“One sun rose on us today, kindled over our shores,/ peeking over the Smokies, greeting the faces/ of the Great Lakes, spreading a simple truth/ across the Great Plains, then charging across the Rockies.” So begins “One Today,” the poem that Richard Blanco recited at President Barack Obama’s January 21, 2013 inauguration. The poet is adapting his work for a picture book newly acquired by Susan Rich, editor-at-large at Little, Brown Books for Young Readers. Scheduled for fall 2015 publication, the book will feature illustrations by Dav Pilkey, and marks the Captain Underpants creator’s return to picture books after more than a decade.
Blanco, who has published several poetry collections with the University of Pittsburgh Press, had a scant three weeks to write a trio of poems for the inaugural committee’s consideration. It was an extremely tight deadline, “especially given the importance of the poem and the occasion,” said Blanco. Of the three works he submitted, “One Today,” he explained, “was the most challenging of the three, and that was probably why it paid off. I had to dig the deepest for it, I think. But I am very pleased with it.”
As is Rich, who acquired world rights for the picture-book version of the poem in a deal brokered by Frank Cimler for Blanco and Amy Berkower for Pilkey. Rich became acquainted with “One Today” via a somewhat circuitous – and serendipitous – route. Last spring her aunt, who lives in Maine, which is also Blanco’s home state, attended one of his readings. After the event, she introduced herself to the poet, mentioned that she had a niece in children’s publishing, and asked for his business card.
“Aunt Marji called me very early the next morning, and said, ‘You must reach out to this poet,’ ” Rich recalled. “I didn’t even know that Richard had been the inaugural poet and I had not read “One Today,” but I always follow a lead. So I e-mailed Richard, inviting him to be in touch to discuss the possibility of doing a book together, and eventually heard back from his representative, Frank Cimler, who requested I call him.”
Rich did just that, and it was a propitious move. “Frank began talking about why Richard was so wonderful and why “One Today” was great, and I stopped him mid-sentence,” she explained. “I said, ‘Do you mean that rights to this poem are available?’ And I was very excited when he told me that the rights would indeed be available as of May 1st.”
Upon first reading “One Today,” the editor immediately saw its potential as a children’s book. “It is a dawn-to-dusk, coast-to-coast celebration of a nation, of American life, and diversity, that also celebrates the extraordinary in the ordinary,” she said. “It is a gorgeous poem that encapsulates bustling cities, vast landscapes, working people, families, and communities. It is the everyday America we know. Of course there are other anthems that stir up patriotic feelings in our hearts, but this one feels so contemporary – I think that sets it apart.”
Pilkey Gets on Board
The notion of having Pilkey illustrate One Today was, said Rich, “a middle-of-the-night idea – afterwards I couldn’t even sleep. I think it’s one of the best ideas I’ve ever had, maybe since I called up Daniel Handler and asked if he wanted to write for middle grade.”
Rich and Pilkey have a bit of a shared publishing past. The editor first encountered his work in the mid-1990s, when she started her editorial career at Orchard Books, where Pilkey was launching his career as a picture-book artist. “I was an underling working with Richard Jackson, Melanie Kroupa, and Neal Porter,” Rich said. “I remember that Dav’s early books [which include Caldecott Honor book The Paperboy, When Cats Dream, and The Moonglow Roll-O-Rama] really spoke to me. And they herald the sort of community, heart, and luminosity inherent in ‘One Today.’ ”
“Given his success with the Captain Underpants books, many may have stopped thinking about Dav as a picture-book artist, but I never did,” Rich added. “And I have been watching for his return to picture books. I wrote Amy Berkower what was maybe the longest pitch e-mail I’ve ever written to an agent and explained why this was Dav’s call back to the paintbrush. I was so hoping this would be the book to capture him.”
It was. “Richard’s words were what hooked me,” said Pilkey of his decision to sign on. “They inspired images in my head that I just couldn’t stop thinking about: ‘pencil-yellow school buses,’ ‘the plum blush of dusk,’ and ‘the impossible vocabulary of sorrow.’ These words just made me want to drop everything and paint.”
Though he hasn’t yet begun creating the art for One Today, Pilkey has a vision of how he might interpret the poem visually: “When I think about Richard’s poem, I see pictures in my head as if they were painted by Marc Chagall, Ezra Jack Keats, and William H. Johnson. I’m hoping to achieve a very dreamlike ‘American primitive’ folk art style.” And he is pleased at the prospect of picking up his paintbrush once again. “Picture books have always been my first love, artistically,” he said. “I hope to be able to paint many more in the years to come.”
Blanco, in turn, is thrilled with the choice of Pilkey as illustrator of One Today. After Rich sent him samples of the work of several artists to peruse, “Something about Dav’s art really spoke to me for several reasons,” said the poet. “There is a scene in The Paperboy that captures the line in my poem about ‘the plum blush of dusk’ absolutely perfectly, and seeing that I said, ‘OK, something else is going on here.’ There is a melancholy and beauty to that book that I really connected to. Dav’s style, and his colors, really struck me.”
The poet says that after the inauguration, he received “hundreds and hundreds” of poems, letters, and drawings from school children all over the country. “It was amazing to see that kind of response from children,” he said. “I am excited that more children will now get the poem’s positive, uplifting, and hopeful message.”