The stained glass angel (above) was a gift to me from Nancy Willard. She wrote "The High Rise Glorious Skittle Skat Roarious Sky Pie Angel Food Cake". This was her way of saying "thank you" to me for illustrating her story.
She could easily have illustrated her own story, but let go of the young words, and watched them march down her front steps to take on a life of their own. The words found their way to me, and we bonded. Now, it can be irksome for an illustrator if an author meddles and tries to tell the illustrator, "This is what I was thinking for the art...". Einnnk!
But what Nancy did was firstly to send me a plaster egg. "Would you be so kind as to sign this egg?" "Ah, so that's how to 'egg on' an artist," I said to my moose. I took the bait, and made a little house for the egg out of Bondo auto body filler, papier maché, and gold leaf, then mailed it back to her. The game was afoot.
What did I know of angels? Not much. I have a dearest friend (who is rational, intelligent, sober, and honest) who has seen an angel. When writing or illustrating, I want to know everything I possibly can about my subject. As I stood in my front yard debating if I should even illustrate this text, wondering what angels were like, out of nowhere, a dust devil barged into our neighborhood. The dust from our dirt road suited this brisk wind, and he picked up a million leaves of all shapes and sizes. As I stood and squinted at the center of this mini-maelstrom I rather imagined each leaf as an angel. This was the gift I needed as I began my journey with this story. I'm pretty sure an angel blew in my ear and dust came out the other ear.
Anyway, in one of my dreams I found myself outside in a hurricane. My shirt was blown off and I leaned into the wind to seek refuge. On the street corner, I found a U.S. mail box. Since I used to be a mailman I could unlock the box. Inside were dozens of parcels tied up with string, in the shapes of bizarre creatures. One was half bird, half airplane. When I asked Nancy how she sent the dream parcel, she mailed me the card above.
In this scene, the angels have smelled the girl's cake baking all the way from Heaven, and have come into her kitchen hoping for a taste. This book has a lightness of being, but it was baked in an oven of pain and grief. When I was working on my part of the book, I had some deep pain.
As I attempted to paint lighter-than-air, heavenly images, my father had a stroke, got his leg amputated, and finally died. I later found out that the author, Nancy, was going through some similar pain with her own mother who was dying. Our editor for this book, Bonnie, also had great pain. In particular, her mother had brain surgery to remove a tumor. She read this story to her mother the night before her surgery. The next morning, she brought her mother a little gift. "See what they found in your head?" And presented her with a golden thimble (as in the story).
I guess all stories rise like yeast from the full aggregate of our jumbled lives. Would I say that making this book was a piece of cake? No. No way. And yes. Absolutely.