Rosemary Wells and Jerry Pinkney Talk with Roger

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Once upon a time, Rosemary Wells’s great-great-grandfather made a rocking chair, now long lost and in need of a story. With Jerry Pinkney (and I can’t believe these two have not worked together before!) she imagines what could have happened in The Welcome Chair.

Roger Sutton: Are you both Phyllis protégés?

Rosemary Wells: We certainly are. For me, Phyllis Fogelman was the absolute best editor in the business for many years. She was tremendously supportive, and I learned so much from her. She was able to guide her authors without ever appearing to.

Jerry Pinkney: Phyllis and Atha [Tehon, art director] would sit with me in the studio with every book project I’d take on. There was something very special about Phyllis, in that she opened up the idea of a value in bookmaking. I can trace a deep interest in wanting to perfect my practice back to Phyllis and Atha.

RW: I agree. As an author, I truly believe that on the keyboard of my computer, I have a little Phyllis Fogelman, with her red suit and her shoulder pads, and she edits everything I write to this day. You could never win an argument with Phyllis — she would argue you into the ground, and she would always win. I loved it. And I loved her.

RS: Jerry, when you say that about bookmaking, I think about the fact that I’m looking at The Welcome Chair on my computer, because that’s the only review copy anyone is getting these days. To me, picture books are such a tactile medium. For a year and a half now we’ve been evaluating them on the basis of PDFs. Aren’t you guys horrified? I’m horrified.

JP: Roger, in front of me I have the art for The Welcome Chair. Why? Because I need to keep reminding myself of the physical artwork. You hit a nerve, because you’re right, it’s all about that tactile sense. It’s the weight, the texture of the paper. When I hear that these books are being reviewed now digitally — you’re only maybe reviewing parts of the book.

RS: I feel like I’m reviewing a facsimile.

RW: The physical book in your hands is also a facsimile, but it’s much closer to the art than anything on the screen. It doesn’t disappear when you push a button. I don’t know about Jerry, but I’m too old for most of this screen stuff. I’m not good at it.

RS: But Rosemary, I have to say I disagree with you there, because to me the point of original art for a picture book is to be printed and reproduced on pages.

JP: Yup.

RW: That’s true.

JP: It’s a book.

RW: It’s a book. And the production people are very, very careful. Simon & Schuster, who also publishes my Max and Ruby books, has a wonderful designer, Laurent Linn, who I feel very close to. And also to editor Paula Wiseman, who I want to give a great deal of credit to for putting this project together. Again, Paula is an acolyte of Phyllis Fogelman.

RS: Oh, another one. I didn’t know that.

RW: Jerry and I have not fallen very far from the tree.

RS: Is this the first time you’ve collaborated?

JP: Yes and no. Remember God Bless the Child? You sort of recommended me for that project.

RW: I did. I was working as an out-of-office consulting editor for Harper at the time. I heard that song on the radio and thought, My God, if anybody, Jerry Pinkney should illustrate that for children.

JP: That was my introduction, in a sense, to get your perspective on a project.

RS: Rosemary, is it tough for you, as someone who writes and illustrates picture books, to hand your manuscript over to someone else, even if it’s someone as great as Jerry?

RW: Absolutely not. First of all, I could never illustrate this book. If Jerry hadn’t said yes, it would have had to go to another illustrator. I’m a real professional. I know what I can do, Roger. I do wonderful bunnies and bears and mice. I’m not nearly as good at people like a lot of other artists, so I stay out of that. It’s a thrill to have Jerry illustrate this book, to be the author, and not have to do all that work to illustrate it. All I have to do is write it.

RS: Is that at all intimidating for you, Jerry?

JP: No, because I have such respect for Rosemary and her work, and we’ve known each other for so long, and we’re friends. That brought energy to the project, not intimidation. I must admit, I had that extra sense of wanting more from myself than with other authors I work with. I wanted Rosemary to be happy with the work, to be pleased with it, and to feel that she’s seeing her heritage.

RW: In 2016, we had a new president, and the very first thing he did was to slam the door on immigrants of a Muslim background. Most of the people I knew, myself included — and I’m sure Jerry and Gloria [Jean Pinkney, Jerry’s wife] too — were just so appalled. For a long time, I felt completely helpless. The morning after the election I had a tennis game scheduled with three old friends, and we all stood there crying. I felt so angry for a long time. Then I thought, No, no, no. That’s not the way to feel. That does no one any good. That doesn’t help the situation. What each of us must do is what each of us does best, to counter this force of darkness. What do I do? I write stories. My family came to this country, and nobody slammed the door in their face. At that time, and later in the twentieth century, the country was not exactly kindly to Jewish immigrants, but nonetheless, there was no door slammed. There was no penalizing them as terrorists. So I had to write that story.

One night I went back in my memory to that old diary in my grandmother’s drawer — I can still see the bureau that she kept it in. It was written in that horrible German script that no one could possibly read but herself. I thought, My God, that is the only part of the story of my family that I actually know. I went through all of the papers that I could find and all of the family memories to trace every bit of it as closely as I could. That is my contribution. If there’s energy in the book, it was energy to do something to light the darkness. That’s probably the energy that Jerry felt.

