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Ed Emberley, an 85-year-old Ipswich-based illustrator, has made more than 100 eye-popping books for children over the past half century.
Maybe you’ve read "Drummer Hoff," which won the genre’s highest honor — the Caldecott Award — in 1968. Or one of the dozens of titles that followed, including "Ed Emberley’s ABC," "The Big Dipper," "One Wide River to Cross," "Ed Emberley's Big Green Drawing Book," his "Big Orange Drawing Book," "Big Purple Drawing Book" and the "Drawing Book of Faces."
The list goes on.
Now Emberley’s vast body of work that's captivated generations is being celebrated in a new retrospective at the Worcester Art Museum. I met with Emberley and the local street artist who helped make the show happen, Caleb Neelon.
About two dozen Emberley books cover a coffee table in Neelon’s Cambridge home. His 4-year-old daughter, Aziza, grabs hold of a palm-sized flip book from an Emberley set titled, “Six Science Adventures.” Then she uses her nimble digits to animate vibrant, still images of a chameleon in hot pursuit of an insect.
She excitedly proclaims “zap!” then sweetly implores, “Watch daddy, it's going to get the bug, I think.” Neelon chuckles at Aziza's fascination. Fact is, he can relate.
Making A Retrospective Of Emberley's Art
Neelon is guest curating the Worcester Art Museum's exhibition about Emberley. Neelon says the iconic children's book artist inspired him to create when he was a kid.
You might think some of Emberley's books were made by different artists. The prolific illustrator employed so many varied styles, Neelon explains, pointing to pages featuring everything from hand-carved woodcut prints to intricately executed ink on paper.
“There are definitely a lot of artists for children that you know, lather, rinse, repeat for 50 years if it works,” Neelon says. “And more power to 'em. But I find Ed so much more interesting because he was so restless. You know, he'd do a woodcut book one time, and then he'd do something else. He didn't stay put.”
It was Emberley’s "Big Green Drawing Book" that first captivated Neelon when he was 6 or 7 years old. The drawing book series contained an “alphabet” of simple shapes that kids could use to make their own pictures.
“Being able to have that little alphabet of different shapes that you could combine to create so much different stuff really just changed everything,” Neelon remembers. Then he lists off the tools that empowered him to draw. “Triangle, letter 'D,' letter 'U,' squiggle, dot, line, circle. That, drawing-wise, is an alphabet that’s unlimited.”
Emberley’s playful series of drawing books are filled with step-by-step guides for building cute objects and creatures with those shapes. Their pages explode with birds, gorillas, werewolves, dragons and sheep. Kids are encouraged not to copy, but to make them unique.
Neelon fashioned his own little blue fuzzy guy after seeing one like it in Emberley’s "Big Purple Drawing Book." Today, you can see that big-eyed character in Neelon's murals around the world and locally in Boston, Cambridge and Worcester.
Diving Into An Art Hero's Studio
The 40-year-old street artist and writer is thrilled to be working on an exhibition about Emberley.
“Having the license to go through one of your art heroes' studios — and being able to pull things out and dig around and find neat stuff that was hidden — I mean, that’s a thrill,” Neelon says.
The energetic artist has been climbing the stairs to the same second-floor home studio in Ipswich for decades. On a tour, Emberley tells me about the techniques he used to conjure an army of adorable, sometimes creepy characters. He recalls how he, his wife, Barbara, and their two kids used to sit around the big table up here designing books together. The studio brims with their creations.
Emberley has been happy to let Neelon rifle through and organize his stuff over the past few years, first for a book highlighting Emberley's work and then also for the family's archive. Emberley jokes that the curator knows more about his work than he does.
“I think of myself as being a lazy, vague, scattered-brained hoo-ha who has by luck made a living drawing pictures of funny things,” he says.
Drawing What He Wants, When He Wants
Emberley was born in Malden in 1931 and grew up in Cambridge’s Central Square. After time in the Army and attending the Massachusetts College of Art and Design, he got a job at an advertising firm as a paste-up artist.
