In 1967, Ed Emberley was one of the runners up for children’s publishing highest honor, the Caldecott Medal, for “One Wide River to Cross,” his rendition of the story of Noah’s Ark. Then the following year, he won the medal for “Drummer Hoff"—a rhyme about elaborate preparations for firing a canon—lavishly illustrated with folksy woodcuts, just as he had the Noah story, but this time in full color.
Since the Ipswich, Massachusetts, artist had published his first children’s picture book in 1961, he’d been producing at a furious pace. “Drummer Hoff” was just one of at least three books he illustrated that appeared in 1967. Fortified by the awards, he thought he’d take his time on his next book—he’d make no compromises, he’d redraw and redraw until it was perfect.
“But suddenly two years went by and I wasn’t finished yet,” Emberley recalls. “My editor said, ‘You know, you haven’t published anything. You’ve won a Caldecott Medal. Usually that means, ‘We like your work. We’d like you to do more.’ … I said, ‘I’ve got this little book that I can turn out in two weeks. A novelty that might last a year or so.’”
The idea was for a basic how-to-draw book, something he could finish lickety-split. He figured the folks who give out awards would probably ignore it, but “I think it will be fun for kids to do.”
“Ed Emberley’s Drawing Book of Animals” appeared in 1970, and was immediately praised by The New York Times. It would be the first in a long line of Emberley drawing books that have gone on to sell more than a million copies, according to “Ed Emberley” (Ammo Books), the new art tome by star designer Todd Oldham and artist and art historian Caleb Neelon that offers a monumental, lushly illustrated retrospective of the first half of Emberley’s career. And now the Worcester Art Museum in Massachusetts is mulling putting on an Emberley retrospective exhibition in 2016.
Unlike most well-known children’s book authors and illustrators, Emberley is not much identified with particular characters or stories—except for “Drummer Hoff” and his 1992 hit, “Go Away, Big Green Monster.” What he’s known for is teaching us how to draw.
“It was his book that got in front of me. That was very transformative in terms of one being a young artist,” says Neelon, who is based in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Neelon didn’t have a gift for representational drawing growing up. “But Ed’s books gave me a way through that. … His legacy to me is always being 8-year-old and having my mind blown by these books.”
“I came from a family that had no books,” Emberley recalls. “I did ‘read’ comic books. That’s all I ever saw, till I was in high school. The first page of text I read was ‘The Wizard of Oz.’”
Emberley was born Oct. 19, 1931, and grew up in Depression-era Cambridge, the oldest of a family of three boys. His parents had come from Newfoundland. His father was a carpenter and house painter; his mom worked for a time in a drug store. Beginning in 1950, Emberley studied at Massachusetts School of Art (now Massachusetts College of Art and Design) in Boston and then Rhode Island School of Design in Providence—with a two-year stint in between digging ditches and painting signs in New Jersey and New York State as a member of the U.S. Army just as the Korean War was coming to a close.
Emberley spent a few years in the late 1950s in graphic design, working as a freelance cartoonist and paste-up artist at American Mail Advertising in Boston, before he set up his own shop on Boston’s Boylston Street with three other designers in 1961. There he created his first children’s book, “The Wing on a Flea.” The New York Times named it one of the 10 “Best Illustrated Books of the Year.”
The recognition, he believes, gave him a cushion with his publishers, getting them to trust that he was headed in the right direction.
Ed and his wife Barbara, whom he’d met at Massachusetts School of Art, bought a three-century-old house overlooking the river in Ipswich in 1962, where they moved with their daughter Rebecca and son Michael (both of whom now make kids books, too), and turned various rooms into art studios.
Often with writing and drawing assistance from Barbara (and later his two kids, too), Emberley illustrated books about “Colonial Life in America,” parades, bird feeding habits, Paul Bunyan, Columbus Day, Flag Day, the puppets Punch and Judy, Yankee Doodle (including a cannon blast scene that is a precursor to “Drummer Hoff”), and life at the bottom of the sea.
Emberley’s style ranged from “cartoon modern” fine-line drawings and floating blocks of color to rough-hewn woodcuts. His style paralleled the times. Sleek, spare, atomic age midcentury modern design was cresting, and traditional handcraft was one of the alternatives returning into vogue in the 1960s.
“He switches styles all the time because he’s restless. He wants to learn new things,” Neelon says.
But there was also an economic calculus. “In those days, publishers wanted to give you just one book a year,” Emberley says. Which he figured wouldn’t be enough income to survive on. So he developed multiple styles and successfully lined up additional work.
“Drummer Hoff” also reflected the times. “It was very blatantly anti-war,” Emberley says. He says he didn’t march in protests against the Vietnam War, which was then at its peak in the late 1960s. “Like everybody that age, I wasn’t particularly in favor of those two wars”—Korea and Vietnam—“that went on. I could see I was just cannon fodder.”
In “Drummer Hoff,” Emberley points to Sergeant Chowder, who “brought the powder” for the cannon. “The guy’s got one leg. How did that happen? ... But it’s both sides of the story. You sympathize with the way people are fooled to be patriotic and, you know, go to war and get all dressed up in fancy uniforms.”
The second to last page of “Drummer Hoff” depicts the massive red “Kahbahblooom” of the cannon. Turn to the final page and you see the weapon, years later, overgrown with flowers.