JP: Very much so. I’m thinking about that energy today, and what comes to mind was our early conversations about this project. This is such a book for the time we’re living in, for responding to a world around us that has a darkness. In the process of doing a project like that — “This is a book for this time” — there’s always the thought that times will change. Over the course of the writing and illustrating and production, we might find ourselves in a different time. The value of The Welcome Chair is: that time is still here. Even though it was written two years ago, we still have Haiti going through its dramatic weather, we still have an immigrant challenge, we still have a refugee challenge.

RS: One thing I thought about was how Rosemary had this anecdote within her family history that went to a certain point, but then the story disappears, so she’s got to finish the story.

RW: That’s exactly right.

RS: And Jerry had to do the same thing, in that Rosemary gave him this story, and then it’s “Okay, Jerry, over to you.” How do you, then, picture this story in the world? You both had to complete something.

JP: For my contribution, I couldn’t help but be moved by the events that I was actually executing in the illustrations, even though we were talking about a two-hundred-year span. When we came to the end of Rosemary’s story, I used what’s happening now and those feelings. There was a sense of sadness. We’re in COVID right now. There were so many elements that fueled my creative juices, which made the book feel even more important.

RW: I’m glad to hear that. It’s funny, Roger. Oversimplification is sometimes what you have to do to tell a clear story. I looked at the reasons why the first part of the story was all true, why my great-great-grandfather left Germany. That was really about individual religious freedom. His wife came over because she had experienced discrimination against people with disabilities. She was told she’d never get a man to marry a woman with a clubfoot, because maybe their sons would not be able to work. Later on, the famine in Ireland was the motivation for the seamstress who worked for my great-grandmother; she was the last owner of the Welcome Chair that I knew of. At that point, my mother figures into this. I once asked her if she had ever seen this chair. I must have been about ten or eleven. I said, “That chair that Grandma gave away — did you ever see it? The one with ‘Welcome’ carved into it.” She said, “That’s a very good reason to teach you not to write on furniture!”

Later in the book came from my kids — they went to Catholic school, and there was a big Christmas party where I met two nuns. They were so old and so sweet, and they had come from the Dominican Republic to New Brunswick, New Jersey. They were in a nursing order, and they’d come to the United States because they got in trouble with Trujillo, the dictator. He had put his name over God’s name on a church. When they tried to erase it, they were arrested. I’ll never forget that story, so I put it in the book. And then of course there was the terrible earthquake, again, in Haiti, and other natural disasters. So you have dictators, natural disasters, religious freedom — all the reasons why the individuals in the book came to America. I wanted to make sure that everybody I had to invent for the story, after the chair left my grandmother’s house, had a darn good reason to come to this country and was part of an important wave of immigration.

RS: Next to me is Bertha Mahony Miller’s desk chair; she was the first editor of The Horn Book. I wouldn’t risk sitting on it. But it is something to have a tangible metaphor that looks me in the eye every day. Your book makes me think about how physical objects carry both history and, in your story, the future, in them, like talismans or something.

JP: And the chair goes on. The chair is still around, with another family. I think that’s also the beauty of it, as it continues.

RW: That’s what I had in mind. And I wanted to show American children just why people come to this country, and how welcoming we have to be. That was my purpose: to do what I could as a writer for young people, to introduce them to ideas that were full of life, instead of slogans and nastiness that were full of darkness and warnings and ugliness. That’s what I tried to do, and I consider myself utterly blessed to have had Jerry Pinkney as my illustrator.

RS: How hopeful are you guys for the future? Come on, Rosemary, cheer me up.

RW: I think it’s too early to be cheerful. Now there will be thousands of Afghani immigrants, and I hope we welcome them and provide for them, as only America can; and if they want to stay, to make sure they are able to assimilate.

RS: Okay, Jerry, I’m leaving the hope part up to you.

JP: When I’m in my own head, in my studio working, I see the world in sort of a gloomy landscape. What I have found recently is that getting out of the studio, away from what we see on the news, observing families, and actually connecting with people — that’s hope. Rosemary mentioned grandchildren, and I am concerned for my grandchildren and great-grandchildren when I look at what’s happening with the environment. But then again, I go back to interactions with people around me, and that’s the hope, that we can rise above and connect. In a sense, what the book is about is this sort of connection. Maybe it just means we’ll work harder to understand each other. Regarding the nature of the discourse right now, one side is angry towards the other — those divisions have been here all along. Maybe they were buried. But now we’re having conversations about it, so maybe that’s the hope. Rosemary brings up, rightfully, that Trump was just the fuel on a spark that was already there. So maybe there’s hope in the acknowledgment of a world and a country that has been divided — now it’s coming to the surface, so can the conversation change things?

RS: Maybe your book could help, in its own small way. You never know, right?

JP: Yes. There’s something else I want to say — this happened in the process of making the art. The immigrant story is not my story, but it is a story that is a fuller understanding of the American experience. That puts my story in perspective.

RS: Your story as Jerry, or your story as an African American?

JP: My story as an African American. That was another story, but it’s another part of understanding American history. There are all these other connections — just like the Italians, the Jews, and the Irish were the Other at some point, Black people were also the Other. What is so intriguing about America is that there are so many stories.

 

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Roger Sutton
Roger Sutton
Roger Sutton has been the editor in chief of The Horn Book, Inc, since 1996. He was previously editor of The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books and a children's and young adult librarian. He received his M.A. in library science from the University of Chicago in 1982 and a B.A. from Pitzer College in 1978. Follow him on Twitter: @RogerReads.

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