2008 May Hill Arbuthnot Lecture (Given annually by an individual of distinction in the field of children’s literature.)
TeachingBooks.net Author Profile and Interview
NPR, Weekend Edition Sunday Interview with Liane Hansen
Even after all this time, it still amazes me that I am finally a bride. But, in the past few months, the euphoria which followed the announcement has been tempered by an increasing sense of responsibility. I feel obligated to say something tonight that matters, at least to me, and something which will, I hope, make a difference to you. Not an easy task, I assure you, in a world where so many people have something to say and where so little of it seems to make a difference.
But first, a warning: This presentation will appear to contain four little speeches that for obvious reasons cannot possibly be delivered or read at the same time by the same person. Then again, it may contain only one speech. In any event, you’re on your own.
For some time now, I have been encouraging people to ask themselves why things look the way they do. At the Rhode Island School of Design, I do it by teaching drawing and illustration. In my books, I do it by consulting buildings and brains and by explaining machines. I use pictures and words to emphasize the common sense behind the design of any object, in an attempt to demystify an increasingly complex and detached world of skyscrapers and light switches and four-stroke engines and compact-disc players. In Black and White (Houghton Mifflin) my intentions are the same, but the subject of this book is the book. It is designed to be viewed in its entirety, having its surface “read all over.” It is a book of and about connections—between pictures and between words and pictures.
Seeing necessitates looking and thinking. When I teach drawing, I must constantly remind my students to distinguish between what they see and what they think they see. Thinking—at least the lazy, day-to-day kind of thinking—often gets in the way of the drawing process, which requires a stubborn curiosity about why things look they way they do. Nothing can be intelligently or intelligibly recorded on a piece of paper unless true seeing occurs: first on the part of the person making the picture, and then on the part of the person reading it.
I honestly think all of us would be better off if everyone took the time to draw, if for no other reason than the better we see, the more inevitable curiosity becomes. Lack of curiosity is the first step towards visual illiteracy—and by that I mean not really seeing what is going on around us. On one level, avoidance of informed looking and thinking results merely in inappropriate architecture, endless rows of neon signs, advertising agencies, political-marketing consultants, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Barbie dolls, and Hallmark cards—in general, mediocrity. But on another, much deeper level, it threatens to turn us into isolated, insensitive, incapable, and ultimately helpless victims of a world of increasing complexity and decreasing humanity.
Let’s say a dog walks across this platform during the evening’s proceedings. At first, you can’t believe your eyes. You look at the people on either side of you. They see it, too. There is indeed a dog walking across the stage. Not a bull, not a frog, but a dog. And you even notice that it is sort of small and black and white. But not so fast. If I pass out fifteen hundred pieces of paper and fifteen hundred pencils and ask you to draw the dog once it is out of sight, what would I get? Illustrators aside, probably a couple of generic dog pictures, 25 in-the-ballparks, 250 you’ve-got-to-be-kiddings, and 1,100 creatures that should be put down immediately.
In your defense, many of you would say, “But I can’t draw a straight line.” Well, there are two problems with that argument. First of all, the only straight line in the canine world is the invisible one between beast and hydrant. And second, drawing—and I’m not talking about making art here—has only as much to do with the marks you make as it does with the thought behind them. We are all able, with very little information, to recognize things with remarkable certainly. That dog needn’t have been on the stage more than a fraction of a second for us to mentally record its presence. But look at your picture. You call that a dog? That mutant peanut on four sticks? All those years of dog watching without seeing.
Now, on a second piece of paper, I ask you to illustrate a dog fight. Think about it for a minute. What would you draw? Again, based on my teaching experience, the most common image would be that of two or three dogs doing a minuet. So there will be no mistaking the subjects, they are invariably frozen in position to reveal each tooth and claw. But while the cast of characters may be dogs, the subject of the illustration was a dog fight. And a dog fight is anything but frozen. It is chaos, motion, noise, terror. So now the problem has become more complicated. Not only must we think more about our subject but we must select from among the teeth and fur and fleas and vaccination tags that information which best tells the story. Simply recording all the pieces is not enough. Illustration is a process of selection of that which needs to be seen from all that can be seen.
Okay, you can put away your imaginary pencils now. The problem of not really seeing sounds inoffensive enough; after all, we can’t be expected to see everything. But as soon as not seeing becomes a habit, we start accepting our visual environment without question. As technology becomes increasingly more complex, we are less and less able to actually see how things work. Switches and buttons are hidden behind plates. Just flip or push, but don’t ask any questions. Visual complacency rears its ugly head, and each time it does, we humans lose a little ground.
