Inspiration: Robert McCloskey
I was at Sotty’s the other evening having dinner with Happy & Abigail, when the subject turned to favorite books from our childhood. Happy is a voracious reader who must have some manner of print before him at all times, whether he’s reading Don Quixote or the tail end of a ketchup bottle, so he’s an enthusiastic participant in any discussion of books and reading. As we talked about some of the books that thrilled us as children, Happy contended that those particular books have more influence than any others we may happen to read afterwards, though he conceded that the influence may sometimes be subtle, so that we’re unaware
of the importance. Soon after, Abigail suggested I should begin a series of posts on books, movies, and other things that have influenced me. I argued that you, the readers, would hardly care about my tastes and preferences and that I would feel presumptuous to think otherwise, but she insisted I try, and I conceded. Abigail always gets her way.
The first Robert McCloskey book I remember reading was Homer Price (1943) and while his stories of a pet skunk, a giant ball of yarn, or a donut machine run amuck were entertaining, it was the illustrations, rendered in charcoal, which caught my attention. Homer lived in the town of Centerburg where his parents owned the Shady Rest Tourist Camp.
Then I found another book by McCloskey that began: “In the town of Alto, Ohio, lived a boy named Lentil.”. Lentil (1940) begins with a double-paged birds-eye view at the start of the book, once again rendered in charcoal, of what may well be one of the most perfect small towns ever imagined: located on the bend of a river, with a covered bridge, train and station, church, statue, courthouse, and the usual run of business and homes. When I first drew the map of Sycamore Shadows, that particular illustration was always in my mind, directly influencing its setting on the creek bend, its covered bridge, and the park anchored by a statue. The story itself is neither better nor worse than the average children’s book of its era and McCloskey admitted that he was an illustrator above all else; he conceived the story with drawings and filled in the words afterwards, which is the opposite of the way I do things but I never said the man was perfect. Still, using only charcoal, he was able to capture the look and feel of a small town in a big way.