In Praise of Titans

Elizabeth Bluemle -- August 23rd, 2012

This year has taken too many literary lights from us, legends of the children’s book field. I thought 2011 was bad, with the loss of Diana Wynne Jones, Florence Parry Heide, Margaret K. McElderry, and Simms Taback. This year has felt almost apocalyptic. Despite the fact that many of these artists and authors lived rich, full, often very long lives, it is still a shock to lose people who seem immortal to us, whose words and pictures will, indeed, live on forever.

It’s beginning to feel as if an entire generation is leaving us, and I wanted to take this opportunity to celebrate these incredible men and women, so many of whom enriched my own childhood and love of reading.

I’m hoping some creative genius (*cough* oh, Peter Reynolds? *cough*) will put together some kind of celebratory video. Perhaps something that might be played at next year’s BEA Children’s Breakfast, like the Oscars tribute to past icons (but without the awkward applause that grows louder for the better-recognized names).

In the meantime, I just wanted to say one or two things about each one of these children’s literature lights, and invite you all to do the same.

Jose Aruego (August 9, 1932 – August 9, 2012) — His colorful, instantly recognizable, child-appealing art graced such well-loved books as Robert Kraus’s Leo the Late Bloomer and Mitchell Sharmat’s Gregory the Terrible Eater. His artwork pops right off the shelf, bright and happy.

Nina Bawden (January 19, 1925 – August 22, 2012) — Her novel, The Peppermint Pig, won the 1976 Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize; Carrie’s War won the 1993 Phoenix Award and was a commended runner-up for the Carnegie Medal, and in 2010, The Birds on the Trees was a finalist for the Lost Man Booker Prize. As a child, I loved her short mystery adventure novel, The Witch’s Daughter. There was a lonely, somewhat melancholy flavor to the books of hers I read as a young teen that drew me in, provided something resonant and different from the usual fare.

Ray Bradbury (August 22, 1920 – June 5, 2012) — One of the finest science fiction writers long before there was much critical respect for the genre, Bradbury was a fluid, adept writer brilliant at creating setting and suspense, at creating twisted, unforgettable short stories, and limning character in simple, astute strokes. Something Wicked This Way Comes made the hair on the back of my 10-year-old neck stand up; The Martian Chronicles still feels fresh and startling; Fahrenheit 451 is such a classic it almost feels as though it always existed and was simply plucked from the air.

Remy Charlip (January 10, 1929 – August 14, 2012) — Oh, how I loved this man’s creative genius and sense of humor! My sister and I knew every line of text and picture in Arm in Arm; it’s still one of my favorite books to hand to imaginative children. Fortunately is an absolutely perfect picture book for K-3 kids and classrooms. Charlip was involved in so many creative endeavors, including theatre and dance; his legacy is rich.

Leo Dillon (March 2, 1933 – May 26, 2012) — Elegant, striking, dramatic, fine, bold, rich, and deep, Leo and Diane Dillon’s work is distinctive even among the most distinguished art in children’s literature. They are also the only artists to win back-to-back Caldecott Medals. I think of plums, blacks, golds, browns, elongated and dignified figures, contrast that burns images forever in the mind’s eye.

Jean Craighead George (July 2, 1919 – May 15 , 2012) — What kid hasn’t run away to the Catskills and lived in a hollowed-out tree, made a deerskin suit, and trained a falcon courtesy of Newbery Medal-winning author George? My sister and I grew up in the desert, but My Side of the Mountain was a touchstone book for us. Her love and knowledge of nature illuminated all of her books and have connected generations of kids with a natural world many of them might otherwise not have known.

Rosa Guy (September 1, 1922– June 3, 2012) — Coretta Scott King Award winner Guy was a powerful voice for African American writers from the 1950s on. Her 1973 book, The Friends, broke new ground in powerful realistic teen fiction. Her adult novel, My Love, My Love: Or, The Peasant Girl, inspired the Broadway musical, Once on This Island. I discovered Guy’s books as a NYC private school librarian in the early 90s; the eighth graders passionately loved Ruby and The Friends.

