The Sendak Fellowship

I originally wrote this piece for the March/April 2012 SCBWI Bulletin.

Among the very first books that I ever touched, were the five Little Bear books by Else Holmelund Minarik and illustrated by Maurice Sendak.  The bittersweet episode in which Little Bear thinks his mother has forgotten about his birthday was especially fascinating to me as a young child.  The story is touching and beautifully told, but what really got into my guts, and stayed there forever, are those perfect ink drawings.  The disappointment you could see on Little Bear’s expressions; the different personalities of Hen, Duck, and Cat; the melancholy of the humble birthday soup: all this is illuminated by Sendak’s pen in such a sensitive manner. The last time I took a good look at those drawings was years ago, but if I close my eyes I can still see them so clearly.

 

As an adolescent, I began imagining for myself a future as a visual storyteller of some kind.  Looking around for inspiration, I encountered Hieronymus Bosch, Alfred Kubin, Elzie Crisler Segar, George Herriman, Wilhelm Busch, and other artists in various fields. Since I didn’t go through any kind of formal education to speak of, these people and their work were fundamental in my artistic progress, for better or worse.  But when I sat down at my table to learn how to use that wonderful drafting tool that is the dip pen, I knew what to keep near at hand: Maurice Sendak’s drawings.
In Italy, where I was born and grew up, most of Sendak’s books were not nearly as popular as they were in the United States and elsewhere in the world.  Only when I moved to New York in the mid nineties did I fully understand the range and importance of his work.  I began collecting his books, which kept me company on my path to the profession.
One day in February of 2011, opening the mailbox to clear it up from the usual utility bills and advertisements, I found a curious item: a letter.  It was addressed to me, and bore the letterhead The Sendak Fellowship.  I opened it, expecting to read a request for a donation to a children’s literacy program or something of that nature.  Instead, the letter was an invitation to spend four weeks in Connecticut, in a house a few steps from Maurice Sendak’s, in the fall.  I would be given a studio where to work on my projects, if I felt like it.  In fact, there was no obligation to produce anything specific, or anything at all.  In addition to this, and to me most importantly, I would have a chance to meet Maurice Sendak.  Maurice Sendak!  I said yes, but I was scared.
The notion that Sendak actually knew my books enough to invite me to his place was unsettling.  I have always been afraid that one day I’ll hear a knock at the door and some stranger in a uniform, an Art Police officer, will notify me of my lack of qualifications and therefore my inadequacy to be in this business.  I will have to surrender my pen and nibs and my India ink, my watercolors and my paper.  Something like this might happen one day, and I was afraid the time had come.  Sendak himself was to notify me personally.
A few months before the fellowship began, I learned the names of the three other fellows who would be in Connecticut with me (four illustrators are invited each year): Denise Saldutti, Frann Preston-Gannon, and Ali Bahrampour. I was very familiar with Bahrampour’s picture book, Otto. The Story of a Mirror, a wonderful, truly original book.  I thought: if he is also being invited, maybe I don’t have to be too afraid.  After making that first book, he seemed to have disappeared from the children’s book world, so they couldn’t possibly want him out, as he already was out.  I began to think that the Sendak Fellowship must have been some kind of rehabilitation center for picture storytellers.  And for me, it was.
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Everything in my stay was delightful: the convivial atmosphere; the incredible kindness and efficiency of Dona McAdams and Lynn Caponera, who organize the program; my studio, with windows that looked into the woods, populated by birds, frogs, toads, turtles, chipmunks, deer, and very long and fat earthworms.  In that studio, I was able to draw and think freely, with no deadlines or pressure of any kind, just for the pleasure of it.
The main reason why I draw and tell stories is to be in that state of grace and intimate isolation you reach when you are completely immersed in your creation.  We all know it is often a delusive state, but still.  In that world that you are building, you want to be honest, you want to be true to yourself.  But when you make picture books for children, there are so many hurdles, taboos, things that you are not allowed to show or tell.  You get used to this notion; you come to accept it as a given; you censor yourself.  And you produce books that are not as good as they could be.  You forget why you are doing this.
Sendak reminded me that it doesn’t have to be that way.  He is a very warm, sweet and witty person, but also very honest.  He told me what he liked in my books and what he didn’t like. His main concern was that some of my choices were too safe and tame.  “You need to be brave,” he said to me. I tried to blame the publishers, and he did acknowledge that today’s industry, at least in the United States, is not as favorable and nurturing as it was forty or fifty years ago.  But that, he told me, should not be an excuse.  He is completely right, and I already knew that. But talking with him, while walking in the woods with his dog Herman, made me remember why I draw and tell stories.

Moon, Have You Met My Mother?

There was a thread on Twitter about Karla Kuskin recently. That made me feel a bit nostalgic. I consider myself very fortunate to have met her and chatted with her.

Here are a few pages from her big collection of poems. It was incredible to be picked as the illustrator.

 

 

Booklist: “Bear and Bee is wrapped in cuteness.”

Bear wakes up hungry from hibernation, and the only food source in sight is a beehive. When the bee on top of the hive offers up his honey, Bear says, “But what about the bee?” See, Bear doesn’t actually know what a bee is—it’s certainly not the creature he is talking to—and his preconceived notions about bees include that they’re “terrible monsters!” with “large teeth” and “sharp claws.” […] These two unlikely friends […] are charmers […]. This story about snap judgments is wrapped in cuteness, making it just right for the pre-school set. Ann Kelle

How bees look in Bear’s morbid imagination.

Bear and Bee

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Bear and Bee. published by Hyperion in 2013.

