While I was working on the first edition of The C.I. Guide to Publishing Children's Books, a number of people were kind enough to make suggestions, tell stories, and otherwise contribute to the book. Some of those stories appear in full in the book. Others, like this one, need more space.
Deborah Kogan Ray is a well-known and respected illustrator who has illustrated many books in a career stretching back into the 1960's. I was fortunate to work with her when she illustrated The Barn Owls, by Tony Johnston, which I edited at Charlesbridge. More recently, she completed Hokusai: The Man Who Painted a Mountain, which she both wrote and illustrated. You can find out more about her at her web site.
This story is from the beginning of her career, and I used it in the last chapter of the book, to illustrate the importance of standing up for oneself. Fortunately, very few relationships between authors or illustrators and publishers lead to lawsuits, but even in our day-to-day dealings with each other we must always remember the need for respect for each other, and for self-respect. This story also provides insight into how illustrations used to be prepared for children's books.
How I Sued Harper & Row and Got My First Drawing Table
by Deborah Kogan Ray
This happened more than thirty years ago, when I took my portfolio to Harper & Row for their regular review. Portfolios were left at the receptionist's desk with orders to pick them up, promptly, at 4 o'clock. When I returned at the appointed hour, I was told to wait.
A few minutes later, a woman of statuesque proportions emerged from behind a closed door, shook my hand and announced "I discovered Maurice Sendak and now I have discovered you." I was dumbstruck when I was yanked into the inner chambers of Harper & Row by Ursula Nordstrom, the doyen of books for children.
I was very young, knew nothing about children's book illustration and didn't have the foggiest notion of who she might be. The sum total of my market research to enter the world of publishing had been reading publishers' names from the spines of books.
I never studied illustration. I was a painting major at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. We scoffed at illustration and felt it likely to corrupt us to the very core of our artistic souls. In 1968, I was four years out of art school and married to a sculptor. We had two small children. We were living hand to mouth by showing work at outdoor exhibitions and fly-by-night galleries. I had a variety of low paid teaching jobs at art centers. I was ready to be corrupted.
A chance meeting with the famous artist and illustrator, Ben Shahn, set my course. I asked his advice about the possibilities of pursuing illustration as a career.
Ben Shahn was a wise and generous man. He said to take a story and try to illustrate it --that I would know if I were an illustrator. He told me that an artist can paint wonderful things, but an illustrator must have the extra ability to take words and turn them into pictures.
I took a story that I liked. I was reading a lot of Russian literature at the time. The story was Nikolai Gogol's The Fair at Sorochintsi. I did five illustrations of dancing peasants in bright colors and carefully matted them. At the Academy, matting was suspect. A work had to stand on its own. But, this was another world that I was preparing to enter. I decided that "slick" presentation probably counted. I didn't know that illustrators did not mat their work.
I checked the books that I was reading to my daughters. Their favorites were Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak and Swimmy by Leo Leonni. My older daughter was getting addicted to Amelia Bedelia stories, but I chucked that publisher from my first list because I didn't like the pictures. I called to make appointments to show my work at the other two. Harper & Row was my first stop.
Now, here I was on a late Wednesday afternoon with this strange woman and a bunch of other people. They were introduced as editors and designers. I was handed a manuscript and told about all these things I had to do. They were talking about sketches, dummies, and separations. I didn't have a clue. I thought that they were talking about a cash register when they said "register mark." But it didn't make any sense.
As soon as I got free, I ran around the corner to an art supply store and begged them to tell me what "register mark" did. It turned out it was part of making overlays and separations--whatever they were.
I went home knowing one thing--I had a contract to do a book. I was to be paid a one thousand dollar advance and 5% royalties. The manuscript was called I Hate, Hate, Hated My Friend. It was written by Charlotte Zolotow. I signed the contract, happily.
The fine arts world was tough. Most of my teachers at the Academy lived by the credo that a critique must elicit tears from the student. One teacher prided himself on his rapier wit, which was fueled by several martinis at lunch--the more martinis, the meaner he got. It was a battering experience.
My assigned editor at Harper was so nice that she sent me letters signed with xxxx's and oooo's. I thought publishing was a wonderful world.
The only problem was, now I had to do the book. The story was light years away from my old Russian tale. It was about a contemporary child who has a misunderstanding with her best friend. To this day, I have no idea what gave Ursula Nordstrom the clue that I would be able to illustrate anything but dancing peasants, since they were the only samples in my portfolio. But the dummy went well. I did have that ability to take given words and make them into pictures and an innate sense of book design. I got lots of x's and o's from my editor. When the dummy was okayed by everyone, she told me to do a sample finish.
This was in the days of pre-separated art. The designer told me that I had three colors to use: red, yellow and black. The black plate was to be done on illustration board. The red and yellow were to be done on acetate overlays. All were to be affixed with the mysterious register mark to match each other. Using those three colors in various percentages would produce all the colors in the book.
