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Erin E. Stead (2011 Caldecott profile by Philip C. Stead)

Erin E. Stead

Erin E. Stead. Photo: Nicole Haley

We had no intention of bringing a dog home that day. Erin just needed cheering up, and what better way than rows and rows of wagging tails at the Baltimore SPCA?

I was in town from Ann Arbor visiting Erin for the weekend. But our visit had been sidetracked when the phone rang. It was Erin’s mother. She was calling to give us the news that Molly, Erin’s childhood dog, had died suddenly.

Molly was very much Erin’s dog. It was Erin who had convinced her family to visit the Michigan Humane Society. They trusted her because she’s always had a way with animals. It was Erin who later had the patience to clean Molly up after the first encounter with Mr. Skunk. And again after the second. And the third.

Erin speaks the language of animals. I knew this early on. I met Erin in the last few months of my senior year of high school. We never would have met if not for a fluke in scheduling that placed us both in the art room for third period. I noticed Erin’s drawing and sat down to meet her. Though Erin may speak the language of animals, the language of people comes with much greater effort. Erin is shy. Very shy. It wasn’t until summer that I really got to know her. Erin worked at a summer camp in the Michigan “Thumb,” teaching younger kids to ride and to care for horses. I visited her there, and for the first time saw her completely at ease. Even now, Erin remembers dozens of camp horses and will tell you a little bit about each of their personalities. Calvin and Hobbes, two draft horses, were inseparable friends. When working in different pastures they would call loudly to each other. King was shy, but in love with Daisy the donkey. Elliot, the retired racehorse, was allergic to hay. And grass. And oats.

We had no intention of bringing a dog home that day. But when we saw the little black-and-white dog with the Mohawk and the underbite, poking her head through the bars, there was little question what we would do.

We named her Wednesday (last name McGee) because “Wednesday’s child is full of woe.” Wednesday was one and a half years old. She had been abused and removed from a home. She was a gentle dog, but she did not trust people. Any sound would frighten her. She did not know how to eat or how to play. She had never been on a walk and did not know how to communicate with other dogs. She had lost her confidence.

Erin took Wednesday on long walks, introducing her to things she had never seen. Wednesday learned that the city bus was not a monster. Sewer grates were scary, but could generally be trusted. She met squirrels, and then (eureka!) she learned that squirrels are for chasing. These adventures became routine, and there is comfort in routine. Just ask Amos McGee.

This new routine was important for Erin, too. It was her junior year in art school, and things were not going well. Erin had completely lost her confidence as an artist. Her painting instructors believed she was an illustrator. Her illustration professors believed she was a painter. In truth, they were both right. But Erin felt like neither. She was crippled by a sense that her art had no home—that she did not belong. There are few worse feelings for an artist, and Erin’s lack of confidence began to infect all areas of her life. She was missing classes, and it was becoming clear that she would not finish the semester. This was the most difficult and sad time in Erin’s life so far.

Wednesday began attending class with Erin. She would relax on the floor during figure drawing sessions, and in the evenings she would keep Erin company in the studio. In between, they’d be at the park, where Erin was teaching Wednesday how to play fetch. Erin would throw the frisbee, then chase it and bring it back to Wednesday. Again. And again. And again, looking a bit ridiculous in the process, yes, but nothing is better for the soul than allowing yourself to look ridiculous.

Squirrels and fetch were revelations for Wednesday. Soon she was waking up with the first light, pawing at Erin’s pillow, eager to get out the door. This was exactly what Erin needed. (I should note here that Erin is not an early riser.)

That June, Erin and Wednesday came to Michigan. I was organizing an art show in a converted warehouse space in Detroit. Erin, a friend, and I were showing art based on the theme “circus.” Wednesday attended the opening. This would be the last work that Erin would make for three years. Her pictures, elderly circus folk and their animal friends, were delicately drawn in pencil on vellum. I had that work in mind as I sat down three years later to write A Sick Day for Amos McGee.

Dogs do not heal quickly, and neither do people. It took a long time for Wednesday to overcome the bulk of her fears. It took Erin a long time to return to drawing. At first, even the thought of drawing would bring waves of panic. But eventually she found herself working at the kitchen table, a less intimidating environment than the drawing desk. Wednesday would sit at her feet or watch her from the couch. She would let Erin know when it was time to stop drawing and go for a walk. It was at this time that my editor, Neal Porter, heard through a friend that Erin was also an artist. “But she is very shy, and she won’t show you anything.”

Neal wrote me and asked to see Erin’s work. At that time Erin’s “work” consisted of a single drawing. It was of an elephant and an old man. That day, while Erin was out, I scanned the drawing and sent it to Neal. Wednesday and I greeted her at the door when she came home. “Don’t be mad…” I said. Within weeks Erin was illustrating A Sick Day for Amos McGee.

On January 10, 2011, nearly seven years since our visit to the pound, I was getting ready to take Wednesday for her morning walk. Then the phone rang. I had a feeling. But you can’t explain to a dog waiting at the door that the ringing phone might just be the Caldecott committee. So Wednesday and I left for the park. Erin answered the phone. When I saw Erin running toward us, I knelt down to let Wednesday off the leash. I wanted Wednesday to be the first to congratulate Erin. Wednesday ran to Erin, wagging her tail as if she were thinking, “Hooray, my good friend is here!”

Hooray, indeed.

Erin E. Stead is the winner of the 2011 Caldecott Medal for A Sick Day for Amos McGee, written by Philip C. Stead and published by Neal Porter Books, an imprint of Roaring Brook Press. From the July/August 2011 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

About Philip C. Stead

Philip C. Stead is Erin E. Stead’s husband and the author of the Caldecott Medal–winning A Sick Day for Amos McGee.

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