Sheila Markham

in conversation

The Interviews

Chris Loker

Chris Loker

Picture books are a jewel in the crown of children’s literature, telling their story through the intersection of words, pictures and the pacing of the page. I believe a fine picture book is literature, art and theatre rolled into one for the children and adults who journey inside its covers. I also believe that unforgettable characters and images that stir the imagination are the forces that drive children’s picture books. I was a small girl when their power first became apparent to me. I often picked out Dr. Seuss’s immortal The Cat in the Hat from my book basket and asked my mother to read it to me. We would snuggle up together on a couch, and I would savour the pictures as my mother read the wonderful words. It was not long before I had heard the story so many times that I could recite it from memory. The Cat in the Hat stayed with me through primary and secondary school, and then off to college where I read it to kindergarteners as part of my English and Art History majors at Stanford University. I never guessed that many years later I would become the proprietor of a bookshop in San Francisco specialising in children’s books.

I was born and raised in Los Angeles, moving to Palo Alto in northern California to attend university. During the years I was a student at Stanford, I would often go with my girlfriends on shopping trips to San Francisco. While they were looking for shoes, I would usually break away to visit John Howell-Books, an antiquarian bookshop in Post Street. I liked to buy books that were meaningful to me, in particular the works of Wallace Stevens and T.S. Eliot, with whom I became enamoured at university, and now have a decent collection. Howell’s was the major bookshop in San Francisco then, and was always well populated by buyers and those who were simply looking. John Howell’s son, Warren, was in charge at the time, and I found him a bit intimidating. I would spend two quiet hours amongst the bookshelves hoping not to be noticed. Little did I know that my future husband, John Windle, was one of the young booksellers working on the mezzanine floor of the shop.

After I graduated from university in 1972, I returned to Los Angeles and worked for four years as a paralegal. As I preferred the business side of my law work, I decided to return to Stanford and attend the Graduate School of Business. In 1978, after business school, I married my first husband, Jeff Loker, and began my career in marketing in the corporate world. After the first two years of working very long hours, Jeff let me know that I needed to choose between being married to him or to my job. I hadn’t realised that I was doing such a poor job of trying to do both. I chose to stay married, and was able to move over to human resources, which was more of a ‘spoke’ job than being at the centre of the wheel in product management. As it turned out, human resources was exactly where I was meant to be to do meaningful, compassionate work every day. By the time I retired from that work, I was Senior Vice President of Human Resources at Charles Schwab in San Francisco.

Jeff’s untimely death in 1999 made me focus on a life beyond the corporate world for my teenage son, Evan, and myself. Jeff had worked from home as an entrepreneur, and so there was always a parent present for Evan when I was travelling. It soon became clear that I couldn’t continue to work for Charles Schwab and be there for my son, and so I resigned. That is how I came to be an unemployed, bereaved woman in shell shock when I wandered into 49 Geary Street, San Francisco, and encountered some of the five booksellers who worked there.

The rare book world is a magnificent place, filled with rugged individualists who walk to the beat of their own drum. They are entrepreneurs in ways that I will always admire. However, some of them don’t always represent the trade at its customer-service best. All but one of the booksellers I visited that day at 49 Geary Street were either rude or exceptionally rude to me. Just as I was about to leave the building with steam coming out of my ears in frustration, I noticed a door that hadn’t been open when I arrived. A handsome, well-dressed man was sitting behind a computer. While l hovered at the door, reluctant to expose myself to more rudeness, he invited me to come in. I enquired about two books that I was looking for, and he offered to find copies, although neither was in his field nor of any commercial value. It was John Windle, and he was as good as his word, ultimately locating both volumes for me.

A few months later, at the time for the San Francisco bookfair, John contacted me to ask if I would help look after his booth at the fair, as his assistant had recently quit. Although I was an utter novice at bookselling, I was familiar with the fair, which I had visited during my student days. Everything worked out well and John asked if I would like to be his assistant. I wasn’t entirely useless in the early days as I had chosen renaissance illuminated manuscripts as the focus of my art historical studies at Stanford. John specialises, among other things, in illuminated and text manuscripts, and so there were ways I could help while I learnt the book business. We married several years later, and I happily continued to work with him at the bookshop.

