Saturday, August 24, 2013
I was saved by the stunningly beautiful face of Judith Byron Schachner, whom I'd met only briefly a few weeks before. Judith is one of America's most beloved children's book author/illustrators. She is also one of the most humble, gracious, generous people you'll ever find, anywhere. She won't tell you about her bestsellers or awards. She won't allude to the depth of her talent. What she will do is stand there and look at you with her glorious eyes and talk with you about birds and life and big things. She'll give you nicknames, too, and you'll run with it.
Somewhere in a book I once wrote, Judith had read how much I love to receive letters—the real things that come in the mail. A few days ago she hinted that a package was coming my way, and so I anticipated a small note, a something J. Byronesque clever. I could not have foreseen the gift of one of Judith's books, Mr. Emerson's Cook—the book wrapped in magical paper that needed no tape, the book accompanied by a homemade card, the card accompanied by a Skippyjon Jones bookmark, the interior envelope decorated by Skippy stickers. Judith researched, wrote, and illustrated this masterpiece about the Irish cook who enters Mr. Emerson's home and feeds him well. She conjured "a broccoli forest alight with yellow melting butterflies" and a "Sunrise Pie" and a "fog" that "lifted from the pot and floated all the way down the hall into Mr. Emerson's study." This book is gorgeous—every word of it, every line and hue. It's also personal, for as we learn in the Afterword:
My own introduction to Mr. Emerson occurred when I was a child. My father, the grandson of Annie Burns Byron, would bring me to the town of Concord to swim in Waldon Pond and stand in the place where the embattled farms, in Emerson's words, "fired the shot heard round the world." We visited Mr. Emerson's house, and I would beg my father to tell me again the story about my great-grandmother, who was Mr. Emerson's cook.J. Byron Schachner: you are one of those human beings who elevates the world, glistens it, makes birdsong rise out of pie. Our association has been brief, but your impact is already lasting. Thank you for being you and for doing what you do.