Henry Cole’s quiet environmental campaign started in 1970, on the very first Earth Day. Instead of tossing the brown paper lunch bag he’d brought his sandwich to school in, he folded the bag up and brought it home. He packed his lunch in it again the next day, and every day after that, too, until he graduated from high school three years later. One Little Bag: An Amazing Journey imagines an even longer paper-bag journey, from pine forest and paper factory through school lunchtimes, college, a courtship, a wedding (it holds flower petals), the birth of a child, and a friendship with a grandfather, until it lands at last among the trees where the story began. A testimony to the untested strength of an object most people take for granted, Cole’s wordless story also conjures up a lost era of mid-century small-town life. Cole spoke with PW about his paper bag quest, using memories to make drawings, and discovering that art has the power to move people.
So the bag really held together for three years?
Yes! I carried it to school with my sandwiches in it and it went on and on. It wasn’t a habit… it became a quest to have this bag, this terrific thing, survive. It was repaired many times. All my friends knew about it. When I went to college I willed the bag to my friend Susan and she carried it, too. It was not really worthy of the name at that point. It was more like a holy relic. You had to carry it like a baby bird. If you had an apple in it, it might as well have been a bowling ball, or a cannonball.
Years and years later I was teaching in a school outside of D.C. and I told a colleague about it, and she said, “That would be such a great story!” That stuck with me, the way she lit up. So I sent it to Dianne Hess at Scholastic and we turned it into a picture book. She helped develop it into a much richer story. And the design! You turn over those first spreads and then comes the title page. I love that! That was the eminent Marijka Kostiw. She did the design for Unspoken, too. Pure genius.
There are some retro references in the illustrations, but the nostalgia element isn’t all that important, right?
Wrong! The nostalgia starts right from the beginning, which is the old grocery store in Purcellville, Virginia [where Cole grew up]. It had a screen door that slammed, it had a spring at the bottom. It’s not there anymore. It’s just like anything you draw; you’re going to summon up something in your memory of what that thing is. It’s a multigenerational story, so I couldn’t start it, you know, a year ago. I had to go way back.
You’ve done several wordless books [Spot and Dot, 2019; Unspoken, 2016]. Was this book always going to be wordless, too?
Yes. I don’t want to be categorized as all wordless, though! The book I’m working on one now is almost all words. It’s about words.
I like the idea of the kids having their own words, their own internal dialogue. When I visit schools, I don’t read; librarians are much better at that. My program is about creative process. That’s my favorite thing to do. There’s nothing better in this world than hearing kids laugh. It’s the best sound there is, you know, when they can’t stand it they’re laughing so hard, when they’re groaning at the end and they say they don’t want to go… I’ve had 20-some years of that, and I’m missing it right now.
I was supposed to give a talk at the Texas Library Association conference in mid-April, and I’m not going to get to do that, and I’m disappointed. I’m so proud of this book.
If you talk to kids about the creative process, they’re learning what it looks like and how to know it when they’re in it. When did you first become aware that your art was something special?
I remember a really great eighth-grade French teacher. She was only there for a year. She was something else—vivacious, a really cool, likeable teacher—and she gave us this assignment. We had to make a French-English dictionary, and I made mine an illustrated dictionary. The expression on her face when she saw mine, when she looked at the pages, and the way she laughed at the pictures, I can still see it! You can hear somebody say, “Oh, you’re such a great artist,” but it’s another thing to see somebody react like that. Those little things are important and life-changing.
One Little Bag: An Amazing Journey by Henry Cole. Scholastic Press, $18.99 Apr. 7 ISBN 978-1-338-59929-9