I thought that I understood and carefully made a black drawing, then one overlay with shades of yellow and the other in shades of red. They looked good and did make a lot of colors. I sent them to my editor.
It turned out that I had to go back to the drawing board--if I had owned one. I had been working on a flush door set on saw horses.
My misunderstanding of the process had been major. Everything was supposed to done in percentages of black. The illustrator never saw the real colors. It was all translations from gray tones, creating a negative for printing. The process was painstakingly re-explained to me by the art director. Several tries later, I got it right and was told to start my finishes.
Then one other problem came up. I used a ruler for measurements. A straight edge or T-square weren't necessary tools for a painter. It wasn't critical to keep paintings in dead square. When you stretched a canvas, you could always fudge with corner keys to straighten it. You wiggled the paper a little to get the right fit in a mat.
Illustrations, however, had to be precise. Several crooked pieces of finished art were returned to me. At the art director's strong suggestion, I bought a T-square and plastic right angle. I was beginning to feel like a professional illustrator. They made a major difference in keeping the layout squared. My deadline was fast approaching, and I re-did all the crooked art and continued on to more finishes.
Then one day, I got a letter from my editor that did not have one x or one o. It said that I was fired. No explanation. I could keep the five hundred dollar signing fee, but forget about the book. I called my editor. She said the decision had been made and that was that. Sorry. Goodbye. I was hurt and expressed indignation. In a final huffy moment she warned me that if I caused any trouble, I would never work in children's books again.
Those were fighting words.
I was not going to let them get away with threats and dismissal with no explanation. I called a good friend who was a civil rights lawyer with a penchant for "just" causes. Bernie was delighted to handle my case, pro bono, and proceeded to file suit against Harper & Row for the remaining five hundred dollars of my advance.
In those days, that was lot of money to me; five hundred dollars could pay for five months of rent. I wanted the money, but to me it was more the principle of the thing. Bernie was more pragmatic. I might view the suit as a statement of an artist's rights, but he was certain Harper would view it as a nuisance claim. He was sure that they would pay me and write it off, especially since he had filed my suit in Philadelphia and they would have to hire a lawyer to defend the claim.
That was not what happened.
Harper & Row hired a big expensive Philadelphia law firm. The law firm, obviously unimpressed with the case, handed it to their most junior lawyer. He was so low on the totem pole that his name didn't appear on their stationery. I suppose he saw my suit as his stepping stone to arguments before the Supreme Court. He counter-sued.
Bernie tried to convince him of the absurdity of the situation. The newly minted lawyer was unmoved and expressed the opinion that I was a threat to the entire publishing industry. This case was his Holy Grail. We remained at an impasse for months.
Philadelphia court dockets are always backed up. The case might still be pending had Bernie not run into one of the senior partners of the law firm at the deli next to City Hall. Over corned beef sandwiches, the decision was made that Harper would send me a check for the full amount remaining on my contract. After all the drama, I imagine it ended with them picking cole slaw from between their teeth.
I Hate, Hate, Hated My Friend came out as The Hating Book illustrated by Ben Schecter, an old pro and a regular on Harper lists. The text, as well as the title, had changed. Ursula Nordstrom retired soon after; Charlotte Zolotow took her place as Editor-in-Chief. My editor left the company and no one seemed to know where she went. I remain forever grateful to the design staff for their patience and nurture and for teaching me the technical aspects of illustration.
I found lots of work with other publishers, but remained persona non grata at Harper & Row for eight years.
One day, I received a letter and manuscript from an editor named Elizabeth Gordon, who was not on their staff when my troubles occurred. She wanted to take me to lunch and would I consider illustrating I Have a Sister, My Sister is Deaf.
My immediate question was "Don't you know that I sued Harper & Row?"
I illustrated the book. It is still in print.
I have never learned what caused Harper to break my first contract. Poor communication is my guess. I think they got tired of dealing with a green kid who kept making mistakes. I think Charlotte Zolotow wanted to make text changes and that the art director didn't want to go through another round of growth pains with me when I had to re-illustrate. Maybe it was Ursula Nordstrom's decision. Maybe it was the sole decision of the editor with the x's and o's. It could have been as simple as dissatisfaction with the work that I had done. They never told me. They just acted.
Would I sue again for the kind of thing that occurred?
I am older, more mellow, and have lived through many of life's ups and downs. I am much less indignant and much more sure of myself. I would not be as quick triggered and I would make every attempt to find out was wrong.
But, the answer is "yes"--I would take action to defend myself, if I honestly felt that I was unfairly treated. I still believe that those in power should respect it and never use their power capriciously.
As to the great settlement from my law suit: I took my five hundred dollar check and bought my first drawing table. It had a side table, a straight edge, a paper drawer, and big drafting board with a crank to move it up and down. It was the biggest, fanciest drawing table that I could find.