Erik Blegvad loves his work, and his passion shows in his books. He says he's "extra lucky to make an income from something that's a wonderful thing to be doing." In the course of his esteemed career, Blegvad has illustrated the works of Hans Christian Andersen, O. Henry, Myra Cohn Livingston, Judith Viorst, Jane Langton, Charlotte Zolotow, and his wife, Lenore Blegvad, among many others.
Born in Copenhagen, Denmark, in 1923, Blegvad has always made his living as an artist, working in advertising in Copenhagen, as a freelance artist in London and illustrating magazines and books in Paris. But not until he crossed the Atlantic to New York City in 1951 did he illustrate his first children's book, The Story of Peace and War, by Tom Galt (Crowell, 1953).
Forty-five years later, Blegvad is publishing his 100th children's book. The story of this milestone event began more than half a century ago, at the School of Applied Arts in Copenhagen in 1941. There, as a young man of 18, Blegvad met a fellow student named N.M. Bodecker, or "Bo," as his friends called him. The two embarked on a lifelong friendship that would last until Bodecker's death in 1988, and would serendipitously precipitate the unique creation of Hurry, Hurry, Mary Dear, with text by N.M. Bodecker, illustrated by Erik Blegvad (S&S/ McElderry).
In addition to their artistic talents, the two men had much in common: they had similar senses of humor; they both sported handlebar mustaches; they met their respective wives (from America) while living in Paris; Blegvad emigrated to the United States in 1951 and Bodecker followed in 1953. The two even shared a studio together in Westport, Conn.
Bodecker's son Neils, who grew up watching Fourth of July fireworks and trick-or-treating with Blegvad's sons and Richard Scarry's children in Westport, says that the two men shared a Danish "straight-faced, wry sense of humor" and balanced each other's temperaments. While his father could be moody, he says, "Erik d sn't like to dwell on melancholy. He would say, 'Aw, Bodecker, come on.' "
In a foreword to Hurry, Hurry, Blegvad wrote that his friend often invented "fierce competitions" between them, but confesses that they were really no more than "schoolboy pranks. It never occurred to us to compete in any way [in our careers]." Blegvad recalled just one occasion when a project he was working on seemed to upset Bodecker: in the late 1950s, Blegvad accepted an offer to translate and illustrate their compatriot Hans Christian Andersen's The Swineherd (Harcourt, 1958), a project Bodecker admitted he had always wanted to do.
Hurry, Hurry is not the first book on which the two collaborated. In the early 1970s, Bodecker asked Blegvad to illustrate his book The Mushroom Center Disaster (Atheneum, 1974). Chuckling, Blegvad recalls, "That was the first and last time he ever asked me to illustrate a book of his." Like Hurry, Hurry, the other text of Bodecker's for which Blegvad also drew pictures was published after Bodecker's death: Water Pennies and Other P ms (McElderry, 1991).
The Original Mary
In the 1970s, Bodecker had created several pen-and-ink drawings of Mary for a collection of his poetry also called Hurry, Hurry, Mary Dear, published in 1978 and still in print from McElderry. But Margaret McElderry, editor for both Bodecker and Blegvad, had always wanted a full-color picture book of the poem and asked Blegvad to take on the project after Bodecker's death.
"Erik is the only artist Bo would ever allow to touch his things," McElderry says. Blegvad told McElderry he would agree to the project on one condition: he felt that Bodecker had already done "a wonderful series of pictures for the poem," and said he would do the book only if he could preserve Bodecker's original conception of Mary.
Neils Bodecker says that his father was very particular about his poetry: "[To my father,] word and image were one thing together. You couldn't print his text [in an anthology] without using his images." Yet he, like McElderry, believes that Blegvad has vividly captured Mary's spirit.
Hurry, Hurry describes the relationship between a husband anxiously advising his wife about how to properly prepare the homestead for winter, and the obliging spouse who finally delivers his comeuppance. Blegvad's paintings of Mary convey a posture and facial expressions nearly identical to the originals. "I copied her closely, but of course with colors on her cheeks," Blegvad says.
Blegvad, who remembers Bodecker as "great fun, a stimulating and amusing friend to be near," says he felt very close to Bodecker while at work on the project: "[Bo's] p try made me laugh all over again." In 1988, Neils Bodecker recalls, when his father was dying of cancer, he notified Blegvad in London that his father had taken a turn for the worse, and Blegvad boarded the next plane for Hanover, N.H., to be at his friend's bedside when he passed away.
Over the years, McElderry became more than an editor to Bodecker and Blegvad; she, too, was a part of this unique friendship. For her, "Working with Hurry, Hurry was a labor of love for Erik and for me. It made us think of Bo and all the funny times we had. And then to see what [Erik] turned in -- in some ways it's his best work."
Blegvad's 100th book brings a consummate artist's body of work full circle, honoring not only the spirited character of Mary, but that of a lifelong friendship that began 57 years ago. Asked what she thinks Bodecker's reaction might have been to Blegvad's picture-book version of his p m, McElderry says, "I think he'd be amused; he would have been pleased. I wish he could see it."