John and I realised that I needed to develop subject matter expertise of my own. I missed the sense of mastery that I had enjoyed in my previous career – that feeling of being in command of a subject that comes from spending many years in the same occupation. You could say that The Cat in the Hat came to the rescue at this point, helping to carry me over the bridge into my new career in children’s books, a focus we added to John Windle Antiquarian Books.  Shortly after starting my small business, I went to the San Francisco bookfair, where Marc Selvaggio had a copy of The History of Little Fanny and The History and Adventures of Little Henry, both in outstanding condition. First published in London by S. and J. Fuller in 1810, the books tell stories of Fanny and Henry, who are represented by paper dolls, supplied with cut-out costumes. The cost of these books was beyond what I had earned in profit from my bookselling, but John and I had a strong feeling that they were right for my new business; so strong that John said, ‘If you don’t buy those books, I will’. And so I bought them, luckily with good results. In due course a premises across the hall from John’s shop became available. The lease was very inexpensive, as it was a tiny, strangely-shaped space, and we decided to take it on to house my growing business.

That was the beginning of my newly named enterprise, Children’s Book Gallery. My aim has always been to present books from 1650 to 1950 that represent the best of the marketplace in rarity and condition, with an emphasis on volumes of charm, character and colour.  It’s simply a fact of collecting children’s books that condition is always going to be a challenge, certainly for material before 1850. When you do come upon a book in decent condition, it's a great thrill and also a significant factor in the pricing equation. One of the things I’ve always enjoyed is the surprising connections between my corporate and my bookselling careers. For example, when I worked as a product manager for Levi Strauss & Co., I made woven shirts for little boys. Although I was ultimately responsible for the profit margin, what I loved most was working with colour, shape and texture to create something joyful, just as I enjoy those same visually creative aspects of bookselling today.

In 2010 I had the tremendous honour as a Grolier Club member to be asked to curate One Hundred Books Famous in Children’s Literature, an exhibition sponsored by and mounted at that club from December 2014 to February 2015.  The exhibition was the sixth in the Grolier Hundred series, and the first to highlight children’s books. The material on display included items lent by twenty-two institutional and private lenders throughout America and Canada. I enjoyed the strategic planning, as well as working with an advisory team, during the five years that I spent researching, curating and leading the creation of the exhibition catalogue.

While I was doing so, the term ‘kiddie lit’ was bandied about by those who viewed children’s literature as a low form of bibliophily. I believe that we have come a long way in recent years in developing an appreciation for the subject. Children’s literature authority Justin Schiller traces this development in his contribution to the Grolier Hundred catalogue in an essay entitled ‘Bibliophiles in the Nursery: The Gradual Legitimacy of Collecting Rare Children’s Books’. According to Professor Thomas Wartenberg, the author of A Sneetch is a Sneetch and other Philosophical Discoveries: Finding Wisdom in Children’s Literature, many of the best picture books are serious texts in the guise of simple stories. They ask you to think more deeply than you probably have about genuine philosophical issues.

Similarily, there’s more to J.K.Rowling’s Harry Potter novels than simply a wonderful story about wizards. Written for children, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was immediately adopted by readers of all ages. It was the first of Rowling’s fantasy stories, and is the last item in the Grolier Hundred catalogue. Harry Potter is now the subject of academic studies, and the word ‘Muggle’ has entered the Oxford English Dictionary as ‘a person who possesses no magical powers’.

In the years since the Grolier Hundred exhibition, and for over three decades before that, I’ve been active in the hospice movement, working with people of all ages. When I tried to find a picture book that would help me to talk about bereavement with children, it wasn’t easy. This encouraged me to write my own approach to this subject, In Awhile, Crocodile, the first of my five children’s picture books. It tells the story of Alexander the Alligator’s unexpected journey from his home in the Florida Everglades to a pond in Central Africa. He has lost all his family and friends, but gradually overcomes his sadness through various adventures in his new life. This book, along with the other picture books I’ve written, marked the start of my current business of writing children’s books and books about children’s literature; the business is called Children’s BookWorks. Today I spend my time writing heavily researched books about children’s literature, and look forward to many more years of that endeavour, all the while hoping to balance book creation with helping John with the book selling, and spending time with our son, daughter-in-law, and our two young grandsons.

The books that have changed my life are picture books that present colour-saturated, enticing worlds to explore, such as The Velveteen Rabbit, The Story of Babar, and Goodnight Moon. Older children’s books have also influenced my life. The didactic aspect of children’s literature has a long history, often dated from Johann Comenius’s Orbis Sensualium Pictus, considered a ground breaking book in the mid-seventeenth-century for its early integration of pictures and words for young readers and seen by some as a precursor of the picture book.

