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Caldecott Award Acceptance*

by Marcia Brown

*Paper read at the meeting of the American Library Association, Philadelphia, July 5, 1955.

Cinderella by Marcia BrownAn artist cannot help feeling deeply honored to receive an award bearing the name of Randolph Caldecott, one of the happiest spirits in children’s books. Prizes and awards seem to be gifts from the gods, unless they are given for measurable performances, such as jumping. Perhaps this one has been given for sheer persistence in running up. The book so honored is neither better nor worse than it was before, but the illustrator has grown in that you have added to her your confidence in her and her work.

It is also a great pleasure to receive an award given by librarians. Public libraries have been a part of my life, as long as I can remember. When our family moved to a new town, my sisters and I made a trip to the library to make friends with the librarian and get our library cards before our parents had a chance to unpack the china. One of the first books that came home from the library in Cooperstown was Clean Peter and the Children of Grubbylea, suggested purposely, I am afraid, by an older sister. We were near enough of an age to share a pleasure in the same books. One night when I was five and she and I were alone, to amuse me she read aloud Andersen’s fairy tales. Three of us sat in our old, black leather Morris chair – she on one side, our good-sized airedale on the other, and I in the middle, feeling the warmth of each as an antidote to the sadness of the Little Match Girl.

I shall never forget our excitement when later on we discovered Otto of the Silver Hand. A child brought up on Howard Pyle and the Lang fairy books can hardly help acquiring some feeling for the Middle Ages. Reading books and listening to music were as normal parts of my childhood as eating and playing. I can never look on those Carnegie buildings in small towns — the red brick, the golden oak, the cool, dim corners behind potted palms, the smell of the stamping pads, the peculiar, cozy smell of worn buckram and pages that felt as soft as old flannel — without thinking of what that place is meaning to some child who thinks of it as a second home, a kind of last stand of privacy.

On the top floor of that library in Cooperstown was a small museum, containing, among others, two wonderful things — one, an exact model of James Fenimore Cooper’s house. “Through the little windows you could look right into the rooms.” The whole thing seemed a glorified doll house to my sisters and me, who spent a good deal of time leaning on the table, looking in those windows and imagining a life inside. I always had a passion, like Tag-a-long Too-Loo’s, for little things, chiefly boxes and dolls. The other wonderful object in that museum was a primitive little doll carved by an Eskimo from walrus ivory. She was only about two and a half inches high and had almost no face. I wondered if she was aware of my devotion, or of the many trips I made to the library just to go upstairs alone to look at her. Like most children, I never told my love.

No one can know the influence on a child of those first books and their pictures, good and bad. Reproductions were then all I saw of the great paintings of the world. Most of these were on slides borrowed from the State Library by a wise and enterprising seventh-grade teacher who, when we were restless, would often suddenly say, “I think we need some slides.” Down would come the dark curtains of the schoolroom windows, and off that seventh grade went, transported and refreshed by “The Wedding of Aurora” or Botticelli’s “Primavera.”

From the time when I first wanted to illustrate books, and that was quite early in my life (it all seemed more possible somehow when we moved to the parsonage where Maud Petersham had lived as a girl), I was interested in books for younger rather than older children. The greater attractiveness of those I saw in the former group and the often disappointing dullness of those I saw in the latter made me feel that way. I remember a keen resentment that a book was illustrated at all when the pictures were inadequate compared to those pictures that formed in the mind.

A young child shares with the primitive an extraordinary power to identify himself with the people, animals and things of this world, and this power makes him extremely accessible to the magic power of symbol. This same power carried into adult life enables the artist to enter the feelings of his subjects and draw and paint them in such a way that not only do they look as if they felt a certain way, but they also make the spectator feel that same way. Young children have a profound sense of the mysterious, but if the mood of our work is to speak to them, it must relate to other realities they know. The child cannot gape forever at the juggler or shiver endlessly with the tightrope walker. After the circus is over the arc of his own ball in the air will be more beautiful, the sureness of his own foot as he walks the curb will give him pride. He contains his experience.

A picture book really exists only when a child and a book come together, when the stream that formed in the artist’s mind and heart flows through the book and into the mind and heart of the child. Before starting to make the book an artist must be sure the story is worth the time, his time and love spent in illustrating it, and the child’s time to be spent in looking at it.

Once the story is chosen, what is its texture? What are the large patterns of action? These might be the very meaning of the story itself.

A picture book is somewhat related in its effect to that of a painting. The whole is greater than any of its parts, but all the parts must relate directly to each other in harmony. The young child might be more receptive to the intuition of the artist than rile educated adult, who might be an ignoramus in art, for all his conscious knowledge. But the pictures must be blessed with real intuitive quality for them to speak to him.

