Monday, January 24, 2011

Beyond the Book: Dave the Potter by Laban Carrick Hill, illustrated by Bryan Collier

Beyond the Book:
Dave the Potter: Artist, Poet, Slave by Laban Carrick Hill, illustrated by Bryan Collier
To us
it is just dirt,
the ground we walk on...
But to Dave
it was clay,
the plain and basic stuff
upon which he formed a life
as a slave nearly 200 years ago.

Dave was an extraordinary artist, poet, and potter living in South Carolina in the 1800s. He combined his superb artistry with deeply observant poetry, carved onto his pots, transcending the limitations he faced as a slave. In this inspiring and lyrical portrayal, National Book Award nominee Laban Carrick Hill's elegantly simple text and award-winning artist Bryan Collier's resplendent, earth-toned illustrations tell Dave's story, a story rich in history, hope, and long-lasting beauty.

I'm way behind in writing my "Beyond the Book" posts--I have two Fall 2010 picture book I haven't yet written about, and two winter novels waiting in the queue. So, I'd better get cracking.

Dave the Potter, as you probably know by now, just won the Caldecott Honor and the Coretta Scott King Award for Illustration. What you probably don't know is that this book has had a long road to publication. Now, the beginning of this publication story is not my own, so I apologize in advance if I recount any of the details incorrectly. But to the best of my knowledge, here you go.

The author, Laban Carrick Hill, first came to the Little, Brown list with the nonfiction book and National Book Award finalist, Harlem Stomp, which Megan Tingley had acquired in the early 2000s (back when I was still assisting her). When editor Jennifer Hunt joined Little, Brown in 2002, Megan passed the book to her to handle, and Jen finished up the editing, and also acquired and edited Laban's follow-up America Dreaming. Sometime during all of this, Laban told Jen about a slave named Dave who not only made amazing pots, but also wrote poetry. He had first heard about Dave the Potter at a conference on the Middle Passage, and then later saw one of Dave's pots end up on the TV Show "Antiques Roadshow," and his curiosity was piqued.

There wasn't too much known about Dave at the time, but Laban was inspired by what he was able to find. He wrote a poem that honored the spirit of Dave's life. He and Jen went back and forth to refine the text and shape the story.

Apparently our acquisitions committee didn't see the vision at first, because it took two tries before we were able to sign up the text.

I'm not positive on the timing, but I believe it was a good five years later that Jen asked me if I would be open to handling the book going forward. They had approached several illustrators who, for various reasons, were not able to sign on, and Jen, who was now Editorial Director in charge of fiction, wasn't editing many picture books any more and didn't feel she was able to give the project the attention it needed.

I was intrigued, but hadn't read the text before, so I read it before accepting, of course--although, truth be told, even if I didn't like the text, I would have said yes. (Part of your job as an editor is to take on whatever is assigned to you, even after you've risen beyond the assistant/associate editor level.) But thankfully, I found it beautiful, profound, and deceptively simple. I was excited to work on the book.

My first task was to find an illustrator, and as I read the text, I knew it would be perfect for Bryan Collier, an artist I had long admired. I ran the idea by Laban, who told me that Bryan had also been his first choice, but when Jen had initially inquired about his schedule, he had been too booked up to consider new projects. Well, as so much time had passed, I thought it would be worth asking again. After getting the go ahead in-house, I called up Bryan's agent, Marcia Wernick, who said that Bryan was open to start a new project in less than a year, so I sent along the ms. She called a few days later to say that Bryan was really interested in the project, but wondered if there was any back matter material to read. I sent along the rough author's note that Laban had written. A few days later she called again and said that Bryan wanted to know if the author's note was final. I said no, that it was unedited. Bryan didn't want to sign on until it was farther along. Laban was extremely impressed at Bryan's thoughtfulness before committing, and was happy to work on revising. I also talked to Jen about the direction she wanted it to take. We decided to focus on Dave's achievements as an artist and poet, and how he would still be considered an accomplished artist in his own right, that his art transcended his circumstances.

After a few rounds of revision, Bryan officially signed on officially. Hurrah!

Six months later, Marcia called me to say that Bryan was ready to start working on Dave the Potter. I hadn't been expecting him to start for another six months, so I was surprised, but thrilled. We invited Bryan to come in for lunch to meet the team.

As soon as I met Bryan, I was charmed. I had met him once in passing at a conference, but didn't know him beyond that. But he was warm, friendly, and passionate. And he gave the best hugs! I knew it was going to be wonderful working with him.

Bryan told us that he was planning on taking a trip down to South Carolina where Dave had lived. He had read a book, Carolina Clay: The Life and Legend of Slave Potter Dave by Leonard Todd (incidentally, this book had not been published when Laban had originally written the text). Bryan went down to Edgefield, SC, and met a potter who owned some of Dave's original pots. Bryan took photos, watched several pots being thrown, and toured the town. I loved that Bryan threw himself into the book, and that the research he did complemented the research Laban had done five years earlier.

Speaking of Laban's research, as so much more was now known about Dave and his life than when Laban had first written the text, we had to go back and make a few adjustments. We added to the extensive back matter that talked about Dave's life, and we also added both an author's note and illustrator's note where they both talked about their inspiration and research.

The final book is a real testament to the hard work and passion of its creators. They met for the first time at ALA Annual last year:
As I mentioned in my ALA wrap-up at the time, we had a breakfast in honor of Dave the Potter and had several of Bryan's original pieces on display:

This is one of my favorites, and was in the running to be the cover image:
This is a close-up (bad quality, sorry) of one of the paintings. If you look closely, you can read the hidden message...
It's really some of Bryan's best work. I'm so pleased he and this book was recognized for it.

To be sure, a picture book about a slave potter is probably not the most commercial of subjects for a picture book, and is perhaps not for very young children, but I think kids interested in pottery and poetry will be drawn to this book, and as the NY Times stated, this book can work as "a gentle way for adults to introduce slavery to young children."

Read this entire review in the NY Times.
And read this great interview with Laban in School Library Journal 
To see photographs of Dave's pots and to read his poems, visit Leonard Todd's website.


yamster said...

Great job with this project, Alvina. Congrats on the multiple honors!

Libby Koponen said...

That's really interesting-- especially how much research they did and how into it they got. THanks for posting!

Elisa said...

These posts are so informative and enjoyable to read-thanks for sharing!