The early years of Anita Lobel’s life won’t be found in the many beautiful, intricate illustrations or words of her vast volume of award-winning and long-cherished children’s books.
Nor is it found in her voice which is light and musical, flowing and upbeat.
But that’s only because Lobel chooses not to live in her past – a past that started when she was born into a Jewish family in Krakow, Poland, in 1934. A past that includes going into hiding as a 5-year-old along with her 3-year-old brother, to avoid capture by the Nazis – which eventually did happen, leaving the two struggling to survive in a series of concentration camps until being rescued in 1945 by the Swedish Red Cross. Two years later, they were reunited with her parents in Stockholm.
Instead, Anita Lobel lives in the present, one largely encompassed by her children’s books, beautiful tapestries that help tell stories of the wonder of simplicity found in everyday life that can be appreciated by children of all ages.
Starting Monday, many of those works will be on display at the University of South Carolina Libraries’ Ernest F. Hollings Special Collections Library as part of the new Anita Lobel Collection, given in honor of Ginger Shuler and Leslie Tetreault (Richland Library librarians and USC alums) . The collection includes a large donation of Lobel’s original artwork, working drafts and galley proofs of her picture books to the USC Irvin Department of Rare Books and Special Collections. The exhibit runs through mid-March.
Lobel will also be the guest of honor at the University of South Carolina Libraries’ Ex Libris Society annual dinner Nov. 17. At the dinner, Lobel will receive the Thomas Cooper Society Medal, presented in recognition of distinction in the arts and sciences. Past medal recipients include Pat Conroy, James Dickey, Ray Bradbury, Elmore Leonard, Henry Louis Gates and others. The dinner is open to the public.
Many of Lobel’s books have appeared on The New York Times Best Illustrated List. She received a Caldecott Honor Medal. The book that does tell the story of her childhood in World War II Poland, “No Pretty Pictures,” a memoir of her childhood in World War II Poland, was a finalist for the National Book Award.
Residing in New York since her family moved there when she was 12, Lobel selected the USC Libraries to receive her donation in large part due to a decades-long friendship she has had with two Richland County public librarians and, since, with USC librarian archivists.
This week, Lobel took time to chat about the exhibit, her connection to South Carolina and her life’s work.
Talk about your connection to the University of South Carolina. I understandyou visited here several decades ago?
Lobel: Well I was visiting on a regular basis. I think my first visit was in 1993. My connection was with what was then called the Richland County Public Library and the first time we came was for the Augusta Baker’s Dozen, a storytelling conference, and I came with my publisher Green Willow, which is a division of Harper’s in New York. My editor, who is a long-time friend, and several other authors appeared and then we were asked back for other things. It really has been a continuous relationship and I’ve made many wonderful friends with the library. Originally what I wanted to do was to donate my pictures to the public library but they don’t have any facilities for that, and so that’s how it snowballed into the University of South Carolina. Now I’ve met all these wonderful people there and everybody’s been so terribly nice I couldn’t be happier about the whole thing. I’m glad it’s being appreciated.
Talk about the pieces you are donating.
Lobel: Yes, there’s quite a lot of it actually – mostly sketches from various picture books that I have done. I have been doing picture books for 50 years. A lot of the books – particularly my early ones, starting with my first book which was published in 1965 and that was called Sven’s Bridge – are interesting because they were done in black and white pen and then colors were separated, so they didn’t print them full color. Drawings that are pre-separated are really more archival materials.
Your life story itself is just an amazing story.
Lobel: The early life story, yes. I would say since 1955 I’ve lived a fairly normal life as an American.
Can you even call life normal after what happened growing up?
Lobel: Well, you know, one survives. One mustn’t walk around with a cloak over oneself. I don’t anyway. I don’t want to lean on that. Of course it’s with me all the time, what I went through. But I was a child, you know? It wasn’t as bad as being a teenager or seeing your father killed in front of you. Nothing like that ever happened to me. We survived and went on.
What age were you at the time you went into hiding?
Lobel: In 1939, I was 5 years old when the war started and my brother was 3, and we really managed to survive until almost the end of the war when we were staying in a convent and somebody reported Jews hiding there and that was the end of that. We almost survived until April 1945 but didn’t quite make it. I’m surprised we weren’t shot on the spot when we were discovered.
Did you write or illustrate or sketch during that time that you were in hiding as a child?
Lobel: No, no, that’s the thing. I never had any books. The only cultural thing I had was the church. My brother and I really survived under the mad wings of an absolutely crazy woman who was a terrible anti-Semite but who adored my brother and me. That was her cause to live – to get us to survive the war. And she didn’t quite make it. We were discovered. The saving grace of my life really was that we were rescued and taken to Sweden. I loved Sweden. I feel like I’m the child of Sweden. That’s where I first went to school, that’s where I first had any kind of culture and encouragement and normalcy of any kind. It was a good place to be.