The clearest exposition of the creative process I have yet found is Jacques Maritain’s Creative Intuition in Art and Poetry, in which he tells of inspiration (and those who scoff at its necessity

to a work perhaps have never felt it) springing from the dark night of the soul in vibrations that be calls “pulsations,” “wordless songs,” then assuming form as one begins to think of the work in question, and finally being subjected to conscious reason. As an artist develops he gradually becomes aware of the presence of this night, and to trust in it; for it is there, not at the surface of his mind, which deals with the problems of existence, but deep in those waters that contain the resources of his spirit and intellect, that his intuition has its birth. That is why, I think, when only vague feelings are beginning to form, an artist should be left alone to let them gradually rise to the surface and take form as visual idea. And that is also why the feeling of others can hardly be incorporated or even listened to at this point if the finished work is to have the integrity which means that it sprang from an artist’s own sensibility. His sensibility, of course, has been enriched by his thinking, his seeing, his feeling, his living — all his life up to now, and that is what is drawn on, not the impulses of last week. That might be another reason why the time spent on creating a book in its first form, that is, making the dummy if there is to be a visual plan, can be very short or very long. I have never been impressed by tales of the extraordinary length of time that it took to produce books or paintings. An art student’s laborious drawing of a month will not compare with a one-minute impression of a Picasso. All one’s life has been spent in preparation for the work at hand. When the greatest amount of inspiration is brought to bear, the least amount of work will bring the idea to realization. Inspiration — no minute in making a work should escape it.

In our modern world beauty is often dismissed in favor of hard labor. People will respect the hours consumed in a project without ever questioning the use of the time spent in the first place.

The artist is overcharged, and works to find a relief, ease for his burden, so that he can take up another as soon as he is able. At his most relaxed he is often most unhappy; at his most tense, difficult as he might be to live with, he is often experiencing one of his deepest joys, for he is finding his way back into himself. This region is so subjective that he is often hardly aware it existed, but he knows, if he has listened to music, that it exists in others. Rhythms he feels there are old as time and tide, but they are part of the bloodstream of all the morning subway riders. Colors take their meaning from first awareness of light, blue vastness of sea and sky, hot warmth of fire, the sun and his own blood. Sounds, movements, all these rise to the surface to be called into use to speak to the same feelings in another human being. These feelings or this intuition, if it is strong enough in a person, demands to be expressed in work, even if that work is never understood by others. Its strength is such that it will drive an artist to live the life of greatest hardship in order to nourish it, and allow it to have its way with him.

The question of integrity has a direct bearing on one’s choice of subject matter for a book. Who knows when an idea can light a match? A sight of children playing in a city street; meeting a stalwart Cape-Codder of three who that day had fallen off a dock when the tide was in and had walked in to shore, as his brother told us, “by hisself”; hearing an old rhyme read or a sly old folk tale; or having one’s editor suggest illustrating a tale, the feeling of which, if not the exact images, had persisted in the mind since early childhood; any reason can exist, it seems, for making a picture book. But, and this I believe most strongly, the reasons have to be a part of the person and his feeling before he attempts the book. Contrivance and fad-following impress only those who are unaware of their superficiality.

A good editor knows the stage at which authors and artists must be left alone if their work is to be their own best expression. I have been most fortunate in my editor, Alice Dalgliesh. As an outstanding writer for children, and a very kind friend, she has given me more than usual understanding and consideration during times of stress.

The whole process of actually getting a picture book ready for the printer usually takes me about five months. It is sometimes difficult to maintain the same high pitch of excitement that was there when the work started, but it must be done. The original idea must always be the aim. In almost all cases, it is the one with vitality and truest feeling toward the text.

Why is it that the paintings of children often have qualities of intensity of expression, beauty of color, and depth of feeling that make us feel that they are works of art? By his desire to say something, to force the meager means, the meager knowledge at his disposal, the child is able to draw what he has to say so vividly that his drawing speaks to us. All during the work on a book, all during his working life the artist will be forcing his means to say what he has to say. The means will always be determined by the subject at hand, and that is why I feel that each book should look different from the others, whether or not the medium used is the same.

The simplicity of a very young child’s pleasure in a little street carousel, a tale of a roguish cat that is colored by the sophistication of the Sun King’s Court, the longing and immolation of a little tin soldier, the freshness of a lovely young girl’s dream as opposed to her stepsisters’ delusions of grandeur, and they more waspish than wicked — how could one feel the same about such different books? A technique learned as a formula to apply willy-nilly to any subject often knocks the life out of the subject. The vitality, the quality peculiar to the subject should dictate the method to follow. Is the subject to yield to the manner, or the manner to the subject?

