Monday, August 31, 2009

Great Timer *Miriam Cohen*

As the business of juvenile books changes and the pace quickens to meet the needs of the modern world, it is easy to lose track of those who paved the path for us. I call these wayshowers the “Great Timers”. Miriam Cohen is a children’s book author and illustrator Great Timer.
Her 'First Grade Friends Series' includes her classic “Will I Have a Friend?”. Illustrated by Lillian Hoban and published by Macmillan in 1967.

It has since been re-published with Star Bright Books.

Miriam and I first met in the early 1990’s. We were visiting authors for the NYC public schools with the School Volunteer Program (now called Learning Leaders). We've remained dear friends ever since.

In 1996, Miriam mentioned a manuscript called “Down in the Subway” that she was trying to publish. She thought my art would be a good match. She also mentioned she saw a white dove in her backyard gardens in Queens. Miriam knew for the past few months I’d been feeding a white dove visiting my backyard gardens in Brooklyn.

An offer for “Down in the Subway” came quickly from editor Richard Jackson at DK, Ink. Traditionally, authors and illustrators are only chosen by the publisher. Miriam made some very brave, untraditional moves. She would not sell the book unless I was the illustrator. When the book went out of print, it was re-sold to Star Bright Books in 2003. “Down in the Subway” is now 11 years old. It was has won honors, and it was selected for the NYC and Brooklyn Public Library's reading lists. In 2008, the book was chosen as a New York Times Great Children's Read.

A white dove has become my good luck symbol and is illustrated somewhere in all my picture books.

Miriam was gracious enough to give me an interview.

Q: Why do you think “Down in the Subway” became a NYC classic?

MC: The story can be a classic anywhere because it taps into the world of pretend and fantasy which is in every child (and adults too).

Q: What was the idea behind the story?

MC: It was written for my dear friend Gladys who *was* the Island Lady. She lived down the street from me for many years. Gladys told me stories of being born and raised on the island of St Croix in the Caribbean. She was a modest women who was full of joy and fun and really loved children. Gladys became very ill. I visited her in the hospital the day she passed away. On the subway coming home from the hospital I felt very sad. I looked across the aisle at a row of empty seats and suddenly I saw Gladys sitting there smiling at me. I knew then I was going to write about Gladys; to tell the world what a great friend I had. I’ve found out since, that her grandchildren take “Down In the Subway” to school for Show and Tell. So I feel that Gladys is still alive.

Q: Why did you insist to the editor (Richard Jackson/DK Ink) that I must illustrate “Down in the Subway”?

MC: I had fallen in love with your books “My Father’s Luncheonette” and “Aunt Lilly’s Laundromat. The chutzpha to insist was spontaneous. It popped into my mind that you had to illustrate the book about Gladys because of your art syle and the heart that is in your books.

Q: What are you currently working on?

MC: My latest book, “Layla’s Headscarf” illustrated by Ron Himler is released September 1, 2009 with Star Bright Books. It’s about a little Muslim girl in first grade.

Thanks, Miriam!

Illustration Details from "Down in the Subway'. Copyright 1998 Melanie Hope Greenberg


Michael said...

I grew up with some of Miriam's titles--which are always made easily recognizable by the Lilian Hoban covers. But, for many years, I had forgotten about her books until I was a beginning children's librarian. One day, an adult came over to the children's side and asked for some books about the subway for kids. I did a catalog search and saw that the choices were few. I went around and looked with the patron. That is when I discovered Down in the Subway for myself. I used it often when I did storytimes as the colorful pictures and words that just rolled off the tongue made it a surefire hit.

melanie hope greenberg said...

Thanks, Michael!!

Nina Crittenden said...

That is so great that you and Miriam have found a lasting friendship! She sounds like a really amazing lady!

Teri Daniels said...

Lovely to read about Miriam! She presented at my son's school many years ago, before I picked up the pen. Everybody loved her!