How did you decide to become a children’s book author and illustrator?
Lobel: I fell into it. I fell into it because I was married to Arnold Lobel. I met Arnold Lobel in school and we married and we had children and he always wanted to do children’s books but it didn’t happen right away. It just is that he happened to stumble into an editor who was wonderful. Children’s books in the ‘50s were very inexpensive and by the time President (Lyndon) Johnson became president and gave all that money to libraries and education the publishers were crazy for children’s books. So I sort of came in on the wave of that. I was a textiles designer for a long time. Not that I’d studied it; it was just a job I happened to get after school. We had become very friendly with the editor who discovered Arnold and she liked my work. She saw something in my pictures and designs and said why don’t you try children’s books? And I said, “Give me a manuscript and I’ll illustrate it.” She said, ‘You’re going to have to write your own story.’ So I started with pictures I wanted to do and I somehow managed to cobble together a story to go with the pictures. and the book was noticed. It was on the New York times best of the year that year. That was very surprising.
What has been the inspiration for your work?
Lobel: I like the idea of my inspiration coming directly from the church because in church you have storytelling in the pictures. When we went to church we were surrounded by the stations of the cross, the life of Mary, and whichever way they were depicted – how do I know if they were good pictures or not – they meant something to me. It was the only thing I had. I had no books ever. Only church-related images and church-related music. And I think it laid the foundation. It also laid the foundations of my interest in languages and words because the Mass was in Latin. It was exciting; it was beautiful.
The other big influence in my life is anything with music and theater, which teaches you about timing, about characterizations, about what to leave out, what to suggest. The continuity of children’s books was the thing I was interested in.
Your artwork is so intricate and detailed. How long would it take you to illustrate just one of the pages in, for example, “On Market Street?”
Lobel: Probably about a week. Maybe two weeks. That’s an interesting book because in that book once you had one thought you just built on it like a scene with variations. In some ways, even though it’s impressive and it’s intricate, it’s much less difficult to do something like that than to do a story book where you have to change the attitude, the characters have to be consistent and new scenes are happening and you have to tweak settings and costumes. Something like “On Market Street” was not really difficult. I was always very good at embroidery and a lot of the early books depended purely on decoration, but “On Market Street” has a subtext, of course. It’s really a theatrical subtext like with tableaus or, if you imagine a ballet, where you start with one thing and then there are variations on it.
Do you have a favorite book you’ve worked on?
Lobel: I did three books with Charlotte Huck, who was a wonderful teacher of teachers at Ohio State University, and she did three adaptations of fairy tales and I did all three of them and I just loved them. But, you know, when I think back on it I did a book called “One Lighthouse, One Moon.” My current husband and I had a cat we adored for many years. I didn’t used to do animals, I did people in costumes but I wanted to do something with the cat that wasn’t just a cat story. So the first story in the book (there are three) was days of the week and shoes. I love shoes. So I had different colored shoes for each day of the week and the cat appears as an observer somewhere on the pages with the children who were just seen from knees and feet down. It becomes a story with seven days of the week and it has all these various things put in it – the colors, the days of the week – and totally ignores any type of characterization except for the character of the cat. The next story in the book, the cat appears as the main character in it – what happens to the cat in January, in February. Sometimes it snows, sometimes it rains over 12 months ending with Christmas. And the third story was countingm– there’s one lighthouse and two of something else and it all takes place on a beach. I was just really pleased with that book overall and treasure it as one of my favorites.
If you go
USC will have several upcoming events featuring Anita Lobel, an award-winning author and illustrator of children’s books:
Exhibit: Works from the Anita Lobel Collection, given in honor of Ginger Shuler and Leslie Tetreault, will be on exhibit at the University of South Carolina Libraries’ Ernest F. Hollings Special Collections Library starting Monday through mid-March. The author and illustration of children’s books recently donated a large collection to the Irvin Department of Rare Books and Special Collections consisting of original artwork, working drafts and galley proofs of her picture books. Lobel selected USC because of the Irvin Department’s experience with special collections, the strength of the USC School of Library of Information Science, and the university’s children’s literature programs.
Hollings Library is open to the public 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday-Friday. Free admission. Hollings will host a special Saturday open gallery 10 a.m.-2 p.m. Nov. 19. (803) 777-8240
Ex Libris Society dinner: Anita Lobel will be the guest of honor at the University of South Carolina Libraries’ Ex Libris Society annual dinner Nov. 17. At the dinner, Lobel will receive the Thomas Cooper Society Medal, presented in recognition of distinction in the arts and sciences. Past medal recipients include Pat Conroy, James Dickey, Ray Bradbury, Elmore Leonard, Henry Louis Gates and others. The dinner is open to the public.
$50 per person; reserve by Nov. 11 by downloading form and additional dinner info at http://library.sc.edu/rsvp. (803) 777-0546