It never fails. At bookstore signings, at educators’ conferences, at ALA. There comes a point during a Q&A or in a conversation when someone – an adult someone – will look at me quizzically and ask, “Is this book really for kids?”
Many of my books have generated this query, and The Three Pigs has been no exception. I always patiently explain that yes, kids are capable of letting their imaginations soar to amazing places. If, in my books, I present my ideas with care, clarity, and logic, kids will follow those stories anywhere.
Now, though, I can stop all that explaining. Now, when I am faced with “Is this book really for kids,” I can pull out my Irma S. and James H. Black Book Award and say, “Here. Does this answer your question?” I plan to carry this award wherever I go. I wish it had been made wallet sized. Or foldable.
Having The Three Pigs chosen as the winner of the Irma S. and James H. Black Award makes what has already been an incredible year even more satisfying.
When I create books, I am making them for myself. I didn’t say one day, “Gee, I think I’d like to write children’s books.” A recurring set of images and themes have pervaded my artwork for most of my life: Flying things, particularly things that don’t normally fly; changes in scale; shifts in reality; vegetables. As I began to realize that I wanted to use these images to tell stories, I explored many different narrative forms: Animation, live filmmaking, comic books. But with my belated discovery of the world of children’s literature, I found that the picture book was the ideal vessel into which I could pour my ideas and pictures. This basic set of artistic concerns has been with me since I was a kid, and it is that kid, as well as this adult, that I’m trying to satisfy.
That said, every time I begin a new book I always wonder – are there enough kids out there who will respond to these ideas as much as I do? I truly never know. Certainly my editor would tell me if an idea was way off base, and I wouldn’t pursue it. But when I do complete a book, it is still always a – well, surprise isn’t the word—a revelation of sorts that there seems to be a sizable audience who really like my books. The fact that kids—lots of kids; kids who discuss and debate books; the kids of the Bank Street School and New York City—chose The Three Pigs to receive this award, makes it an immensely gratifying experience.
That books and art and creativity are such an integral part of life at the Bank Street school is remarkable. My elementary and middle school years were not quite like that. Creative impulses did not really fit into the curriculum. There was the once-a-week, forty-minutes-on-a-weekday- afternoon “art class.” Beyond that, my artwork found its way into school only on things like scraps of paper, book covers made from brown paper bags, and inserts for three-ring binders. And it was not always appreciated. I still have a note that was sent home to my mother when I was in fourth grade. “David would rather be drawing than doing his schoolwork!” Well, yes!
Even though everyone at school – kids and teachers alike – knew me as “the artist,” making art was a private endeavor, since there was no outlet for my interests at school. In eighth grade the students were asked to submit suggestions for what professions we would like to see represented at our Career Day. I requested someone – anyone – in the arts. When Career Day rolled around, surprise, there was no one who even remotely fell into the arts category. I went to see some guy talk about oceanography.
It was in high school that I finally found a sympathetic figure. My art teacher, Robert Bernabe, was as eager to find a student seriously interested in art as I was to find a teacher willing to let me explore it. Very quickly we worked out an arrangement whereby I essentially had a separate class within the regular one. We created my curriculum based on ideas I thought I would like to pursue. As my high school years progressed, I was able to fill a large chunk of my schedule with independent-study art classes. Mr. Bernabe’s enthusiasm and willingness to defy convention contrasted sharply with that of our vice-principal, who seemed driven to distraction by the art room. He would regularly walk in, look around, and grumble, “Can’t you keep this place clean?”
Mr. Bernabe’s willingness to give me the freedom to create, and his encouragement to pursue my own ideas, had a huge impact on my subsequent years at the Rhode Island School of Design. Self-motivation and discipline were crucial to the program at RISD, and the opportunity to acquire these habits in high school made the transition to college much easier to handle.
And it was during those high school art classes that I created my first true porcine character. Slop, The Wonder Pig, was my comic book superhero. The anarchy of his adventures is a direct precursor to The Three Pigs.
The Three Pigs brought together a lot of ideas that I had been thinking about for a very long time. Particularly, I wanted to play with the nature of reality, the idea that characters in a story could leave their story and discover an entirely new world right behind the pictures of the book in which they are appearing. This sounds like sophisticated stuff, but it is also the stuff of cartoons and comic books. I felt that if I could present this idea in clear and simple terms, it would be visually exciting and loads of fun.
Along with being delighted that The Three Pigs was chosen for the Irma S. and James H. Black Award, I am also thrilled that it was a funny book that was chosen. In the mysterious “Great Rulebook for Art Awards,” it often seems as if rule number one is, humor shall not win. It is wonderful that the children at the Bank Street School and the other participating schools around the country have ignored the “Rulebook.” Given the events in New York at the beginning of this school year, it is reassuring to know that humor can still find its way into the lives of the kids who voted. I am very pleased that The Three Pigs could bring some happiness to them. With this award, they have brought much happiness to me as well.