The Harriet Story: How I Got Started
I have always wanted to be a children’s book writer and illustrator. When I was a kid I was fascinated with children’s picture books and thought that one day I would tell stories with pictures and words. But the dreams of an eleven-year-old sometimes get lost along the way.
When I was forty-six, after years of being a university teacher and a maker of handmade books, I met a retired librarian and storyteller named Harriett Oberhaus, who took a deep look inside me and simply asked, “Aren’t you ever going to write a children’s book?”
The question was a surprise, and I answered, “No.”
“Because I don’t have any ideas.”
“Sure you do. Everybody has ideas. Give me one.”
I don’t know why or how but before I knew it I was telling her a story about a Chinese grandfather and his grandson and how they made clouds. “That’s the best story I’ve ever heard,” Harriett said.
“Come on, Harriett. It can’t be.” After all, I thought, she had heard thousands of stories in her career.
“No, it is. Now write it down.”
I didn’t want to, but she insisted. In an hour I handed her a scribbled story. She read it and declared. “That is the best story I have ever read.”
I was incredulous.
“Now draw some pictures for it.”
“I haven’t drawn pictures since I was a kid.”
“Anybody can draw pictures. You have a pencil and paper, don’t you?” “Yeah, but.”
After a week of crumpling paper and wondering who I was kidding, I stood before Harriett, childishly holding behind my back an okay drawing made with a blue colored pencil.
“Can I see it?” asked Harriett.
I showed her and she exclaimed, “Jim, that’s the best drawing I have ever seen.”
“No, it can’t be.”
“Yes, it is. Now draw more.”
Encouraged, I kept on.
“You know,” she said weeks later, “you need to color your drawings.”
“Harriett, I don’t know anything about color.”
“Sure you do. Everybody does. Do you have crayons?”
“No, but my son does.”
“Well, borrow them.”
When I showed her some crayoned pictures a week later, she was ecstatic, “Jim, these are the best pictures I have ever seen. Draw more.” I knew that my pictures weren’t that good, but somehow, with the right words and her radiant joie de vivre, Harriett shepherded me, over that summer of 1994, from crude pictures in crayon to my first illustrations in watercolor.
“What are you going to do with your ‘book’?” Harriett asked when the pictures and the story were finished.
I had no answer. Harriett’s encouragement had gotten me this far, but I couldn’t take the final step.
Months passed. “Do you have three dollars?” my wife asked.
“Yeah, what for?”
“For postage. You’re going to send your story to a publisher.”
Two months after I took that ‘final step,’ I received a long letter from a young editor at Houghton Mifflin named Amy Thrall (now Flynn). When the tangled neurons in my astounded brain finally decoded the message. I phoned my wife. Then I phoned Harriett. Harriett had to sit down. My manuscript The Cloudmakers was to be published. The year was 1995.
It took four more years and three more books before I really understood what was happening. I was in a third grade class. I had just finished telling my “Harriett” story about how I got started and sharing with the students my plans for new books. A boy raised his hand. “Mr. Rumford, had you always wanted to be a children’s book writer and illustrator?”
I was speechless. Then I remembered what I had hidden or forgotten. “Yes, I said. Always.”
Harriett Oberhaus passed away in January 2011 well in her eighties. Although she is gone, she still remains my inspiration. I miss sending her all my ideas and chatting with her on the phone. I never tired of hearing with each new manuscript I would give her, “Jim, that is the best story I have ever heard.”