Another major cause of our visual narcosis is that much-maligned, immensely powerful glowing box, overused and understocked, around which so much of daily life seems to revolve. Just look at the bulk of the programming we put up with on television. For years we have tried to compensate by purchasing programs from British, who in turn feed their audiences I Dream of Jeannie and The Monkees. You see how international the problem of visual illiteracy has become. Stories presented on the news by tanned news personalities backed up with slick graphics and live footage often end up as the basis of made-for-television films. Sometimes, incidents invented for television films are imitated in real life and end up on the evening news.
When we hear news stories, we must remain attentive to both what is said and what is not. In picture making, that which is undrawn is referred to as “negative space,” and it is essential to read both the positive and the negative spaces together to fully understand the image. Regarding the media, and particularly television—its priorities so carefully established and often brutally controlled by the cost of every minute—it is particularly important that we constantly consider what is not said, if truth will be found somewhere between what is presented and what is withheld.
Come to think of it, what is this speech, after all, but a word picture? In any speech, as in drawing, we get details, and if we’re lucky, we get an overall impression as well. But also, as in reading a drawing, we must pay equal attention to what is said and what is left unspoken. Listening to speeches is never a more serious business than when we are choosing our leaders—the people to whom we entrust enormous power, we hope for our own good. We would like to believe that some intelligent, kinder, and gentler person has things under control and that each time we see and hear that person, we are reassured. It seems to me we choose leaders because they promise, not to lead, but instead to maintain some sort of deceptively reassuring status quo. The less they say, the more likely we are to elect them. In the visual world the danger of not seeing is taking things for granted, but in the political world complacency means being taken for granted.
While I am insisting that we remain curious—skeptical, even—I am not promoting total suspicion. We shouldn’t be learning to see just the negative, in spite of its increasing abundance, but both the good and the bad; and unlike network news we must vigilantly maintain our ability to distinguish one from the other.
They look innocent enough. But let me give you some facts. They brought us up—my sister, baby brother, the Cairn terrier, and me—in a kitchen in a house at the end of a row of identical brick houses in a neighborhood of identical blocks in Bolton, Lancashire, England. There was one other room on the first floor besides the kitchen, but that was kept permanently on alert for unexpected company. It was off-limits to us. Forbidden terrain! The other reason we spent so much time in the kitchen was heat. A coal stove kept the room warm during the typically cold and damp north-of-England winters. Pretending it was all a matter of coal rationing, they only lit the fire in the sitting room—notice it wasn’t even called the living room—when company finally showed up. So there we were, trapped by our own instincts for survival—love of warmth on the one hand, fear of entering the sitting room on the other. The long and short of it is that I was forced to play in the same room, and often at the very same table, where after dinner on Sundays I was required to sit for hours until I’d chewed and swallowed the gristle that always seemed to end up in my roast beef.
(Where did they get those cows anyway? Some ritual peat bog burial site, most likely.)
We were captive, and they could do whatever they wanted with us. They introduced us to humor. Jokes like “Why did the chicken cross the road?” and “What’s black and white and read all over?” I thought they were pretty funny. I should have known I was in trouble. Wonder what I’m complaining about? Does it sound pretty cozy so far? Well, hold on to your hats. It gets worse.
Much worse. My parents made things. They still do, but now they have a basement and a sewing room and a house to themselves. But during the first ten years of my life, when they decided to make something, they made it in the kitchen. Oh, it sounds innocent enough. A little sewing, a little knitting, a little woodworking—you know, fairly inoffensive stuff. But it snuck up on us. And what’s really frightening is that after a while it started to seem natural. We got used to seeing people make things. But I’m not just complaining about occasional sawdust or hammering or balls of wool lying around. I’m talking about the “P” word. Process.
It was inescapable, insidious, and what’s more it was contagious. We didn’t even know what was happening, but they did! And they just kept on doing it. Pretty soon we were all making things. We drew. We sewed. I specialized in blanket stitch and embroidered a bee on a handkerchief. They must have seen the damage they were doing, tinkering mercilessly with innocent young minds. But did they stop? No way! Next thing I knew, my mother was cranking out pullovers with a newfangled, hand-operated Swiss knitting machine, and my father was producing easels for the local elementary school. Process, process, process. My siblings and I were systematically and brutally denied mystification of process. We were blatantly encouraged to make things, to understand how things went together and how they came apart. Maybe we didn’t know how everything was made, but we knew there was an order to it, and we knew there was a right and a wrong way to do things. By the time we got out of the kitchen, we actually believed that creativity and craftsmanship were desirable—even normal.
Sunday afternoons, after the gristle, were particularly brutal. Family outings. Picnics. Nature. Sites “of cultural significance."
The one good thing about living in a small house was that it forced us to play outside a lot. We had to get out of that kitchen, even though we needed the heat. But it was too late for me. I was so maladjusted that when I did escape, I usually played alone. I pretended I was on horseback, galloping around and snorting like an idiot through the woods at the bottom of our street, oblivious to any other reality. I actually derived pleasure from the discovery of rodent skeletons, abandoned gas masks from the war, strange rocks to collect and catalogue, and even frog spawn to scoop up in a jar each spring and watch turn into frogs.
