The Farmer and the Clown: Marla Frazee's 2015 BGBH PB Award Speech

frazee_farmer and the clownThank you so much. Thank you to the judges — Barbara, Jessica, and Maeve. Thank you for placing me in the company of two of my very favorite picture book creators, Jon Agee and Oliver Jeffers.

By giving this award to The Farmer and the Clown, you have helped move the needle a little bit on issues of cultural diversity. Clowns have been marginalized for far too long. Hated even.

Farmers, too, for that matter.

If this award can help us embrace a world in which farmers and clowns can co-exist without everyone getting all riled up, then that is just incredible.

*   *   *

I have always loved the time between when I finish a book and when it gets the first review. I can relax into knowing that I made a book and I gave it everything I had. I get to clean my studio with a sense of accomplishment. The book exists outside of me, but it’s not yet public.

Then the reviews arrive, and they usher in a whole new phase. I learn a lot about what exactly I made from the reviews. Maybe the takeaway is different than what I thought it would be. Maybe a larger theme had escaped me. Maybe the dogs I drew actually look like cats.

Then the book goes out and lives its life. Booksellers, teachers, librarians, and parents find it — hopefully. Children, the intended audience, hopefully do, too. This is the point, after all, and it is always profound.

After going through this process with twenty-seven books, I’ve learned to manage the highs and lows pretty well. But with The Farmer and the Clown, I found there was a whole new phase to navigate. The book became fodder for some very bizarre discussions on social media. This wasn’t the usual zaniness of Amazon reviews gone off the rails, but respected names in our field giving voice to unsubstantiated opinions of others. No one took ownership.

A lot of what was said I won’t dignify. It was beneath us.

But some things that were said are important to talk about because they’re issues at the heart of our collective work. One is the opinion, often delivered as fact, that wordless books are harder for illustrators to do than books with words. I’m not sure where this idea began, but it seems to have taken root — so much so that discussions and reviews about wordless books often begin with the assumption that it was an extraordinary leap for the illustrator.

For me, finding the right balance between the words and pictures in Liz Garton Scanlon’s evocative — and not at all narrative — All the World text was every bit as challenging as this wordless book I made. After months of working on All the World, I had to start all over again and go all the way back to thumbnail sketches. Turned out that my picture-story was strong-arming the text by forcing narrative connections between the characters. I had eclipsed the larger theme of expansiveness.

Illustrating the folk song “Hush Little Baby” was challenging, too. I wanted the picture-story to have the same rollicking spirit as Pete Seeger’s banjo in his rendition of the lullaby, so I visualized the pictures as galloping alongside the words. Sometimes they were in tandem, sometimes they crossed paths, sometimes they veered far away from each other. Making sure words and pictures don’t stomp all over each other is maybe even harder than concentrating on one or the other by itself.

I also read that because The Farmer and the Clown was wordless, I ceded a greater degree of control over the narrative to the reader. I disagree. I didn’t surrender control. That gives the visual narrative no respect. And it assumes the words deliver the clearer story. But words can be equally misinterpreted.

For instance, my ex-husband’s Midwestern family uses the word squeeze as a euphemism for going to the bathroom. Imagine what he thought was happening in the story when he heard these words read to him as a child: “Peter, who was very naughty, ran straight away to Mr. McGregor’s garden, and squeezed under the gate!”

Anyone can bring their own crap to words or pictures. That’s something authors and illustrators have little control over.

But a picture-story has an advantage over a word-story, and that is that children are experts at reading pictures. Because of this, a visual narrative actually surrenders less control over the narrative to the child. Children bring a clear-eyed, intense, lingering, unsentimental, and sophisticated focus to reading pictures. They can read them in a literal, metaphorical, or ironic sense, depending on what’s called for, and they can tell what’s called for. They are a highly discerning audience to draw pictures for. Because children are seeing clearly what meets their eye, they don’t assume (the way grownups might) that there is something beyond what they are seeing.

Contrast that with how most grownups experience the pictures. If they give even a passing glance to the pictures as something more than decoration, they often tend to read into them. Insert their own story or experience. Presume stuff that isn’t there. Gloss over what is.

Of course I’m not saying all grownups do this. Although I do think that when words and pictures are competing for the grownups’ attention, words tend to win. But children focus on the pictures because they can’t read words yet or can’t read them easily. And so they study those pictures for meaning in a way that adults don’t have to anymore.

