Tuesday, December 9, 2008

P.D. Eastman

Born November 25, 1909 in Amherst, Massachusetts

Died January 7, 1986 in Cresskill, New Jersey

It is perhaps ironical that an author noted for using few words to tell stories that children love, should have had so few words written about him. P.D. Eastman at first glance seems something of a cipher but instead is, I think, just a simple victim of circumstance.

The reason he seems a cipher is that is that there is not much information about him, the books that he wrote won no major awards and are rarely if ever critically acclaimed, and in fact, many if not most people don't even believe he existed, assuming instead that P.D. Eastman was a pseudonym for Dr. Seuss or was a syndicate house name such as Watty Piper, Frank Dixon or Nancy Keane.

So who was this man of mystery and what exactly did he write? And why doesn't anyone know about him?

First, let it be said, Philip Dey Eastman was a real person. He was born in 1909 in Amherst, Massachusetts. He was educated at Phillips Academy and then at Amherst College and pursued a career in animation, working for Walt Disney productions in the 1930's. It was at Disney that Eastman met Mary Louise Whitman whom he wed in 1941. With the advent of World War II, Eastman joined the Army in 1942 and served as an illustrator in the Signal Corps. in the film division headed by Frank Capra, creating animated training films and writing and storyboarding a film series, "Private Snafu." Also in this unit was the author/illustrator Munro Leaf, most famous for his book, The Story of Ferdinand. The head of the animation unit, and to whom Eastman reported, was one Theodore Geisel, later to attain fame as Dr. Seuss.

After the war, Eastman went back into animation, joining United Productions of America where he helped create the cartoon character and series, Mr. Magoo. Eastman also co-authored with Theodore Geisel the film script for Gerald McBoing-Boing, winner of the 1950 Academy Award for Best Short Subject (Animated).

In 1954, the Eastmans, now with two sons, moved to Westport, Connecticut. This was the period when a movement gathered force in the US to reinvigorate children's literature in general and in particular to revitalize early readers. In May, 1954 Life Magazine published an article by John Hersey (author of the classic Hiroshima), "Why Do Students Bog Down on the First R?" that lit in to school readers for their "insipid illustrations" and their "abnormally courteous, unnaturally clean boys and girls." In the article, Hersey suggested that a more engaging and dynamic form of illustration was needed to capture students and specifically alluded to the effectiveness of Walt Disney illustrations and to Dr. Seuss in particular. In 1955, Rudolf Flesch came out with the book Why Johnny Can't Read further fueling the push for more creative, and engaging early readers.

Responding to this quintessentially American manufactured, but well-intentioned hoo-hah to improve, William Spaulding of Houghton Mifflin's educational division issued a challenge to Dr. Seuss to write an engaging early reader for children using fewer than 225 distinct words (from a list drawn up by Spaulding) and which would replace the anemic Dick and Jane readers used in schools. Seuss undertook the dare, thinking to dash out the story but soon discovered that fewer words meant much more work. A year and a half later, in 1957 and at only 236 words, he was ready with the book that marked children's literature forever. Watch out Dick and Jane; make way for The Cat in the Hat.

Seuss had written nine children's books prior to The Cat in the Hat but the Cat is what really started things rolling. Working with Random House, Seuss initiated a series of Beginning Books that were to follow a similar model - colorful, cartoon illustrations, lots of imagination, large fonts, simple texts based on a restricted range of words, much use of repetition and usually having a distinctive cadence and rhythm to the text. Seuss of course wrote many of the books in the series but by no means all of them. He reached out to former colleagues in the Signal Corps.' Animation Unit, including Eastman, to solicit their participation in this new reading venture.

In 1958 Eastman, while still working as an illustrator and animator, published his first book, Sam and the Firefly, which was respectably received. His next book did not come out until 1960 but then he started a four year run in which he produced five books (he only wrote or illustrated fifteen in all) each of which were unique classics and which have remained in print ever since.

The run started with Are You My Mother? (1960), followed by Go, Dog, Go! (1961), A Fish Out of Water (1961, written by Helen Palmer and illustrated by P.D. Eastman), The Cat in the Hat Dictionary (1964, co-authored by Eastman and Seuss and illustrated by Eastman) and finally Robert, the Rose Horse also in 1964, written by Joan K. Heilbroner and illustrated by Eastman. Interestingly, Helen Palmer was actually Helen Palmer Geisel, Theodore Geisel's wife.

Whenever you gather together enthusiastic readers from five to fifty-five years old, if they start to reminisce of favorite books of childhood, virtually every one of them will mention at least one of these titles as an early favorite.

So why isn't Eastman better known? Certainly one reason is that many people, if not most, have assumed that P.D. Eastman was just another pseudonym for Theodore Geisel, who wrote primarily under the name of Dr. Seuss but also penned a number of titles in the Beginner Book series as Theo LeSieg. This would have been reinforced as there were some strong similarities between the illustration styles of Geisel, Eastman, McKie and Lopshire; all author/illustrators in the series. Many people assume all are the same person.

Further confusing authorship is the fact that the popular The Cat in the Hat Dictionary was authored, per the cover, by The Cat Himself and P.D. Eastman; an oblique way of saying that it was co-authored by Theodore Geisel (Dr. Seuss) and P.D. Eastman and illustrated by Eastman. Finally, the fact that two of the books for which he is famous were written by other's while he illustrated them, further muddies the waters.

