The Evolution of Sarah Stewart and David Small, by Katherine Romano
With their books for children, this dynamic husband and wife, author and illustrator team revel in the lost art of silence amid our constantly churning world
Author Sarah Stewart remembers herself as an introspective child, given to lying down among the orderly rows of her grandmother's garden and staring up at the sky or burrowing herself into a closet with her diary and teddy bear when company came calling. Years later, when she met her future husband David Small at the university where they were both working, she felt an unnameable familiarity. "It was as if I had been separated from my Siamese twin and we had just been reunited," she told us.
While Sarah blossomed among the gardens of her grandmother's home in Texas, David grew up on a suburban street in Detroit. "The minute I got on the bus to go to school, there was a harsh, urban, industrial setting around me all the time," he remembered. But like Sarah, he too, relished peace as a child, and looked forward to the spring vacations spent at his grandmother's home in rural Indiana.
A scene from The Journey.
This quiet reflection and shared love of silence has since spilled over into the books for children that Sarah writes and David illustrates. Many of their characters are shy, quiet females who prefer books over everything else, (The Library, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1995) and convey their deepest thoughts in heartfelt letters home (The Gardner, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1997) or to diaries they regard as "my silent friend" (The Journey, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2001).
No space wasted.
The feeling of standing perfectly still and looking closer at the world churning around us is complemented by both the serene and measured tone of Sarah's words and the attention to detail of things both large and small in David's illustrations. No space in a Stewart and Small book is wasted; because of the diary and letter-writing formats, there's an economy to Sarah's text that makes every word seem like it's been mulled over and then carefully plotted on the page.
This economical use of space carries over into David's illustrations as well – every element in the art is another carefully thought out extension of the story; even the endpapers in their books are utilized as space onto which the story wordlessly unfolds. These "blank" canvases are one of the most striking features of Sarah and David's books – two-page spreads with no words at all are a rare occurrence in the sometimes overstimulating world of children's books. The child is allowed to look at the illustration and let themselves get pulled in and lost in the story. It's a wonderful storytelling agent, but one that did not come along easily. "David really had to fight for those silent, wordless pages, but they are such an important part of the story that's being told," Sarah said.
Elizabeth Brown from The Library was inspired by the story of a real-life librarian friend of Sarah and David's.
Working together wasn't something that was initially in the cards for Sarah and David. Although Sarah had been an avid diarist and poet her entire life and David had been enjoying success as a writer and illustrator for children, the thought of collaborating never crossed their minds.
Sarah wrote what would eventually become their first book together, The Money Tree (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1991) while traveling in the back seat of a car. "The story just fell from somewhere," she said. She later showed it to David at their kitchen table and he encouraged her to send it to a publisher. Sarah did and it was a happy accident that David's publisher, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, agreed to publish it – and also had just the guy in mind to illustrate the book. "So that's how it all began," Sarah said. "It was more of an evolution than a decision."
On the edge of the world.
In keeping with their love of quiet, both are very solitary workers – David has his own studio separate from their historic home in Michigan and Sarah writes mostly in their library. "It's not like we are sitting at a table passing things back and forth," David said.
A scene from The Gardener.
Each is also very careful about stepping on the other's toes. "My manuscript is finished and approved long before it's given to David," Sarah said. Sarah and David are both also equally admiring of each other's talents. "For me, what is most fascinating about David as an artist is that he seems to be thinking outside of the norm. He's somewhere way out on the edge of the world," said Sarah. This "thinking outside the norm" has been recognized by others as well – in 2001 David won the Caldecott Medal for his hilarious illustrations for the book, So You Want to Be President? by Judith St. George (Penguin Putnam, 2000). "What I admire in Sarah as an author are the same qualities I admire about her as my wife and friend," he shared. "She's honest and straightforward and has a directness that seems to set everything straight around her."
State of grace. Although their books garnered rave reviews from all types of readers, it was their book The Gardener where Sarah and David's understated grace began getting special notice. In addition to several other awards, The Gardener was named a Caldecott Honor book in 1998. Their work on The Gardener also set the stage for their most beloved story to date. The Journey is the story of an Amish girl named Hannah who, as a birthday gift, is given the opportunity to see Chicago. Through Hannah's eyes and in the words she lovingly transcribes into her diary, we too, experience being awed by a city for the first time. Hannah, who has never been higher than her neighbor's porch, falls in love with the new world in Chicago but also realizes that she's even more fond of the world she's left back home. The book is a remarkable achievement and wonderfully captures both a spirited young character and the spare and serene Amish lifestyle. In the area of Michigan where Sarah and David live, there is a small Amish community – the book was written for one of Sarah's closest friends.
Sarah and David are constantly growing – as both husband and wife and author and illustrator. We consider ourselves lucky to be the benefactors of their introspective evolution.
Sarah and David share a warm moment with TK-8's columnist Maryann Manning.
Katherine Romano, associate editor Teaching K-8 magazine.