Children's author-illustrator Elisha Cooper gives lecture on "Inappropriate" children's books: Cooper illustrated his artistic methods and origins in the twenty-fourth annual Fox-Adler Lecture

Posted by Julia Leef

On Sept. 20, more than one hundred students, faculty and community members gathered in Gannett auditorium to listen to author-illustrator Elisha Cooper speak about writing and illustrating children's books.

This presentation was part of the twenty-fourth annual Fox-Adler Lecture, a traditional event at the college that honors the Fox family and the late Hannah Moriarta Adler, who loaned her extensive collection of 18th- and 19th-century literature to the college in 1967. Norman M. Fox later made the donation permanent, and his support for this lecture enables the perseverance of literature and the arts in honor of Adler's memory.

"This lecture provides innumerable visible occasions to learn from what we see, not only in the realm of words, but also in the larger, visible world," said President Philip A. Glotzbach, who gave the opening welcome speech. "This series highlights the wonderful Fox collection of illustrated books that we are privileged to hold in the Scribner library. I express my deepest appreciation to the Fox and Adler families for making this lecture possible every year."

Cooper, this year's guest speaker, is an award-winning children's book author and illustrator. His book, Dance!, published in 2001, became the New York Times Best Illustrated Book of the Year. He has also written several books for adults, including A Year in New York and the memoir Crawling: A Father's First Year.

"Cooper has written and illustrated over a dozen books, and his life and experience continues to be a source of inspiration for children and adults," said Dr. Catherine Golden, professor of English and director of the Honors Forum, in her introduction.

"I'm completely unqualified to be giving a lecture," Cooper said, immediately taking off what he said was the only suit he owned, a gift from his editor for painting his twins' bedroom. "Having an artist talk about his own work is strange to me, because I always think, 'it's in the art.'"

The title of the lecture, "Inappropriate," was in reference to a conversation Cooper once had with Maurice Senak, author of many children's books including Where the Wild Things Are and Chicken Soup with Rice. Cooper said Sendak disliked the idea that he had to be appropriate for children, and that he took especial pride in the books of his that were banned from libraries. "Inappropriateness is sometimes good," Cooper said.

Cooper continued with a brief biography of his life, saying he had been influenced at a young age by his grandmother, who painted watercolors of landscapes until her recent death.

"It's always funny to me that I'm doing the same thing I was doing when I was eight," he said.

Cooper continued to draw throughout his academic career, illustrating on a giant sketchpad the caricatures he used to draw of his college football coaches at Yale University. After college he was hired by The New Yorker as a messenger, and later as a writer, to deliver and pick up manuscripts and covers around New York City.

"I was a pretty bad messenger because I would take detours with my sketchbook and go and draw the Union Market Square, or something else," Cooper said. These sketches later became a book entitled, A Year in New York, which allowed him to quit The New Yorker and fully embrace the career of an author-illustrator.

Cooper's children also provided inspiration for his books. His A Goodnight Walk is inspired by walks he took with his oldest daughter Zoe when she was a baby in an attempt to get her to fall asleep. His memoir, Crawling: A Father's First Year, also stems from his experience as a parent.

To give an example of the process of creating one of his books, Cooper went into great detail about the conception and execution of his book Farm, which he thought of while driving through Illinois and seeing its flat fields and huge barns.

"I wanted to do it differently," he said, referring to the way many children's book authors illustrate farm settings and animals. "Farms are big, and they're flat, and they make food. I wanted to get that across. I didn't want to infantilize kids."

He went further into detail, explaining his dislike for books centered on morals or celebrity books illustrated by ghost artists. The same love and care is not shown when someone illustrates someone else's work, he said.

"Even though there are a lot of wonderful children's books right now, there are a lot of crappy children's books out there, and I often feel that they are cute, they are the same, they are infantilizing, and they talk down to kids," he said. "There are a lot of 'shoulds' in these books, what you should do and what you should be. There should not be any 'should' in art."

For his work on Farm, Cooper would pull over to different farms, asking farmers to take him around so he could see what they did, and he would make sketches of the farm equipment and animals he saw.

"I sometimes think about books in terms of a sculptor, who has a marble stone and starts chipping away to make the statue," he said. "I think that with writing especially you have to accumulate all the details first and make that marble before you can start chopping it down and sculpting it. My favorite part of making a book is that first moment there in the dirt with the drawing when I first see this book taking shape."

Cooper listed some of the artists he admired, including Mo Willems and Robert McCloskey, for their confident lines that come from so much practice and work.

"The beauty of writing and drawing and art and books is that anyone can do it," Cooper said. "All you need is a mind, a point of view, a pencil and yourself. If your story and the line you create resonates, that is all that matters. Art in that way is limitless."

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