A phrase has been tootling around the small space between my ears and that phrase is 'no one knows anything'. The more I think about it, the more convinced I am it is so.
This philosophizing was brought on by a Q&A with 'Roaring Brook Press' editor Neal Porter at a Highlight's Foundation workshop a couple of weeks back. Pretty much at the start of the discussion Neal quoted Hollywood screenwriter William Goldman - 'no one knows anything'. (Goldman was talking about the movie industry, but applying it to the industry of children's books makes a lot of sense).
I sat attentively, pen poised, ready to take notes like billy-o, absorbing pearls of wisdom. (I hasten to add there were MANY such pearls). But then I stopped writing and just listened. (see below).
When I said I stopped writing, I mean - I drew. As Neal shared his experiences with us, owls flew off my page. (Sometimes doodling helps drive the meaning of the spoken word deeper into us, at least that's what happens with me. I can recall a lot more from looking at these owls than from written notes alone).
What does this quote mean to me as a children's book creator? I understand that to create a good and memorable children's book takes an excellence in craft, time, thought, many drafts. It takes a posse of people - author and illustrator, editor, art director, publisher, marketing, sales, customer, reader. All of the stuff those people know, all their skills, learning, desires. Years and years of it and a huge amount of dollars to boot. But in the end - no one knows anything.
We don't know if the story that is important or charming to ourselves will charm anyone else. The publisher doesn't know if it will sell, the reader, (taking the book from shelf), doesn't know if it will charm them enough to take it home and read it time after time. No one knows if the book will grow and sell and fly off more shelves and more and more until it has a chance of longevity. No one knows ...
This 'not knowing' is seductive and addictive. It's chance. A gamble we all take when we stumble down the road of an idea, with the notion that we can change a child's view of the world hanging in the sky to guide us.
Maybe, just maybe, we will create something original. That the magic will shine.
Neal talked about the making of the book 'A Sick Day for Amos McGee' by Erin and Philip Stead. How from the get-go there was something with which he connected instantly, seemed like he could smell the originality of it. His intuition (and those years of experience) told him - this might be special. No-one knew anything - no one knew this would be a Caldecott book on the illustrator's first showing. But the magic shone and the book grew and grew.
We can't force an idea, we can only let it land on our sketchpad, our blank screen, help it come to life and evolve, to let the 'anything' become 'something'. And we may have to do this again and again. And again.
The deeper my involvement with the creation of children's books, the more I learn, the better I get at my craft: the less I seem to know. Yes, Goldman's words hold truth. Maybe it is this truth that keeps me coming back to my studio every morning. 'No one knows anything' and therefore ANYTHING is possible!
A very special place - The Barn at Highlight's Foundation at Boyd's Mill
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Come back next time to hear some thoughts from Turbo Monkey Julie Dillard.