“I Bee-lieve Sergio Ruzzier is a big Bear of a talent.”   – Maurice Sendak

Ruzzier has a solid sense of comic timing and proffers his lesson on the folly of prejudice with an admirably light touch.” – Publishers Weekly

Ruzzier’s pacing is impeccable. The illustrations are simple and uncluttered, keeping the focus on the two expressive friends and making this a great choice for sharing with groups. The correction of misconceptions has never been so much fun.-Kirkus Reviews

Photo by Brian Floca

Sergio Ruzzier is a picture book author and illustrator.

He was born in Milan, Italy, in 1966, and began his career as an illustrator in 1986.

Sergio has written and illustrated many picture books, including Fox and Chick: The Party, a 2019 Geisel Honor Book; Two Mice; and more. He was a recipient of the 2011 Sendak Fellowship. His work has won many awards, including the Parents’ Choice Gold Medal for The Room of Wonders and This Is Not a Picture Book!.

After many years in Brooklyn, NY, he now lives in a very old house in the Apennine Mountains in northern Italy.

Sergio is represented by Jennifer Laughran of Andrea Brown Literary Agency. You can follow her blog and her tweets.

Have You Seen My New Blue Socks?

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Four starred reviews!

Have You Seen My New Blue Socks?

“A great addition to the literature on ducks. . . or socks!”
Kirkus, starred review

“Bunting and Ruzzier create a lightly surreal and emotionally benevloent landscape. . . . The book’s gentle takeaway [is] reinforced by Ruzzier’s signature offbeat aesthetic . . . and Bunting’s solid, conversational rhymes.”
Publishers Weekly, starred review

“Such angst over a pair of socks has never been conveyed so well. . . . A perfect book for the newest reader, especially one with a grand sense of humor.”
Horn Book, starred review

“This is a whimsical delight for children whose parents clamor for phonics-based books.”
School Library Journal, starred review

 

Tweak Tweak

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Tweak Tweak, published by Clarion Books in 2011.

“Young children will enjoy following Little Elephant’s fantasies….Along with the imaginative silliness, the nurturing parent-child tenderness is the core of the story.” – Booklist

“The pairing of Bunting’s traditional text, powered by an elegant repeating structure, with Ruzzier’s offbeat art is unexpectedly fabulous.” – Horn Book Magazine, starred review

Amandina

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Amandina published in 2008 by Neal Porter Books/Roaring Brook Press.

Publishers Weekly

“Ruzzier creates a haunting intimacy with his watercolors of a centuries-old Italian town (the theater is a tiny Umbrian jewel) and its strangely human-eyed animal citizens, as well as his unvarnished language (“Nobody had come. Sometimes these things happen, and nobody can say why”). Showing a magical insight into the imagination of small children, he allows Amandina an intense sweep of feeling before granting her no less—but no more—than her wish. The mood he casts will resonate, particularly with introspective readers.”

 

School Library Journal FUSE #8 Blog

“There is a very specific feeling you get from a picture book when the combination of text and image is pitch perfect. It’s a very hard thing to get, mind you. You might have a book where the words are lovely and the pictures exciting, but if the two don’t work in tandem then your end product is going to end up a merely okay bit of indistinguishable dribble. A hint of what might have been will hover over the reading experience. I mention this because I’m trying to find a way to explain why Amandina by Sergio Ruzzier is as delicately miraculous as it is. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that it’s a Neal Porter book and Mr. Porter is known for helping to bring perfect little books into the world (see: Dog and Bear). Maybe it has to do with author/illustrator Sergio Ruzzier, whose previous books and collaborations have played effectively with tone and story. Maybe it’s the thickness of the paper or the shade of the watercolors. Maybe it’s everything altogether or maybe it’s none of this at all. Whatever the case, if you are looking for a story that is sweet but not saccharine and carries a lovely little message without beating you over the head with a didacticism stick, this is the book for you. A book designed to be the perfect gift for any 4-8 year old child.”

 

School Library Journal

“The artwork combines delicate lines and faded colors to create a fanciful stage for this likable character.”

 

Kirkus Reviews

“Quiet, precise, whimsical watercolor illustrations in subdued pastels enhance the surreal ambiance of Amandina’s solitary exploits. A subdued but charming tribute to determination and perseverance.”

 

Love You When You Whine

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Love You When You Whine written by Emily Jenkins. Frances Foster Books/FSG, 2006

Jenkins (That New Animal ) extols the limitless love of parents in her accounting of the numerous patience-stretching antics of young children, which may appeal more to the caregiver than the child. “Love you when you pour cereal on the floor.And when you ask for every toy in the whole store,/ one after the other.” This observant tally of misdeeds ranges from small annoyances, such as interrupting, to larger misdemeanors like putting crayons in the dryer or spreading jam on the computer. The same mother and child-two white, upright cats with wide, deep-set blue eyes and outsize ears-feature in illustrations that Ruzzier (The Room of Wonders ) fans will quickly recognize. His earthtone colors and spare backdrops fill small, uneven portholes, surrounded by white space. What the slightly offbeat paintings lack in the warm and fuzzy department is made up for in the book’s reassuring message and wry humor (e.g., one spread reads, “Love you when you paint the walls…”-a turn of the page reveals, “and the dog”). The quirky art and missing first-person pronoun confer a subtly avant-garde quality, while the tone evokes a parent heaving an exhausted sigh. But the mother’s love never wavers and culminates with a big hug and comforting tuck-in scene. “Love you, always. Yes, I do.” Youngsters will smile at both the kitten’s tolerance-testing tricks and also the knowledge that a parent’s devotion will withstand a bit of a whine and other transgressions. –Publishers Weekly