It just feels so good to finally be able to get this stuff off my chest with a few close friends.
No wonder my imagination grew. It never stood a chance. It was force-fed! But I couldn’t stay out forever. I mean, eventually I had to return to The Kitchen. I asked my mother to draw pictures for me; Cinderella running down the staircase became a favorite. Then I started building things: working contraptions out of cardboard, string, and packing tape—the kind you have to lick. My parents’ campaign was relentless. Before bed each evening and on cold Saturday mornings in their bed, they read to us: the stories of Hans Christian Andersen and the Brothers Grimm, The Water-Babies, Alice in Wonderland (without Tenniel), and The Wind in the Willows (with Shepard). But what did I know about illustration? I was given Ned the Lonely Donkey, and thought it was terrific, and Robinson Crusoe. Oh, sure, Crusoe looks like a story all right. But it’s really all about making things out of leftovers. Clothes. Furniture. Process rears its ugly head once more.
I was hooked, and I’m sure they knew it. What kid could possibly comprehend the subtlety of their strategy, never mind combat it? It’s hardly surprising, then, that when it came time to choose the book I would receive for collecting money to keep the Methodist Missionary Society in business, I choose The Encyclopedia of Science for Boys and Girls, which I thought was English but actually came from some place called Racine, Wisconsin. It was filled with pictures about natural history, astronomy, chemistry, meteorology, and so on. I was doomed: a terminal victim of curiosity. And they did it to me.
But the greatest cruelty of all is yet to be revealed. Brace yourselves. Not until I was almost ten did they think to bring a television into the kitchen. And when they finally came to their senses—black and white, of course—the best the BBC could come up with was an hour of children’s programs each afternoon, and then they went off the air until the evening programs started—ballroom dancing from Blackpool, etc.
But enough complaining. Those were the fifties. These are the nineties, and, fortunately, things are different. More parents work, so kids are much less likely to have to confront this kind of deconstructivist environment. Central heating means a family doesn’t have to be together in the same room at the same time. Kitchens are for defrosting and nuking food. Gristle is almost extinct, and that which remains is used in the manufacture of athletic shoes. Most things new get made in faraway factories, which is as it should be, and appear as if by magic, and in a truly terrific innovation most of them are offered in catalogues with toll-free numbers and twenty-four-hour operators standing by. With a wiggle of the finger, we can reach out and touch someone whether they like it or not—and probably while they’re eating. Even company calls before it comes over, greatly reducing the element of surprise and eliminating the need for sitting rooms.
If things must get made in the home—and let’s face it, there will always be a few reactionaries out there—it happens in the basement or out in the garage or in some specially set-aside room. And television, that marvel of electronic communication, offers an inexhaustible stream of imagination busters and intelligence debilitators. In short, it is now possible for almost any child to get through childhood without any knowledge whatsoever of the “P” word, and without suffering the slightest case of curiosity. Even kids with problem parents have a fifty-fifty chance of leading normal lives.
There’s no question about it. We’ve come a long way from the path of curiosity and process in the past forty years. I just hope our children are smart enough to appreciate the progress.
I have been making books for almost nineteen years, and I have been honored twice with silver medals. Until this January I have never received The Big One. On a couple of occasions during the past two decades, I actually found myself disappointed not to have won.
On one occasion in particular, although I can’t remember which book would have been in contention, or mercifully, which book won, I was convinced I was going to take it. I tossed and turned all night waiting to hear. I even kept the phone plugged in. Nothing. Not a peep. A few days later, when I heard the victorious title, I couldn’t believe it. That’s when I decided to give up once and for all on committees.
Of course they didn’t chose my book. How could they? Committees exist to perpetuate compromise, and compromise always results in mediocrity. How could the concepts of quality—“most distinguished picture book”—and compromise possibly co-exist? The really bad stuff and the really good stuff never survive a committee, so naturally you end up with books that don’t elicit strong emotions at either end of the scale. What higher praise, I sneered. I was despondent, of course, but at least I was vindicated in my defeat. Suddenly, I realized what a narrow escape those two honor medals have been. Phew! But somehow, no matter what I told myself, my dismissal of the process seemed slightly hollow, if not a tad self-serving.
This year I gave the medal a thought. In fact, I had completely forgotten that it was time once again for a group of people, having read and reread hundreds of books in preparation for the final showdown, to meet somewhere in Chicago to select a book they could all agree on. My ignorance of and indifference to this event can be directly attributed to two things: first, I was, and still am, very much in the middle of another book. In fact, the middle is getting longer every day. And second, I had already accepted the fact that Black and White, while it pleased me, was just not the kind of book that any committee of sound, compromising mind could possibly agree on.
