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“Dear Mr. Zelinsky”

klickitat_streetThis is a lesson in overcoming assumptions.

The mail I receive from readers trends strongly to the appreciative; it’s rare that anything remotely critical comes in, so I’m sure I’m completely spoiled.

When I read this letter from a class near Philadelphia and saw that they were questioning a scene in the background of one of my drawings for Dear Mr. Henshaw, suggesting it was inappropriate for children, the generous praise also included in the letter grew suddenly invisible to me. Was this some sort of “gotcha” class project?

A friend told me that class letters like this have been popping up recently, perhaps tied to (a misreading of?) the “close reading” movement. Classes read books trying to find a place where, in their view, a rule of writing is not being followed correctly, and they send a confrontational note to the author pointing out the deficiency. Was mine a letter like this? It’s so easy to feel defensive.

In the same way that I dislike those bridge-only playgrounds without swings or jungle gyms, where the wish to do away with risk has eliminated a lot more in the process, I’m also very dubious about limiting what children are exposed to in pictures (what a hopeless battle that is, anyway!). Were fourth graders being conscripted into what I think of as a battle for mediocrity?

Whatever I was feeling, I tried to ignore it and give my most honest answer to the question.

Here is the letter, my reply, and a couple of follow-up emails, in which I learned (if I’ll ever learn) how wrong my initial reaction can be, and how good it is to give others the benefit of the doubt.

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The illustration in question.

 

****

PAUL O. ZELINSKY  

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 April 1, 2015

Dear Ms. Cramer’s class,

Thank you for your kind words about my pictures in Beverly Cleary’s wonderful book Dear Mr. Henshaw. I’m glad that you paid close enough attention to my pictures to notice details as small as the one that led you to write me, asking for an explanation. I am happy to give it to you.

You want to know why I drew two women smoking, in a book meant for children. First of all, I must tell you that this book was created many years ago, when a lot of things were quite different. If I were making the illustrations today, I wouldn’t have included those cigarettes because now you don’t see people smoking in restaurants; now it is not allowed (which I think is a very good thing). But back in the 1980s, you would always see people in restaurants who were smoking. And in the scene I was drawing, I wanted readers to feel the way I think Leigh felt, in this very unusual situation with an unusual person. Read the whole scene and see if you agree with me, that everything about the experience was making Leigh very uncomfortable, until Mrs. Badger showed that she liked Leigh’s writing and then his day became a good one. My picture comes before that point. I decided to draw smokers in the background because I thought, and I still think, this is a disturbing thing to see in a restaurant. Not only that: look at the smokers themselves — the way they are sitting, the way their faces look, do they seem to be pleasant people? Look at the men on the other side of the picture: they are looking at the smokers. What are they thinking? Is it good or bad? In either case, does it look like something at all happy? I don’t think so. I think it’s a little bit funny. I put this kind of detail in my illustrations not just because it gives readers something to look at, but because if I’m doing it right, it helps create the feeling that is right for that moment in the story.

Finally, I want to ask you two things. Do you think that every time an author or an illustrator puts something in a story, it is a way of saying “this is good and I encourage you to do it?” I assure you that is not the case. If the stories you read only included actions that were good and worthy, would you actually want to read them? Think about your favorite book, and imagine what it would be like if everything bad were taken out of it. The results might be something very funny, because it would probably be so dull and empty. My other question is: now that you’ve seen my picture, did it make you feel that smoking is okay? Did it tempt you to smoke? If you actually feel a desire to be a smoker after seeing my illustration, then I will have to say that my thinking is wrong. But if you personally have not been harmed by this image, and you only want to protect others from seeing it, why don’t you think those others are as smart as you? They probably are.

I think you’re smart to notice what’s in the pictures of your book, and smart to think about it, and I hope you will see what I am saying, and understand why I did what I did. And for goodness’ sake, don’t start smoking!

With all best wishes,
Paul O. Zelinsky

****

I tried to write an answer that wasn’t defensive or confrontational, but that addressed real issues realistically, but I didn’t know how well I’d achieved that end. And  so I had no idea what kind of response, if any, I would get from the teacher. When this heartwarming reply came back, I had to recalibrate my original feelings:

NAME: Susan Cramer
LOCATION: Maple Shade Elementary Croydon, PA

My class recently wrote to you asking about an illustration in Dear Mr. Henshaw. Your response was personal and thought-provoking. You truly touched my students in a meaningful way.

Thank you.

That was when I started thinking I’d like to share the exchange more widely. I sent a (written) note to the teacher asking if it would be all right. Again, her response:

From: Susan Cramer
To: Paul O. Zelinsky
Subject: posting our correspondence

Hi Paul,

It is my pleasure for you to post the letter written by students. I checked with the principal and he said it is fine to include Maple Shade Elementary and the students’ first names.

As a Title I reading teacher, I try to engage the children; hoping to make them lifelong readers. The fourth-grade students who read Dear Mr. Henshaw are reluctant readers. I am thrilled to see how much they loved the novel, as well as your beautiful detailed illustrations. In addition, they were absolutely over the moon to receive your personal response.

You just made my job a little easier and a little sweeter! Thank you for caring about your audience.

Warmest regards,
Susan Cramer

And my response:

To: Susan Cramer
From: Paul O. Zelinsky
Subject: Re: posting our correspondence

Hi Susan,

I’m pretty over the moon to hear you say this, about your students’ responses to the book, and to our correspondence over it. Thanks for the permission. I sent what you and I wrote to Dear Mr. Henshaw‘s original editor, who really liked the exchange, and was very complimentary of you when I told him about your nice reply via my website. He thought the material could be of interest to The Horn Book, rather than just my Facebook page, and I might check that possibility out.

More power to you and what you do! It is so valuable. Thank you very much.
Paul

EDITOR’S NOTE: From The Horn Book: And thank you, Paul O. Zelinsky, Beverly Cleary, Susan Cramer, and all those readers — voracious and reluctant — who inspire and challenge us.

Happy 100th Birthday, Beverly Cleary! For more, click the tag Beverly Cleary at 100.

About Paul O. Zelinsky

Paul O. Zelinsky is the Caldecott Medal-winning illustrator and reteller of Rapunzel and a three-time Caldecott Honoree. His illustration work includes Swamp Angel, The Wheels on the Bus, the Toys Go Out series, and Z Is for Moose.

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Comments

  1. What a fantastic exchange!

  2. Great post. The teacher’s last response gave me goosebumps.

  3. Love it! I just worked with my daughter’s 1st grade class and they felt strongly that The Chocolate Touch should have been titled The Chocolate Taste. So I told them to tell the author! I just mailed their letters earlier this week.

  4. An exceptional exchange. Thank you for sharing this.

  5. This exchange is just wonderful. Thank you! You have made reluctant readers want to read. The first time this situation happened in my classroom I was reading “Jack and the Beanstalk” by John Howe. Jack’s mother called him stupid. The ‘why’ questions were much like the ‘why’ smoking questions. So, we wrote to John Howe. That was thirty years ago, long before emailing. Our handwritten letter was answered by John Howe’s handwritten letter. It meant the world to the children and made a difference. I still have that letter. I am sure that Susan Cramer will still have your letter thirty years from now. -Jennie Fitzkee-

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