Mollie Hunter (June 30, 1922 – July 31, 2012) — Vermont library guru Grace Greene just shared the news of Carnegie Medal winner Mollie Hunter’s passing. Hunter’s novels for children (more than 25) won several distinguished awards, including a 1976 Boston Globe-Horn Book Honor (for A Stranger Came Ashore) and two 1972 New York Times Outstanding Books of the Year (for The Haunted Mountain and A Sound of Chariots). Her Carnegie Medal in 1975 was for the book Grace mentions having particularly loved: The Stronghold. She is a writer I somehow missed, and will look forward to discovering. Thanks, Grace.

Ellen Levine (March 9, 1939 – May 26, 2012) — Ellen was one of my teachers at the Vermont College MFA program. One of the most alive people I’ve ever known, she galvanized students with her passion for telling true stories of ordinary people whose courage triumphed over unspeakable brutality and danger. A lifelong passionate civil rights activist, her nonfiction and fiction tackled everything from the Danish resistance during the Holocaust to the McCarthy era to unplanned teen pregnancies pre-Roe v. Wade.

Thomas Locker (1937 – March 9, 2012) — One of the few artists bringing a lush landscape painting style to children’s literature, Locker illustrated more than 30 books for young people, several of which he also wrote. The timeless Thirteen Moons on Turtle’s Back (written by Joseph Bruchac), Water Dance, and Between Earth and Sky (also by Bruchac) remain Flying Pig perennial favorites.

Margaret Mahy (March 21, 1936 – July 23, 2012) — One of the greatest of the greats, this New Zealand (thank you, alert readers!) legend could write for any age and knock their socks off. Her sense of rhythm and rhyme were unerring; the rumbling, mesmerizing 17 Kings and 42 Elephants is one of the best read-alouds you’ll ever find, as are the comical, riotous Down the Back of the Chair and the Boston Globe-Horn Book Award-winning Bubble Trouble. Her Great Piratical Rumbustification is fantastic middle-grade fun, and her YA fantasy novels are complex and brilliant.  

Jean Merrill (January 27, 1923 – August 2, 2012) — A favorite memory from my school librarian days is reading The Pushcart War (published in 1964 and still topical, focusing as it does on small vendors versus giants) to a group of rapt third graders over the course of a few weeks. The Toothpaste Millionaire is also still popular with young readers; Merrill had a magical way of writing with terrific child appeal. I’ve never seen a copy of her The Elephant Who Liked to Smash Small Cars (1967), but I’d really, really like to. 

Else Holmelund Minarik (September 13, 1920 – July 12, 2012) Maurice Sendak’s art was the perfect match for the magic of the Little Bear stories. Minarik’s masterful storytelling created a comforting, cozy, and reassuring world that also had its share of mystery and strangeness. Her books have become part of the fabric of childhood for generations of kids.

Maurice Sendak (June 10, 1928 – May 8, 2012) — Along with the rest of the blogiverse, I wrote about Maurice Sendak’s impact on my life as a young reader immediately after the shock of his passing. His legacy is incalculable; his influence reaches, in some way, every illustrator and author who has come along since he blew the roof off children’s books with his stocky, sturdy little people and their defiant exuberance, his fine lines and bold strokes, his ownership of language, his embrace of the subterranean psychology of childhood and its lingering impact on adulthood, his insistence on seeing and expressing — in his solidly quirky way — what is often softened for children.

Donald Sobol (October 4, 1924 – July 11, 2012) — Encyclopedia Brown! The melted ginger ale ice cubes! Ambergris, the whale vomit! Bugs Meany, that snarling bully, and his thuggish gang of Tigers! And the awesome Sally Kimball, one of the few worthy female co-protagonists found in boy adventure-land at the time. Ah, Donald Sobol, your little chapter-length mysteries confounded me almost every single time, though I cheated and peeked at the solutions in the back while trying unsuccessfully to convince my older sister that I had too known that goose breast is dark meat. I think I did get the ginger ale one, though. Or at least I’ll go to my own grave claiming I did.

**

When I look at these names, I am astonished by their impact on our lives. MILLIONS of children absorbed and were formed and changed by the works of these men and women. Imagine that!

If there’s a great children’s book critique group in the sky, I hope Margaret Wise Brown and Ursula Nordstrom and E.B. White have set the table, welcoming all of these amazing men and women to what would doubtless be a most joyous, humorous, sharp, and generous gathering. And I hope they all save us a seat.

 

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