There's something about the woods of New England. For years they have inspired such renowned writers as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Walt Whitman, Robert Frost and Henry David Thoreau. In fact, Thoreau's classic Walden, about his two years of simple living in a woodland cabin, had such a profound effect on a young D.B. (Don) Johnson that it has informed his life, and most certainly his blossoming career as a children's book author-illustrator.
In his debut work, Henry Hikes to Fitchburg (Houghton), Johnson calls upon a passage from Walden in which Thoreau issues a challenge to a friend, boasting that he can walk to the town of Fitchburg (a 30-mile stretch) faster than his friend can earn the fare and make the journey by train. Johnson expands the idea into a striking picture book with bold, cubist-like paintings. In the new scenario, Henry the bear offers of the same challenge to an ursine pal. While his friend toils at strenuous tasks, Henry hikes through a wondrous, bucolic setting, taking ample time to enjoy his surroundings--and arrives in Fitchburg only a bit later than his friend. Johnson claims (and many book reviewers agree) that the tale offers a respectful nod to the past and encapsulates a timeless philosophy.
"We don't know if this actually happened," Johnson says of the Fitchburg challenge. "But I wondered what would happen if it really took place, and I wanted to write it in a way that children could understand. Walden inspired the story, but it's not necessary that readers be familiar with Thoreau to 'get it.' "
Johnson more than "gets it," however; he begins each day with a one-hour walk in the woods near his New Hampshire home in the Connecticut River valley. He then takes up the work on the drawing board in his in-home studio by 8:45 a.m. His projects over the past 15 years have included mostly commercial illustration and regular op-ed pieces for the Los Angeles Times syndicate.
With an established illustration career under his belt, it is perhaps surprising to learn that Johnson is a self-taught artist. "I've had no training," he says. "But my work has always entertained ideas and social issues. I put ideas into pictures; I think this is one of the appeals of my book--it has lots of levels of meaning." Johnson cites Chris Van Allsburg ("You can see his influence in the way I try to simplify shapes"), Grant Wood and Marc Chagall (some of whose cubist work Johnson saw in Russia last year while visiting one of his sons, who was working there) as some of his biggest influences.
As for children's book illustration, Johnson had long been a fan of the genre. "My wife was a children's bookseller, and I knew many illustrators, like Trina Schart Hyman," he says. "I loved the books, but I never thought of doing one myself. I was very busy with commercial work and had kids in college. I was wary of committing to an enormous project that offered little money up front."
But when Johnson hit a slow period in his illustrating, he took out a story from his "stuffed" idea file and one month later had transformed it into Henry Hikes to Fitchburg. In May 1998, he sent off the manuscript and a full set of thumbnail sketches to Houghton Mifflin (incidentally, Thoreau's first publisher). Two weeks later, editor Margaret Raymo offered him a contract. "I was amazed that I got a response so quickly," Johnson says. "I know from experience that phone calls mean good news. It gave me an indication that this book just might be successful."
Johnson's hunch was correct. The book has sold very well so far (there are currently 60,000 copies in print) and it received a significant boost from an on-air rave by Daniel Pinkwater, children's book commentator for National Public Radio's Weekend Edition Saturday, at the end of February. New England booksellers have been especially excited about the title, hosting Johnson nearly every weekend for signings. "The kids' response has been most amazing," Johnson says. "One first-grade class in Leominster, Mass., did a three-day project on how they would hike to Fitchburg. This is the kind of thing I imagined would happen. I get to see the people who see my work now, rather than just getting a tear sheet from an art director." Johnson's new legion of fans will be happy to know that he is equally enthusiastic about his next book for Houghton, Henry Builds a Cabin, scheduled for spring 2002.