In Our Story Begins, a book due out from Atheneum this July, a number of children’s book creators recall their youthful creative efforts. Their entries were collected and edited by author Elissa Brent Weissman, and we present a selection of them here. Some of the essays have been condensed slightly from the original.
I always knew I wanted be a writer and an artist. The two went hand in hand for me. Even if the assignment was to write a poem, I would draw a picture to accompany it. My teachers always encouraged my drawings and told my mother I had “talent.”
Both my parents were passionate book lovers, so I grew up in a home full of books. My mother’s favorite “children’s” book to read to me at night was The Little Prince. That, and the short stories of Oscar Wilde. My father was a gifted storyteller, who would tell me stories about the constellations and planets. Both of them, my mom and my dad, always supported my drawing and writing. They acted like everything I ever created was a masterpiece, and, strangely enough, I believed them. The confidence boost you get from that kind of unconditional love—the sense that your creative efforts have true value—really does stay with you forever. As does the notion, which I inherited from my parents, that growing up to be an artist or a writer is just about the greatest thing a person can become in life, the highest kind of achievement.
I had a few recurring obsessions, even back then, that have stayed with me as a grown-up. I’ve always loved horses. I used to draw them all the time, in the margins of my notebooks, on the blue denim cover of my loose-leaf binder. And I always loved Greek mythology: stories of the gods and goddesses of Olympus, the fantastical creatures. The story of Pegasus was the perfect convergence of my two passions—horses and Greek myths. The poem “Winged Steed” was published in the school newspaper when I was in the third grade. It was the first piece of my writing that ever got published, and I remember feeling completely elated that people would be reading my words, my feelings. Reading it now, I doubt I even knew what half the words meant, but I liked that kind of flowery language at the time. I had made an accompanying drawing, which they didn’t publish, so I’m glad to have the opportunity now, after all these years, to finally see it in print!
I still fill my notebooks with doodles of horses, by the way. And I still dream of winged steeds.
When I was nine years old, I made a get-well card for my aunt Helen. Using pencil and crayons, I drew her dog, Butchy. The thing is, I had never actually met Butchy except through old photographs. Over years of family gatherings, I had heard stories, always told fondly, of the sweet black-and-white spaniel. To my young mind, I thought that one way to cheer my sick aunt would be to remind her of something she loved. And so I drew Butchy.
I have always made pictures. I drew what was around me, what I liked, and what I cared about. Drawing was how I found my way in the world. That’s because drawing requires looking closely, so closely that you begin to see details you’d never see in a glance. You begin to see variations in color and shadow. You begin to see patterns and connections. But as I drew more and more, I discovered something else. Drawing isn’t just about seeing. It’s about feeling. A picture is not just a description, but a doorway into my thoughts and emotions. A sick aunt, the memory of her beloved dog, a handful of crayons, and the need to tell a story join together on the page.
I don’t recall Aunt Helen’s response to my card, but many years later, after her death, I found the drawing in a box among her belongings, carefully folded, wrapped in tissue paper with my name written on a yellowed bit of tape.
I have been drawing pictures for as long as I can remember. When I was caught doodling on my desk in second grade, my teacher suggested that I might become an artist someday, then made me clean all the desks in the classroom. I really began to find my passion somewhere in the fifth grade. I had tried to draw objects from life, but my trees looked like nuclear explosions. I tried to draw people’s faces, but they always looked like zombies. It takes many years of practice to make a drawing look like what it is supposed to be. Instead, I turned to my imagination for inspiration. Fortunately, I had a lot of it, as I was always daydreaming. What would my house look like someday? If I were a mad scientist, what would my laboratory look like? If I traveled the world, how would I get around? Imagining new worlds and places gave me lots of freedom to draw whatever
I wanted. It wasn’t long before I was studying shading and perspective, and my art started to become more realistic. Practice helps a lot!
My drawings at this age suggest that I might have grown up to be an architect or a designer. But really, I was creating new adventures for myself. In seventh grade, I won a Read Magazine Young Writers Award, and that inspired me to create stories to go with my art. My real adventures were just beginning.
Jackie Rice was the coolest girl in the sixth grade, which, in our K–6 school, meant she was the coolest girl at Highland Elementary in Seaside, Calif. Jackie was the first to hit the playground with the newest dances and slang. She was our fastest runner, and in the words of my mother, “That little Rice girl was a taste too grown.”
When it was time for our military family to pack up and relocate to Georgia and then finally to New York, Jackie was the first to sign my scrapbook: To Rita, an off-beat but nice young lady. My friends were horrified for me and urged me to cross out the “off-beat” part. Jackie’s words might have seemed unkind, but I chose to revel in the truthfulness of them. Offbeat. Yes! That’s me! And offbeat, I was. Today they call it “nerdy.” Still, I was my own brand of nerd.
