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Electric Ben: Author/illustrator Robert Byrd’s 2013 BGHB Nonfiction Award Speech

Robert Byrd with Picture Book Honor winner Jesse Klausmeier. Photo: Shara Hardeson

Robert Byrd with Picture Book Honor winner Jesse Klausmeier. Photo: Shara Hardeson

In my children’s book class at the University of the Arts, we often talk about the books we read growing up, and what they meant to us then, and what we can remember about them now. What’s still vivid about those books are the pictures, those magical illustrations that illuminated those wonderful early tales. As a child I loved the stories, but I never thought of them much as an integral half of the combination of art and text that make a picture book actually work. I was always enthralled by the pictures. I copied Robert Lawson’s art from The Story of Ferdinand, and Gustaf Tenggren’s from The Poky Little Puppy, and Ernest Shepard’s from the Winnie-the-Pooh books. I am sure I read Virginia Lee Burton’s The Little House hundreds of times. I can no longer remember all the words, yet I can see the pictures clearly today. I didn’t consider these pictures as merely illustrations that accompanied the stories; the pictures depicted real, genuine, living people, animals, and places. I had no concept of an illustrator making these pictures, and I never remotely considered how these images were somehow transported into the pages of my books.

The books I just mentioned are fiction, but I also read and made pictures from many nonfiction sources; books about history, geography, explorers, dinosaurs, and the universe (I still believe Pluto is a planet), and stories about people and places around the world. I loved encyclopedias, especially the Book of Knowledge, with its beautiful color plates of birds and fish and shells that I still refer to.

As an older child I made my own complex pictures — scenes of farms filled with animals; circuses with lions, elephants, clowns, and acrobats. I drew cowboys and Indians; panoramas filled with figures and horses. I drew ships and castles and exotic people and places. I think this early experience making these pictures was instrumental in shaping my love of history and is reflected in the work I do now.

I have always believed there is a rather fine line between fiction and nonfiction, especially in the approach to artwork in a picture book. Nonfiction picture books can be created with the same imaginative and exciting results that so many excellent fiction books achieve. We have to engross the young reader, following the events faithfully and honestly, but the format must be as stimulating as that for any myth or folk- or fairy tale.

As an illustrator I am given the exciting and challenging opportunity to have my art enlighten a story in a way that words alone might not be able to. Pictures can define action and narrative in many inspirational ways that help a story come alive. These images become fixed in the child’s mind and are forever associated with their remembrance of a particular story. I can easily see Lawson’s perfect rendition of Ferdinand, sitting in the bullring, and as strong as the story line is, I cannot imagine it being anywhere near as dynamic without that illustration. The impact of the image is instant, and the great ones are lasting.

I began my career as a studio illustrator. I did illustrations for everything from newspaper advertising to magazine editorials to greeting cards. I did my first children’s book work with Robert Kraus, who saw my drawings in an article by Diana Klemin in American Artist. I then did black-and-white drawings for Windmill Books. My first full-color book was with Riki Levinson at E. P. Dutton. She showed me how to lay out a book like a film storyboard, constantly changing the pacing of the pictures, moving in and out like a camera, pacing the story. We did The Emperor’s New Clothes, with all animal characters, with a splendidly clothed and then unclothed emperor, an absolutely pompous lion.

I have tried to tell the stories of Leonardo da Vinci, in Leonardo: Beautiful Dreamer, and Ben Franklin with a visual treatment that enlivens them with energy, passion, and humor. I hope in some way these books do have the feeling of legend, or maybe even of myth. I have to use some caution here, though, as I often think of the old Celtic concept — that truth and facts have nothing whatsoever to do with a good story. But they really do, certainly in nonfiction, and maybe even with fiction.

Electric BenAs both the author and illustrator of Electric Ben, I am in a position that the illustrator is not usually in; and that is one of making most of the decisions about the book. I am the writer, the researcher, the layout artist, and the picture maker. This all sounds great. I am in control! But then comes the inherent problem with writing and illustrating, and that is trying not to write to a preconceived visual image. All artists form pictures in their minds as they read or write, and sometimes the image is so powerful and appealing that the artist tries to force it into the text just so he can actually get to make that picture. This does not always work; the art may not really help the narrative. This is one reason I try to complete the text before I begin to draw — but the temptation is always there.

There are situations in which a strong visual concept can be worked into a story, but it has to be a natural fit. I had seen early print maps of Boston, showing aerial views of the harbor, with ships, buildings, and even people, and I wanted to show this scene. It was just right for the book’s first spread, “Ben’s Beginnings.” I wanted something from one of Poor Richard’s Almanacks, and that art wound up being a mix of actual graphic images Franklin used and my own interpretations of his famous sayings — many of which he admitted “borrowing.”

Sometimes you come across a great reference, something you know nothing about, that will influence both the writing and the art. The scene in which the aging Dr. Franklin is being carried in a sedan chair was inspired by a painting I saw in a book about the Revolutionary War. I had to use it. In another illustration, I placed Ben atop a giant globe, holding a ship and a plant, wearing a red three-piece suit, surrounded by stars, comets, the sun and moon, storms and rainbows. There is no logical explanation for the composition of this picture, other than I thought it would look good and tell a story. The red suit, however, is quite logical, and taken from a well-known portrait of Franklin.

A picture book biography develops from myriad sources. I use my own reference books, the library, and the internet, and I am grateful for the assistance of the library staff at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia. When your subject is from a period before photography, you need to consider the accuracy of the pictorial material. Old prints and paintings are the only source of visual aid available and can prove unreliable. Fortunately, with such prominent figures as Leonardo and Franklin, there is a good amount of information I was able to examine and use.

Aside from depicting the lives of these two masters with accuracy and as much personality as possible in the short picture book format, I wanted to give young readers a feeling of what it might be like to live in these bygone centuries. How did people dress? What were their houses like? What was it like to be a child? How did they survive without cable TV?

Lots of kids say they don’t like history. They say, “Why should I care about that old stuff? What does it matter now?” Well, let’s have some fun and excitement with history. I believe we can make the telling of humankind’s saga a meaningful and lively one. I have always thought that someone who maintains a lack of interest in or a dislike of history didn’t have it presented to them very well. If that is the case, then it is our job to present it to them really well. How can reading about cavemen, pyramids, the Coliseum, the great age of discovery and science, and art and astronauts be boring? Only in the telling of the tale.

Despite the inescapable presence of electronic media, and the doomsayers who love to pronounce the demise of the printed page, we will always have our place. Surely there are serious challenges to our business today, but it must be our purpose and responsibility to stand up to them. The best way, I am sure, is for us to produce books of the highest quality possible.

It is quite a significant privilege and experience to know that your story may give pleasure and knowledge to a child, and that your pictures can leave lasting and valuable impressions.

Watch a child turn the pages of a book he likes, and 
be reassured.

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