Early last January, ‘U’ alum Phil Stead found out he was the writer of a Caldecott award-winning book, “A Sick Day for Amos McGee.” The Caldecott award is annually given out by the American Library Association to an artist for his or her work on a children’s picture book — in this case Phil’s wife, illustrator Erin Stead.
“It was bizarre,” Stead said of that fateful phone call from the Association.
Stead first started sending his ideas for picture books to publishers when he was at the University. As a full-time student and an illustrator for Zingerman’s, he toyed with picture books as a hobby.
A student in the School of Art & Design, Stead took multiple creative writing classes in LSA. But it was a poetry class, taught by the director of the creative writing program, Keith Taylor, that influenced Stead more than any other.
“When I was in college, I wrote very serious poetry that was deliberately dense and difficult to understand,” Stead said. “I thought I was Alan Ginsberg or something.”
Through poetry, Taylor taught Stead the key to writing concisely for children.
“While I was (in college), I was just starting to learn how to craft language,” Stead said. “I didn’t see any connection between writing poetry and writing for children.”
But the two forms share a similarity — in poetry and childrens’ books, the writer must choose 1each word carefully, using the minimum amount of words possible to tell a story.
“You have to be a really great wordsmith to be able to write for kids, and you have to know how to write succinctly,” Stead explained. “It’s difficult, and poetry can help you hone that.”
After graduation, Stead and his wife moved to Brooklyn. Stead was working at a bookstore there when a friend and colleague of his had a book published by Roaring Brook Press. His friend knew Stead was a hopeful children’s book writer, and passed his name along to his editor. Stead submitted a story idea that eventually turned into his first published children’s book, “Creamed Tuna Fish and Peas on Toast.”
After his editor discovered that Stead’s wife was an illustrator, the editor asked to see Erin’s work. Impressed by her illustrations, the Steads’ editor requested that the couple write and sketch a story. So Stead sat down and wrote something for his wife to illustrate — the origin of “A Sick Day for Amos McGee.”
The book tells a story of an elderly man named Amos, who visits the zoo every day after work. But when Amos gets sick, the animals at the zoo visit him instead.
“I decided that I’d write a story based on what I thought (Erin would) be good at illustrating,” Stead said. “The first image that came to me was Amos playing chess with an elephant. That was the first building block.”
The process involved constant dialogue between the writer/illustrator couple, but the final product resulted in a Caldecott-worthy creation.
Soon after “Amos” was selected as a New York Times Best Illustrated Book, the couple began to see the Caldecott as a possibility, but doubted they would win. To their surprise, on Jan. 10, they did.
“Erin’s the youngest to win, she’s only 28,” Stead said. “No one’s ever won for their first book, it typically goes to someone who has a lifetime of work behind them.”
The winner of the Caldecott was announced publicly at noon later that day, and in minutes both Phil and Erin’s phones were ringing off the hook.
“Seriously, at 12:01 our phones started ringing,” Stead said. “We got calls from every major and minor newspaper. Meanwhile, our publisher told us to get on a plane to New York.”
In June, the couple will travel to New Orleans, where Erin will be honored as the newest edition to a long line of talented illustrators like David Wiesner and Maurice Sendak. But the couple’s careers as individuals and collaborators won’t stop here. Both Steads have books that will be coming out this summer, and they have several more in the works.