But then came the call. Not the one which sent half a million soldiers into Kuwait. Not the one rush-ordering eight million yards of yellow ribbon. But the one that said, “Mr. Macaulay. You won!” well, isn’t that always the way? Just when you finally come to understand the truth about someone or something, they turn around and do something so entirely inappropriate and uncharacteristic. Obviously, I was forced to regroup, to suspend hostilities, to entertain the possibility of another point of view. To go out to lunch.
But that was my problem. What about the poor audience? What of their plight? While it is adults who give other adults Caldecott Awards, what must never be forgotten is the impact of this ritual on kids. That little foil seal has been put there to indicate something special. It denotes a book that will be opened with expectation and possibly even reverence.
The content, then, is crucial. Medal winners and honor books alike should be the books youngsters will aspire to as they learn to write and draw. As such they must rise above the plague of safe, superficial, and unfortunately often highly profitable books which descends upon the market annually. The seeds of visual complacency are unwittingly sown whenever one of these books is held up as the best.
The committee’s choice this year goes far beyond making me the most difficult ego in the room at the moment. It tells readers, especially young ones, that it is essential to see, not merely to look; that words and pictures can support each other; that it isn’t necessary to think in a straight line to make sense; and finally, that risk can be rewarded.
The words “utter chaos” describe perfectly a seductive and often frustrating form of self-abuse called the creative process. The creative process, in turn, is that sequence of actions, erratic and unpredictable, by which the creative processor sets out to bring order and extract meaning from a conglomeration of parts and elements which are without order or connection.
“Utter chaos” also describes, with equal acuity, the state of mind of the aforementioned creative processor at various times during the shaping of the formless void and the distillation of primordial matter. But as painful and exhausting as the process gets, chaos is both the problem and an essential part of the solution. While uncertainty brings with it the chance for screaming failure, it also offers the possibility of exhilarating surprise. Accidents will inevitably happen, and the attentive creator will recognize them and promptly claim them as his own. The longer one can stretch out the process and still have it remain creative, the more likely the occurrence of useful accidents. Under these circumstances, procrastination can actually become a virtue. Involuntary procrastination, if such a condition can be said to exist, had a great deal to do with the creation of this year’s medal winner. In fact, Black and White is perhaps best described as an example of visual Darwinism; it took almost as long to evolve as it did for monkeys to walk upright and run for office. Seven years of failed attempts. From books about journeys—specifically about travelers unaware of the effects of their journeys on the journeys of others. Paths which cross by chance. U-turns. Side streets. Dead ends. Next, a history of roads and cities becomes the complete guide to civilization—delusions of profundity. Then an alphabet journey book which fizzles before reaching the letter F.
The road along which my ideas travel is now littered with smoldering wrecks, vehicles with square wheels, locked restrooms. It is not a public highway, but there are many tollbooths and no exits. I must have picked up the Triple A guide to the Donner Pass by mistake. My creative excursion occasionally runs out of sustenance but not determination. At some point the road disappears into a long, dark tunnel. Finally, a glimmer of light—a chaotic cause-and-effect story ignited by a terrified chicken driven into the middle of the road by human gastronomic self-indulgence. And then two years later, four stories or maybe not, four journeys or maybe one. Black and White in full color. From utter confusion and disorder comes the illusion of utter confusion and disorder. Subversive publishing. Finally a rest stop owned and operated by the Association for Library Service to Children, part of the well-known American Library Association chain. I pull over to smell the roses—but can’t stay for too long. I have a ship to build.
This has not been a speedy journey; therefore, the list of people whose advice and encouragement have brought me to this place is very long. As a humanitarian gesture and out of respect for Article 378 of the Geneva Convention, I will limit myself to the very top of the list. First and foremost, I wish to thank Walter “If You Believe in It, We’ll Do It” Lorraine for nineteen years of helping to create and channel utter chaos. Ruth Macaulay for thirteen years of tolerating and critiquing it. Tom Sgouros, of the Rhode Island School of Design, for first showing me how to see it. And, of course, my mother and father for being such fabulous problem parents.
Rest assured, those of you who remain somewhat skeptical about the book in question, that my being awarded the 1991 Caldecott Medal will not encourage me to make (more Black and White) but rather to pursue the process from which it has emerged and of which it is simply one offspring. For that encouragement, I thank each and every member of the Caldecott Committee. You took a chance, and you made a statement. And when committees start taking chances, we all have reason to hope.
David Macaulay is the winner of the 1991 Caldecott Medal for Black and White (Houghton Mifflin Company). His acceptance speech was given at the meeting of the American Library Association in Atlanta on June 30, 1991.