I kept a lock-and-key diary, but by the seventh grade, I also kept a journal about the daily junior high grind and a sketchbook for story ideas and publishing advice. Most important, I wrote 500 words nightly—mainly for my elementary school memoir, Highland. While the events were true, I couldn’t recall the dialogue verbatim, so I did my best to pen the gist of the conversations. I drew the stop sign in the corner of the page to make myself stop writing at 1000 words. I still went over my mark. By the time I finished, on the eve of my 13th birthday, I had 39 full notebooks.
By the seventh grade, my reading was all over the place. From Eldridge Cleaver’s Soul on Ice to Harold Robbins’s The Carpetbaggers, Erich Segal’s Love Story, and more adult books. By the eighth grade, I’d be an Ayn Rand devotee. I was growing up and was reaching for everything.
I had a crush on a trumpet player in band: Franky, the constant subject in my lock-and-key diary. I liked all things “Franky”—including Frank Sinatra. I watched all the Rat Pack caper movies. My obsession with all things Franky inspired my first movie screenplay, written for Frank Sinatra. A down-on-his-luck alcoholic detective takes a dangerous job in Las Vegas to make his alimony payments. I’d even written a Sammy Davis Jr. part. What did this have to do with Franky, trumpet player at Linden Junior High School? Only offbeat, seventh-grade Rita Williams could have made that connection.
In the meantime, I visited the St. Albans Branch Public Library around the corner from our house in Queens, N.Y., to check out books on the business of writing: The Writer’s Handbook and Writer’s Market. I didn’t just want to write my stories. I wanted to sell them. I had big plans for the dough that would roll my way. Clothes! Real seventh-grader wear. No more little-girl dresses with Peter Pan collars. And a bra. A real bra that was up to the task at hand. The situation was dire. I had to make money, and writing would be my magic ticket.
I learned how to prepare a manuscript. How to write a query letter. To always include a self-addressed stamped envelope—aka SASE—with every correspondence to ensure an answer. I’d rent my sister’s typewriter at five cents a pop, type articles and short stories, and then mail them to McCall’s, Ladies’ Home Journal, and Reader’s Digest. I’d wait four to six weeks. Much to the amusement of my older sibs, a letter of rejection always came sooner than six weeks. Discouraged? Never! I had read that rejection was part of a writer’s life. It was official. I was a writer.
Postscript: Alas, Franky the trumpet player and I weren’t meant to be. Many decades later, I married Fred, who, in spite of being barred from joining our junior high school band, had made a living as a professional musician. That’s another story.
The story in my family is this: My grandmother’s maid gave me tinfoil to keep me out of trouble. I’d use it to sculpt things like flowers and dinosaurs. According to the lore, this was my introduction to art. I’ve drawn and made things ever since. In kindergarten, I remember getting a lot of attention when we all had to draw a seal with a ball on its nose and mine was the best. My kindergarten teacher wrote on my report card, Brian is a good artist.
I grew up in East Brunswick, N.J., and was very lucky because there was a really good art program in the schools. My teachers—Mr. Jones, Ms. Feder, and Mr. and Mrs. Koppel—were all very important to me. I also took art classes after school with Eileen Sutton. I was her student from around fifth grade until I graduated high school. I learned so much from her, and we’re still in touch. The first thing she taught me was to put a little white highlight in people’s eyes. It’s the little white highlight that really brings the face to life. I think of her every time I put a little white highlight in people’s eyes.
By the time I was 10, I’d discovered the art of Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo and other artists from the Renaissance. I’d copy their work from books for hours. My favorite painting was Madonna of the Rocks by Da Vinci. The angel’s sublime face was a particular favorite. I began to experiment with crosshatching (building up the image with lots and lots of little lines that cross back and forth). I still use crosshatching when I draw.
Angels were fun to draw, but so were monsters. I found a magazine called Omni when I was 11, which in the 1970s published articles about science and sci-fi. On the cover was a painting of a strange creature by the artist H.R. Giger, who went on to design the monsters in the movie Alien. I became really obsessed with his scary artwork and created my own monsters, inspired by his use of skeletons and horns.
Around this time, the original Star Wars was released, and after I saw the movie, I drew all my favorite characters. I’m not sure why I picked Grand Moff Tarkin to draw. I also drew more popular characters like Princess Leia and Darth Vader, but I guess Grand Moff Tarkin made an impression too. (You’ll notice I spelled his name wrong!) I’m probably the only person in the world who has ever drawn a picture of Grand Moff Tarkin when they were 11. Also, I must have done this drawing before I met my art teacher Eileen Sutton because there is no little white highlight in his eyes.
I don’t have many pictures of me at the age I made this painting. Just the year before, I had entered the new world of middle school, and already I had transformed from a disciplined kid with good grades into someone rather invisible, except for the times when teachers called my name and I didn’t know the answers to their questions.
