Thursday, May 17, 2012

Everything I Know I Learned from Botticelli

This week, May 17th, is the 502nd anniversary of the death of painter Sandro Botticelli.

I can only imagine what it was like to walk the narrow streets of Florence during the late 15th and early 14th century. The cradle of the Renaissance and home turf to such immortal artists as Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and Sandro Botticelli, Florence was a place passionate about beauty. In fact its passion for beauty in art, in clothing, in personal adornment led the extremist monk Savonarola to declare that the church was being threatened. He called for the destruction of many of those fine things in his Bonfire of the Vanities. It makes me shudder.

I fell in love with Renaissance art and with Botticelli's work when I took an art history class in college. I was not an art history major, and frankly didn't know a lot about art, but it fulfilled a requirement. I'm not sure what I was expecting but suddenly I was spending hours a week among the most beautiful works of art in history. Botticelli's BIRTH OF VENUS, and my favorite VENUS AND MARS simply took my breath away. By the time the class was over I had an A, a deeper appreciation for art, and a burning desire to visit Florence.

It took me nearly thirty years, but I did just that. By then my tastes had changed and become maybe more mature, maybe just more masculine--I'm not sure what. This time I had a burning desire to see Michelangelo's DAVID. And there I found my own passion. I was so blown away by the story I saw in that face that I had to write about him. The resulting picture book, STONE GIANT, will be out next year.

But to my surprise, I also found Botticelli again in this story. You see, when the DAVID was completed, everyone who saw it saw immediately that it was a masterpiece and that it would be the piece that would come to define Florence. But where do you put a masterpiece? The city officials could not agree. So, as politicians do, they formed a committee. But being Florence, it was not a committee of politicians, or even of the rich and powerful citizens of the time. It was a committee of lovers of beauty. There were musicians, sculptors, architects, embroiderers, and painters--lots of painters. Among them was Sandro Botticelli.

Botticelli and the other artists chose where DAVID would stand. They understood the power of beauty and of this beautiful symbol of Florence itself.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Everything I Know I Learned from Maurice Sendak (part 2)

I've never done this before, but this week I feel it's right. This is a repeat of a blog post I did in 2010 on the occasion of Maurice Sendak's birthday. This week, as we mourn his loss, it still seems appropriate. And there is still so much to learn from his work.

Everything I Know I Learned from Maurice Sendak

Quick, when I say "Maurice Sendak," what's the first thing you think of? I'm betting it's WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE. Mr. Sendak wrote and/or illustrated a great many children's books, among them IN THE NIGHT KITCHEN, CHICKEN SOUP WITH RICE, and the LITTLE BEAR books by Else Holmelund Minarik. But he will forever be remembered as the creator of Max and those great furry wild things.

Now, I could stop this blog right here. As a writer and presenter at schools, I am often asked what it's like to be famous. My standard answer is that I'm not, nor do I ever want to be. I do, however, want my books to be famous, well-loved, and read often. To have one of my books achieve the kind of immortality that WILD THINGS has done, and to have my name forever associated with it--well, that's a dream as wild as anything Max dreamed up, and I don't expect there's a hot meal waiting for me at the end of it either.

But I always wondered just where those wild things came from. Why do they connect with us so well? Mr. Sendak admitted he based them somewhat on his much-dreaded Brooklyn relatives. As a child, he was frightened by these large aunts and uncles who pinched his cheeks and said stupid-adult things like, "Oh, you're so cute I could eat you up," though he knew they never would. He tapped into that frightening/loving persona for his wild things. And thereby tapped into a classic childhood fear. Because don't all children have some kind of wild thing in their lives?

Good-bye, Mr. Sendak. The wild rumpus has ended.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Everything I Know I Learned from Mordecai Booth

I've been spending the past year with my head stuck in 1814. As I explained before, it's a system that works for me when I'm working on a new book, even if it's a little OCD. And besides, you meet the most interesting people when you focus in on a new place and time.

Take Mordecai Booth. Booth was a senior clerk at the Washington Navy Yard in August 1814, a working man with a house and a family. Washington itself was still in its infancy, having become the seat of the federal government of the United States only fourteen years earlier, and it still showed. Its roads were famous for being dusty in hot weather, muddy in wet weather, and almost impassibly rutted all year round. It was still as much swamp as city.

But swampy or not, Washington was still the capital, and as such, a target of the British during the War of 1812. British Admiral George Cockburn knew that a blow against the capital would be far more demoralizing than an attack against even so valuable a port city as Baltimore. And so, in August 1814, 4500 British troops were landed in Benedict, Maryland and began the march toward Washington.

Booth and Thomas Tingey, commandant of the Navy Yard, knew that the yard would be a primary target. Secretary of the Navy William Jones had ordered that, no matter what, the yard must not fall into the hands of the British. As the invasion began at dusk on August 24th, 1814, Booth and Tingey faced a horrible task. They had to set fire to the yard, the pride of the US Navy and of Washington. At great risk, Booth volunteered to scout the city first to see if all really was lost. Only when he knocked on the White House door and realized that even the president had fled did he realize how awful the situation was. Shortly afterward he spied, in the dimming light of dusk, the British enter the city. He returned to tell Tingey that there was indeed no option. They would have to fire the yard.

The men apparently said little to each other. They had a duty to do and they did it. That night the British torched the White House and the Capitol, as well as other public buildings. But the first fires set during the burning of Washington were set by Booth and Tingey.

Booth later gave his account of the burning of the capital. As he left for safety, he looked back at a city in flames. He was so transfixed that he could not move from the spot for three hours. His words as he described the sight were raw with grief and horror.

It was a night nearly two hundred years ago, and yet his words painted a vivid living picture of one of the most tragic events in American history. I feel so honored to have met him and been able to write about his story.