How Earl Came to be Published
The real story of EARL is in two parts, 50 years apart!
Part 1: The creation took place in the 1950s. Don was constantly creating stories (”the ideas just fell in”). He was always working on several stories at once. When one of them caught on, he would then sit down and work for days (and nights) to get it out on paper. Then he would let it lie around (with the other book ideas) and show it to my mother and they would discuss it. When it got far enough, Don would send the story and pictures as a “dummy” mock-up version to a publisher. This was an act of courage for him because he was very sensitive to criticism and of course what you get from publishers is rejections on form letters and this hurts!
With EARL it was similar. The whole story existed as a set of scratchboards (the originals finally used in the printing) that Don shifted and played with over years. I mean it - this story was lying around for years! Don showed it to friends who made nice comments and he sent it to publishers who rejected it for one reason or another like: “Up till now you published books with another publisher, stay with them…,” or “Disney just did something with a red squirrel, it is not the optimal time to do a squirrel book,” or “Too simple for our book line”… you know what I mean, nice put offs, but in the end just another rejection. The book never found a publisher. Don died in 1978 with the set of scratchboard illustrations with the red scarf as a plastic overlay in a box in storage.
Part 2: Fast forward to 2002! I sent a package of illustrations and sketches to Prof. Karen Hoyle, curator of the Kerlan Collection at the University of Minnesota. (The Kerlan Collection has a very large number of Freeman papers and illustrations). On January 14, 2003 Prof. Hoyle faxed me an illustration of a young girl and a squirrel with the typed text “Oh dear, Earl began shivering and quivering. I don’t belong in here. But I ought to be brave now. After all, I told that girl I’d bring her ribbon in a jiffy without fail.” Karen wrote a question on the fax: “From which of Don’s published books does this illustration come from?”
In preparing my answer to Prof. Hoyle, I wrote that this is from Don’s published book EARL THE SQUIRREL, since I remembered the illustrations and the bull knocking the oak tree. Then I looked for the date of publishing. I could not find a publishing date. Could it be that EARL - this book that I had seen lying around for years - was never published at all? Then I went to see if I had the original illustrations. When I finally found them (in storage in Switzerland) I decided to fax a few examples to George Nicholson, my agent in New York. He said: “Looks good, let’s try with Viking Children’s Books (a division of Penguin USA). Why don’t you take it to Bologna?”
I have to explain what this meant. Every Spring there is a famous international children’s book fair in Bologna, Italy. Here all the publishers, agents, rights licensing people and also illustrators of children’s books from the world over meet for four days in huge exhibition halls. Since I live in Switzerland and there is a night train to Bologna, I decided to take the dummy directly to Bologna. I told my boss (at the time I worked at a pharmaceutical laboratory as a scientific report writer) that I needed a day off and took the night train to Bologna. Arriving at Bologna at 5 AM, I walked to the fair with the EARL originals in my backpack. George was also at the Fair and got us a short time slot just before noon to meet with the President of Viking Children’s Books (Penguin USA), Regina Hayes. At 11:45, George and I went to the Penguin USA stand. As luck would have it, the top boss of Penguin Books for Young Readers, Doug Whiteman, was also at the small meeting table in a huge hall with hundreds of book people running all over. As soon as he saw the original scratchboards (I had brought everything in an old dilapidated cardboard box, dusty, with pages and the red plastic overlays falling apart) he said: “We’ll do it! Regina will take care of the rest!” He shook my hand, got up and moved to the next table. I think this interaction with Doug lasted about 2 minutes. (You know today’s managers, “time is money!”) I had a short talk with Regina, gave her the box of scratchboards, and spent the rest of the day wandering around the Fair, looking at all the amazing new children’s books, and watching courageous young illustrators show their work to publishers. I also ordered some good Italian expresso coffee at the bars. At 11 PM, I was on the night train back to Zürich (with a lighter backpack). Arriving in Zürich at 6 AM, I went directly to work. I sat down at my computer and tried to keep my eyes open. “Where were you yesterday?” asked my officemates. “Oh, I went to Italy to drank a few real Espressi” I said. They gave me a jealous wink and nodded in understanding.
Then began the hard work with EARL. The set of scratchboards had gone to New York with Regina and now I mailed in all the versions of the text that I had. The chief editor at Viking Children’s Books, Joy Peskin, took on the job of editing the text and choosing the order of illustrations. Now Joy is a great editor; this was my second stroke of luck. We went over the text and polished things. Joy wanted it to be optimally accessible to young readers, and she really knows her business! I wanted it to stick literally to Don’s original text (and I don’t know the business). Fortunately, Joy is an ideal editor to work with and we hammered through the text, line by line. The very last lines took two weeks to write with a flurry of emails back and forth in the end! But it was great when we found together the solution. The story was finished!
Then came the printing. I had grown up with Don so I knew the extreme care he took as a graphic artist (see his early New York lithographs) and the high standards of printing that he demanded. (That was another reason why he was never at home.) So I checked the color proofs in detail. The black was not black enough, the red was not blue (scarlet) enough. So with Joy and now the graphic editor, we had the printers in China redo the inking several times until we made found a good compromise, and the book was printed.
So, that is the (short) story of how EARL got published!
It might be of interest to know that I am now writing, again with the help of Joy at Viking Children’s Books, a second squirrel book (tentatively called ONE MORE ACORN) based on a set of beautiful but unfinished color illustrations and the beginnings of a story by Don. So the story of Earl continues. Earl is still collecting acorns, but he is now a father with a family in Washington DC and… well, I will not divulge any more until its published!