In those days, I went through many changes; I cut off most of my long child hair and I let my fingernails grow. I wanted to feel like I was already a señorita, a young woman, but I was only 12 and my body was responding slowly.
On the first day of school, Señor Cruz Mata, our math teacher, shuffled his octogenarian feet toward the chalkboard and, without uttering a word, began writing numbers and formulas I had never before seen in my life. Right away, he parted the class between the good students and the bad students. Those who knew what he had written on the chalkboard were the deserving kids. A group of about five students sitting at the front smiled. The rest of us... well, we were doomed. Teacher after teacher, and day after day, I began recognizing the evidence of my lack of talent as a student, and I accepted my destiny. I was tonta, dumb. My teachers knew it, and now I knew it too.
No more effort on my part was necessary from then on; after all, stupidity and no talent show whether you try or not.
From the window of my classroom, while trying hard not to try, I could sometimes see the next year’s students at a class called Artisticas (art). This was quite a distracting sight. The class took place outside in the school yard—how unusual! There was a lot of brown paper involved, and wire, and other materials I couldn’t see very well from my desk, but what I could see was the slow growth of papier-mâché figures way bigger than the kids that were building them. What was going on? Week after week, I saw the teacher and the students outside making what I could only imagine were incredible things. I could not wait to be in the next grade!
And one day, I was.
I don’t remember the name of my teacher, but he was a lean man of brown skin, wavy silver hair, and a well-trimmed mustache. His sleeves were always rolled up. Some of his first exercises were to teach us how to draw straight lines in our notebook. He instructed us in how to move our arm completely from one side to the other while tracing the line, no stopping or making tiny connected lines, but one long, uninterrupted line instead. I still use what I learned in that first lesson; even though I often erase and redraw them, nowadays my drawn lines are mostly firm and continuous.
But I was a bad student, right? Bad students are not supposed to have talent, or fire, or to distinguish themselves for doing well, so I couldn’t just go and suddenly be good at this. Actually, as the school year progressed, I could not even make myself ask questions or tell my teacher that I dreamed about being part of the small group of kids he would choose to build the giant brown paper sculptures. I was a failing student. How could I even dare to be more than that?
One day, it was time for our final project. We were going to make a painting!
I don’t remember at all how I got a framed piece of canvas and the paints or the brush I needed; up to that point in middle school, I had not been good at telling my mother about the supplies or the books my teachers asked us to buy for class (a main reason why I kept turning in incomplete assignments). But what I remember extremely well were the instructions that our teacher gave. Your painting, he said, should be a creation of your own imagination. “Do not copy from anywhere! Make something of your own.”
That was going to be a difficult task to accomplish! Something of our own.... Well, I loved drawing, and the things I liked drawing the most were people and animals. For my class, I decided I was going to make a scene with a baby. I knew I could handle a human image because I had had a lot of practice drawing faces, including my own. I also decided to have the baby be surrounded by animals. First, a cat, and if I drew him curled up, sleeping and showing only his back, I could figure it without copying from anywhere. And what about my favorite animal? Yes, I would include a dog, a huge dog! But, wait. What do real dogs look like? I knew they had noses and ears and snouts and more, but, really, could I draw what they look like only from my memory? I agonized a lot about what I did next.
I went to the encyclopedia my mother had bought us years before and looked for a photograph I remembered seeing of the face of a Saint Bernard dog. My teacher had been so clear about not copying from anywhere, so I decided to study this image with my eyes, and I traced invisible lines with my finger around the shapes of the dog’s face. I did this again and again until I thought I could remember most of the picture, then I closed the book and went to my painting to try to recreate from memory what I had seen.
The result is this painting you see here. I remember feeling proud of the result—for I had never done a painting before in my life—but I also remember feeling worried. Had I cheated? When I tried to re-create the photograph from the encyclopedia after being told not to copy, had I finally become the delinquent I had been so much warned I could be?
My teacher looked at my painting. Then he looked at me. “You copied this,” he said. I lowered my head. I wanted to say something, but words refused to come out. Could I really explain what I had done with the encyclopedia? And if I said that I didn’t copy, was it true? I could only manage to shake my head without even looking up. “No?” he asked. “Then someone else made it for you.”
He gave me the next-lowest grade short of failing. I stood there for a long time after he was gone.
Many, many years passed before I knew art was my life. Nowadays, when I look at this painting, I fantasize about how awesome it would be to time travel and make a visit to my young self, still standing there holding this embarrassing painting in her hands. I would come over, and, of course, she wouldn’t know who I am. As she is standing there trying hard to hold in her tears, I would lean by her shoulder and whisper in her ear, “Yuyi, you just keep it up and draw more, and yes, copy, and wait, because you won’t believe the things you’ll do one day.”