Once upon a time I had a girlfriend who wrote a childrens book. She had cats, so there were cats in the story. But she had never published a book before and I had. So I volunteered to do sketches for her manuscript and to use my connections (such as they were) to see if we could get the project in front of an editor. That’s how The Children’s Book That Wasn’t began.
I won't try telling the plot of the story here. It was more episodic than dynamic anyway. In a nutshell, it involved a day on the coast of Maine, starring the cats, a snake, a small mouse, a seagull named Sarah and before the story ended, a majestic lobster who arrives on the scene, accompanied by a seaborne posse of fish.
The supporting animals in the story had not been conceived at random. They were refugees from our home life. My girlfriend's family lived in northern Virginia, but owned an island in Maine. They summered there, not on the island itself – they rented that out – but at a big house they rented for themselves on a nearby coast, just a minute's walk from a sprawling old New England hotel.
These yearly escapes from the sultry summers of Washington had something of the character of family reunions for my girlfriend’s tribe. The big house had rooms enough for brothers and sisters-in-law, not to mention cousins and shirttail relatives of various kinds and numerous family friends who seemed to come and go like ghosts in the woodwork.
My girlfriend’s family would drive up from Virginia, all except for her father. He sailed in from the Chesapeake Bay on his yacht. He'd anchor it in the harbor and live on the boat with his crew. Every afternoon at the appointed hour, we’d paddle out in a little Sunfish for cocktails on the deck, while her father held court for guests from the hotel, generally long-time family friends for whom these summer gatherings were apparently some sort of yearly highlight
As for our own accommodations, my girlfriend and I found it best to commandeer a bedroom on the first floor of the big house.
It wasn't the most private room in the place, but it was the one nearest the backyard door, which we kept ajar, the better to let her cats come and go. They found this especially convenient at night, when watching people sleep could hardly compete with the entertainment to be had on a moonlight prowl.
It was from these nightly rambles that the cats recruited their co-stars for the story.
The mouse was the first to enter the picture. He came as a hostage to fate. In fact, he was lucky to live to make his way into the story at all. His tale – if told from his point of view – might have made a childrens book of its own.
It began one night when my girlfriend and I were awakened from a deep sleep by long low growling in the dark. With the lights off, you could see little more than the two still shadows of cats sitting on the floor in the middle of the room. With the lights on, the scene became clear. We had left an empty suitcase lying open for them to play in. Now they were peering into it as if admiring their reflections in a pool of water. I went to investigate and inside found a bewildered mouse doing laps around and round the walls of his indoor track.
For all its potential as a disaster story for the mouse, the scene was benign, at least for the moment. The cats didn’t seem eager to eat or even torment the mouse. They merely seemed proud of their catch and happy to show him off. I figured they might stay entertained for another fifteen or twenty minutes. But ultimately I feared they'd start getting rough with their guest. I thought it best not to tempt Mother Nature.
I praised the cats for their good work and then, with apologies, rescued the mouse. I took him outside and sent him on his way. The cats were rewarded with two saucers of cream, then they bedded down on twin pillows for the night and the next day I found that the mouse had become a character in my girlfriend's story.
The snake came next, a few days later. Like the mouse, the cats found him and fetched him home, not once, but night after night for several nights. Each night we'd praise the cats and release the snake, then one day we never saw him again. His fate has always been a mystery to me.
After that came the seagull, and finally the great lobster, although they were my girlfriend’s contrivances, thank God, and not something the cats dragged in. I'm not sure how either of us would have reacted if we had awakened one morning to find a mangled seagull on the floor.
By summer's end the story's cast was complete and the manuscript was in first draft. So, while my girlfriend started working on revisions, I started to work on the sample drawings.
Drawing cats turned out to be more engaging than I had imagined. When you have cats around, they're always ready to pose, at least for a second or two at a time. In this case, the striped cat took a shine to me and came to consider my drawing table home base for all his other activities. He rarely pestered me, but instead seemed happy to sit and watch me draw, the way when I was four or five I used to hang out in the garage and watch my father plane a board or monkey with some broken appliance.
Now, I need to take a second to explain the seagull.
She began as a minor character in the story, doing the kind of things seagulls do on the coast of Maine. She sat on weathered posts on the dock. She skimmed low over the whitecaps looking for fish, she pecked at shells on the beach and soared high above the pines that edged the water’s edge. And as the story unfolds, she becomes a confident of the beachcombing cats.
But as I started doing my drawings, she emerged as something else.
