Jean de Brunhoff’s Babar stories, or more specifically Adam Gopnik’s interpretation of them as part of the common language of childhood in the New Yorker in September 2008, serve as both title and inspiration for an upcoming film on children’s literature, Library of the Early Mind, directed and produced by Edward J. Delaney and co-produced by Steven Withrow.
Although they began the film in spring 2009, Delaney and Withrow first met more than a decade ago, when the latter studied communications and creative writing with Delaney at Roger Williams University. Since graduation, Withrow has written several books about children’s literature, including Illustrating Children’s Picture Books (RotoVision), with Lesley Breen Withrow, and Toon Art. Delaney, a journalist and fiction writer who received a 2008 NEA literary fellowship, turned to filmmaking in 2006. His first documentary, The Times Were Never So Bad: The Life of Andre Dubus (2007), was an official selection of the Rhode Island International Film Festival.
So when the two Rhode Islanders got together over coffee shortly after Gopnik’s article appeared, the subjects of movies and children’s books came up. In the end they decided to create their own film that would combine their interests in both. “We wanted to do a film that would be interesting to people who may not have an interest in children’s literature,” says Withrow. “We wanted to describe how the writers and illustrators become artists and how these personal experiences really were the crucibles of the art they created.” Among the experiences he cites are: David Small’s difficult childhood, described in Stitches; Jack Gantos’s imprisonment as a young adult for smuggling hashish; and the burning of Nancy Garden’s 1982 novel, Annie on My Mind.
The three—Small, Gantos, and Garden—are among the 40 authors and illustrators interviewed by Withrow and Delaney for the film. “Because we were limited in terms of money, we confined ourselves for the most part to artists in New York City, western Massachusetts, and northern New England,” Withrow says. Not that that was a hardship given the talent pool in the Northeast, from Jeff Kinney to Lois Lowry and Chris Van Allsburg. In addition, Delaney and Withrow interviewed literary critics, including Roger Sutton, Anita Silvey, and Gopnik. Behind the scenes, booksellers like Carol Chittenden, owner of Eight Cousins in Falmouth, Mass., provided recommendations, as did other authors. In a few instances, Withrow and Delaney traveled further, going to San Francisco to interview Daniel Handler, aka Lemony Snicket.
Delaney and Withrow are in the midst of editing the film down to 85 minutes for its debut this fall at the Askwith Forum at Harvard University’s School of Education. They made a conscious decision to focus on children’s book authors and illustrators whose intended audience is 12 and under. “We’re looking at stories that would have been some of the first stories read to you or the ones you read first,” Withrow explains. As for the 40 hours of material that doesn’t make the cut, that will be made available separately on educational DVDs sometime next year. In the meantime, Delaney and Withrow have posted the film’s first trailer on the film’s Web site.