About the Story
The Grey Lady and the Strawberry Snatcher was my first real book. I had understood that I wanted to be a children's book illustrator, and I understood that the first thing I needed to do was to develop a portfolio showing various styles and also showing several pictures that illustrated the same story. I made some illustrations for the Norwegian tale of Peer Gynt and for several stories and situations I had been thinking about, and by the end of a year, I had enough to take to New York. I visited several publishers, then made another trip and another. I believe it was on the fourth trip that I met with Ursula Nordstrom, one of the great editors of children's books. She looked at the collection of pictures I had brought, and we talked a bit, and she said, "Why don't you make up your own story and illustrate it?"
So I went back home quite happy. I took a long walk in the woods, and the story of The Grey Lady and the Strawberry Snatcher came to me on the walk. I worked for about a year on the pictures and took them back to Ursula Nordstrom, who looked at it and said, "This is in full color and you are unknown, so it's impossible. You have an old woman running around in the woods, and children don't relate to an old woman as a protagonist. The characters are very peculiar-looking. And to top it off, this has no words, so nobody will know what to do with it. Why don't you go home and illustrate some folktales?"
I took the "book" of about 24 pages to various other editors. Nobody wanted to print it, but it did enable me to get my first two jobs, together on the same visit. Lee Deadrick at Scribner's saw it and said, "It looks like you like scary stories." I said I really wasn't crazy about them, but they were ok if they ended well. Lee said that if I could find a collection of scary stories that she liked, I could illustrate them. This became The Goblins Giggle. When her art editor, Alan Benjamin, looked at the pictures, he called Susan Hirschman, his former boss at Macmillan, and made and appointment for me to go over there and meet with her. When Susan and her assistant editor, Libby Shub, saw the Grey Lady pictures, they said, "It looks like there's a Chinese or Japanese influence here." I said I'd lived in Japan for a year and a half and could read and speak it to some extent. They suggested that if I translated some Japanese folktales that they liked, I could illustrate them. This led to my other first book, Men from the Village Deep in the Mountains.
But nobody wanted to publish The Grey Lady and the Strawberry Snatcher. For the next several years, I would take it to New York once a year or so and show it to editors who were often very enthusiastic but couldn't print it. Then at some point, Alan Benjamin asked me what had happened to it. I told him it was sitting in a drawer at home. He asked if he could take it to some publishers himself and see if they might be interested. I had never heard of this, and was amazed and delighted. Alan took it to several places, he didn't tell me where, but nothing happened. A year or so later, David Reuther called me from Four Winds Press. He said Alan had showed him the manuscript, but his publisher at the time hadn't wanted to publish it, but his present publisher would like to do it!
The problem was, I would have to do the whole book all over again.
That first version of The Grey Lady had taken me about eight months or a year. The second version took 2 1/2 years. It was mostly a lot of fun. Our little apartment was often full of blackberry brambles that took up the whole room, or fruit in various stages of rot, or day lilies. I would go out to the giant copper beech near the house to paint it, or to the cedar swamp to paint the cedars and blueberry bushes. One day I bought a box of strawberries and put it on my desk to paint. My daughter, who was about two or three at the time, came in and ogled the berries, but I told her we couldn't have them until I had finished painting them. I finished the picture fairly late that night. In the morning when I got up, I saw that several strawberries were missing. The Strawberry Snatcher had crept in during the night.
When the book came out, many of the reviews were pretty bad. I remember one from the New York Times that said that the weird-looking characters and flashy colors were an indication that I was part of the drug culture (I had smoked marijuana once and hated it) and the detailed pictures told no real story but were merely an excuse to show off. Something like that. So the book sold few copies, and I was pretty discouraged. Then the following spring, it won a Caldecott Honor Award, and suddenly everybody thought it was a creative and fascinating book, and it sold quite well. When the person from the committee called me, I remember asking if they had read the reviews. She answered, "We don't make our decisions based on reviews. We make our own decisions." Well, I'm very, very grateful for that. And for David for sticking his neck out to publish it. But I'm most grateful to Alan Benjamin, for taking the book around all on his own. I still have never heard of another gesture of such generosity.