"I think of myself as being a lazy, vague, scattered-brained hoo-ha who has by luck made a living drawing pictures of funny things."Ed Emberley
In 1960, Emberley made his first children’s book, "The Wing on a Flea: A Book About Shapes." An array of stylistically diverse books followed, both fiction and non-fiction. Emberley says the range enabled him to submit freelance work to different publishers. But constantly changing gears also prevented him from doing the same thing over and over like other artists of the time such as Charles Schulz and Al Capp.
“They worked that technique until the day they die,” Emberley tells me, “I love Li'l Abner, but if I had to draw Li'l Abner 8,000 times, I don’t think I could do it. So, I'm very self-indulgent, I decided I’d draw what I want to draw when I want to draw it — but you have to take the licks with it.”
Ten percent of Emberley’s books have been bestsellers, he says, adding, for him, publishing has been a crap shoot.
“The drawing books — which sold how many million? Four million? Something. A lot. That was done as a lark,” the artist recalls. Emberley honestly never expected them to sell.
Children's book author and expert Anita Silvey has a few theories about why Emberley's drawing books swept the nation.
“I think it was the fact that he was teaching children something they really wanted to learn how to do,” Silvey says.
Silvey started working in the children's book department at Little, Brown and Company in the '70s. The company had just published Emberley's widely popular "Drawing Book of Animals."
"He knew how to subtract rather than add. It really goes down to that E.B. White motto, ‘Simplify! Simplify! Simplify!' He was always able to cut away and cut back to look at the basic thing,” she says.
Silvey says Emberley respects his young audience’s intelligence and potential. Emberley says that's always been his goal.
“The most important thing about the drawing books is not that they made Ed Emberley look like a great guy and a great artist, it’s that children succeed, that it’s an experience that bolsters the habit of success," he says. "Let them draw two things, then get out of the way.”
A 'Unique Rapport' With Kids
Emberley is still making books for children, these days with his daughter Rebecca. His son Michael is also an illustrator. Emberley says he's in the habit of never looking back, and chooses instead to focus on upcoming projects.
“I take it with a grain of salt,” he says, laughing, about the museum retrospective featuring his life's work. “You know, I’m not Michelangelo or Picasso. I’m just a kid from Cambridge who draws funny looking pictures.”
And Emberley's books are still popular with the elementary school set, according to Julie Roach, the youth services manager at the Cambridge Public Library.
“They're bright and they have these great big shapes and they're funny,” Roach says. “And there's a lot to notice in them. They're books that, if you read them at story time, the kids often want to take them home after.”
Roach turns to "Go Away Big Green Monster!" as an example.
"It's this really empowering book for kids about conquering fear where they get to shout at this monster to go away," Roach says. "Then different parts of him go away as you turn the pages,” she says. "[Emberley] has a really unique rapport with his young audience."
Roach herself learned to draw from Emberley's books, she admits with a laugh. "They're hot sellers in our art book collections in the libraries."
Back in their Cambridge home, curator Neelon and his daughter, Aziza, sit on the couch pondering the funny looking pictures in Emberley's "Paul Bunyan."
“What’s funny about baby Paul?” Neelon asks Aziza. “What does he have that most babies don’t have?”
“A beard,” Aziza replies with a smile, clearly getting a kick out of Emberley's silly but stunning interpretation of the giant lumberjack. Neelon calls it a “20-minute guitar solo” of woodblock art.
The life-size print and original chunk of wood Emberley carved to make "Paul Bunyan" is on view in Worcester, along with print outs of Emberley's shape alphabet that kids (and grownups) who might be intimidated by drawing can try out for themselves.
"KAHBAHBLOOOM: The Art and Storytelling of Ed Emberley" is at the Worcester Art Museum through April 9. You can download Emberley's drawing book “alphabet” here.
Correction: Children's book author Anita Silvey's name was misspelled in an earlier version of this post. We regret the error.
This segment aired on November 28, 2016.