advertising.) Working in animation required a concentration of craft as much as skill. If a drawing didn’t work, Alice told me, they threw it away and just did another one. As collaborative artists, they simply moved on to the next without falling into some kind of breast-beating decline because art was scrapped. It made them practical and commonsensical. And because picture book publishing is collaborative in much the same way as film, I think all the artists you mentioned might echo these thoughts.
KTH: Did winning the Caldecott change Gerald McDermott’s career path? Do you think he would have continued as a filmmaker if he had not gotten such a quick and positive response to his children’s books?
GN: Gerald had toiled so long in the film business with virtually no recognition that when it came to books, he went off a little half-cocked. I came across a line I had written to my colleagues in trying to explain Gerald’s new demands as a successful artist. I wrote to Tom Guinzburg, the president of Viking, that Gerald was succumbing to a severe case of “superstaritis.” My private hunch is that he thought success in the book field might allow him to raise the money to continue his filmmaking career. He certainly never gave up that idea conversationally. Though Gerald left Viking and went to a number of other publishers continuing his investigations of the heroic quest mythology, he never again did anything with film that saw the light of day.