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Profile of Newbery Medalist Nancy Willard

by Barbara Lucas

nancy willard“Would you like to meet Father Beasley?” she asked with a laugh. Before I could answer she added, almost shyly, “You know, in The Highest Hit” (Harcourt). She needn’t have identified him. The characters from Nancy Willard’s books are old friends. They are so real that I often find myself wondering what one of them might be doing at that moment.

“Does he know he is Father Beasley?” I asked after exchang­ing pleasantries with the priest who looked remarkably like Emily McCully’s illustration. “I think people enjoy seeing how other people might see them,” she answered abstractly. “Don’t you?”

I had met Uncle Terrible a year earlier, when visiting Nancy, at the Aurora Cafe. (Both the man and the place figure in the last book of her “Anatole” trilogy — Uncle Terrible, to be published by Harcourt this fall.) “Don’t mention the manuscript,” she had whispered then. “He doesn’t know he is in it.”

It is remarkable to me that I cannot remember my first meet­ing with Nancy. It was at Putnam’s, of course, and I do recall Rita Scott’s phoning to tell me about this young client who was so tremendously talented — who had published adult books of short stories, poetry, and critical essays; was teaching at Vassar; conducted workshops at the Breadloaf Writer’s conferences; and had been a visiting poet at Oberlin. The author had never pub­lished a book for children but had some ideas. I bought the first of these ideas rather quickly but left for Harcourt shortly after­ward, and Margaret Frith brought out Nancy’s inaugural chil­dren’s book, The Merry History of a Christmas Pie (Putnam).

At Harcourt we had set about finding the right artist for Sailing to Cythera: And Other Anatole Stories. It turned out to be David McPhail, who was immediately captured by the magic of Nancy’s storytelling and, adding sorcery of his own, created the final dimensions for those shimmering supernatural worlds in which the stories take place. Anatole is the Hero and, like those in myths and legends, he receives the call to adventure; survives the initiation of trials, temptations, and the forces of nature; realizes his quest; and returns at last to the threshold of his simple home, triumphant but humble. Nancy, like Grandma in these stories, never throws anything away, and her writing bursts with artifices skillfully wrought from bits and pieces of the classics, folk tales, the Gospels, and whatever events might be taking place in her own life.

James Anatole, her son, was four when the trilogy was begun and was, of course, the model for the Hero. Nancy wrote:

…what wonderful drawings. I like the pictures of Anatole on the horse and Anatole with the soldier. And, curiously enough, the draw­ings do look like James, which pleases and rather astonishes him, I think; they made him forget the loss of a ball which his papa threw so high ‘the sun got it.’ The sun has a toy chest, I’m told, where he keeps all such lost objects; unfortunately, he never throws anything away.

A sudden spate of picture books was delivered before The Island of the Grass King: The Further Adventures of Anatole was to arrive. This seemed appropriate for a poet, but it also had something to do with the limited time left to Nancy after the demands of being mother, housewife, teacher, guest lecturer, and reader. Induced, however, by our enthusiastic pleas to “write about your own childhood,” The Highest Hit found its way into publication with anticipated applause. It was a witty, warm novel in which the protagonist Kate, among other things, de­veloped a deep friendship with an elderly neighbor. This re­lationship and her family’s concern for a mentally ill relative are treated with gentle sensitivity, humor, and genuine love — long before such subjects became popular. During the writing of the book my staff and I were to receive photos of the beauty shop and the mysterious magic shop in the story, taken in the small Michigan town where Nancy’s family has had a summer cot­tage for years. Scenes and characters from these summer re­ unions with her mother, her sister, and her sister’s family have taken root in much of her work.

Dominating her work are descriptions of her childhood home, where her mother (Grandma) still lives and where the stars that glow in the dark on the ceiling of her room (and Kate’s) still exist. “The painter came, and all the animals which had decorated the walls were being painted over. I remember thinking with alarm, ‘but I’ll never see those animals again!'” It was then that her father pasted up the stars. “It was a real night sky. With the dippers and everything.”

This was in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where Nancy was born. She had a World War II childhood and recalls the things a child would remember: the blackouts, rations, but — most of all — the time “we made Kool-Aid, once, a great event. It nearly wiped out our sugar rations.”

After high school graduation she studied at the University of Michigan, where she received a B.A. degree. Her father had taught there; he was internationally known for his work on fluorine and for his textbooks. Her M.A. in medieval litera­ture was earned at Stanford University, and her Ph.D. from Michigan in modern literature. Nancy’s dissertation on the poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke and William Carlos Williams was later expanded and published by the University of Missouri Press as Testimony of the Invisible Man. While an undergradu­ate, Nancy won five Hopwood Awards for poetry and essays. Other books of poetry followed as well as adult fiction. Her latest book of poetry — for adults — Household Tales of Moon and Water is due this fall from Harcourt. She has received the Creative Artists’ Public Service Award and a National Endow­ment for the Arts Award — both for poetry. It was like pulling teeth to get this information from Nancy, much of which I had been unaware of despite the fact that I had worked with her for a decade.

There’s more. Nancy is also an artist. She studied art in Oslo and Paris and recently illustrated two small books for Seabury Press. She began treating little books (as her son does now) when she was a child. As a teenager Nancy discovered crow-quill pens and India ink. Becoming enamored of illuminated manuscripts, she began to illustrate her books with elaborate borders “made of thousands of figures and flowers, on real parchment” and almost went blind trying to imitate the crosshatching in the illustrations she found in the classics in the family library. “I didn’t know that the drawings had been reduced. I thought artists simply drew things that small.”