“The last page is Mother Nature takes over,” Emberley says. The armies are long gone. “The stuff is lying around and the birds have returned and nested in what is left of the cannon. … I wasn’t preaching. I don’t think I’m qualified to preach. I don’t know that I’m right.”
Emberley next got to work on something to top that book. It would be called, “Suppose You Met a Witch.” He recalls, “It was a perfect one, a really terrific text. And I will go to England, and I will not make one compromise as far as this book is concerned, I will make as any overlays, I will redraw. … I will do everything that is needed.”
When it finally saw print in 1973, the witch book was filled with overlapping, ornate, psychedelic patterns, hallucinatory imagery and hot colors. It wasn’t a hit. “You bring out a book like ‘Suppose You Met a Witch’ and calm sea. It’s really a lesson for your ego,” Emberley says.
He followed it up in two years later with “The Wizard of Op,” about a prince turned into a frog who seeks help from a wizard to return to his original form. The wizard’s spells are depicted as two-page spreads of trippy, vibrating, optical illusion patterns. Had Emberley become a hippie? He and his son Michael are both quick to say, “No”—though Emberley admits to finding some inspiration in The Beatles’ 1968 film “Yellow Submarine.”
“Suppose You Met a Witch,” though, was the book that took too long. So it got set aside while Emberley sketched out “Ed Emberley’s Drawing Book of Animals” (1970) and “Ed Emberley’s Drawing Book” (1972), followed by “Ed Emberley’s Drawing Book of Faces” in 1975, “Ed Emberley’s Great Thumbprint Drawing Book” in 1977, and so on.
“Why did I think I could do a drawing book?” Emberley asks. As a boy, he’d unsuccessfully tried drawing tests in the back of comic books. But from the Sunday newspapers, he’d learned to draw Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, Goofy. “I also could draw a submarine because the Sunday paper showed me how to make a submarine by making a rectangle, a triangle for the bow, a triangle for the stern, a rectangle for the top, another small rectangle. And it showed me how to make a tank by making two circles, a large circle and a small circle, joining them together and making a rectangle like that. I suddenly realized in my 30s, I looked back and I said, ‘Yes, I can still draw those two things today. I can’t draw Mickey Mouse and I can’t draw Goofy and I can’t draw Donald Duck, but I can draw those two things.’ Those two things were marked down to very simple shapes. I said, ‘Well, what if I could start with just three shapes—a circle, a rectangle and a triangle?’”
Emberley’s key idea was a basic drawing alphabet of those three shapes plus two dots, three numbers, four squiggles and 10 letters. “If you can draw these shapes, letters, numbers and things, you will be able to draw all the animals in this book,” he writes in the introduction to the first one.
“His idea that it was an alphabet was very important,” Neelon says. It broke down the often intimidating nature of drawing into manageable pieces. This style of sketching wasn’t new to Emberley. It was already apparent in his first book “The Wing on a Flea,” which is subtitled “A Book About Shapes.” What makes Emberley’s method so catchy is that it doesn’t demand exactitude, it offers those using it to learn to draw a lot of slack.
“It isn’t just teaching how to draw, it’s teaching success,” Emberley’s son Michael says. “That feeling of success breeds more success and more chances taken and more things attempted. … Often instructional methods don’t go there. They teach intimidation or failure and then you’re criticized for failure. … His books want the kids to succeed.”
Emberley’s popular 1992 book “Go Away, Big Green Monster” stands out as much for its story, as for how it’s constructed. In between making how-to-draw books, Emberley illustrated books about knights, the moon, the alphabet, the science of thunderstorms, and computers. Now he was adopting another new style—flat, graphic, digital. He intended to illustrate this book entirely on computer, but it turned out his publisher and printer weren’t prepared for the transition yet, so he ended up designing it by hand. (The first book he prepared entirely digitally would be 1996’s “Picture Pie 2.”)
Each page of “Big Green Monster” is die-cut with holes—first revealing the eyes, then the nose and mouth—so that as you turn the pages, you magically conjure a purple-haired, green-faced ogre with a mouth full of fangs. But keep turning the pages, and the pieces of the face go away until there’s nothing left. “And don’t come back!” it ends. “Until I say so.”
Emberley says it sold well from the start. From its success grew his 1997 book, “Glad Monster, Sad Monster” and his 2007 book “Bye-bye, Big Bad Bullybug!”
Emberley’s son Michael notes, “There is one new addition in his life that was around when he was working on that book … Adrian, the granddaughter, Rebecca’s [then 6-year-old] daughter. She was very young, but having issues with sleeping and demons. They spent a lot of time together.”
“At that age we were still traveling, doing a lot of speaking,” Emberley recalls. “She used to come with us and be in the motels. I’d walk around at night when we got through speaking. The one thing I remember was that we’d walk down the corridor, these big long blank corridors with nothing, and then there’d be a corner. … Something was going to come jumping out of that corner. A strange looking corner down there. So we used to have a joke that we called ‘Bing the Old Monster.’ We’d come up to the corner and instead of walking by it, we’d ‘bing’ the old monster and then walk by it. Again control. You take an act. You don’t become the victim.”
“It ties in with the drawing books as well,” his son Michael says. “Letting the child be successful. Letting the child take control. It’s an empowerment thing.”