By JOHN SAYERS
The work and career of Remy Charlip -- artist, writer, choreographer, designer and teacher -- was celebrated at the annual spring program of the Library's Children's Literature Center held in the Mumford Room on April 24. Mr. Charlip was both guest and performer for the evening, which included poetry, dance, art, conversations and storytelling, all imbued with Mr. Charlip's unique humor and youthful perspective. (Photo by Jim Higgins)
Mr. Charlip's diverse career has included performing with John Cage, dancing and designing costumes for the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, co-founding the Paper Bag Players, serving as head of the Children's Theater and Literature Department at Sarah Lawrence College, and winning two Village Voice Obie awards, three New York Times Best Illustrated Book of the Year citations, and a six-month residence in Kyoto from the Japan/U.S. Commission on the Arts.
Prior to the performance, guests had the opportunity to view original art from Mr. Charlip's Arm in Arm (A Collection of Connections, Endless Tales, Reiterations, and other Echolalia) -- originally published by Parents Magazine Press in 1969 and newly reissued by Tricycle Press. In addition, he has written and illustrated 26 other children's books, including Fortunately (Parents Magazine Press, 1964), Harlequin and the Gift of Many Colors (1973) and Mother, Mother, I Feel Sick, Send for the Doctor, Quick, Quick, Quick (1966) (both with Burton Supree, Parents Magazine Press).
"Here is someone who transforms, embroiders and enchants ordinary experiences into magical excursions, encouraging children to imagine and improvise for themselves," Edith Cohen, a volunteer in the Children's Literature Center, said in a written tribute to Mr. Charlip. "His works abound in innovative narratives, wonderful word games, simple reading exercises with an appeal directly to children. There is no superfluous detail and lots of riddles, puns, jokes, chants, word-games and illustrations -- tempera, watercolors, cartoons and collages, silhouettes and simple line drawings."
In her welcoming remarks, Sybille A. Jagusch, chief of the Children's Literature Center, told of her appreciation for Mr. Charlip's work since her days as a children's librarian in a large public library. Ms. Jagusch hailed the reissue of Arm in Arm (long out of print), calling it "elegant and whimsical."
The guest of honor was introduced by his longtime friend, prominent children's book writer and illustrator Vera B. Williams, who collaborated with Mr. Charlip on her first book, Hooray for Me. "Remy has influenced me and my work since I've known him," Ms. Williams said. "I've always drawn inspiration by the marvelously light way his imagination goes from page to page."
She also appeared -- along with several of Mr. Charlip's friends -- in the book Dress Up and Let's Have a Party. "I almost came today dressed as a plate of spaghetti and meatballs, as in the book," she said, then introduced her friend as a "master shower and teller."
"I don't know if I can live up to all of that," began Mr. Charlip, "but I have always wanted to do picture books for children." Using slide and video presentations, Mr. Charlip touched on a few of the highlights of his varied career and the approaches he has taken to books, plays and dance. His first book, Dress Up and Let's Have a Party, was hailed along with Dr. Seuss's The Cat in the Hat as "revolutionary readers" of the time.
With the book as their inspiration, his theater troupe the Paper Bag Players used everyday household items -- boxes, bags, buckets and mops -- as costumes and sets. Touring in schools, Mr. Charlip involved the children directly in this process, encouraging them to create paper-bag hand puppets and then interact with them.
For example, one child from an inner-city school drew two puppets -- a run-down tenement and a new, shining, clean apartment building. In the child's hands, the new building savagely and loudly attacked and beat the filthy tenement. Mr. Charlip was surprised to learn that prior to this, the child had never spoken. "Can you see a better argument for us to have art and drama?" he asked.
He also embraced dance and choreography, including a stint directing the National Theatre for the Deaf. Finding himself physically separated from the group for a time, he developed "airmail dances" -- step-by-step dance designs illustrated in sequential, cartoon-like format. Mr. Charlip showed slides of these designs then video clips of the final choreography danced live.
At this point, theater director Lucinda Ziesing and a group of children bounded on stage to perform selections from Arm in Arm, to the delight of the audience. Mr. Charlip followed up with "Seven Songs" -- vignettes of song, dance, sign and poetry ranging from the humorous ("When I'm with you/The sky is blue./When I'm without you./The sky is still blue.") to a poignant verse about a child growing up in a violent home.
The program concluded as Ms. Jagusch conducted an interview with the artist. As to the source of his inspiration, Mr. Charlip said, "I really don't know where it all comes from. I'm in another world -- and I'm very lucky." He explained that the various disciplines that he has explored -- dance, art, writing, design -- are different worlds. He said he sought to find the connections among them, and how each gives strength and inspiration to his efforts in the other areas. "The 'airmail dances' would have never happened unless I was both a dancer and an artist," he said.
Mr. Charlip said that all his books intentionally look different from one another. For each, he chose different collaborators or took pains to explore different writing and illustrative styles. "How I look at subjects, people and things are different, so I like to bring that to the books," he said.
He said he was pleased to be returning to children's books after a 10-year hiatus. "I love sequence -- how one thing follows another. That's why I love picture books. When you're reading to a child, he can't wait to get to the next page. 'Turn the page, turn the page!' That's because each new page is a door to another different world."
"It's important that we understand the way children think and feel," he said.
"A Celebration of Remy Charlip" was made possible by Lloyd E. Cotsen of Los Angeles. Further support was provided by Hidekazu Sato, Koguma Publishing Company Ltd. (Tokyo), Lucas-Evans Books (Chatham, N.J.), Tricycle Press (San Francisco) and the Children's Literature Center Fund.
The Children's Literature Center in the Library of Congress has been, since its founding in 1963, a supporter of the study and use of children's books. It provides information to children's book specialists and the general public. It recommends and acquires children's books for the Library's collections and organizes lectures, symposia and celebrations. All programs are supported by the Children's Literature Center Fund, which was established to help advance the center's work.