Thursday, September 25, 2008

Conference Notes: "Our Greatest Children's Books," part 2

A continuation of the opening speech on Saturday at the SCBWI-C conference by Anita Silvey on the stories behind some of the greatest children stories of America.

Here are some more of the highlights from the speech. Click here for part 1.

  • Hans and Margaret Rey were German Jews living in Paris with the Nazi front coming. They couldn't get out on the trains, but Hans made bicycles and they packed up a basket with their winter coats and a children's manuscript and pedaled their way down the coast away from the Nazi army that was only 36 hours behind them. On the way, a soldier stopped and interrogated them. When the Reys said they were children's book authors, the solider asked to see the manuscript. He read it, said "my kid would like this," and told them to go on. The Rey made their way to America using Brazilian passports and escaped the Nazi regime with their copy of...Curious George.
    • A few notes on George:
      • The original art was in watercolors, not the primary colors we've come to associate with George.
      • George was originally a female named Fifi, modeled after Margaret Rey. Rey was proud of being the role model for George and often bragged about it.
      • Rey modeled her living room with George memoriablia, and would tell visitors, "Isn't it amazing that all of this came out of that little manuscript we brought over?"
      • Silvey also pointed out that "some of our most incredible American icons were created by immigrants."
  • Make Way for Ducklings was based on a true story that the author/illustrator wanted to turn into a picture book...but he couldn't draw ducks. He drew thousands, but eventually decided the only way to really get the ducks right was with close observation...so he bought 12 ducks, filled the bathtub for them, and followed them around the apartment with "a sketchbook in one hand and a tissue in the other." The ducks moved too fast for accurate drawings, so he and his roommate gave the ducks red wine to drink so they'd slow down and he could draw them (although he does note that he was in his 20s at the time and would never do it that way now). Eventually, the male mallard grew to love wine so much that he expected it at every dinner!
    • Silvey made a very good observation about the end of the book: it ends with all the ducks reunited and going to a safe haven. Silvey said that when researching books, it is integral to looks at the copyright date and analyze what was going on at the time. In Make Way for the Ducklings, many children's fathers were going to World War II...and the end, with a safe haven for the entire family, really resonated with these children in a powerful way. She suggests this book for kids today with parents in war.
  • The Carrot Seed was a testament to revision: it was originally 10,000 words long and cut down to only 107 words. The author said it took "my whole life" to write over 100 drafts of the picture book.
  • Misty of Chincoteague involved quite a bit of research. The author actually went to the island with her illustrator and sketched out exactly what type of illustrations she wanted him to make. In fact, she actually bought Misty and kept her in her studio while she wrote the book! She took the horse with her during book signings and on her book tour!
    • Silvey noted that, as with all the classics, all the authors were willing to go that extra mile. "If you need a horse, you need a horse."

Coming up tomorrow: A dragon! A pig! A doctor!
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