I don't remember how or when I got the idea of drawing the seagull as a little girl. I do a lot of thinking without thinking, so it's possible I had even done the drawing before the thought became a thought. But once I saw the sketch – still little more than a scribble – it seemed like a wonderful way to give the plot an extra dimension.
The story's words would still describe the seagull as a seagull and her doings would still be described as seagull doings.
But the pictures that went with the words would tell a story of their own.
I didn't show the drawings to my girlfriend as I went along. I waited, and within a week, I had the sketches I'm posting here. Then one evening, I handed them to her without explanation and watched to see how she'd react.
I don't recall her exact response. But I remember that she looked through the drawings slowly, smiling as she turned the sheets. Then she came to the drawing of the little girl towing the fish.
Suddenly, her jaw dropped in a pose of exaggerated speechlessness. She lingered over the picture, then looked up at me with a smile that said she was collecting her thoughts.
Either it meant "Wow, this is amazing," or else "Does this look like a seagull to you?"
I knew that by converting a minor character into a major one, and from a bird to a little girl at that, I had shifted her story into a different key. I wouldn't have blamed her if she had disliked the idea. If she had, I admit, I'd have tried to persuade her to like it: I'd have said it gave the story a human interest, an added dimension, a twist.
But then if all that failed, I'd have re-drawn the seagull as a seagull. It was, after all, my girlfriend's story.
To my surprise, however, I didn't need to persuade her. She loved the idea and even volunteered to re-write the text. Now, she said, she'd make the little girl the lead character and her masquerade the story's theme. It would all be about a little girl and her fantasy life.
This, of course, was not what I had hoped for.
To me, the charm of the girl's unspoken identity would be lost if you tried to spell it out. Adults might need a rational explanation – and maybe kids who would grow up to be bean counters. But any kid who had ever played army or dress-up – or gotten lost behind a mask, either real or imagined – would understand the magic contained in the silence of the text and would find it all undone if you broke the spell.
The best thing for the story, I said, was to leave the words alone and let the pictures convey something better said through the eyes.
I found that no further explanation was necessary. She had chosen to understand it in her own way. The story was still her story, she said. But now the pictures would make it our story too.
And with that settled, we pasted up the book dummy.
In the penultimate scene of classical Greek tragedies it was common for the playwright to gather his beleaguered characters into a pot of boiling water and start to cook them.
Then, just when you thought they were in the world's most impossible fix, the theater management would lower a lordly figure on a rope to rescue them, wrap up the loose ends of the plot and bring the play to a happy – or (considering that it was a Greek tragedy) at least a just – conclusion. A deus ex machina the Romans used to call such a character; literally a "god from a machine."
It was the ancient world's equivalent of bringing on Mighty Mouse.
In my girlfriend's story, she resorted to a similar device to save the day, although in this case, the deus was a mighty lobster called forth from the rolling sea, who arrived in awesome splendor accompanied by a bodyguard of fish to settle everyone’s affairs and prepare an extravagant seafood feast for the cats and their friends.
Then with the conflict resolved, the day ended. The cats returned home to two saucers of cream and an indoor nap. The snake and the mouse returned to their lairs in the woods. The lobster ex machina returned to the deep. And Sarah the seagull retired to a weathered post on the beach to compose herself.
Then, having decided that she'd had enough adventure for the day, she launched herself into the wind, rose high above the harbor's cross currents, glided free of the incoming fog and with the clear dark blue of the twilight ahead of her, started flapping her wings for home.
My drawings did their job of getting our feet in the doors of a major publishing house. After that, however, things didn't go so well. The text became bogged down in requests for editorial fixes and changes; then there were re-writes and second guessing and uncertain conclusions. The editor we were working with offered me other childrens books to illustrate, but under the circumstances I chose not to accept. I thought it would be best to make this book work first.
In the end it didn't work and about a year later, my girlfriend and I separated. She went on to edit a couple of books and to author others and from what I gather, is still going strong. The drawings sat in a pile in my studio for a while, then were put away in a flat file, where over time, they worked their way to the back of the drawer and then to the back of my mind. A few months ago, I ran across them while looking for something else and fished them out to scan.
A couple of decades have now passed, but I retain a special fondness both for the story and for the story behind the story. I've always wished the book had worked out, but there's no special regret attached to the wish.
Just to see the drawings now gives me satisfaction. They take me back to a time when my future was still uncertain but the days seemed longer and I had the pleasure of spending a month or two every summer with some lovely people – some of whom are now gone – among the whispering pines on the coast of Maine.