Children's book author/illustrator Grace Lin (Okie Dokie Artichokie, Viking) is accustomed to making a living with her art. What's new for her is watching her art—and the art of some colleagues—help save lives. But that's exactly what's happening with a new picture book and a cancer fund-raising project inspired by Lin's husband, Robert Mercer, who is battling the disease.
In December 2001, Lin was still a newlywed when her husband, Robert, was diagnosed with Ewing's sarcoma, a rare form of bone cancer. The devastated couple moved from their Boston area home to Montreal to be nearer to Robert's family while he underwent treatment and endured months of prescribed bed rest. "We spent many days and nights watching the snow fall outside our window," said Lin. "It was hard for Robert; he had always been active and now he was bedridden. In an effort to cheer him up, I made up stories and told them to him. He humored me until one day I began a story about a mouse that wasn't allowed in the snow. In spite of himself, he became interested and it became our pet project." The result of those storytelling and sketch sessions is Robert's Snow, a picture book out this month from Viking Children's Books.
When Robert's Snow was contracted at Viking, Robert's cancer was in remission. But before Lin had finished final artwork, her husband suffered a relapse and was scheduled to begin a new, difficult course of treatment. "I felt extremely helpless," Lin said. "I wanted to do something to help our doctors find a cure and the best thing I could think of was donating to their research studies. However, my personal donation seemed so flat. How much could I, one illustrator, alone, really raise? Then I realized that most of my close friends were illustrators as well and I began to think about the power of many."
As Lin was brainstorming with friends and fellow artists Jarrett Krosoczka (Baghead), Anna Alter (Francine's Day) and Linda Wingerter (One Grain of Sand), a campaign called Robert's Snow: for Cancer's Cure took shape. The project provides children's book illustrators with wooden snowflake-shaped ornaments on which they create art. The ornaments will then be auctioned off to raise funds for the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston (where Robert is being treated).
The idea quickly took flight. "The response was tremendous," said Lin. "I had initially hoped for 75—100 participants. Within a month I had 150 and had to begin turning people away." The final list of approximately 200 artists includes Ian Falconer, Chris Van Allsburg, Jane Dyer, Lois Ehlert and Graeme Base. Nearly all the snowflakes are currently on exhibit at Child at Heart Gallery in Newburyport, Mass., until October 23. Then, Lin noted, "From there the collection will be split in half, with some going to the Eric Carle Museum in Amherst, Mass. [October 30—December 12] and some going to the Society of Illustrators in New York City [November 11—23; a November 11 exhibit opening features a raffle for original art from Robert's Snow]. We will also have a small show at Storyopolis in Los Angeles [December 2—12]."
The auction phase of Robert's Snow begins October 31 and runs through December 12. There will be four consecutive auctions. Lin explained, "We will be auctioning off 50 snowflakes every 10 days, for 40 days." The auctions are run in partnership with eBay; all the snowflakes can be seen on www.robertssnow.com, where visitors can bid on them.
It's only fitting that Lin and Mercer would find such strong support in the children's book illustrator community. In fact, it's the children's book world that brought them together in the first place. "I was working at Curious George Goes to Wordsworth [a children's bookstore in Cambridge]," recalled Lin. "And Robert walked in and said, 'I'm looking for a book by Linda Wingerter; she's a friend of mine.' I couldn't believe it. I said, 'Linda's a friend of mine, too.' " During further conversation, they learned that they had other mutual friends and that they had both attended Rhode Island School of Design. And the rest, as they say, is history.
Happily, Mercer is watching it all unfold. At present, Lin reported, "Robert is doing great. He has stopped chemo and is now on a new trial vaccine at Dana-Farber designed to keep the cancer in check."
Both Mercer and Lin continue to be amazed at the early ripple effect of the fund-raising venture. "People include notes with their snowflakes encouraging us and empathizing with our struggles. So many people have been affected by cancer. We want to make Robert's Snow an annual event, if possible."