When asked about her working habits, she smiled.

Eric [her photographer-husband] says I’m always working. I do have bits of things in progress in the corners: crafts, things like that, which I can work on in the evenings when there is noise — you know, people and records playing. But I usually write in the mornings when James is in school and I’m not teaching. When I needed the quiet to do the drawings for the Seabury books, I worked from nine in the evening until two in the morning.

Nancy’s magic with the sewing machine produces most o.f her own clothes as well as stuffed toys and Halloween costumes for James. Ilse Vogel, the children’s author and a good friend of hers, said about another of her talents, “I admire Nancy’s way of cooking, the imaginative variety of her vegetable dishes. Especially so because when I had known her only casually, I was convinced that a creature like her would be living only on night­ingale’s tongues and moonlight dew.”

Other things in progress in the corners range from life-size soft sculptures and painted ceramics to just about anything else she gets her hands on. Most of these creations find their way as gifts to Nancy’s friends and colleagues. Those that remain fasc­inate me, for they are usually somehow connected to the book she is currently writing. Until recently, I had never been able to judge which came first — the artifacts or the story in which they played a role. The truth was revealed when I heard her speaking to several groups of elementary school children in Scarsdale. In each school she introduced first herself and then a six-foot-long soft sculpture which reclined in a most ungainly way on a chair beside her. The sculpture looked pleasant enough, but it certainly did not resemble anything yet discovered on this planet. Its head had ears and antlers, and its torso had plainly been a twenty-pound sugar bag. Otherwise, it seemed fairly human in appearance. She had brought this crea­tion in a large suitcase (with its head protruding) from Pough­keepsie that morning on a commuter train. As she spoke to the children, I could not help but visualize the possible reactions of the stunned early morning passengers headed for their offices in the city.

“If this creature came into school one morning and sat down beside you, what would you do?” she asked the children. There were always varying responses. A few youngsters seemed horri­fied by the idea; most were intrigued and said they would try to make friends with the stranger and find out who he was and where he had come from. They would also try not to be afraid of him just because he was different. It was then that she re­vealed that the creature was a character in The Marzipan Moon (Harcourt). “In the story ‘he’ is very real, as real as you are in your life. When you stop to think about it, why can’t ‘he’ be just as real in his world as you are in yours?” she asked. She admitted that the artifacts she made usually came before the stories they were later to figure in. “Winnie the Pooh was a real teddy bear,” she pointed out to the children. “He existed before the stories about him did. Remember? I like to have these characters around me for a while before I set anything down. They help me to create the story because they become so real to me.”

willard_visit to william blake's inn2I remember very well a lopsided four-room dollhouse which Nancy had made from bits and ends and furnished in a most intriguing way. It sat in her living room and was Uncle Terri­ble’s domain (when he had become the appropriate size). Months later many of the furnishings were moved into a startling seven­ room house, sturdily built of wood by a friend, Ralph Gabriner. This grand edifice became the inn of William Blake. Its rooms were papered with Blake’s engravings, Kate Greenaway’s illustrations, and Lewis Carroll’s photographs of Alice. New inhabitants in­cluded two green rabbits; a staff of Dutch girls with silver shoes and cooks with silver spoons monogrammed with moons; a Wise Cow; a dragon; and other assorted animals.

I cannot list the hundreds of objects which reside in this inn, but I do have some favorites. For example, there is a prophet with gold hands and a silver star-moon pendant around his neck. His wings are made from the tail-bone of a fish brought home from a dinner party. (“The cat used to steal the prophet and run around the house with him in his jaws.”)

The warmth and restive creativity of the entire family is strik­ing. Eric’s arresting black-and-white photographs have appeared in several New York shows. James, an avid reader, is also drawing now — small books of clever cartoons.

When Nancy was seven, her first work, a poem, was published on the children’s page of a Unitarian church magazine. An aunt had sent it in. Her first miniature book was published when she was a high school senior. It was an illustrated story called A Child’s Star, and it appeared in The Horn Book Magazine. She later received a letter from Bertha Mahony Miller saying that Mr. Miller was so taken with one of her  drawings that they wanted to use it for their Christmas card that year. “Would ten dollars be a fair fee for this?” wrote Mrs. Miller. “Would it!” thought the young artist.

While Nancy was in college, another of her little illustrated books was published — this time in the University of Michigan literary magazine. Shortly afterward, Nancy received a letter from the poet Marianne Moore asking if she could have a second copy. “Someone had given her a copy during her visit to the Michigan campus. She enclosed five dollars in a pink Kleenex. I am sure I saved the Kleenex.” Eric discourages her from saving everything — I don’t know how successfully. It is not that Nancy is a hoarder, but as she once confided, “I  think to myself, ‘Don’t throw this away because you could make some­thing with it. It could belong to something.'”

Working with this sort of creative spirit over the years has been a joy and a rare privilege for me. I have been struck again and again by her generous nature; her lack of demands; her willingness to accept suggestions and her gentle firmness in explaining why, if she could not. When the extraordinary art for A Visit to William Blake’s Inn was being prepared by Alice and Martin Provensen, she sent me a card with a single statement. “Can you ask them, please, to make Blake look like the real Blake? That’s my only request regarding the pictures.”

A few weeks ago, watching his mother autograph books, James remarked, “If somewhere Blake is watching all this, he must be pleased to see all this fuss being made about him.”

Well, I am pleased to see all this fuss being made about Nancy Willard. She has long deserved it.

Nancy Willard won the 1982 Newbery Medal for A Visit to William Blake’s Inn. From the August 1982 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

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