Many people believe that the illustrations drive the words in a picture book, while others think that they serve to amplify the words.  I believe that whatever speaks most to your heart will influence your experience of a picture book. In the best examples, words and images depend upon each other, and are almost incomprehensible if treated separately. According to the noted authority Brian Alderson, a picture book brings together narrative or factual ideas that are collaboratively explained or enhanced by illustration.

Some of the most successful picture books add texture to their palette of colour and shape, such as Eric Carle’s The Very Hungry Caterpillar, which has sold over 40 million copies since it was first published in 1969. The artwork is constructed primarily of colourful tissue papers, texturised by hand-painting, then clean-cut or jagged-torn to evoke the segments and movements of the caterpillar. Interviewed by The Guardian when The Very Hungry Caterpillar Show came to the West End stage in 2016, Carle explained the popularity of his creation, ‘Children can identify with the helpless, small, insignificant caterpillar, and they rejoice when it turns into a beautiful butterfly. I think it’s a message of hope. It says: I too can grow up. I too can unfold my wings (my talent) and fly into the world’.

It’s a universal experience for children to wonder what their role will be in the adult world. Maurice Sendak’s picture books excel at preparing children for life’s challenges. Where the Wild Things Are is one of the most famous children’s books of the twentieth century. Sendak had to dig deep into his own childhood and feelings of vulnerability for the story and pictures of his classic fantasy story. Sendak originally intended to call it Where the Wild Horses Are, until he discovered that he couldn’t draw horses. The inspiration for the wild things eventually came, humorously, from King Kong and childhood recollections of his eccentric uncles and aunts.

Children’s books are a good barometer of the social mores of the time.  In recent decades, individuals who belong to groups within society whose voices have not been adequately heard, have objected to the embedded racism, cultural appropriation and violence that they have identified in some of the best-known children’s books.  Theodor Seuss Geisel (Dr. Seuss) has been a particular target, and The Cat in the Hat is no longer on the approved list of reading material for third graders in American schools.

This situation was particularly evident when the curators of an exhibition of children’s books, from the Kerlan Collection at the University of Minnesota, provided new wall labels for some of the books in the show. Entitled The ABC of It: Why Children’s Books Matter’, the exhibition had first been mounted in 2013 at the New York Public Library, where it attracted half a million visitors. It offered visitors a beautiful visual display, and milestone book selections, receiving accolades beyond description. Five years after the exhibition in New York, the same exhibition opened in Minneapolis with books drawn from the Kerlan Collection. The reception could not have been more different, with certain books attacked by those who felt that current cultural sensitivities hadn’t been properly recognised. Kerlan curtorial staff responded by adding context for books that were considered to be problematic. Dr. Seuss’s books were given a label entitled ‘Things to Think About’, in which it was noted that Geisel had published racist and xenophobic cartoons, and that his cat’s appearance mirrors minstrel stereotypes. Many of today’s ‘isms’ (racism, sexism, white saviorism) might indeed be applied to Dr. Seuss, and it’s important to acknowledge that cultural norms have clearly and necessarily changed over time. I also believe we can both admire, and at the same time the recognise the shortcomings, of historic bestselling children’s books.

There is always a shimmer of joy in a fine picture book. I’ve chosen that sensation as the inspiration for A Shimmer of Joy: One Hundred Children’s Picture Books in America, the title of my forthcoming heavily researched companion volume to the Grolier Hundred catalogue.  A Shimmer of Joy will be published by the Book Club of California in San Francisco, with a deluxe edition that includes a signed piece of original collage art by Eric Carle. There will also be a trade edition published by David R.Godine in Boston. Shimmer will include, among many items, essays on the past, present and fast-changing future of children’s picture books.

In the past it was customary for a publisher to select the illustrator for a house picture book. Nowadays, the ease of self-publishing has given authors the freedom to select their own illustrators. This is exactly why I choose to self-publish my children’s books. The partnership between author and artist is not only a joy, but also highly interactive and creative. Anyone who has read to a child will have experienced the drama of turning the page. If you’re working closely with your illustrator, it’s possible to arrange the words and pictures to achieve the best pacing for the story, and for the child. Today, whether I’m writing or curating, buying or selling, my aim is always to show that children’s literature truly does stand tall on the shelf with literature for adults.

Interviewed for The Book Collector Autumn 2019

  

 

 

 

Chris Loker

 

A Poland & Steery Co-production