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The People in My Neighborhood: One Author/Illustrator’s Rambles Around Brooklyn

With apologies to Margaret Wise Brown.

With apologies to Margaret Wise Brown and Clement Hurd. Illustration by Stephen Savage.

The Place

Brooklyn: home to skinny jeans, artisanal pickles, that famous bridge, and yes… one of the biggest children’s book communities in the world. And I’m one of those authors that ends his jacket flap copy with “…lives and works in Brooklyn.” Here’s a brief history, as well as an insider’s guide, to this kid-lit mecca.

The Rise and Fall (Again) of Brooklyn

Brooklyn rose to prominence at the end of World War II. Many of the country’s artistic and intellectual elite from the last century hailed from the borough. One of these famous sons changed the course of children’s books forever. His name was Maurice Sendak.

Brooklyn, like many urban centers in the middle of the twentieth century, soon went into decline. People fled the city for the suburbs, crime spiked, and Brooklyn store owners put gates over their shop windows. Nothing symbolizes the decline more sharply for Brooklynites than the exodus of their beloved Dodgers baseball team and the subsequent demolition of Ebbets field in the late 1950s. 1970s Brooklyn was the broken-down backdrop for movies such as Dog Day Afternoon and The French Connection. Artists and performers (like John Travolta’s Tony Manero character in Saturday Night Fever) hopped the train for Manhattan and never looked back. Despite this, a group of Pratt Institute and Parsons graduates (Ted and Betsy Lewin and Pat Cummings of the former, Leo and Diane Dillon the latter) decided to settle here.

A second wave of children’s book artists, along with authors and magazine and book editors, followed in the ’80s and ’90s. And the last ten years has seen an explosion in the number of book artists settling in the borough.

The Old Guard

Jon Scieszka arrived in Brooklyn in 1977 and is one of the children’s book community’s oldest (and most esteemed) members. Back then, Brooklyn was hardly the bustling, prosperous borough that it is today. “I used to hit golf balls on the empty Great Lawn in Prospect Park on Saturday afternoons,” he recalls. Later, in the 1980s, Scieszka befriended fellow pioneers Jacqueline Woodson, Mo Willems, and Tony DiTerlizzi. “We would all kvetch over beers at Jackie’s 5th Amendment” (a local watering hole that was on 5th Avenue). Eventually, Willems and DiTerlizzi “defected,” moving north to that other kid-lit enclave, Western Massachusetts.

The Power Couples

Andrea Davis Pinkney and Brian Pinkney arrived in the borough in 1990 and were delighted to discover that Brooklyn was home to two other prominent children’s literature couples: the Lewins and the Dillons. “We belonged to the same gym as the Dillons, where on any given day they’d be waving hello from the treadmill,” Davis Pinkney remembers. The Lewins were just as welcoming. “They invited us to brunch at their brownstone,” said Davis Pinkney, “where we dipped healthy crackers in pots of hummus and munched on lentil salad.” It was during this visit to the Lewin digs that the Pinkneys discovered the secret to kid-lit couple harmony: separate floors, separate work spaces. “We went home that night and rearranged our house accordingly.” Other Kid-Lit Power Couples here include Selina Alko and Sean Qualls, as wells as Tad Hills and children’s book publishing executive Lee Wade.

The Collective

John Bemelmans Marciano, Brian Floca, Sophie Blackall, Edward Hemingway, and Sergio Ruzzier share studio space in a former warehouse. Cram five artists into one room and, typically, it isn’t long before they’re stabbing each other in the back with X-ACTO knives. Not so with this group. There are genuine feelings of affection and mutual admiration filling this loft space. “We all cheered when Brian won the Caldecott for Locomotive,” says Blackall. “We were invested in that book. We helped pose for it. We gave our input on all the dummies and drafts. It was our book, too.”

The Writers’ Group

The aforementioned isn’t the only group of Brooklyn artists who enjoy working together in the same room. E. Lockhart, Robin Wasserman, Libba Bray, and Gayle Forman routinely get together for lattes and lap-swimming, followed by lengthy writing sessions at a local Park Slope cafe. Lockhart admits that the fellowship is motivating: “You’re less likely to waste time on Twitter when the person across the table from you is cranking away on their novel.”

The Internationals

The Brooklyn children’s book community is largely a melting pot…so much so that Sergio Ruzzier laments, “my charming Italian accent doesn’t seem to impress anyone here.” Third-generation Brooklynite Daniel Salmieri notes, “It’s rare to meet someone in Brooklyn who’s from Brooklyn.” South Korean artist Hyewon Yum was attracted by the art and book culture in Brooklyn. “In Seoul, people look at you funny if you don’t have a day job.” Other Brooklyn immigrants include Laura Ljungkvist, a Swede; Fiona Robinson, a Brit; and Paul Hoppe, a German.

