Every so often, the Boston Globe asks me to do a micro-review—a paragraph on my current favorite picture book. For the last six years (ever since I became a mom), my “current favorite picture book” is likely to be the one I was able to reach from the bed (without getting up), which effectively lulled my daughter to sleep. So, I have come to depend on my most au courant friend, Alison Morris, for her top 10. Dimity Dumpty made her list three Februarys ago, and that’s how I became introduced to, I mean, smitten with Australian author/illustrator Bob Graham’s work.
And that must have been when I stuck the “Meet Bob Graham” sticky note in the Australia folder on the corner of my desk. I didn’t look at it again until last December, eight days before Christmas, which was also our family’s scheduled departure to Melbourne. Four days later, Alison Morris had secured Bob’s e-mail address along with permission for me to use it.
From: Suzy Becker
To: Robert Graham
Sent: Thursday, December 24, 2009 9:10 AM
Dear Bob Graham,
I keep writing and rewriting this, and all I’m trying to say, in the most original way, is: I love your work.
I can quote myself on the subject (from my Boston Globe “Pick of the Week” review of Dimity Dumpty in February 2007: The story “is re-imagined in such hilarious and tender detail, I still (after my hundredth reading) sigh when it ends.” I guess there wasn’t enough room to run this sentence: “There are lots of books I love—this is one I wish I’d done.”
And, while there are lots of people whose work I love, there are just a few whose work so speaks to me/mine that I really want to meet them. Being that you are one, and seeing how I am going to be in Melbourne (halfway around the world) in early January, I am writing to ask whether I might take you out for a cup of coffee while I’m in town.
We leave for Australia tomorrow (Christmas) night and if there is to be any unwrapping, I better get wrapping. Happy holidays!
Sincerely, Suzy Becker (author/illustrator All I Need to Know I Learned from My Cat and other stuff www.suzybecker.com)
After I wrapped all my gifts, I checked my e-mail one last time, and what to my wondering eyes should appear:
From: Bob Graham
To: Suzy Becker
Date: December 24, 2009 2:13:21 AM EST
Subject: Re: Coffee?
Thanks for the thought and the e-mail. You seem to have a very busy life out there in the country with your family, two dogs and feral cat. It sounds lovely and I will imagine your house with a picturesque covering of Christmas snow. Your books look fun and I shall have a look for them in my local shop when all the Christmas fuss has died down.
Carolyn and I would like to have you to the house for lunch. Please call when you get to Melbourne so we can arrange a meeting.
Thanks again for the kind words about my books. I hope you have a wonderful trip.
The day I was to meet Bob, it was 100º. I had passed on his kind offer (made when it was 20º cooler) to come get me, fancying a chance to relive some footloose and child-free backpacker days. By the time I found the tram stop, the borrowed Thermos pack holding the chilled bottle of Sauvignon Blanc (and some rapidly dampening copies of my books) was plastered to my back. Once I was seated, it occurred to me that the chances of Bob Graham living up to my impressions of his work—my smitten-ness had now been compounded over three years and 10,522 miles—were, well, slightly better than the chances of my being able to hold up my end of the conversation in a sweaty dress.
Bob met me at the front gate where I was fumbling with the latch. I followed him through a cottage garden, into the house, down the hallway—catching glimpses of his studio, their bedroom, the bathroom, walls-full of their works (Carolyn is a printmaker) and works-in-progress—on our way to the kitchen where Carolyn was setting out our lunch.
I unpacked my wine and offered it to Bob, who apologized as he accepted it; he’d been unable to find my books at the local shop. So I unpacked those, too, and I was looking for a place to stow my pack when I spied an autographed copy of my friend Chris Smither’s CD, sitting on top of a CD pile right behind me—a sign from the universe that my chances had improved 1000%.
The conversation was non-stop over frittata and salad. (I forgot to try the artichokes.) It ricocheted from work to family, pets to health, our love stories, music, gardens and back to work—as if we had all the time in the world to tidy up the loose ends. Bob didn’t begin his picture book career until his 40s. He was part of Qantas Airlines’ executive program for five years before he started taking art classes at night and quit Qantas, landing a job in the government printing office and—that’s when the doorbell rang. My family—my daughter Aurora, my wife Lorene, my daughter’s dad Steve and his partner Paul (the two Aussies) had come to collect me. Carolyn rose to greet them as they made their way to the table.
Although they’d all been previously advertised, I felt as if I’d overrun my welcome. After a few minutes, I asked Bob if I could see his studio, relocating us very close to the front door. Aurora accompanied Bob and me and in no time, she and Bob were immersed in an art lesson (from which I also benefited) on pastel backgrounds. I studied the room, taking in the organized clutter, bits of inspiration tacked up or sitting out, framed illustrations, open dummies, sketchbooks, the old knife-sharpened colored pencils splayed in a shiny Boston Globe-Horn Book Award Cup.
Aurora was covered in pastel dust by the time Carolyn herded the rest of the crew down the hall. I took her to the bathroom to wash up while Bob signed copies of the books we’d brought, plus another stack he’d hand-picked for Aurora. Had I been child-free, I probably would have felt sad at this juncture, sensing the imminence of my departure—but with a five-year-old in tow, any sense of imminence (related to departures) is removed. After washing up, Aurora headed for the bathroom door, did a 180º and sat down on the toilet. And sat. And sat. And sat. Seven, long, overstaying minutes later, I could easily have been overheard from the hall begging her to finish, and she could have been overheard replying, “I am not going to finish until I’m 38 and you’re dead.”
From: Suzy Becker
To: Bob Graham
Sent: Sunday, January 10, 2010 11:48 p.m.
Subject: Re: Books
Aurora has loved each and every book. We read them as fast as we could in the back of the car and we’ve revisited them each night. She has lots of questions for you, like is that you on the bicycle in How to Heal a Broken Wing? Now that I think about it, I have questions, too. You were still working in the government printing office when the doorbell rang.
All right, I best pack for Sydney. I hope we can continue our conversation. You are every bit as kind, whimsical, generous and lovely as your books.