Whatever the means, the only pictures that will arouse interest and love in a child are those created in the same interest and love. Each word, each gesture counts toward giving the fullest value of the feeling. White space, in which the mind rests or fills in its own images, can be as telling as drawing, and will certainly be more effective than empty decoration. Research is done simply to aid in picturing the idea, bringing it into objective being, never for its own sake. Incompletely absorbed research results in costume plates or journalism, not creation. How do the colors speak in this telling, not how many colors are there. One accent rightly placed, whether color, shape or line, can be worth a hundred small forms. One small area can suggest the design of a whole curtain. The mind continues where the pictures end.

A horse is not drawn in a stroke or two because the artist wanted to show his skill. But, feeling strongly, he got the horse down fast, and there it was — in two or three lines. Why add more and get the horse ready for the taxidermist?

We often hear it said of an artist that he or she has developed no personal style yet. One of the most unfortunate pressures put on young artists in this country that sets such a premium on novelty, often while the artist is still in art school, is to develop a distinguishing style to apply to his work.

To me style is the way you walk and talk, what you are as a person. The discerning eye will notice certain traits of personality, certain ways of feeling that will show up in the work. These help to make a person’s style, not a technique that is put on like a garment. Style, in the larger sense, is something quite different. We live in a world eager for recipe or formula, which, not finding it, hands over its birthright of independent thinking to the self-styled expert who imagines he has it. Any effort to coddle originality is to end by stifling it in self-consciousness.

An artist’s primary preoccupation is his own development, the perfection of himself as an instrument — whether he be singer, dancer, or painter — the better to sing his song. He is faced with all of life, but the mirror he holds up to it can be no bigger than his own mind and heart.

I have never felt that children needed any particular kind of drawing any more than they needed any particular kind of writing. The clarity, vitality of the message, the genuineness of the feeling — that is what is important.

After a book is done, it passes from the artist and has a completely separate and, we hope, strenuously active life of its own in the hands of children. But now it is something apart. Only by putting the feelings that were specifically tied up with it completely out of mind will the artist be free to be ready for something else, to grow by feeling all over again, by trying to look at the new book as if he had never done another. To forget the old solutions, to refuse to copy not only what he has seen, but also his own work, is one of the greatest problems of an artist, but only by meeting its challenge can he avoid his own cliches.

I have always felt that good drawing is more important than color in a young child’s book. Yet color and its symbolism speak very directly to children. Color is often most rich when it means something perhaps too subjective to be put into words, when it is the expression of some life value. Only a hypothetical child brought up in a hypothetical vacuum without the sense of sight, even without that marvelous sight behind the eyelids that little children know in their daydreams, could be impervious to the meanings of color. These meanings are old as life itself. The passion of little children for red has an earthy origin not to be denied. Blue sky, blue sea, green and brown earth, red fire — their world radiates from very simple color relationships. By color they can be led into a greater sensual enjoyment of the visible world, as well as that between the covers of their books.

The choice of a color combination for a picture book will often have been associated with the book from its first imaginings.

Gold of the summer fields, gold of a small boy’s thatch of hair, gold of his dream of London, the sunrise when he heard his destiny ring out in Bow Bells, gold of his treasure and of the chain of his office of Lord Mayor — gold was the color for Dick Whittington.

When I was in the Virgin Islands, the unbelievable turquoise water of the Caribbean, the mahogany-skinned people, brilliant white sand, coral-colored houses and bougainvillea, deep green of welcome shadow,’ chartreuse of leaves filtering sunlight — the colors for Henry-Fisherman chose themselves.

The colors for The Steadfast Tin Soldier I felt could speak to children on several levels. “Red and blue was their beautiful uniform.” “…a bright spangle as big as the whole of her face.” Red, blue and gold, and black for type became a blue violet that could tell of steadfastness, infinite longing; the red became rose for passion and sacrifice; the gold a minute glitter on the surface; black became charcoal for the somber note of the Troll’s warning and the ash in which was found the little tin heart and the burnt black spangle.