The Support Group

“Kid Lit Group Therapy” meets twice a month — members new and old get together at Floyd on Atlantic Avenue to discuss reviews and royalty statements over pints of Brooklyn micro-brew. Organizer Peter Brown says he can always spot a new inductee. “They stumble into the bar like wide-eyed toddlers.” Mike Curato was one of those star-struck newbies. He moved to Brooklyn in 2013 to be part of the children’s book community. “I felt like an island, living in Seattle,” he says.

Old-timers at the bar include Paul Zelinsky and Michael Buckley, who have been KLGT regulars for years. “I enjoy the camaraderie with younger artists,” says elder statesman Zelinsky. And Buckley, out of sight of editors, publicists, and librarians, relishes the chance to toss one back and let off steam with his Brooklyn colleagues. “We’re all in the same war,” he says.

The Brooklyn “Thing”

Brooklyn artists, like artists everywhere, draw inspiration from their environment. Brian Pinkney used the brownstone-lined street in Cobble Hill where he lived at the time as the setting for his book Max Found Two Sticks. Dan Salmieri notes that the organic forms in his art are inspired by daily visits to Prospect Park. “I go up there to get away from right angles,” he says. And the docks, bridges, and warehouses in Brooklyn’s industrial waterfront show up in my own books Little Tug and Supertruck.

And then there’s “the attitude of Brooklyn” (as Peter Brown puts it). “Many of my stories are about acceptance, and that comes from living in such a diverse place,” he observes. Selina Alko says that her books “are all about the mix of people” and are inspired by the Brooklyn melting pot. Alko, the daughter of Canadian immigrants, and her husband, illustrator Sean Qualls, are themselves the parents of biracial children.

The Caldecott, Newbery, and CSK Club

Sendak. Selznick. Zelinsky. Myers. Brown. Lewin. Floca. Pinkney. Woodson. And others. ‘Nuff said. Is it something in the water?!

The Lifers

Brooklyn rose, then fell, and has risen again. Rents are skyrocketing and condo towers are going up everywhere. Sadly, young artists are finding it difficult to live here. Despite the borough’s rapid gentrification, “There’s still something kinda vital here,” says Scieszka. Judi Barrett, author of the classic Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, who’s been here since the days of the Dodgers, says she loves the community and has no plans to leave. “Where else would I go?”

The Celebration

Every November we all flock to the Brooklyn Museum Children’s Book Fair to sign books for the neighborhood fans. Last year I thought I’d share the glory with my wife and six-year-old-daughter. But as soon as we stepped into the Rubin Pavilion, the two of them quickly lined up at Oliver Jeffers’s table. Next they ran over to see Naoko Stoop. An hour later, I spotted them chatting with Abby Hanlon.

Sure, Brooklyn is overrun with some of the best and brightest children’s book creators in the world. But there’s always room for more.

Click on the Brooklyn tag for more from The Horn Book.

Stephen Savage About Stephen Savage

Stephen Savage was born in Los Angeles, raised in Minnesota, and has lived in Brooklyn since 1994. His next picture book, Where’s Walrus? And Penguin? (Scholastic), comes out August 2015.

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Comments

  1. Deb Marciano says:

    Awesome neighborhood, Stephen! Fabulous article!!

  2. Wonderful piece, Stephen Savage! It’s quite amazing how so many artists are working in Brooklyn studios these days and have been in the past. I would like to add Winsor McCay to that list. He wasn’t Brooklyn born, though he did die there, (July 26, 1934) and he wasn’t a true “picture book” illustrator like the others you mention. but after being fortunate to have lived in Brooklyn myself for a short time back in the early 70’s, and having had Sendak turn me on to his work right about that same time, I feel McCay epitomizes a dreamlike Brooklyn in all it’s creative glory so much so that Little Nemo could actually be Little Nemo in Brooklyn. Please keep rambling, loved reading your article and love your work.

  3. Elizabeth Franks says:

    You have nicely chronicled the continuation of Literary Brooklyn as it applies to children’s literature and maybe more people will contribute names to fill in the historical lineage . We really appreciate you mentioning the Brooklyn Museum Children’s Book Fair as that yearly event was begun in 2007 because we noticed how many new children’s book authors and illustrators lived in Kings County and the 9th annual Book Fair continues this November 14, 2015. At the Brooklyn Museum we love all our regular book fair participants and are really excited when we find a new children’s book author/illustrator. Thanks Stephen; you are the man who does most books without words…but you have written a keen perspective on your literary community.

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