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  • David Elliott

ON On the farm

It started when a friend ran into some undeserved financial trouble and a bunch of authors and illustrators – none of whom are strangers to undeserved financial trouble -- got together to help her out. The idea was the authors would write something pithy -- yeah! you heard me, pithy! -- that the illustrators would, well, illustrate. The project would end with a gallery show and the finished pieces sold at auction, the proceeds going to our mutual friend. I’m happy to say it worked, and our friend was able to balance her checkbook once more. But as with any charitable act, the giver gets so much more than the receiver.

I wrote just three lines for the project, four with the title.

The Robin

Sings from the branch

but wants to roar --

small cousin of tyrannosaur.

Of course, I didn’t know it at the time, but those fourteen words planted the seed for an idea that would eventually produce 150 short poems and a series of ten picture books, all published by Candlewick Press and all edited by the indomitable Liz Bicknell. The first seven are now out in the world. On the Farm, In the Wild, In the Sea, On the Wing, In the Past, In the Woods and At the Pond. The eighth, At the Poles, illustrated by Ellen Rooney will be out this October. Two more are on the way: In the Sands and At the Edge.

One hundred and fifty poems! No wonder I'm pithed off/ (Okay, I know it should be pithed out, but I couldn’t resist. Er . . .I mean, rethitht.)

I can’t remember why I chose farm animals.. (On the Farm debuted in 2008. I can barely remember what I had for breakfast.) Probably because it required so little research. (Sounds like me.) On school visits, when I ask kids what animals they think are in the book, they shout them out as if they'd been the book’s editor: “Cow!” “Sheep!” “Pony!” “Goat!” “Pig!” “Hen!” Yep, they’re all there, though some kids in Texas surprised me by insisting that the bull was a longhorn.

But there are some surprises, too. I wanted to include all the life we can find on a farm and so the bees are represented, as well as the garden snake, and even the farm-pond turtle.

I remember shouting when I saw the late Holly Meade’s art for the book. (The heart breaks, more on this in a separate post.) I was expecting cut paper and ink, the same kind of art that won her a Caldecott Honor for Hush! A Thai Lullaby. But she surprised and astounded us with her strong, spirited woodcuts. Much of the book’s success is due to her. Thank you, Holly. I hope you are still making beautiful art wherever beautiful people like you go after they’ve left this vale of tears.

A spread from Hush: A Thai Lullaby by Minfong Ho, illustrated by Holly Meade

On the Farm is still going strong. Last year, Candlewick published it as a board book. I was very surprised and happy to learn that the first poem in the book, “The Rooster” is listed on the Poetry Foundations website

Ten picture books! One hundred- and--fifty poems with as many pages of incredible art. And to think it all began with that robin sitting on a branch, Maybe there is a lesson for all of us here. We can never know where one small idea might take us. As true in Life as it is in writing, Perhaps this is best represented by the last two lines of “The Bees”.

Hoping you began this day in clover.

Next week In the Wild.

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