*    *    *

Before I settle into my studio in the morning, I often hike in the mountains above Pasadena with my dog. There are rivers to cross (or there were before the drought). The way a child reads pictures in a picture book is the same way you get across the water. Rock to rock. If you are a child who can’t yet read, your eyes will land on the pictures the way your foot lands on a rock. One picture to the next to the next.

If illustrators don’t provide enough landings, if we don’t plan them out carefully, we will strand that child in the middle of the river. But if we do it well, we will bring the child all the way across. Some pictures are resting places; some are quick, light hops; some are tippy on purpose; some are functional bridges. Add the magical page-turn, the rhythm of the words, a lap or story circle, and we’ve got the picture book—a form that has stolen our hearts.

I have learned about this form from many teachers, beginning with The Horn Book Magazine. I’ve read (and saved) every issue since I graduated from Art Center College of Design in 1981. It’s been my master’s program. For thirty-four years. Thank god the tuition is reasonable — and a write-off.

My first editor, Linda Zuckerman, told me that my commercial illustration portfolio wasn’t narrative enough for children’s books. She explained this many times, in many ways, over many years. It took me so long to get it.

Allyn Johnston caught me up after Linda left the field and has hung in there with me the whole time since. Allyn’s intuition about picture books, how they must deliver emotion and crack the reader open in one way or another, has been the guiding principle of the many books we’ve made together.

My agent, Steve Malk, with his bookseller background and sharp eye for craft, has represented me for fifteen years. He was twenty-three when I first met him and already had much to teach me. I am really proud to be in the group of writers and illustrators he works with.

*    *    *

The idea for The Farmer and the Clown came to me around the same time that my marriage of thirty-one years was coming apart.

The book is about two characters who look a certain way on the outside but are actually a whole other way on the inside. As the idea developed and the book took form, my personal life went through a complete upheaval. Many of us will fall off our train at some point in our lives, and I fell off mine during the time I worked on this book. Hard landing, unforgiving landscape. One day I was tough as the farmer. The next, lost as the clown. Some days I benefited from the kindness of strangers so surprising in their tenderness. And every single day, in ways large and small, I was enveloped by the open arms of my family, a crazy clown troupe if there ever was one.

But while I was working on the book, I wasn’t making these connections at all. In fact, Allyn sent a text to me one day as I was putting the finishing touches on the last painting. It said: “Home. You know where it is when you’re there. But sometimes you get a bit separated from home, and you may need a little help finding your way back.

I couldn’t imagine what she was talking about. Was she lost? Was I? It took me a long time to figure out she was proposing Farmer and the Clown flap copy. I had no idea that was what the book was about.

Then, after I cleaned my studio, and after the reviews, and after the social media circus, I started to hear from readers.

I got an email that said:
I read it with my four-year-old daughter, and the phone rang with an important call that I’d been expecting, so I handed the open book to her and told her I’d be right back. While I was gone, she finished reading it. When I hung up the phone, I turned around and there she was. “Mommy. The clown’s family came back.” “Is that so? And he went with them then?” “Yes, but first he gave the farmer a giant hug. A GIANT one. And then the farmer whispered ‘I love you’ into his ear. And you know the funniest thing? The farmer doesn’t even know that a monkey is following him home right this minute.”

And another:
I read the book to my three-year-old granddaughter. When we were finished reading, I asked her what she was thinking. “I’m thinking that the clown and the farmer will always remember each other.” I agreed that they would because of all the great moments they’d shared. Her comment started a conversation about the people in our lives who’ve left us something, tangible or intangible. My granddaughter has already lost several people that she loves and we had a chance to remember the things they’ve left behind so that we’re able to remember them.

This is truly an upside of online communication — people have shared many touching stories about The Farmer and the Clown with me. About how children, even as young as two, suddenly had a way to talk about love and loss and grief and saying goodbye and keeping remembrances of people they were missing who had meant a lot to them.

This is why I continue to have the utmost respect for children’s ability to read pictures in a way that far surpasses our own. I remember very well the feeling I had as a child that the illustrations were speaking directly to me in a secret, private language. No grownup needed to explain it. No grownup needed to interpret it. It was simply there for me, for the taking.

Thank you for honoring this book with this award.

From the January/February 2016 issue of The Horn Book Magazine. For more on the 2015 Boston Globe-Horn Book Awards, click on the tag BGHB15.
Marla Frazee
Marla Frazee
Marla Frazee is the 2015 winner of the Boston Globe-Horn Book Picture Book Award for The Farmer and the Clown (Beach Lane/Simon).

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