Are You My Mother? is the story of a hatchling wandering about querying all and sundry, regardless of shape and size, as to whether they are his mother, until at last he is reunited with his mother. Go, Dog, Go! is the mother of all concept books. At 64 pages it is much longer than your standard concept book and the whole story is moved along by all sorts of comparative and action concepts - big dogs, little dogs, red dogs, green dogs, one dog going in, three dogs coming out.

A Fish Out of Water was one of my favorites as a child and is the story of a boy who ignores what he is told to do and feeds his little fish not just the pinch of food that is needed but instead the whole bottle of fish food and the consequences arising from that simple act of disobedience. A wonderfully improbable but engaging story.

The Cat in the Hat Dictionary is exactly what it sounds like - a child's dictionary of a thousand or so words, each defined in a comprehendible fashion but always with humor and an element of improbability not characteristic of Webster of Johnson. Robert, the Rose Horse is the tale of a horse that loves roses but is allergic to them.

A couple of later books by Eastman, Flap Your Wings and The Best Nest are also frequent favorites. Flap Your Wings in particular is pretty entertaining as a couple of birds attempt to raise a toothy off-spring when an alligator hatches from the egg that a boy mistakenly put in their nest. You can make all or as little as you want out of the metaphor of being yourself and of parents having to let go - it is still a pretty entertaining story.

What makes this small handful of books so durable? That is a little hard to say. Certainly, Eastman just simply tells a good story. These are books that move forward despite their restricted vocabulary; there is always something amusing going on. The fact that there is a cadence to the sentences helps. These are easy stories for parents to read to a child and that is part of the attraction - children know these stories from listening to them, just at that stage in life when they are also beginning to pick up the skill of reading themselves. The fact that Eastman's books are longer and busier than most early readers would, at first blush, seem to be a problem for a new reader. I think, though, that because there is a lot going on, it means that a parent is more likely to be willing to continually re-read these books to their children as parents are so often requested to do. That frequency brings greater familiarity and therefore an easier transition from being read to towards independent reading.

Eastman as an illustrator, relied somewhat less than Seuss on antic fantasy in his drawings. While in the cartoon style, there is a greater expression and use of motion to convey and elaborate on the story being told by the text. For first readers, I think those subtle clues make a material difference and therefore are part of what make Eastman's works so engaging and useful to a new reader. Similarly for the books that he wrote himself, Eastman is characterized by more "real" material: in and out, up and down, behind and in front. These are tough concepts for the early learner and reader and while Seuss' imagination for the fantastic is entertaining, it can be distracting and confusing as well.

However he achieved it, there is the simple fact that Eastman wrote and illustrated a series of books that have marked each group of new readers for the past two or three generations. Though not frequently mentioned in children's literature textbooks, or on many classics lists, or winners of prizes, his books pass the highest test of all - they are well loved and perennial favorites by each wave of new readers.

Though he never became a big author/illustrator of children's books, Eastman did end up writing and/or illustrating fifteen books between 1958 and 1979. Remarkably, all but two of those books are still in print some forty years later. That might be said to be the ultimate tribute to the creative powers of an author and illustrator.

Picture Books

Are You My Mother? by P. D. Eastman Highly Recommended

Go, Dog, Go by P.D. Eastman
Highly Recommended

A Fish Out of Water by Helen Palmer and illustrated by P.D. Eastman Highly Recommended

Robert the Rose Horse by Joan Heilbroner and illustrated by P. D. Eastman Highly Recommended

Cat in the Hat Beginner Book Dictionary by P. D. Eastman and Dr. Seuss and illustrated by P.D. Eastman Recommended

Flap Your Wings by P. D. Eastman Recommended

Sam and the Firefly by P. D. Eastman Suggested

Snow by Roy McKie and P. D. Eastman Suggested

The Best Nest by P. D. Eastman Suggested

Big Dog Little Dog by P. D. Eastman Suggested

I'll Teach My Dog 100 Words by Michael Frith and illustrated by P. D. Eastman Suggested

The Alphabet Book by P. D. Eastman Recommendation

Red, Stop! Green, Go by P. D. Eastman Suggested

P.D. Eastman Bibliography

Sam and the Firefly by P.D. Eastman and illustrated by P.D. Eastman 1958

Are You My Mother? by P.D. Eastman and illustrated by P.D. Eastman 1960

Go, Dog, Go! by P.D. Eastman and illustrated by P.D. Eastman 1961

Fish Out of Water by Helen Palmer and illustrated by P.D. Eastman 1961

Snow by P.D. Eastman and Roy McKie 1962

The Cat in the Hat Dictionary by P.D. Eastman and Dr. Seuss and illustrated by P.D. Eastman 1964

Robert, the Rose Horse by Joan K. Heilbroner and illustrated by P.D. Eastman 1964

Everything Happens to Aaron in the Autumn by P.D. Eastman and illustrated by P.D. Eastman 1967

The Best Nest by P.D. Eastman and illustrated by P.D. Eastman 1968

Flap Your Wings by P.D. Eastman and illustrated by P.D. Eastman 1969

Big Dog . . . Little Dog: A Bedtime Story by P.D. Eastman and illustrated by P.D. Eastman 1973

I'll Teach My Dog One Hundred Words by Michael K. Frith and illustrated by P.D. Eastman 1973

The Alphabet Book by P.D. Eastman and illustrated by P.D. Eastman 1974

What Time Is It? by P.D. Eastman and illustrated by P.D. Eastman 1979

Red, Stop! Green, Go! by P.D. Eastman and illustrated by P.D. Eastman

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