I was lying in the hammock in the labyrinth last Friday, scrolling through Twitter, and this one stopped me:
Alice and Martin Provensen illustrated two books that had a profound impact on my life. The first was The Color Kittens, written by Margaret Wise Brown in 1949 and so already a classic Little Golden Book by the time I got to it in the late 50s.
In it, kittens Hush and Brush like to splash colors together to make other colors, and in their effort to discover the formula for green they end up making all the other colors as well.
Besides introducing me to color theory, The Color Kittens instilled in me the idea that you could Make the Thing That Is Not; I truly count this book as the source of my own creativity. Brown's text and the Provensens' luscious illustrations have stayed with me my entire life.
For example, I was asked once to do a lesson on color for kindergarteners, and so I STOLE FROM THE BEST in creating my own Sam Cat's Colors:
Likewise, when I decided to retire as artistic director of Newnan Theatre Company in 2002, I went all out with by translating and directing Marriage of Figaro — and I handed a copy of The Color Kittens to Dave Dorrell, my set designer, to show the kind of muted 50s palette I wanted in the set:
The other book illustrated by the Provensens was of course Nancy Willard's A Visit to William Blake's Inn, which won Nancy the Newbery Award and the Provensens a Caldecott Honor. It was the Provensens' illustrations that first caught my eye, but then I was swept up in Nancy's nimble and profound poetry.
In 2003 Nancy gave me permission to set the poetry to music, and in 2007, just as I was finishing the orchestration, I was able to meet her in person in New York. She was as incredibly warm and charming in person as she had been in correspondence, and when I asked if she would autograph my copies of the book, she responded by taking them home with her and mailing them back to Newnan:
At the time, Alice Provensen lived nearby and Nancy offered to get her to autograph them as well, but Alice was not at home — perhaps already making the move to California — so I missed out on that ultimate thrill.
So it was with more than a touch of sadness that I read of Alice's death. She and her husband gave me more than they could ever know, and I told her so when I wrote her a letter for her birthday last fall. Thank you, Alice.