Wendell Who?

I confess this title was my response when I heard that Wendell Minor would be the de Grummond lecturer for USM’s 2013 Children’s Book Festival. You might have the same question, but I’d be very surprised if you haven’t seen his work. Wendell illustrated children’s books for writers like Eve Bunting, Charlotte Zolotow, and Jean Craighead George. If you aren’t into children’s books, you have surely seen his book jackets for Mary Higgins Clark, David McCullough, Garrison Keiller, Pat Conroy, Toni Morrison . . . I will stop here or this entire blog will be filled with a list. I did a bit of googling and before long, anticipation of his visit substituted for my question. He did not disappoint.

I met Wendell on a tour of the exhibit room that Ellen Ruffin, curator of the de Grummond Collection, gave for visiting celebrities. (One of the perks of being a escort for festival guests is getting to take part in the “extras” and meet them in small groups.) I loved that he had “little kid” interest in the archives of children’s writers and illustrators, especially those of Ezra Jack Keats.  

During his lecture, I enjoyed his trip through his lifetime illustration journey and couldn’t fail to notice how much he shared with Keats. When he mentioned a book showing twenty-five years of his art, I wanted it for my artist grandson. Later when I asked about it, he said it was out of print. But I googled again, found it, and enjoyed a pre-reading before sending it to Hayden.

Wendell Minor: Art for the Written Word collects color renditions of his book jackets with short narratives or letters by the authors.  Since authors usually get little input about the artist or the illustration of their books or the jackets, they may or may not be happy with them. They want jackets to give a hint of the story and help sell the book. In these authors’ reactions is a recurring theme that Wendell captures the essence of their books because he read the book before he began illustrating. About the time I thought only rave reviews were included, I came across Larry McMurtry who liked one cover but didn’t care much for another. A few other authors had covers that they liked only after they “grew on them.”  

Pat Conroy says Wendell’s illustrations help him understand his own work better, “Throughout our career together, Wendell Minor has not only given me clues and passwords to my own books, he has often handed me the key to the front door. I build the church; he puts in the stained glass windows.”

I loved the stories from the authors about the works, but even more I loved the beautiful illustrations. I’ve snapped pictures of a couple of my favorites –  the Harper Lee reprint edition of To Kill a Mocking Bird and Garrison Keiller’s We Are Still Married.

This book should be read a bit at a time to really enjoy the art. My take-away lesson is that I will never again pick up an attractive book without looking at the inside back cover to see who painted the cover. If Hayden should decide he doesn’t like the book, I’ll be glad to take it back.