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1984 Caldecott Medal profile of Alice and Martin Provensen by Nancy Willard

By Nancy Willard

Of all my visits to the Provensens’ farm, there is one I shall never forget. My husband, my son, and I, along with Barbara Lucas, the editor of A Visit to William Blake’s Inn (Harcourt) spent a delightful afternoon with Alice and Martin, who deserve a gold medal for their hospitality. It was high summer; goldenrod and Queen Anne’s lace nodded on both sides of the road leading to the house. The pond gleamed like a bright carpet spread in the meadow where a horse browsed and several geese stood about, waiting to be admired.

We admired them. We gathered for lunch in the kitchen decorated with prints and engravings from old chapbooks which reminded me of my favorite pages in the Provensens’ Mother Goose Book (Random). On a chair slept the cat who that very morning had presented Alice with a dead mouse. If I ever arrive at the Valley of Love and Delight praised in that lovely Shaker hymn “The Gift To Be Simple,” I am sure it will be very much like an afternoon spent with Alice and Martin; it will be blessed with the humor and the harmony of these two artists, who this year have celebrated their fortieth wedding anniversary and the Caldecott Medal for the fifty-fourth book they have made together.

After lunch we followed Alice into the library, and she shared with us some of the rare books she had bound on her press: a three-volume edition of Leonardo da Vinci’s notebooks and a book on falconry whose marvelous beasts move from page to page on a single line, much like the pages of A Peaceable  Kingdom: The Shaker Abecedarius (Viking). The press, she explained, was in the studio. At the mention of the studio, we all looked eager, and Martin smiled: Would we like to visit the studio?

The barn holds the studio, the guest room, and the henhouse (entered by a ramp on which Martin has nailed rungs for the convenience of small tenants). Light from the skylight fell on the worktable and on a model Piper Cub in one corner. The walls were covered with an extraordinary number of sketches. Suddenly, Martin exclaimed, “Don’t look! They’re from a new book we’re making!” I think none of us looked. He did divulge on secret, however. The new book had something to do with flying. Such was our introduction to The Glorious Flight: Across the Channel with Louis Blériot (Viking), which was awarded the 1984 Caldecott Medal.

Recently, I asked some students to tell me their favorite Provensen books. The class came up with nearly a dozen titles, including the first book, Fireside Book of Folk Songs (Simon) published in 1947 and still in print. They have illustrated art books, cookbooks, alphabet books, and the classics – for example, The Iliad and The Odyssey (Simon), The Golden Treasury of Myths and Legends (Golden Press), Shakespeare: Ten Great Plays (Golden Press), Aesop’s Fables (Golden Press), The Provensen Book of: Fairy Tales (Random). They have also brought thousands of children to the farm through the books inspired by it: Our Animal Friends at Maple Hill Farm; The Book of Seasons (both Random); The Year at Maple Hill Farm; A Horse and a  Hound, A Goat and a Gander; An Owl and Three Pussycats (all Atheneum). Eight of their books have been included in The New York Times list “Best Illustrated Children’s Books of the Year.” For Myths and Legends, they received the Gold Medal of the Society of Illustrators. For A Visit to William Blake’s Inn, a Caldecott honor book, they won the 1982 Boston Globe–Horn Book Award for illustration. I’m sure that when The Glorious Flight: Across the Channel with Louis Bleriot was announced as the winner of the Caldecott, a great many people heaved a sigh of relief and said, “It’s about time.”

Quite as wonderful as their work is the way they work together – the remarkable rapport, the seamless blending of two imaginations. They make it sound easy.

We have been working together for so long that it has ceased to be a question of who does what. In any given finished illustration one of us may have done the first sketch, the other may have painted what we hoped was to have been a finished picture. It almost always has to be done over several times; we pass it back and forth between us until we are both satisfied. It is a happy collaboration. If one sometimes reaches a degree of frustration, there is a certain joy in giving up and saying, “Here, you do this one.”

I remember with amusement a different kind of collaboration: the time a horse came down with a foot disease and Alice read Martin a whole book about life in China while he applied compresses every four hours to the horse’s leg. “The animals we have drawn and written about, with one exception, we have now or have had over thirty years,” Martin told me. “We’ve never had a cow; we brought in cows from the neighbors. That’s poetic license. Most children adore animals, and some adults never outgrow this passion. I think we fit into that category, as you can see by the way we live.” The way they live. One day a friend came to visit, and when he arrived, he found Martin bathing a sick rooster’s foot. “The rooster was standing very quietly with one leg in the pail of solution. And our friend was astonished. Was this some religious rite – or what?”

Who can forget the names of those animals? Evil Murdoch, Potato Who Disappeared, Eggnog, Willow. The namer of beasts is Karen, the Provensens’ daughter, now twenty-five and working as a music therapist in a California high school. She is her parents’ strictest and most compassionate critic. “She made us aware of children’s relationships to books, not as toys, not as teachers, but as something more special – as friends to hold, to cherish, to escape to, and to enjoy.”

Henry James might have been describing the Provensens when he remarked, “Write from experience and experience only. Try to be one of the people on whom nothing is lost.” Their experience includes past and present, near and far. They travel a great deal, and their sketchbooks travel with them. It is from these voluminous records that they draw material for books requiring settings that are foreign or historical or fanciful. They have traveled a long way since their first jobs at Walt Disney’s studio, Alice working as an animator and Martin in the story department. “It was ideal training for book illustration,” Martin has observed. “You’d be given a sequence, the barest outline, just a thread of narrative, and then it was up to you to invent. That was delightful. You could take it and play with it.”

Their playfulness and inventiveness would have delighted the subject of their next book, Leonardo da Vinci, with whom they share a passion for matters of flight. The Glorious Flight was inspired partly by the Rhinebeck Aerodrome with its weekend demonstrations of early airplanes. Martin himself learned to fly; his instructor has a Blériot XI, the type of plane that flew the channel in 1909.

Flight and fables, music and myths, colors and cookbooks, seasons and animals; reading the Provensens, I come away richer and wiser.

Animals are for me – and I think for Alice, too – wonderful guides to the unknown. And such wonderful guides they are! Wasn’t it Einstein who said that the mysterious is the most wonderful thing a human being can know?

Alice and Martin Provensen are guides to both the known and the unknown. And wonderful guides they are.

Alice and Martin Provensen were awarded the 1984 Caldecott Medal for The Glorious Flight: Across the Channel with Louis Blériot July 25, 1909. Nancy Willard is the 1982 Newbery Medal–winning author of A Visit to William Blake’s Inn: Poems for Innocent and Experienced Travelers, illustrated by the Provensens, also winner of a Caldecott Honor as well as the 1982 Boston Globe–Horn Book Award for Picture Book.

From the August 1984 Horn Book Magazine.

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