But how to get all one’s colors to speak? In the past few years we have seen more and more books using a crayon and line technique, with the drawings reproduced directly from the artist’s own color separations by means of a contact method with no camera work. Any process which throws the illustrator back on his own resources is good for him, because if he is not to do the same book over and over, regardless of the subject, he must push what he knows farther and farther in order to encompass the feeling of the new work at hand. By making their own plates, by exploring the variety of effects possible with hand-graphic techniques, illustrators can develop the freedom of fine artists in their print-making. Color separations are a step, a crucial one, in a long creative process that begins with feeling and should end with feeling. Illustrators are engaged in making books that are usually collections of offset lithographs, not originals that a printer must print exactly. In America we have just begun to tap the vast resources of the medium. The highly imaginative approach of artists like Roger Duvoisin, Nicolas, and Hans Fischer is an inspiration to the rest of us. In his color separations the artist has a chance to correct, to simplify, always with the aim to get back and clarify his first dreams, never to “finish.” When a work is completely finished it is dead. What can the child or anyone else bring to it that will complete the feeling and give it second life? By work the artist effaces traces of work. It is not pleasant for us to agonize with him. We care nothing for the hours he took. Why does he bother us with them? Let’s hear his story now, listen to his song.

My editor, Alice Dalgliesh, and the distinguished art director at Scribner’s, Margaret Evans, have been as anxious as I to make picture books as beautiful as ingenuity and budget will allow. A beautiful type page, quality of binding cloth, color harmonizing with, playing against, or repeating a color in the book, a cover stamp that conveys some of the spirit of the book, end papers, if used, that both summarize and introduce the mood of the story or in design and color set a period – all these details help to make a book what it is. In spite of ever-increasing bindery and production costs, artist, editor and designer look on their work as a challenge. The end in view is always to make the book a unified and beautiful object, each part expressive of the spirit of the whole, each part complementing the other toward this end.

The book as a beautiful object will pass from our scene unless children and adults are taught to love and appreciate it. Today, institutions and products that were brought into being because of some individuals’ intense personal interest, are being leveled out to meet the demands of a hypothetical universal public taste, under the mistaken notion that you can please all the people all of the time. It is very discouraging to an artist to hear that schools and libraries often buy unbound sheets, have them “pre-bound” in covers of color and texture not only out of harmony with the feeling of the book, but often downright ugly. How can a child sense the loving care that went into the creation of this book? The argument given for such a practice is that the book will last longer. But figures tell us that thus bound it costs almost twice as much. Why not give the child the book as it was originally planned and when it wears out give him another fresh copy?

When I was a child, thinking that I would like one day to illustrate books for children, I always thought of the fairy tales that I loved. It was some years before I felt ready or capable of attempting illustrations for Andersen or Perrault. When an illustrator attempts the interpretation of a folk or fairy tale that already stands as an entity, the problem of adding a new dimension and bringing the whole into harmonious unity is great. Illustration becomes a kind of visual storytelling in the deepest sense of the word. As a storyteller ideally submerges himself in the story until he loses his own identity and becomes a medium for the revelation of the story, the illustrator must likewise submerge himself in the feeling, so that what comes through is an interpretation and intensification of meanings. The big meanings, the big masses, big movements and rhythms must hold the same relationships as in oral telling. Rhythm of speech is echoed in rhythm of line and color. Never must there be a mere recounting of the event. None of these things may be consciously aimed at; yet I feel they are part of the illustrator’s feeling as he attempts to make a picture storybook of a fairy tale. The pictures can convey the wonder, terror, peace, mystery, beauty — all he is able to feel or might convey if he were telling the story in words.

The popularity of certain types of subject matter rises and falls, but children remain basically the same, with the same gaiety, eagerness to feel, the same clear-eyed wisdom and wonder in facing the world. Educators and experts on child study, who sometimes seem to have been as supple as straws in the wind, quick to bend to this or that breeze of fad, for a time decided that children no longer needed fairy tales. Not for a moment did the children who came of their own accord to public libraries and were free to choose their own books, desert their heroes, the personification of their dreams. The calls still came for Cinderella, for stories about giants and princesses, for simple people raised to high station because of their own gifts. Some of these stories appeared horrifying to adults, who seemed to lack the balance of the children in these matters. The children looked beyond the horror to the battle between moral forces. The heritage of childhood is the sense of life bequeathed to it by the folk wisdom of the ages. To tell in pictures, to tell in words, to tell in dance — however we may choose — it is a privilege to pass these truths on to children who have a right to the fullest expression we can give them. Neither so self-conscious as a parable nor so contrived as an allegory, fairy tales are revelations of sober everyday fact. They are the abiding dreams and realities of the human soul.

This very day some rogue has by his quick wit opened a new world to his master and helped him win the princess of his heart, to whom he was entitled by sensibilities if not by birth. Today a staunch soldier, through circumstances not of his own making, goes through terrible trials, but remains steadfast in his devotion to his ideal.

Tonight somewhere Cinderella, through the magic of kindness, has been enchanted into greatest beauty; tonight Cinderella goes to her ball to meet her prince.

From the August 1955 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

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