(continued from yesterday)
Of my father’s books, I liked the very first children’s book my mother and father ever did: Chuggy and the Blue Caboose. (Chuggy was republished last year in a beautiful new edition in Japanese.) I also liked Beady Bear and the later book by my father Fly High Fly Low very much. We'd lived in San Francisco, and I loved it. Also, this story had minimum moralizing and was about a relationship between adults (a man and woman pigeon).
I always remembered a story about a squirrel and a bull that was around our house for many years. It was only until I realized it was never published that I was able to get Earl the Squirrel published so many years after my father died. You can read my story of how it happened here.
Growing up, my favorite children’s books were by Robert McCloskey (Blueberries for Sal, One Morning in Maine) and Taro Yashima (Crow Boy, Umbrella and Seashore Story).
I took Mop Top personally. I thought Don wrote it about me because I didn't like haircuts. However, I recently came across a letter of my mother’s in which she explains that it was about Don. He was the one who did not like haircuts. Unfortunately, this was never cleared up when my father was alive. It might have helped the reconciliation process.
As a child, I also saw the world as being a pretty rough place and couldn't understand why my father always had his children’s stories ending happily when there were a lot of unhappy families around, and devastating things happening at school, on TV, and in the newspapers. Looking at life optimistically was my father and a large part of how he faced life. “Let’s keep on the up-and-up,” he used to say.
I was critical that my father stopped painting and sketching people. I thought these were his best work. I always preferred my father’s oil paintings (which used to hang in our house in California) and his notebooks with sketches from the streets of New York in the 30s to his children’s books. I kept bugging him to do that stuff more. What I didn't realize was that my father turned from his free “beatnik” artist life to creating children’s books partly to support his family and me! Certainly children’s books had another meaning now that he had a child of his own. I was blind and ignorant to what he had done for me. But actually, I was thinking of him and he was thinking of me. What a mess! We just did not find a way to meet as father and son, we were too different
I am still convinced that my father’s works from the 1930s are the strongest and best graphical statements he ever made, and the most real and human artwork he ever did. This is my subjective opinion, of course. It was one of the great moments for me to thank my father for all that he did for me when I was able to get a comic book publisher to reprint one of my his old adult books Skitzy in December 2008. Skitzy is an amazing story without words, just Don’s succinct strong black lines.
I am sure that my father struggled with the idea of creating children's books over his other endeavours. He struggled with all his ideas; he took them seriously. But if you look at his evolution, it was the perfect solution to a problem every artist has: how to bring together your different creative strands. I have his notebooks from when he went to high school in Missouri – these are full of really great comic strips of his daily life. He was doing comic strip stories even before he ever went to New York in 1928! So I would say he was really a born storyteller.
In the late 1940s Don became more interested in putting his sketches and drawing together as stories or books. He had already begun to write books for adults, like It Shouldn’t Happen and Skitzy. These used few, if any words. Today, we would call them “graphic novels”. This evolved in the early 50s into books for children. I remember having read in one of my father’s letters or interviews that it was the challenge of combining pictures and text into a story that really caught his creative spirit. The challenge of writing a story and creating the illustrations was even a greater creative challenge, and this he could not resist. My father was gifted in writing and illustrating. I am not gifted in either; I have to work hard to produce something good. But neither can I resist this creative challenge! It has even infected me to strike out on my own with my own paintings and stories – much different from my father’s for a slightly older readership. I hope I am granted the time to bring some of these ideas to print.
Writing and illustrating children’s books fit the bill perfectly – the creative challenge of putting pictures to a stories for young children. As an artist, he felt at home with children, who, as you know, are all naturally very creative. I am sure that if he had continued to live, he would've produced more children’s books. However, a new creative turn would've surely come. He was that way. An artist is always open, or you might say in a different vein, a tool of a higher genius. My mother, who was a very talented watercolor landscape artist, began to do abstract paintings after she was 88, a complete change! I learned this also through surfing: life bends you, you have to get bent, that is life. The trick is to learn how to flow with that and at the same time follow your own personal “track”.
I think what my father and I have in common in terms of art and writing is being fascinated by the challenge to develop a story and pictures that go together. It is not just a story, which is very important in its own right, but it is also the pictures which must together make a book that works, that is alive, that can give something to the readers, and share something of authors. This is the most precious gift my father gave to me: a living example of how a man must follow his creativity to find himself. So in effect, my inner story is of making a connection to my (long-estranged) inner father through my personal creativities.
(final installment here...)